The Kingdom of God: A Treasure Hunt
February 2, 2020
It’s that time of year again – Super Bowl Sunday. Here are some fun facts for you about Super Bowl Sunday:
More than 1 in 4 Americans plan to attend a Super Bowl party and over 100 million people will watch the game.
The average cost of a Super Bowl ticket on the resale market is $7438. The most expensive Super Bowl ticket ever sold went for $28,000.
And here’s where it gets good: according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, today is the second- largest food consumption day of the year (second to Thanksgiving).
Today, 1.4 billion chicken wings will be eaten;
10 million pounds of ribs are sold;
11.2 million pounds of potato chips will be scarfed;
8 million pounds of guacamole will be downed;
52 million cases of beer will be sold;
and $1.3 billion spent on beer and cider today.
And when surveyed about what they give up in exchange for seeing their team win the Super Bowl, 1 in 2 American said they would give up their vacation days for one whole year; and 1 in 3 Americans said they would give up their annual bonus to see their team lift the trophy.
The sheer amount of money dedicated to this single day and this single event of the year communicates a lot about what our culture values. Super Bowl Sunday puts all of our American values on full display: entertainment, big bucks and fast money, more food than we can manage to healthily eat, a reason to drink and party with friends.
If an outsider who had never heard of the Super Bowl or the NFL before were to travel to America and witness all of the money spent, the food consumed and the entertainment to be had, they would probably conclude that we live to be entertained and satisfied. They would probably conclude that above all else we treasure happiness and entertainment. If it’s true that what we spend our time and money on communicates what we most value, then this is not a stretch.
The Super Bowl trophy is a modern-day treasure to the players who sweat and bleed for it, it’s a treasure for the fans who root and cheer all season long for it, and it’s a treasure for everyone else who are grateful for the reason to party, eat and drink.
Jesus, in our parables today, also speaks of treasure – but it is a different kind of treasure than the one lifted up at the end of the Super Bowl. Jesus is speaking to his disciples when he shares that “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are synonymous, and from our parables last week, just when we thought the kingdom of God was to be found in small seeds and hidden yeast, we are spun around to be surprised by God’s kingdom popping up in hidden treasures and rare pearls. Once again we are struck with mystery. We cannot pinpoint on a map the vastness of God’s holy happenings. We have already seen that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the hungry, those looked down upon and trampled by society; we have seen that the kingdom of God is coming through surprising people and in unexpected places. And now Jesus engages our imaginations and invites our participation in yet another parable that reveals the hidden nature of the kingdom of God.
In these parables there are two men; one seems to be a farmer and the other a businessman. The farmer stumbles upon an incredible treasure hidden in a field. He covers it up, hoping nobody else will steal it, and then in his joy he goes to buy the whole field, selling everything he owns to purchase it. And our businessman is searching for a fine pearl – which in the ancient world was the contemporary equivalent of a diamond – and when he finally finds the pearl of great value he has been looking for, he sells all that he has and buys it. Both men stumble upon treasure. Both men sell all they own to possess it.
Classic Jesus, he gives us another parable that at first glance leaves us wondering: “umm, ok, Jesus, and how does that relate to the kingdom of God?” Jesus does not give us the simple answers or easy advice we are looking for; instead, he invites us to become participants in his parables, to walk around in them, to ask questions and to engage with them. Much like the men in these parables we are on a treasure hunt to discover the precious thing of value buried deep in Jesus’ words.
Now, when we read these parables, we make a couple observations:
First, the men in these parables seem well off. Each of them has enough wealth to purchase a field and a pearl of great value. These are not exactly the types of characters we expect to see Jesus comparing the kingdom of God to. Up to this point in the story, Jesus has made a point to communicate that those who are well off by the world’s standards will have a much harder time seeing the kingdom of God, yet here we find two men who are very wealthy and well off.
But perhaps it is not their wealth that matters, as much as what they do with it, because next we observe these men selling everything for their newly-discovered treasures. And not only do we find these men sacrificing everything they own for this treasure, but they do so joyfully! The men do not reluctantly give up their wealth and possessions, they don’t pause to do a cost-benefit analysis or try to determine whether the treasure is really worth it. Immediately upon discovering such a treasure they go with joy and sell everything in exchange for it. And Jesus’ story begs us to ask the question: what kind of treasure is worth selling everything for?
