a sermon based upon Luke 17:20-21
Children (passport): You and I are not only "natural born citizens" (or "green-card carrying" resident aliens) of the United States of America. We are citizens of God's kingdom! That status -- as subjects of God's realm -- we share with people in other churches… and also with several hundreds of millions of (otherwise undocumented) foreigners. People in every nation, in every land, under every form of government. So, let's get used to it… and let’s be better neighbors to people who are also part of God’s Kingdom, just like we are.
Let me say something right up front: I do not like to use royal metaphors ("king" & "kingdom") in connection with Jesus’ movement. But it’s hard to get away from "king"-language in the Bible.
From the time of Samuel the prophet (who anointed Saul to be Israel’s first King, and who then christened David to be their next king), right through 1,000 years of biblical history to the experiences of Jesus and the Apostles --in the Bible kings & kingdoms (even whole empires) prove themselves to be overbearing, ruthless, corrupt, and self-aggrandizing --precisely the opposite values of what Jesus was about!
I would have you recall that one of the three temptations Jesus had to overcome during his 40-day test in the wilderness at the start of his ministry (the story which began this Lenten season) was the desire to establish a Kingdom --a benevolent monarchy, an Empire of God (a theocracy) to rule the earth --after the model of earthly "kingdoms." Satan said it was his realm, after all, & he could give it to whomever he wanted!
Jesus rejected the very idea! There would be no patterns of royalty --hierarchy, elitism, holding power-over-others, using police & military might to force compliance, and using taxation to redistribute wealth… No! Such things would not be acceptable within God’s Realm. Jesus rejected "kingdom"values...and yet, he used the metaphor quite frequently.
In fact, in the prayer that Jesus taught his follower to pray --the words we say together at the start of worship every Sunday, and which closes our time of Bible Study every Monday ("Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name...") --the very first petition we put to God is that "Thy Kingdom come!" So, even though the Bible thoroughly disparages "kings" as earthly overlords (power-hungry and prone to use violence to get their way), Jesus has his Church ask that God’s "Kingdom" would "come on earth, as it is in heaven."
Why would Jesus have us pray for a "kingdom" to be established on earth when Jesus has already rejected that path for himself, and when the Bible clearly shows how corrupt empires eventually become!?
In the days of Jesus, the Jewish homeland was a kingdom. The ruling family was named "Herod." They came from Idumea, which is part of today’s Saudi Arabia. King Herod the Great is the one who killed the babies of Bethlehem at Jesus' birth, his son (Herod Antipas) beheaded John the Baptist and put Jesus on trial, the third generation of "Herods" imprisoned the Apostle Paul. (After three strikes like that, you would think they would be out!) The Herod dynasty ruled Israel not because the Jewish people wanted them, but because Rome wanted them... as a client-state and a militarized buffer zone on the Empire’s Eastern front.
So, when Jesus asked his followers to pray that God’s Kingdom would come, it was saying (in effect) that Herod’s monarchy (Herod’s Kingdom) would be replaced! Risky words; subversive, traitorous words! But it didn’t happen. The Romans continued to appoint Herods as kings...
This state of affairs --foreign occupation--had existed since 587 BCE when the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and carried away their leading families into exile. In time, many Jews had returned from their geographicalexile to rebuild the city and its Temple, but the theo-logical trauma continued.
The Jews were yearning for a son of David --an authentic Anointed One, a Messiah--to throw off the yoke of foreign domination and restore their Jewish monarchy. They had been waiting & praying for centuries for the deliverer who would put them back on top at last. It is in this politically-charged environment that Jesus says: "Let us pray that the Kingdom of GOD would come."
I suspect that what the common people were longing for when they said those words was not a place in heaven after they died. They wanted God’s realm brought into being in the present world. They wanted Rome gone, & King Herod punished, and the corrupt compromisers taken down a notch. They wanted God to turn the tables…and bring "justice."
For those of us, who have grownup under elected leaders and "public servants," who believe in "democracy" and equal rightsfor all --and who believe in a representative "republic" form of government --the very idea of "kingdom" sounds foreign. We would feel better, perhaps, if Jesus had said: "God's Realm is like a federal Republic with democrat-ically-elected representative lawmakers from among a population of free & equal citizens (whether or not we should include resident aliens is yet to be determined)."
But a "kingdom?" That word strikes us as a hold-over from the Middle Ages. Even those great modern nations, who retain the positions of "a royal family" (like England & Belgium) --who enjoy all the regal trappings of monarchy--largely consider it symbolic."Royal" status is grist for tabloids and tourism; only nominal in the actual governing.
