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Monday, October 3, 2016

Sermon by Mike Powers at Edgewater on October 2, 2016


2 Corinthians 4: 6-18
Matthew 6: 25-33

God is Calling
By Mike Powers
In the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1:27 tells us “So God created humankind[a] in his image, in the image of God he created them; [b] male and female he created them.”
If that is the case, you might ask, why don’t we all look like the image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?  For that matter, if we are all made in God’s image, why do we all look different from each other?  And another thing, given the wear and tear our human bodies undergo while we are using them here on earth, it would seem that God would be deserving of a more impressive appearance. 
Our faith tells us that God is eternal and transcends the limitations of a physical presence.  It would be fair to assume that the image being referred to in Genesis is not how we look in a mirror but something that is more significant than superficial appearance.
When God first created humans, He endowed us with the God-like gift of an eternal life in a paradise free from worry.  However, with the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man, paradise was lost and mortality gained.  We regained the possibility of eternal life with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  As John 3:16 famously tells us, 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
In the beginning, our souls perfectly reflected the purity of God’s image but it was not long before we began to diverge through the commission of sin.  We retain the original gift provided by God that is our immortal soul.  However, that soul is paired with our mortal existence here on earth which requires us to be attentive to the two aspects of our being—the temporal and the eternal. 
In the scripture reading from Second Corinthians that we just heard, Paul refers to our mortal bodies as “clay jars”.  Paul notes in this passage that whatever difficulties we may be encountering in our present life they are preparatory for the greater glory to come.  Paul wrote, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies
In the gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus tells us not to be concerned about our earthly physical needs 33 “But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his[m]righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 
The idea that we should pay more attention to the eternal than the temporal is a perfectly sensible proposition given that no matter how long we live here it will be but a “flash in the pan” compared to the forever to come.  However, what does it mean to “strive first for the kingdom of God”?  How are we supposed to know what to do? 
The “what” God expects from each of us may differ significantly as each of us have been given different gifts.  But the “how” -- how we arrive at determining what God’s expectations are for each of us will be pretty much the same and that is we need to allow God to guide us and that guidance can only come through our willingness to develop a relationship with Him.
 To have a relationship with God, one must come to know God.  We need to talk to Him and listen to what He says to us.  Where do we go to speak to God?  How do we connect with God when God has no apparent physical presence? 
Augustine of Hippo, or Saint Augustine as he is known in the Catholic church, was a theologian from the fourth and fifth century and very influential in the development of Christianity and Western philosophy.  He believed that knowledge of God is not necessarily observed in nature but comes from our own intellect which God created. 
Augustine wrote, "We apprehend material things by our bodily senses, but it is not by our bodily senses that we form a judgment on them. For we have another sense, far more important than any bodily sense, the sense of the inner man, by which we apprehend what is just and what is unjust, the just by means of the 'idea' which is presented to the intellect, the unjust by the absence of it. The working of this sense has nothing to do with the mechanism of the eye, ear, smell, taste, or touch. It is through this sense that I am assured of my existence; and through this I love both existence and knowledge, and am sure that I love them." St Augustine, City of God (Book 11, Chapter 3, 2. Chapter 3, 4.).
Augustine makes a very important observation that our communication with God may not necessarily be via our five physical senses.  God may not speak to us in the form of a burning bush as with Moses or by hurling a lightning bolt like the one that struck the Apostle Paul then named on Saul while on the road to persecute early Christians in Damascus. 
We sense physical things through our physical senses.  That God’s presence is not subject to the limitations of our physical world, it is entirely logical that God instilled in each of us a way to connect to Him in a way that does not use the usual five senses.  Paul wrote in today’s scripture from Second Corinthians, “…we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18b)
However, we do need to open ourselves to being aware of this most important communication channel in order to take advantage of it.  Just as we can prevent ourselves from seeing by closing our eyes, we can shut down this internal connection with God by ignoring it, by focusing too much on the physical world and overlooking the spiritual.  The Apostle Paul wrote in First Corinthians 2:14-15
14 Those who are unspiritual[e] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. 1 Corinthians 2:14-15
We can miss God’s call to us if we are not sensitive to it.    Fortunately, God is very persistent and if we miss the first or second or even the thousandth call, we can still pick up because God will keep trying.
