Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sermon for December 9th: 'Kingdom'

Advent Sermon Series #2: ‘And His Kingdom Will Have No End’

Today we continue our series of sermons on phrases from the Nicene Creed that relate to the theme of Advent. Last week we thought about the words, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’. Today we’re going to go on to consider the phrase, ‘and his kingdom will have no end’.

I’m a great fan of the Brother Cadfael detective novels by Ellis Peters, some of which have been made into TV movies starring Derek Jacobi. In the stories, Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who came to the cloister late in life after a career as a soldier in the crusades; he has great knowledge of herbs and medicines and so is very useful to the monastery. But he’s also a bit headstrong and difficult to discipline, and the prior of the monastery always has a hard time getting him to do as he’s told – especially when it comes to assisting his pal Hugh Beringar, the local under-sheriff, in solving murder mysteries!

The stories are set in the twelfth century, in a time when England was going through a civil war. Two contestants were claiming the throne: King Stephen, and the Empress Maud or Matilda. The war between these two and their supporters lasted for several years, and some parts of the country were first taken by the one side, then retaken by the other side, then retaken again, and so on and so on. Of course, whenever a town was taken all the supporters of the other side were declared traitors and executed, so it was a bit tricky deciding which side to support! The trick was to figure out who was going to be the victor in the long run. Even if your candidate appeared to be the better one, that wouldn’t help you much if his or her kingdom only lasted a few months. Once they were gone and the other one was on the throne, you’d be in big trouble.

Kings and rulers come and go, and we all wish the good ones would last longer and the bad ones would be gone sooner. ‘May the king live forever’ was a common greeting for kings in the ancient world, but of course much of the time the people who said it weren’t sincere. In fact, quite frequently the people who said it were plotting to overthrow the king themselves! But every now and again, when a nation was enjoying the reign of a just and merciful king, I suspect people really would sigh and say, “If only he could live forever! His kids aren’t up to much, are they?”

Curiously enough, in the writings of one of the prophets of Israel, there is mention of a king who will live forever; in Daniel 7 we read:
And I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed (7:13-14).
This language is taken up in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation, in words made famous in Handel’s Messiah:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever (11:15).

People have suffered for centuries under oppressive rulers – emperors, dictators, military tyrants, and even duly elected presidents and prime ministers. ‘Why can’t we get someone decent to rule over us?’ they ask; ‘Where have all the good guys gone? Why can’t we hang on to them?’ In the time of Jesus it was as true as ever; the Roman emperor held the Mediterranean world in an iron grip, enforced by the power of the best-trained army the world had ever seen. In Galilee, Herod Antipas ruled as a puppet king under the power of Caesar, and in Judea the Romans ruled directly through their procurator, Pontius Pilate, a bad-tempered man with a nasty sadistic streak about him. The Old Testament was full of prophecies about how the Lord was going to overthrow rulers like them, and bring in his kingdom of justice and peace. And at the beginning of his own ministry Jesus came into Galilee and said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14-15).

What was in the minds of his Jewish hearers when they first heard that announcement? Well, something like our Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 11:1-9. This passage speaks of a new king from the royal house of David who will be anointed by the Holy Spirit to give him wisdom and understanding, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This king would be a just and wise judge, investigating cases carefully and not simply judging by first appearances; he would protect the poor and needy rather than always favouring his rich cronies, the old boys’ network, the ones who went to fancy private schools with him. He would be known for his personal integrity – his righteousness and faithfulness. Under him natural enemies – in the time of Isaiah, Israelites and Babylonians - would be reconciled; there would be no hurting or destroying any more, and the earth would be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

In the minds of the people, Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom would come across as a political message, you see. It would not be heard as if he was saying, “I’ve got good news about how you can get away from this sinful world and go to heaven after you die”. No – the good news of the kingdom was good news about this world – about peace and justice, mercy and reconciliation. The Greek word that Mark uses for ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’ was a well-known one in the Roman world. In the Roman Empire, when a new emperor came to the throne, there’d obviously been a time of uncertainty. The old emperor had just died; was there going to be chaos? Was society going to collapse? Were they going to have pirates ruling the seas? Were the people going to have no food to eat? And so the announcement would go around the empire: “Good news! We have a new emperor and his name is Augustus! So, we’re going to have justice and peace and prosperity and we’re all going to be happy forever; isn’t that great?!” Now, of course, most people in the Roman Empire knew that was rubbish; the new emperor was just another tyrannical aristocrat who was going to do the same things the old ones had done. But that was the way the announcement was worded.

