Turning Towards The Kingdom

TURNING TOWARDS THE KINGDOM

 

MATTHEW 4:12-17

 

In the 2003 movie, “Bruce Almighty,” Jim Carey plays Bruce Nolan, a Buffalo, New York Television reporter, who gets fed up with his life of reporting on fluff news stories. After exploding on the air about how much he hates his job and his life, Bruce gets fired, and beat up by gang members in the same day. Strangely, he awakes the next day with an unknown number continuingly calling him and paging him (yes they still used pagers in 2003). He calls the number and discovers a mysterious company offering him an incredible job. He goes to the warehouse to discover it is God (played by Morgan Freeman, of course, who is old but never seems to get older, sort of like God), who makes Bruce a deal. Bruce gets to be God. He gets to see if he can do a better job than the Alpha and the Omega.

Well Bruce uses his new found powers to right a few wrongs in his own life. He gets his job back by commanding that the body of Jimmy Hoffa be discovered in a Buffalo park, and having himself as the reporter that gets the “exclusive”. At a Mark Twain Chili cook off, he commands a meteorite to slam into the ground right outside the cook off to add a little excitement, a little spice, to his reporting. He soon becomes, “Mr. Exclusive, “and gets everything he could ever want in his life. When God points out that Bruce hasn’t helped anyone else he decides to answer everyone’s prayers with a “yes”. The result is everyone gets what they want but things quickly spiral out of control. Bruce is the Alpha and the Omega but he finds that his abuse of power has left him friendless and alone.

Bruce’s predicament is the predicament of humanity. It is the wages of sin. It is the results of eating from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. We want to rule ourselves. We want to find security in ourselves. We turn more towards the security of the visible world than trusting in the invisible God. Israel, God’s chosen people, had the chance to reject the security of the world when their nation was formed. But as the prophet Samuel, who had guided them in hearing the voice of God grew older, they came to Samuel and said, “ Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” The scriptures tell us that Samuel prayed to the LORD and the LORD said, “ Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”

Certainly, Israel had good and bad experiences with its Kings. Good Kings and bad Kings. Periods of power, where their nation was strong and conquered their enemies, and periods of oppression and despair where they lost their political independence. For centuries, humanity has struggled to find a way to govern itself to produce a better society. We have tried theocracy, Absolute Monarchy, direct democracy, representative democracy, parliamentary systems, and a three branch government that attempts to balance the sinful tendencies of man. C.S Lewis once said that democracy is not the best form of government, it is simply the least worst form of government. He argued, that if there was truly a just and good King, most of humanity might opt for such a King, but since there is not such a thing we accept a balance of powers as the least worst option.

We think being jaded over politics is something new but the Bible is full of it. We see that jadedness in today’s Gospel passage. Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1-2, “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death on them a light has dawned.” “Zebulun and Naphtali,” refer to northern tribes of Israel who were quickly conquered by foreign oppressors. At the time Matthew is writing Capernaum was considered to be a border region, an area where the Jewish people and the Gentiles mixed. Matthew is saying that light is coming to these border regions, places that some might not consider as theologically or ethnically pure.

Jesus’ announcement, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” would have been easily understood by anyone who knew 1 Samuel 8, which would have been most Jews at the time. You see when we hear the phrase, “kingdom of heaven,” we think Jesus is talking about a place, that being heaven. But the terms “Kingdom of God”, which is found in the other Gospels and “Kingdom of Heaven”, are largely interchangeable and refer not to a place where we go where we die, but the rule of God. As the Lord’s prayer says the Kingdom of heaven is wherever God’s Will is done on Earth as it is in heaven. So when Jesus says repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, he is saying, “change your ways, because God is coming to take his rightful place as King.” The people of Israel in 1 Samuel 8 chose an earthly King over God. Jesus is saying that God is coming to change that. And Jesus is calling us to embrace God’s rule. This is not to say that the eternal life of the Kingdom doesn’t have a place called heaven where we go when we die. But it is to say the place where God’s Will is done, that being heaven, is breaking into Earth. God knows that we do indeed make a mess of things when we are given power so God in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ is coming to rule.