So knowing that we can communicate with God, what do we want to talk to Him about?  God might be a good source for knowing whether or not it is going to rain tomorrow or if our favorite sports team is going to win its next game but there are probably more important things to cover.
Perhaps a good place to start a conversation would be for us to get to know God better and, as we heard in Genesis, since God made us in His own image getting to know God and getting to know ourselves may be two inseparable tasks.
John Calvin, a leading figure in the early stages of the Reformation in the 16th century, wrote “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.  Without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self.”
This sounds like a classic “chicken and egg” paradox and Calvin acknowledges the difficulty of determining which precedes the other.  The good news is that we don’t have to decide as it is best to tackle both tasks at the same time. 
As Paul noted, in examining ourselves and noting the talents and the abilities that we have, it is difficult to conclude that such gifts came anywhere but from God.  God encompasses all goodness so that our strengths are a subset of His strengths.  Awareness of the nature of these gifts can direct us how to best serve as God’s instruments during our time on earth.  It allows us to be more intentional about it.  Dolly Parton put it succinctly when she said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”    
We set ourselves apart from God through our failings and weaknesses.  By having a healthy self-awareness of our failings we learn how God does differ from ourselves.    This self-awareness of our faults tells us where we should direct our efforts at self-improvement to move closer to God.
Soren Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish philosopher who developed a line of thinking that combined moral philosophy with tenets of Christianity.  In an article entitled “The Dynamics of Despair” Kierkegaard wrote, “The human being is essentially spirit. But what is spirit? In short, the self is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.  The self is the conscious unity of these factors, which relates to itself, whose task is to become itself.  This, of course, can only be done in relationship to God, who holds the synthesis together.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy held that an individual progresses through three life stages in the journey towards becoming a true self:  the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.
In the aesthetic stage, an individual’s realm is sensory experience and pleasures with little regard for the impact on others.  This stage is an immature phase and an individual is likely to find that the pleasures obtained do not provide true long-term satisfaction.  The joy obtained from each repetition of a pleasing activity provides a decreasing level of enjoyment and can lead to either boredom or the pursuit of a “higher high” often times at increasing levels of risk.  Ultimately, if one does not move beyond this immature, self-gratification period they will grow to despair the lack of substance of their lives.
To strive towards a higher purpose, an individual can choose to advance to the ethical stage.  Ethics are the social norms that govern how we are to behave with each other and cause individuals to act for the good of society.  Ethics do not preclude experiencing pleasure but, when the two come into conflict, the ethical choice must prevail. 
Unlike the aesthetic person, the ethical person will give more weight to benefiting others versus themselves.  While the pleasure-seeking individual soon becomes bored with the repetitive nature of their experiences, the ethical person will enjoy a different set of pleasures that appeal to a higher set of principles. In other words, it is true that it is “better to give than to receive”.
But even a person living in this ethical stage may not be honestly portraying themselves to others.  They may be adopting false personas in order to please others, succeed in business, be accepted in certain social circles or for any of a number of other reasons.  By not revealing their true identity they are betraying God by not being the person that He had created.  Living a life that is not true to oneself can lead to all manner of emotional distress and can lead to unhealthy relationships with others and God.
Accepting God into our hearts means being willing to shed our old ways and drop the masks that we may have been wearing to fit in.  God wants a relationship with the authentic you—blemishes and all.  We bear witness to God by living a life of authenticity and integrity out of our true selves and not out of a fictitious self that we think others will find to be more acceptable.
 Being true to ourselves provides us with the courage to stand by our principles and convictions instead of trying to base our positions on which way we think the wind of popular opinion is blowing.  It allows us the strength to go against the current when that is called for. 
Jesus certainly provided a great example of being someone who was willing to go outside the bounds of what was thought to be acceptable behavior in that he did not hesitate to meet with people considered to be on the fringes of society, he overturned tables in the temple, he was critical of religious leaders and his preaching was at significant odds with commonly held values and beliefs of the time.