So now Jesus comes on the scene, and he says, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’, and in many of his stories about the kingdom he himself is obviously the central character, God’s anointed king: God was going to rule his people through Jesus. And if God was truly going to rule, then God’s justice, God’s righteousness, God’s peace were going to transform the world.

But how? Because, of course, we can’t avoid the question, ‘If the Kingdom is at hand, where is it?’ If Jesus is God’s King he can’t be a very strong one, can he? Because we still have murderous dictators and mass genocide; the richest 20% of the world’s population still have 80% of the world’s wealth; the world is still divided on racial lines, and has anyone noticed that terrorists don’t seem to be going away? So if this is the kingdom of God, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, is it?

We can’t get away from the fact that although Jesus took his inspiration from these old Messianic prophecies, he radically re-interpreted them in a way that took many of his contemporaries by surprise. The obvious interpretation – that God would send a political/military ruler who would be powerful enough to overthrow the Romans and rule with an iron hand to enforce righteousness and protect the poor –that was the sort of Messiah his contemporaries were expecting. But Jesus intentionally rejected that model. He said to Pontius Pilate at his trial, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). Notice that he does not say, “My kingdom is not in this world”. A lot of people have interpreted it to mean, ‘My kingdom is in another place, in heaven’, but that’s not what Jesus says; he says, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’, or in some translations, ‘not of this world’. In other words, ‘It doesn’t have the character of a worldly kingdom; it takes its inspiration and pattern from somewhere else’.

In this kingdom followers do not defend the king with force, because it is a peaceable kingdom in which violence is rejected and love for enemies is practiced. In this kingdom people are not compelled to submit to the king against their will; rather, he invites them to follow him and respects their decision to accept or reject him. He does this because he knows that no lasting change can take place unless people’s hearts are transformed; people who obey out of compulsion are people whose obedience will not last. In this kingdom the king washes the feet of his followers and calls them to do the same thing – serving one another out of love with no thought for their own glory or reputation. And this kingdom is not based on a common ethnic origin or confined by national boundaries; America is not God’s chosen people, nor Canada nor Britain nor any other nation in the world. Rather, God is drawing together a kingdom from every tribe and nation under heaven, a kingdom of people united by their allegiance to Jesus, God’s anointed king. And in this kingdom, the governing principle is not the love of power, but the power of love.

So you see, we Christians are part of the gospel, the good news. God’s kingdom grows as God’s people live it out in their daily lives. The apostle Peter wrote about this in his first letter, which we find toward the end of the New Testament; in chapter 2, verses 9-10 he says:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Peter says that we are ‘a holy nation’; to him, our primary citizenship is not Canadian but Christian. Our primary allegiance is not to a Queen or a president or prime minister, but to God’s anointed king, Jesus. As we live out that allegiance in obedience to the teaching of our King, we act as salt and light in the world, spreading the light of Jesus and furthering his kingdom.

Listen to these words from a letter written by Diognetus, a Christian writer from the second century A.D.:
Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life . . . Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each one's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as resident aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure every thing as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their food with each other, but not their marriage bed . . . They love all people, and by all are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich . . . They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect . . . To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.
That’s an early Christian statement about what it meant to them to live as a holy nation, God’s people, loyal to their own king, Jesus.

The scriptures promise us that the day will come when Jesus’ rule will be acknowledged by everyone: Paul says that God gave Jesus the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

On that day the values of the Kingdom of God will be the values of the whole world; the law of love will be followed gladly by every human being, and God’s dream for his world will come true. On that day, as we read in Revelation earlier, the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever; his kingdom will have no end.

Our call as Christians is to live as citizens of that kingdom now, even though the rule of Jesus is not acknowledged by the world at large. Sometimes this puts us at odds with the world around us; that’s part of taking up our cross and following Jesus, and we accept that. But we also rejoice in the promise that it will not always be this way; we look forward to the day when the rule of our King will be acknowledged from one end of the universe to the other. May God give us strength by his Spirit to be faithful to our King, so that on the day of his appearing we may stand before him with gladness and joy.

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