Sure, we can all think of some treasures that we would spend a lot of money on. If we had the money we would spend it on a new car, a nice home, some vacations to exotic and foreign places, we would spend it on our children’s and grandchildren’s college tuition, we’d spend it on sports games and movies. But what could possibly be worth selling everything in exchange for?
This sounds like the beginning to a great treasure hunt. And we all love a good story about a treasure hunt; it has the right amount of mystery and intrigue, action and adventure. As a kid my friends and I would spend hours in my backyard digging for hidden treasure…or until we reached China…either would be an incredible feat. We would dig and dig as far and as wide as we could…or as far and wide as my parents would let us. But we would dig for hours and dream about all the hidden treasures we might stumble upon. Maybe we’d find some fossils or Native American arrowheads; perhaps a buried box of gems or old baseball cards. Treasure has always captured the human imagination. The idea of something so precious and so valuable waiting to be discovered is intriguing and exhilarating. Perhaps this is part of our Western fascination with pirates, who are either always hiding treasure or searching for treasure.
Jesus has tapped into our imaginations and is leading us on a grand treasure hunt. He hands us a map with a giant ‘X’ on it and draws us in with the mystery of what kind of treasure could exist at the end of the map.
Now at this point some of you might be thinking: “ok Matt, it’s not that much of a mystery. Obviously the treasure Jesus is talking about is the kingdom of God. He tells us right there in the parable.” That’s a very good observation, astute listener. Now let me ask you a question: if it’s just that simple that the treasure Jesus is speaking about is the kingdom of God, then have you sold everything you have in exchange for it?
Or let’s even go a little less extreme than that. If you were to look at the past month of your life and keep track of how you spent your time and your money, what would that tell you about what you treasure? Because we will find that what we most value is what we invest our time and money in. And my guess – just going out on a limb here – is that few of our lives would truly reflect a high value placed on the kingdom of God. Based on what I find in my own life, my guess is that the treasure we value above all else is not too different than what we find on display on Super Bowl Sunday. We value entertainment, happiness, distraction from life’s pain and discomfort. If the treasure Jesus is speaking about is the kingdom of God, then I’m afraid I haven’t invested much in it.
This is probably a common reality for most if not all of us. We look at what we truly value and we find that it looks eerily similar to the American values that are writ large on our TV screens and in our parties and gatherings today. We know that we have not given everything up for God’s kingdom.
Now, this is where most contemporary Christian literature, media and even pastors might say that it just requires more sacrifice. Jesus never promised that it would be easy to follow him. So you just need to sacrifice more for the kingdom of God. While this advice is well-intentioned, I think it misses the mark and the point of Jesus’ parables here. This advice forgets that the men joyfully sacrificed everything. The treasure they found was worth giving everything up for; they did not feel forced and they weren’t reluctant to do so.
So what if the issue isn’t our willingness to sacrifice? What if instead, the issue is that we still haven’t yet found the treasure worth sacrificing everything for? What if we thought we found it and so we stopped looking?
What if we thought we had reached the ‘X’ on the map, but we were still only partway there? Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus speaks of this treasure as good news. And yet, if we haven’t found something worth sacrificing everything for, then how good can that news really be? 1 in 2 Americans would give up their vacation days for a year and 1 in 3 would give up their annual bonuses in exchange for the treasure of seeing their team win a Super Bowl. It seems that the Super Bowl is better news and better treasure than whatever Jesus is selling. But this doesn’t sound right; it can’t be right. Perhaps we haven’t found the treasure yet; perhaps we don’t fully understand the kingdom of God and how good the good news really is.
Because the problem is that most of us have found religion, but not the treasure Jesus speaks of. Religion is full of doctrine and morals – religion is church services on Sunday mornings, pithy statements and advice on how to live a better life; it’s nice church buildings and engaging pastors. Religion isn’t bad, but it’s not the treasure Jesus is trying to point us towards. Religion helps draw the line to the ‘X’ on the map, but religion itself is not the ‘X’. And therein lies the problem. We’ve settled for religion—we’ve settled for doctrine, morals and easy advice on how to live a better life—and stopped our search for the kingdom of God, a treasure worth sacrificing everything we have for.
And so the question remains: what is the treasure that is worth giving everything up for? As biblical scholar Nancy Sehested advises us, “Perhaps [the search for] the treasure and the pearl that we would give everything to possess begins with [a] question: What do we long to see or experience [in the world]? Where do we say, ‘I would give anything to see that’? Could we say that we would give anything to see enemies befriended, racial divisions erased, family squabbles ended, hungry people fed, eroded land restored, and war ended?