Many people get to know God outside of themselves.  They may be familiar with the story of Jesus, go to church and may even read the Bible but only in the context of God as an external power. They view God as a somewhat distant all-powerful being of which to be wary so as not to bring punishment for disappointing Him by sinning. 
In a personal relationship with God we create space for God in the form of the Holy Spirit to live inside of us.  God is not a force to fear but a close and trusted partner and advisor who cares for us and wants only the best for us.  
God put us here for a reason and if we do not have a full understanding of ourselves and our relationship with Him we could very well be wasting a precious opportunity to act as His servant in the manner for which He created us.  Being true to ourselves in how we live our lives will also alleviate much emotional distress and lead to better, more honest and loving relationships with others.
Paul in Second Corinthians is correct when he describes our mortal lives as “clay jars”.  These clay jars have a limited shelf life but what is inside is ever lasting.  Paul also noted that Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
That renewal can only come through a personal relationship with God.  God is calling us to engage in that relationship.  He wants to have it.  God made us, God loves us and God wants us to succeed.  If you pay attention you will know that God is reaching out to you.  Please answer the call.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon "Believing is Seeing" By Mike Powers - July 31, 2016

Jeremiah 9:23-24

23 Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 2: 1-16
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,[a] I did not come proclaiming the mystery[b] of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,[c] but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.[d]
14 Those who are unspiritual[e] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.

Believing is Seeing
By Mike Powers
Delivered at WDMUMC July 31. 2016

A wealthy farmer invited the newly appointed minister of his church to have dinner in his home.  After a bountiful meal, the farmer led the minister on a tour of his property and was quite proud to highlight all of the improvements that he had made over the years.  The farmer pointed to the orchard laden with fruit, the numerous livestock, the abundant crops in the fields, the extensive array of modern farm equipment and the ample stocks of grain in the barns.  The new minister was quite impressed and said to the farmer, “It is quite magnificent what you and the Lord have accomplished here!”  The farmer rubbed his chin and said, “Well thank you but I just wish you could have seen it when the Lord ran the place by Himself.”
I tell this story not to diminish the value of the planning and work that the farmer invested in the farm to make it successful.  Hard work on the part of many people is necessary just for ordinary life to happen.  Work is what makes it possible for us to have food, medical care, shelter, clothing, transportation, education, entertainment and numerous other products and services that we all depend upon. 
While it is good to show pride in one’s work, we all need to maintain some humility about it and keep in mind that nothing would happen without God providing us with the skill and resources to make it possible.  Yes, the farmer should be commended and in fact was rewarded with the opportunity to accumulate wealth because of his success, but that success occurred because of the gifts that God had provided.  Consequently, we hold science in high regard.
I believe that to some extent it is more challenging for people to keep God more top of mind today than in the past and I attribute that in some part to the tremendous advances that science has achieved.  Science can now explain many things that use to mystify us and that knowledge is extensively deployed making our lives easier.
Many people think of the roles of science and religion as a zero-sum game.  The more science can explain how the world works, the less we need to attribute to an invisible god.  In that way of thinking, God is there simply to fill in the gaps and the gaps are shrinking more and more every day.
We have a natural instinct to seek logic and rationality in all aspects of our lives. We can find it disturbing if we are unable to clearly connect the dots between cause and effect and accepting something purely on faith is not something that is easily embraced.  We want proof. 
One thing I find interesting is that the Apostle Paul was raised in a culture that also placed a high value on logic and reason.  Paul, or Saul as he was named at birth, did not grow up in Galilee or the area surrounding Jerusalem as did most of Jesus’ earliest followers.  He was raised in Tarsus which was located in what today would be the country of Turkey.   Tarsus was a wealthy city, strategically located near the crossroads of major trade routes. 
The city was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture which had given birth to innumerable contributions to the world’s knowledge of math, science, governmental principles, philosophy and the arts.  Tarsus itself was a considered an important intellectual center in the Roman Empire that rivaled Athens and Alexandria in terms of thought leadership, learning and culture.       
