Preached 16 February 1992 at Bolton St James. Bradford.
Three summers past, Yvonne and I made our first visit to Italy. We went to Sorrento and we had booked a sea-view room in a hotel overlooking the Bay of Naples. The holiday brochure had promised that, from our room, we would be able to look out across the bay to Naples and Mount Vesuvius. But it was dark when we arrived and the balcony doors were closed and the shutters were down. Next morning, however, we raised the shutters, opened the balcony doors, stepped out into the sunlight, gazed across the bay, and there was … nothing. Just sea and sky seeming to merge into each other on the horizon. We looked to our right. There were some mountains but none that resembled the guide book picture of Vesuvius. And the scene to our left was the same. It was a mystery. And one which not cleared up until start of our second week. During the night there was a violent thunderstorm with lightning and torrential rain. But in the morning all seemed still and peaceful and we stepped onto balcony. And there, right in front of our eyes, seeming almost close enough to touch, was Vesuvius, with the city of Naples clustered at its feet. It had been there all the time but a heat haze had kept it hidden for a whole week. Two realities. The reality of the Italy in which we were standing — vibrant with colour and the sound of church bells and clock chimes and car horns, and rich in the smells of basil and oregano and tomatoes and olive oil and garlic and strong dark coffee. And the reality of the Italy across the bay — equally rich in colours and sounds and perfumes of its own; but a reality hidden from us for a while … so that some poor souls who had stayed only for our first week had probably gone home doubting its very existence.
This was much the situation which Jesus encountered when, 2000 years ago, he was born, and began to grow up, in Judea. For from the start, he was, we are told, equally at home in two realities — the reality of this world and the reality of the world from which he had come. Remember the scene in the temple. The small boy addressing the teachers of law and saying to his frantic mother when she found him: `Didn’t you realise I’d be here attending to my father’s business.’ Jesus called the reality of that other world `the kingdom of heaven’. And, judging by his reaction to his mother in that episode, it seems that it was a while before he came to realise that, although he could see both worlds clearly and was at home in both of them, the people around him were quite blind to this second reality and knew next to nothing of it. Perhaps it was then that he came to realise that the mission he had from his father was to open up that other reality, that other world, to the eyes of those around him and to enable them to enter it and to find their home in it. So, the New Testament records, Jesus came into Galilee preaching `The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Preaching, as we might put it, `Hey! Look! There’s another reality right on your doorstep!’
But how to make people see it! That was the problem. It was all well and good telling them it was there, but to his hearers it was just so many empty words. And so Jesus literally began to take action. At carefully chosen times and in particular, appropriate circumstances he did things in this reality which opened peoples eyes to that other reality. He turned water into wine at a village wedding, he fed five thousand with two loaves and three fishes, he made the lame walk, he made the deaf hear, he made the blind see, he raised Lazarus from the dead, he stilled the storm. And among all those who said it was all done with mirrors, that the actions of Jesus were just clever tricks, there were some for whom the heat haze lifted, who saw Vesuvius, who caught a glimpse of another reality, another world — and one quite different from this. A world in which Jesus was king. A world in which everything ran on the power of love. A world in which all needs were met. A world in which sickness, disease, infirmity and even death itself had no part. A world where everything was as perfect as God intended it to be. A world where the water of life ran freely and all could drink of it.
But Jesus began to do something else too which would open the eyes of some to this other reality. And our reading from the Gospel tells us what it was. He began to speak in parables. If the miracles were signs for the eyes, parables were signs for the ears.
But if you look at parables afresh, you have to admit that they are a very odd means of jolting someone into into an awareness of another reality, another world. Why? Because, on the face of them, they are all about this reality, all about this world. `A sower went forth to sow …’, `A certain man had two sons …’, `A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves …’. There is no mention of another world, another reality. Yet, as folks listened to those homely stories about familiar things, some of them — by no means all — found the haze clearing and saw Vesuvius. Saw the other reality, the other world, the kingdom of heaven. All sorts of things suddenly became plain. Take God himself. To the average Galilean he was El Shaddai — the Almighty — a stern, implacable judge who required the deaths of pigeons, lambs and goats at every end and turn … just to keep him sweet. Thread a needle on the Sabbath, walk a foot further on than the law said one might, and watch out for the thunderbolt! But as Jesus spoke his parables, God was suddenly revealed as a father, jumping over the gate and belting down the lane to throw his arms in welcome around his home-coming runaway child. No wonder Jesus said the other reality was gospel, good news!
But why didn’t the mist clear for everyone when Jesus spoke his parables? Why doesn’t it clear for everyone today? Surely that’s what the parable of the sower in our Gospel reading is itself all about. Our word `parable’ is simply the English form of the Greek word parabolos which simply means ‘something thrown alongside’. Parables are stories which Jesus threw down among the crowds alongside him just like the grain scattered by the sower upon the ground. And it’s the ground that is the focus of attention in the parable of the sower. Indeed, someone has said that the parable of the sower has been wrongly named. It is really the parable of the soils. It’s not so much about Jesus who scatters his truth in all directions, in all ages, to all people. It’s more about the hearts and minds into which the truth falls. The truth of the other reality is locked like the life of the seed in the hard outer shell of the story or saying which contains it; and if our hearts are hard and our minds are closed that truth will never spring forth. But if our hearts and minds are good soil, fertile ground — if they are open to God, longing to know Him, ready to be changed — the truth will out, the mist will clear and we shall see the other reality and will enter into it. The kingdom of heaven will be ours.