Would we give anything to see children educated, religious people united, humane programs funded? Would we give up anything to be able to let go of our bitterness, our pain and our wounds that still bleed? Would we give up anything to be so fully loved, so fully accepted exactly the way we are? When we are swept up with the longing for an end to enmity, suffering, and destruction, we may find ourselves giving up everything to experience redemption.
What is the treasure that we could sell all in joy to possess? It’s not doctrines, it’s not morals, not church buildings or preachers. The treasure that we spend our whole lives searching for shimmers through Jesus and his redemptive story. Jesus, who was born on the outside to outsiders. Jesus, who lived by grace for all those left behind from love’s embrace. Jesus, who challenged the powers in place and placed himself among the powerless. Jesus, who was killed by the powers of this world and resurrected by the Power of all the world.” Jesus, who welcomes us home with a warm embrace and a feast. Jesus, who holds our hand through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus, who says that we belong and that we are loved, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.
It is this Jesus, it is this redemptive story that is the treasure we long for and that we end up searching for in all the wrong places. It is this Jesus who joyfully invites us to give our all to discover the treasures awaiting us in God’s kingdom, which is already here in our midst.
We have a deeper longing built inside of us than anything that can be satiated by Super Bowl revelry. This deep longing inside – this deep longing to see broken lives put back together, to see suffering ended, to experience redemption—is the compass built into our hearts that leads us to the ‘X’ on the map. God designed us with the longing for redemption hard-wired into our souls.
While we still spend our money and our time on distractions and entertainment, we know that they do not ultimately have the power to fill us. They can do so only momentarily. Because even today on Super Bowl Sunday, while we as a nation consume our 1.4 billion chicken wings and 52 million cases of beer, around 820 million people worldwide will go to bed hungry tonight, and between 8,000 and 15,000 children will die today from starvation or malnourishment. We know that we were made for so much more than just to eat, drink and be merry. We long for redemption. We long for the fragmented pieces of our world and of our broken lives to be put back together. We know there is something we long for that is so much more than what money can buy.
And the deep longing of our hearts , if we choose to listen to it and follow it towards the ‘X’ on the map, will always lead us to the foot of the cross. It will always lead us to Jesus and the redemption he has promised – our eternal treasure. And yes, this is a treasure that requires us to give something up; it is a treasure that requires us to sacrifice. Because Jesus and his redemptive work on earth requires our whole self. But this is a sacrifice we are willing to make, because we realize that Jesus and his redemption is what we have always longed for.
Some of us are still searching for this treasure; some of us have caught glimpses of the treasure and this has only caused us to quicken our pace towards the ‘X’ on the map. Wherever you are on your journey, Jesus continually beckons us into the kingdom of God, into a new way of living that seeks the redemption of all things—a treasure worth selling everything for.
I’m going to close us with a prayer by Walter Brueggemann that was written for just a day like today…Super Bowl Sunday. Let this be our prayer whether we watch the Super Bowl or not, but as we all long in our hearts for Christ’s redemption in our lives and in our world. Let us pray:
Lord, The world of fast money,
and loud talk,
and much hype is upon us.
We praise huge men whose names will linger only briefly.
We will eat and drink,
and gamble and laugh,
and cheer and hiss,
and marvel and then yawn.
We show up, most of us, for such a
and such an indulgence.
Loud clashing bodies,
violence within rules,
and money and merchandise and music.
And you, O Lord—today like every
you govern and watch and summon;
you are glad when there is joy in the earth,
But you notice our liturgies of disregard and
our litanies of selves made too big,
our fascination with machismo power,
and lust for bodies and for big bucks.
And around you gather today, as
elsewhere uninvited, but noticed acutely by you,
those disabled and gone feeble,
those alone and failed,
those uninvited and shamed.
And you whose gift if more than “super,”
Overflowing, abundant, adequate, all sufficient.
The day of preoccupation with
creature comforts writ large.
We pause to be mindful of our creatureliness,
our commonality with all that is small and vulnerable exposed,
your creatures called to obedience and praise.
Give us some distance from the
some reserve about the loud success of the day,
that we may remember that our life consists
not in things we consume
but in neighbors we embrace.
Be our good neighbor that we may
your neighborly generosity all through our needy
(Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People)