Although Tarsus was a predominantly Gentile city, Saul came from a Jewish family of tent makers which was apparently well-positioned as he was born a Roman citizen during a time when only 10% of the empire’s population had been granted citizenship.  Saul likely was instructed in the Greco-Roman schools of Tarsus where he would have learned the art of writing and the basics of Greek rhetoric and logic.  At the age of thirteen, he was sent to Jerusalem to study under a prestigious rabbi.
As a young man, Saul was quite ambitious and sought to make a name for himself by aggressively persecuting Christians, perhaps someday hoping to join the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  Saul supervised the execution by stoning of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr.  The Book of Acts, describes how Saul led a severe persecution against Christians dragging off men and women to prison.  All of this was achieved before he reached the age of 20.  He was a real up and comer in the world of inflicting terror and he was gaining quite a reputation.
Saul then sought to take his campaign to Damascus and while traveling there his life changed dramatically.  Saul was struck blind by a bolt of light from heaven and heard the voice of the Lord question him as to why he was perpetrating such evil.  Saul sheltered for three days blinded and unwilling to eat or drink.  His physical blindness perhaps providing a means for him to become aware of his spiritual blindness.
Then, a faithful Christian named Ananais was directed by God to seek out Saul, lay hands on him and proclaim “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Ananais being fully aware of Saul’s reputation for terrorizing Christians, showed extraordinary courage in approaching Saul as he did.  History would perhaps be much different if not for this act of bravery.
With his sight restored and invigorated by the Holy Spirit, Saul changed his name to Paul, which means small or humble.  Despite the name, Paul was not a meek and unassuming individual and soon became just as ambitious in seeking to spread the news of Jesus as he had previously been in persecuting Jesus’ followers.  In this new role, Paul became a tireless envoy spreading the message to the Gentile world far beyond the borders of Jerusalem and Israel.  It is no small measure due to Paul’s evangelism that one third of the world’s population today is Christian.
One city that Paul visited on his travels was Corinth and today’s epistle reading is the second chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Paul arrived in Corinth, which is located in what today is the country of Greece, on his second of four missionary trips.  Corinth was situated at a strategic shipping point between Rome and Asia and consequently had much wealth.  Paul attended the synagogue in Corinth every Sabbath and sought to persuade both Jews and Gentiles in the city to accept Jesus. 
In today’s reading, which was written a couple of years after Paul had left the city, he admits to the church members in Corinth that he had come to them in weakness and in fear.  He had been afraid because his approach in spreading the news of Jesus to the people of Corinth was not to use human logic and reason but rather rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit.
So let’s think about this.  Paul was a highly educated person trained in Greek rhetoric and logic seeking to minister to a wealthy, intellectual city immersed in Greco-Roman culture that highly prized the skills in which Paul had been trained.  And yet, Paul set these skills aside because he knew that trying to convince the Corinthians to adopt Jesus as their Savior by using human wisdom, while perhaps effective in attracting followers in the short-term, would not result in the people truly connecting with God.  If someone were to be persuaded to follow Jesus by the power of someone making a clever argument or a scientific proof, they could just as easily be persuaded by some other argument or discovery later.
There is a lesson to us here that our belief in God should not be dependent upon some scientific proof but rather it should grow from the power of the Holy Spirit.  We all have that that power within ourselves.  However, at times it may become hard to see because other stuff gets in the way.
God is not a filler to be used to patch up gaps in our understanding of how the world works.  God surpasses all human knowledge.  Science can explain a few things as to how the world works.  It provides a glimpse as to some of the things that God has created and God does want us to use the tool of science to alleviate suffering and make the world a better place.  Science is a wonderful thing in that regard and we need more scientists in the world.  But science is the wrong tool for gaining an understanding of God.  
How we come to that knowledge will be different for each of us.  For some, it can come as a lightning bolt such as the one the hit Paul.  For others, it may just seep into our lives through a hundred million hairline cracks.  If we don’t want to understand, if we don’t open ourselves to a spiritual connection to God, none of the things I just said will make sense.  But if you do open yourself to connecting with the Holy Spirit that resides within each of us, it can be transformative.  Perhaps as life-changing as Saul changing to Paul.