What does this Rule of God, this Kingdom of God, this Kingdom of Heaven, look like? Some theologians see the Kingdom of God as primarily about personal salvation. Others think the Kingdom of God is about improving your personal behavior. Still others see the Kingdom of God primarily about the return of Christ at the end of the age. Theologians like St. Augustine saw the Kingdom of heaven on Earth as primarily the church. More liberal theologians of the modern era see the Kingdom of Heaven as primarily about the restructuring of society to right social wrongs. Still others see the Kingdom of God as primarily about miracles and healings. As George Ladd author of the Gospel of the Kingdom points out one can find evidence in the scriptures for all of these views. But still the Reign of God seems to surpass all of these views, refusing to fall into a neat box.

As many theologians have noted the Kingdom of heaven has a strange, “here but not yet,” nature to it. It is as if we are children on Christmas Eve waiting to hear the rain deer hoofs on our roof. It is as if we are a mother on the verge of our labor pains. It is as if we are watching a master architect, he has laid a good foundation, that being Jesus Christ, and from the foundation we get a sense of what the building will become, but we as the hired labor do not have a full grasp of the plan. Colin Dye, author of The Rule of God, points out that Jesus refers to the “mystery” of the Kingdom. To quote Dye, “The word musterion means “something that was previously hidden but has now been revealed.” The particular revelation that Jesus brought through the parables was that the kingdom would first come in spiritual form before it would come in its full and final manifestation at the end of the age.” ( Dye, Rule of God).

Where do we see the Kingdom of heaven here in Pierceton? I think we see the Kingdom of heaven in our care and service for our members who are sick. In our worship, in our scholarship program, in our preschool ministry. I think we see the Kingdom in Stanley buying corsages for the congregation. He doesn’t have a lot of money but he saw it as his service to a church that has done so much for him. I believe the session’s decision to host a summer lunch program here at Pierceton Presbyterian Church is a sign of the Kingdom for us. 60% of kids at Pierceton elementary are on the free and reduced lunch program. You know my experience is with inner city poverty and inner city problems. But I am finding rural poverty is as serious of an issue, it is simply not as visible since people are more spread out in rural areas. But as I made clear in my announcement several weeks ago about this initiative, we are able to provide these lunches to the children at no cost to us thanks to the USDA, thanks to the Federal Government, what some of us who are more conservatively minded might call “big government.” There is a branch of Christianity that might see this as the full representation of the Kingdom of God, as reordering the society through the power of the Government, to produce a more perfect Union, as Abraham Lincoln might say. And I was raised by two political science professors to see the power of the State to do good, may it be to end the evils of slavery or to feed a hungry child. But I mentioned to you my little brother Dominic at Pierceton Elementary, who had no idea who Jesus Christ was. I know man does not live by bread alone. I know that preaching the Gospel through my actions, or Government programs isn’t enough.

I think knowing our place in the Kingdom is an essential question for our congregation because I truly believe that the Kingdom is eternal but the church is temporary. Let’s admit it, the congregations that Paul wrote to in his Epistles no longer exist. The memory of their traditions, their worship, their life is somewhat lost to us, we can only sense echoes of what it might have been like in Paul’s letters. Churches die, some churches are renewed, and some new churches form. But I believe that a church that commits to “seek first the Kingdom of heaven and his justice,” as Matthew 6:33 declares, will not be quickly forgotten by the Lord. A church that embraces every aspect of the Kingdom, a church that says I will not be offended no matter what Jesus chooses to do among us, that church will be honored by the Lord.

Paul is right in what he said in 1 Corinthians 4:20. The Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. That is bad news for me since my main job is to talk. But the more I turn towards the Kingdom the more I see that the power that Jesus Offers us, the Rule that he brings, is not of this world, but is coming into this world none the less. Christ’s power is the power to change society, but also to respect our rulers. It is the power to heal but also the power to bear the thorn in the flesh. The power to live our lives as just men and women but also the power to see that when this life leaves us there is an eternal life that is greater than us but gracious enough to include us. Most of all the Kingdom is not a power I get to control. Not a power I get to use for my political agenda or for my own prosperity. It is a power that may lead us into obscurity of cleaning the dishes to love our spouse or into the halls of congress to end human sex trafficking, abortion, or fight for a fair and just wage. The Gospel of the Kingdom is the power to let go and move as the Holy Spirit moves. For if we seek first the Kingdom of heaven and his righteousness, his justice, his peace, his Gospel, his glory, surely all that we need, and even that which we could never imagine, will be added unto us.

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