The "Kingdom of God..." The Greek word "basileia" means "reign" or "rule" (in English). Early Roman churches were designed to serve as "basilicas" (in fact, that’s what old cathedrals in Europe are called!) --seats of governing power. The hierarchy of priestly orders (from the Pope at the top all the way down to parishioners at ground-level) paralleled the political pattern of all other existent earthly "kingdoms." (For that matter, so do some of our world-class business empires. And, unfortunately, so do some families...) A patriarchy, a hierarchy.
Today’s Bible translators often replace the word "kingdom" with "the reign of God" (or "God’s Realm") in order to remove the connotations of kingdom as a geography (a territorial realm), or as a political system with bloodlines and thrones.
It also removes from our image of God a word that has overtly masculine overtones of domination ("king"), while retaining the sense of God's "sovereignty" -- which is simply another word for "lordship."
The Kingdom of God (in Jesus’ mind) consists not of political power, nor territory, but of a set of values, attitudes, and relationships.
Furthermore, Jesus asserted that the kingdom of God was already present "in him," and that "through him" it was freely offered to all people.His first preaching (according to Mark's Gospel, as we heard it last Sunday) was the announcement that "The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the good news!"
Many of Jesus’s parables describe a reality which (he says) is already present!Jesus insists that heaven is not "afar off" but, rather, nearby! And that God’s Kingdom becomes real whenever we respond "in faith." "The kingdom of God is in your midst," he said to the Pharisees in today’s text (Luke 17:21)."God’s Kingdom is within you."
In Jesus’s life, people saw how God ruled completely. In their encounter with Jesus, people said: He is "Immanuel!" (that is, "God is with us!") The doctrine of the "incarnation" says that Jesus expresses in human form the true spirit of God. I believe Jesus is the only complete instance of the "rule of God" in a person’s life which history offers us.
Jesus & his disciples ( & us, I trust!) all belong to the kingdom of God. But, oh, what a difference! In the disciples (& in us), the rule of God is a frail & flickering thing. From time to time, as situations change, we hardly know whether we dare to believe. We, like the disciples, often seem confused and uncertain. Jesus, on the other hand, remains focused and rock-solid in faith.
"Thy kingdom come," said Jesus."Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."Jesus contemporaries in Israel expected the Creator God to bring justice and peace to the world. The question was, whether Jesus was the kind of Messiah to make that happen. He wasn’t a Zealot, out sharpening swords and gathering an Army. He wasn’t baptizing people to make them holy to fighta holy war. He was not compromising with the politicians in power. Jesus had a new way in mind--another kingdom model altogether--which he was unveiling one person at a time.(!) A kingdom of mutual respect and radical trust (which he called love and faith), brought about by forgiveness of debts and repentance from sin (which we call grace). It was a kingdom like none other on earth. His vision was the start of God’s kingdom, on earth, as it was in heaven.
It is because we are citizens in God's kingdom that entitles us to pray: "thy kingdom come " believing it is already here! As more people, through our words and our actions as Jesus' followers, come to know the Gospel and enroll themselves as citizen-subjects to the "rule of God" (the reign of God), the ultimate triumph of God's good will --despite humanity’s long history of violence & sin --is assured!
"Thy kingdom will COME. (YES!) Thy will will be DONE ON EARTH!" If we really pray these words, we are praying for God to have God's way with us. We are praying that we may respond to the Good News of Jesus with faith and active "following" --that we may come to know God with the same intimacy as Jesus did, with the same "hope beyond all proof" that Jesus had.Friends, that's no small thing for which we pray!
Just imagine what our prayers would be like if we began by thinking, not of the kingdom of God, but of the kingdoms of the world...I know I’d receive very little motivation from that! (Just imagine the inertia, partisan bitterness & stalemate we’ve seen in Washington DC!) Where in the long history of kingdoms and empires do we see the hope of humanity and the promise of future flourishing for all? Empires come and go. For example, Egypt came and went. Assyria came and went. Babylon "the Great" came and went. Even those highlights of western civilization (Greece & Rome) came and went. Earthly kingdoms "go the way of all flesh."
Historians tell us that at least two dozen formerly great civilizations are now extinct! It seems that the debasing power of injustice--of sin & greed; of decay, distress, and destruction --is inevitable among human institutions. The kingdom of God, however, unlike earthly empires, is destined for success! We may not see very many people trying to live by God's standards (and unfortunately, it seems to me that violence and fear still reign supreme)... That’s what makes the news, gets all the attention, gets the most money. Foolishness and fear and threat of violence seem to "trump"common sense, calm reason, and collaboration.
...But Christian insistence (some call it optimism) that the world will "repent and believe the gospel"--despite two thousand years of not yet doing so! --assures me that the eventual accomplishment of God's realm (the eventual coming of God's kingdom) will happen...if we don't give in to cynicism. If we don’t give up! May Thy Kingdom come!