You have all heard the saying that “Seeing is Believing”. However, as the spiritual discern all things while the unspiritual are unable to fathom God’s gifts, it may be more accurate to say “Believing is Seeing”.
The short passage that we heard from the prophet Jeremiah in our first reading today talks about some of the things that can get in the way of our spirituality.  If we focus too much on attaining wealth or power or close our hearts and minds to knowing God, we will find ourselves in a situation where we are blinded to God’s grace.  Jeremiah tells us we should not brag about how much we know, how much money we have or how powerful we are.  None of these factors compare with the value of knowing God.
     So I have talked about Paul’s visit to the Corinthians, you may be wondering how did that all work out.  Was Paul right to be afraid as to how his message would be received?  Was he successful by elevating spirituality above earthly wisdom in his message to Corinth?
Luke tells us that a number of Jewish leaders in Corinth became followers under Paul’s ministry but others rejected Paul and the gospel he preached.  Paul was soon no longer welcome at the synagogue so he went to the house next door and started his own church.  That church was open to both Jews and Gentiles and many of the people who heard Paul became believers and were baptized. It appears from Paul’s own description elsewhere in this epistle to the Corinthians that most of the converts were poor and few of the wealthier people of that society chose to join Paul’s church.  Ultimately, the leaders of the synagogue brought Paul to trial for persuading others to worship God unlawfully but the provincial governor threw out the case.
  These mixed results show that for someone to connect with God they must have a willingness to drop the shields that are standing in the way of full discernment of God’s gifts.  Not everyone is willing to do that.  The fact that the wealthier elements of the city generally chose not to embrace Paul’s message of Jesus demonstrates that even back then earthly success can serve as an impediment to truly knowing God.
Most of us have probably had the experience of a non-believer telling us the reasons that they don’t believe.  For example, they may say that religion is superstition and that they only believe in things that can be proven.  How do we send the message to believers and non-believers alike that there is a God who cares about all of us?    How do we lead ourselves and others to connect with God in a spiritual way?
There is hope.  For those of us who participated in the church-wide study earlier this year, “Embracing Spiritual Awakening” by Diana Butler Bass, we learned that while participation in organized religion is in a period of decline, there is an increased level of spirituality among people today.  The so-called “spiritual but not religious”. 
What this says to me is that there is present an instinctual yearning to believe in some higher-power and to believe that there is a realm that lies beyond what we can see in the present world.  A realm where peace and justice prevail. 
Our faith tells us that such a realm does exist which is available to all by way of God’s grace.  We also believe that by practicing Jesus’ message of love for God and neighbor that the present world can also be a much better place.   
To send this message, we should show by our actions that it IS Christian
·         to treat every individual, no matter how different they may be, with tolerance and as a being of sacred worth,
·         to practice kindness to others,
·         to provide assistance to those in need and
·         to extend and accept forgiveness when mistakes are made.
We should simply be, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “a light of the world”.  (Matthew 5:14)   
And with that light, we enable ourselves and others to understand and appreciate all that God has provided us.  Amen. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Good Seed, a Sermon by Mike Powers

The Good Seed
By Mike Powers
Matthew 13:24-33 (NSRV)
24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[d] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

At the time of Jesus’ ministry, it had been almost exactly a thousand years from the time of the death of King David.  King David had united all of the tribes of Israel and captured the city of Jerusalem making it the capital of his unified kingdom. David’s son Solomon succeeded him as king and went on to build the first temple in Jerusalem using the plans provided by David. 
The reigns of David and Solomon marked the peak of ancient Israel’s power during biblical times and soon after the death of Solomon, Israel became divided once again into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  Both were ultimately subjugated by a series of outside parties.
The Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and during a fifteen-year period culminating in 597 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia conquered the southern kingdom, destroyed the Temple and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile.
Following the conquest of Babylonia, King Cyrus of Persia did allow the Jewish leaders to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple, but they remained a people under foreign rule.  Israel did recover its own sovereignty for a period of time in 164 BC when the Jews led by the Maccabees revolted against their rulers and re-established their independence.  However, that independence proved to be relatively short-lived.  In 63 BC, the Romans took control of the area and the Promised Land was once again an occupied territory and remained that way throughout the period that Jesus lived there.