But why should we want it to be? Why not leave the mist to clear only when it must, when we close our eyes on this world for the very last time? Why not keep the other reality (if there is one) as a surprise (hopefully a nice one) for when we finally are forced to face it? There are millions of people around who think that way. Maybe there are one or two here this morning. They reject the very idea that they should get involved with that other reality now. This reality, they say, is quite enough for me to cope with. We’ve got enough on our plates to contend with right here without bothering our heads about what might or might not be out there!
But that is to completely misunderstand the nature of the other reality. That is to treat the other reality as something remote and unrelated to this reality, whereas the whole point of Jesus’ miracles and parables — indeed the whole point of his life and his death and his resurrection — was to show that the two realities belong together. That if this is the coffee, that’s the cream; that if this is the chips, that’s the fish; that if this is the soda, that’s the whisky! That this reality only makes any sense when it’s linked up to and lived in the light and knowledge of that other reality. The teaching of Jesus is that if we are seeing only this reality we are seeing only half the picture, half the truth.
What do I mean? Well, let me take you back in time to the ninth century before Christ to a place called Dothan in Palestine. Elisha the prophet is being woken up by his servant who is shaking with fear. He drags the half-asleep Elisha to the roof top and points to the city walls down below. Surrounding the city is an armed force. It’s the Syrians. And, as Elisha’s servant well knows, they’ve come to bump off Elisha. Why? Because he’s been betraying their movements to their enemy, the king of Israel. `What are we going to do!’ shrieks Elisha’s servant. `Do?’ says Elisha. `Why should we do anything? We’ve got the Syrians outnumbered’. Elisha’s servant looked at Elisha as if he were mad. `Outnumbered? But there are only two of us?’ But then, according to 2 Kings 6:17, `Elisha prayed and said `Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of chariots of fire around Elisha’.
The young man was only seeing this reality so he was only getting half the picture. And it was the other half made all the difference. What appeared to be a hopeless situation was revealed to be a victorious situation once the young man’s eyes were opened to the other reality as well as this.
Seeing the other reality and entering into it is a life-transforming experience. The sunshine from there streams in at the windows here and shows everything in a new light. Everything is changed. People become different, values become different, situations become different. Things that were important become unimportant; old ambitions die and new, different, ambitions take their place. Giving starts to matter more than getting. Hope takes over from despair. Problems become opportunities. We rejoice where we used to mope. We praise where we used to grumble. Not all the time, of course. For we are only learners. And the most advanced among us are only in the first form of the Jesus School. But we’ve made a start, and even the start makes a difference.
I caught my first glimpse of the other reality when I was only eleven years old. And I took my first steps into it then. Over the forty odd years since, I’ve been seeing it more and more clearly. And I’ve been entering into it more and more. But not nearly enough. My longing is to be, like Jesus, as much at home in that other world, that other reality, as I am in this. But I have an awfully long way to go. Many of you will have seen that other reality more clearly than I and have lived in it far longer than I … and more fully. But there are millions out there — and maybe some in here — for whom the mist has never lifted at all, who have never set foot in that world of eternity, that kingdom of heaven, that other reality to which Jesus wants each of us to belong.
The other night I watched the two-hour television documentary on our Queen. Many of you will have watched it too. And I found the saddest part of the whole thing was the lady in the hospital bed who was quite unaware that the Queen was standing by her bedside. She was fully conscious and her eyes were open, but she was not seeing what … or rather who … was in front of her. `We’ve told her you’re here’ said the nurse, `but I don’t think we’ve got through to her’. And they hadn’t. The lady had lost touch with reality — with this reality.
Folk for whom the mist has never yet lifted are like that lady, but as regards the other reality. They have a visitor too. And not merely an earthly Queen. The King of kings is standing by their side. And he’s inviting them to enter his kingdom, the other reality. If you’re one such person, might I ask: Do you want to see him? Do you want to enter in? And if you do, might I make a suggestion. The two realities are here, this morning, touching each other, side by side. They are there at the Lord’s table. In this reality they are ordinary bread and ordinary wine. In the other reality they are the life of Jesus himself. Come forward to the table. If you’re a communicant, open yourself up to the Lord as you take the wafer and drink from the cup. If you’re not a communicant, open yourself up to the Lord as you receive the blessing. In either case, join me and all the others here who already have one foot in the kingdom in saying `yes’ to the Lord who is waiting to greet you. Ask him, as simply as you like, to come into your life. And I promise you this. That if you make such a request, genuinely and trustingly, the mist will begin to lift and you will begin to see and to experience and to find your home in that other reality, the kingdom of heaven, about which all Jesus’ miracles and all his parables speak.