In the years of suffering following the death of King Solomon, many of the important prophets such as Isaiah published their writings.  Their message was that the Jewish people should continue to trust in the Lord despite the misery which they were then enduring because a Messiah would be sent to redeem the Kingdom.  Let’s recall verses 9 and 10 from Isaiah 52:
   9 “Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.”
Isaiah 52: 9-10 (NSRV)
You can see how many people would interpret the coming of the Messiah as someone who would lead a great army and overturn Israel’s occupier/oppressors just as King David had done in establishing his reign.  Isaiah’s prophesy that the Lord was going to bare his holy arm could reasonably be interpreted to be an impending demonstration of physical might.
In fact, Jesus’ coming did serve to fulfill this prophesy of Isaiah.  However, it was nothing like what most of the people of the time were expecting.  Jesus brought comfort to the oppressed people of Jerusalem and the kingdom that he brought was indeed more powerful than any other.  The Kingdom of God.
In the gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus tells three relatively short parables that conveyed important messages.  Tucking big messages inside simple stories was a favorite way for Jesus to communicate to those who came to hear him speak and to us as well. 
In the first, a farmer sowed good wheat seed in his field but then at night, an enemy snuck in and sowed weeds in that same field.  As the plants started growing and came out of the ground, it was obvious what had happened and the servants asked the farmer if they should pull the weeds out.  The farmer instructs them not to do so as that may cause some of the wheat to be pulled up as well.  The farmer’s instructions are to wait until harvest at which time the weeds and the wheat can be harvested separately with the wheat gathered and taken to his barn and the weeds to be bundled and burned.
When asked by the Apostles, Jesus explained that the farmer is the Son of God, the field is the world, the good seed are the children of the kingdom and the bad seed the children of the evil one.  The harvest is the time when all are called to account and either are allowed to reside in the kingdom or face dire consequences.
Pretty straightforward right?  It is a simple story but you may be curious as to why the good seed was forced to grow alongside the bad seed?  If Jesus was telling this story today someone might ask why doesn’t the farmer just come in with a herbicide like Roundup, eliminate all of the weeds and leave the wheat seeds to grow undisturbed?  That would no doubt be within God’s limitless power.
If you were in the crowd listening to Jesus at the time and waiting for the Messiah to arrive to remove the Roman rulers and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel this story could be alarming.  In the telling of this parable Jesus was letting the people know that He was not there to overthrow their earthly oppressors.  His message was that tyrants and other elements of evil in the world are going to persist.  The weeds of life will be around until the time of the harvest.
We all too well know that evil continues to exist in the world today.  We could have the same questions as the people nearly 2000 years ago would have had.  “Why doesn’t God pull up the “weeds” and leave the “wheat” to thrive?  Why does an all-powerful God allow evil to exist?” 
I can’t say for sure but perhaps the answer has to do with God giving us the ability to exercise free-will.  Experience shows this can be both a blessing and a curse.  Right off the bat, Adam and Eve exercised their free will to disobey God’s command with disastrous results.  Their son Cain carried on the tradition by murdering his brother and sin has continued unabated ever since.  From the beginning of time, the freedom to make choices is inseparable from the ability to make bad ones. 
Let’s consider what would happen if God did take away our ability to plot our own course.  If it were impossible for us to make a bad choice, what would distinguish humans from a potted plant or perhaps a machine?  We would proceed through life not varying from a pre-written script. 
You might think that would be a pretty good life.  We all make bad choices that can hurt others and presumably if God wired us in a certain way where we could not choose to take actions that could cause harm there would be less suffering in the world.     
But without choice there would be no struggle, no character-defining opportunity to resist the draw of temptation.  Without the gift/burden of free-will and the inevitable failures which accompany the ability to choose there would be no way to test our willingness to seek or grant forgiveness.  No opportunity to extend compassion to those who are victimized by their own or someone else’s errors.  No reason to seek redemption. 
Without choice we would not have the capacity to decide the individual nature of each of our respective relationships with God.  Freedom of choice forces struggle, requires us to discern right and wrong, mandates that we weigh the consequences of our actions.  Without choice, how would we distinguish ourselves?  The choices that we make, both good and bad, define the essence of our being. 
Prematurely wiping out all of the weeds in the parable, or the “bad” people of this world, would also eliminate the possibility that bad seed can mutate into something good. Plants which upon initial inspection can appear to be weeds may turn out to be something quite wonderful.   The same is true of people.
In our own lives, if we feel that we are going down a path that is straying from a route towards God, this parable tells us that God is willing to give us a chance.  He is not going to preemptively pull up plants that at first glance appear to be weeds but rather give us the opportunity to prove our worth.  The kicker is that we don’t know when the harvest is going to take place.  If we feel that we are not right in our relationship with God, we should think about changing course sooner rather than later. 
Along a similar vein, if we see someone making questionable decisions, don’t give up on them.  It is never too late for them to turn things around and we should lend them a hand if possible.
Requiring the wheat to overcome the hurdles of living side-by-side with the weeds can also make the wheat become stronger over time.  The more that we are tested, the better we become.  When faced with a challenge, hold on even tighter to your faith for at harvest time the wheat that survives is taken into the barn.   Allowing faith to support you during difficult times exercises a muscle which as a result becomes even more powerful.
It is not for us to judge those around us in life who we think appear to be weeds.  Our own preconceptions may lead us to wrong conclusions.  God is willing to give people the chance to prove themselves and we should do the same thing. Certainly we should not assume that someone is a “weed” because of the way they look, the language they speak or from where they come.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”.  I think that is good advice.
The second parable is that of the mustard seed which is one of the smallest seeds there are but ultimately can grow into a very large tree.  As we know, Jesus as Messiah did not come onto the scene as a commander of a huge army that sought to sweep aside the vast Roman Empire which at the time held dominion over the Promised Land.  Instead, Jesus came with a rag tag group of a dozen relatively uneducated fishermen.  Definitely a seeming “mustard seed” in comparison to what the people had envisioned for the coming Messiah.  
Just as a mustard seed grows into something much larger, the church started by Jesus and His small band of disciples has now lasted for nearly 2000 years and today has 2.2 billion adherents world-wide.  As impressive as that might be, the heavenly kingdom which Jesus represents is something much greater than what His earthly church has grown to be and much greater than the expectations of what a Messiah would bring to those hearing Jesus speak in the first century AD.  Jesus brings the heavenly kingdom which is infinite in magnitude in every possible dimension be it in terms of size, duration or simply pure joy. 
In the third parable, Jesus tells in one sentence how a woman causes a large amount of flour to rise as leavened dough by mixing in an almost invisible amount of yeast.  In this one sentence, Jesus reminds us how in fact a small almost unseen force such as yeast can cause a very significant and transformational change to something much larger. 
The story also is an elegant tie back to the first parable with flour being the end product of wheat.  Wheat is considered the “good seed” because it results in something that can help nourish us.  When yeast is added to that flour, then we really have something.
20 Once Jesus[g] was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among[h] you.” Luke 17:20-21(NSRV)
The Kingdom of God is among us in that Jesus is always with us.  We are tasked with showing that we can exercise our free-will to do the best we can to resist evil and when we fail, to ask for forgiveness and keep trying to do better.  To prove ourselves to be wheat and not weeds.
In one sense the expectation that the coming of the Messiah would accompany a fierce battle to overthrow the oppressors of the people and establish an all-powerful kingdom is correct.  The battle required to gain access to this kingdom is not fought against Roman soldiers but it is the struggle within each of us to do the right thing. 
We just can’t be content to prove that we are not weeds.  Just not being bad is not good enough.  God is asking us to be an agent for creating good in the world.  Just as flour can be transformed with the addition of the nearly unseen yeast, we need to allow the unseen power of God’s grace to work in our hearts—transforming us by calling us to grow, to serve, to forgive, to lift up others by dividing their burdens and multiplying their joys and to share the good news.
More simply said—we are called to love.  With that love and God’s grace, the greatest kingdom of all awaits.