Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I find the word kingdom problematic. On the one hand, we have idealized pictures. How many young girls dream of becoming a princess? The Disney empire is built on such dreams. Little girls want to be Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White. There are movies made about young women finding their prince charmings. Think of the fascination our society has with Katherine Middleton who found her prince! There is an assumption that “princesses” will have lives of ease and privilege.
On the other hand, we see the flaws in the system of “kings.” Our nation was founded as a rebellion against kingly authority that fostered injustice. Kings seemed to claim for themselves the power and the wealth of their realms. We see the abuses in the world today. We know of despotic realms where authority is used to abuse and impoverish the people. Our nation has accepted the notion that absolute power corrupts and that it corrupts absolutely!
So, I find the word “kingdom” problematic! But so did God! We have to remember that Israel didn’t always have kings! They had prophetic leaders. Later, as they became a more cohesive group, they had judges who helped them find justice and live in peace.
But, the nations around them had kings. So, the Israelites, too, wanted to have a king. They begged Samuel for a king. “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” When Samuel asked God, God sent him to respond, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers….”
Kings were as susceptible to corruption and selfish greed in those days as some rulers/leaders are today! God was, therefore, reluctant to give them a king. But, the Israelites persisted. So God relented telling Samuel to “set a king over them.”
Yet, it is an ongoing Biblical theme that God did not accept earthly definitions of kingship. God expected that Israel’s kings would be guided not by the examples that they saw in the world around them, but by their faith in God and their commitment to God’s ways. Over and over, in the Biblical witness, we are to be surprised by what God valued in leaders and by who it is that God chose to lead. Even the great King David was an unexpected choice for king. He wasn’t the eldest son. He was the youngest – sent to the fields to be a lowly shepherd. God chose him to be the shepherd king – a servant of God and, thereby, a servant of Israel. Yet, David, too, was tempted by the power earthly kings enjoyed and abused his position.
So, what do we do with this familiar phrase, your kingdom come, your will be done? How are we to hear it? How are we to pray it?
Jesus’ message from the very beginning of his ministry was that the kingdom, the realm, of God was at hand – that somehow in and through him it had begun to emerge anew on earth and among human beings and in their societies. The gospel lesson for today is a collection of parables that speak of the kingdom. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed….The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls…the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”
These sayings are familiar – so, perhaps, they have lost their edge. Jesus lifted up unexpected things to begin to open their eyes to what God’s realm was all about. “The kingdom is like a mustard seed.” The mustard plant was a noxious weed – unwanted. “The kingdom is like yeast.” I grudgingly admit that yeast was often referred to as a contaminate. “The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field.” What kingdom hides its assets? “The kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. On finding one of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus pointed to something of more value than anything we have on earth. “The kingdom is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” Judgment comes later in this parable, but there is a wideness to the realm that is described, a wideness that denies borders and divisions.
The parables, and Jesus’ life, work, and witness, do not point to our worldly expectations of what a kingdom looks like. In fact, they upend our expectations. God may have granted Israel a king, but God did not accept a worldly understanding of kingship or kingdoms. So, the prayer “Thy kingdom come” is a prayer for a different kind of world. We are reminded that this world does not live up to the ways of God. So we pray for God’s realm to come in its fullness.
Our second scripture passage this morning was Psalm 130. It is a lament. The psalms are the Jewish prayer book and, students of this book tell us, prayers of lament and complaint are frequent. Ellsworth Kalas says that “good faith makes us grateful people, always inclined to give thanks, always disposed to see reasons for gladness that other people miss. But good religion also teaches us to complain. We sense that the world is not what it should be because it isn’t what God meant it to be. Thus, godly people are dissatisfied with things as they are.”
Kalas is not inviting a faith that relishes personal gripes, personal complaining. He is advocating faith that has glimpsed the values of God’s realm and sees the gulf between what we know in our lives and in our world and the good realm, the good kingdom, that God intends for us and for all people. A vision of God’s realm gives us a starting point for working for and towards the values of that realm, to make those values real and accessible for all people in this world.
Kalas speaks of being “effectively dissatisfied.” I was reminded of the wonderful movie Amazing Grace which highlighted the work of a British abolitionist, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce spoke out against slavery and met intense resistance from members of the British Parliament who felt that the slave trade was necessary for the stability of the Empire.
Kalas said that effective dissatisfaction is what moves us forward. It has spurred advances in medicine and education. Life expectancy is longer. So he asks, “Do you think that some things ought to be better than they are? Are you troubled that crime statistics in America are measured by the minute? –so many thefts, so many rapes, so many murders every so many minutes? Does it bother you that in almost any American city acres upon acres of land are covered up by a jungle of ramshackle houses and poverty? Are you uneasy that the nations of the world spend literally billions – indeed, trillions--- of dollars every year developing weapons to destroy fellow members of the human race? Are you still able to feel shock that every day the newspapers report the mistreatment of infants and children by their own parents, stepparents, or foster parents? Are you content to live in this kind of world, or does it upset you and anger you?”
We could add, “Are we upset about violence in our schools, about mass shootings?”
Kalas says the Lord’s Prayer includes a phrase for us, “Your kingdom come.” It is a powerful phrase that reminds us of how short our world falls of living into the good that God intends and that God offers us. And it calls us to effective dissatisfaction, to a commitment to work for the realm that is always breaking into this world to offer hope and transformation.
“Your will be done.” God’s will being done is the true mark of God’s realm, of God’s kingdom, being present. Jesus did God’s will. Even when he was tempted to seek his own safety or to succumb to the lure of earthly power, he did God’s will. So the realm was present in and through him.
Kalas says that when God’s will is done, the kingdom is present. He describes the kingdom as having a “spot existence” in the world. “It exists,” he wrote, “wherever and whenever a single human being has given up fully to God and thus has entered the kingdom. And these spot kingdoms are often somewhat larger in size, too. when a family, a church, an institution seeks fully to do God’s will, the kingdom has come within that circle of life. The kingdom exists each time love conquers hate, peace triumphs over conflict, or fear and selfishness have been vanquished.”
This prayer reminds us that we are stewards of this world, this creation that God made. So, we have a responsibility and a role to play in seeking God’s will and making the realm of God present and visible. There is a lot in this world that is opposed, still, to the ways of God. We, even in our own lives, often choose the ways of the world over the ways of God. Kalas says that the “forces are legion – hate, sickness, fear, immorality, prejudice, lying, deceit, brutality, to name just a few.” We can recognize those forces in the world around us and in our own lives.
So, we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” Kalas suggests we consider it a pledge of allegiance, an expression of our own intent to participate in God’s realm even when the world draws us to commit to its own brokenness. We are invited to be people of lament – those who see the gulf between what is and what God intends – and mourn, complain. But that is not the end. We also commit ourselves to work for the realm of God – to work to end hunger, to welcome the stranger, to be broadly inclusive, to minister to the sick, to topple systems and attitudes that perpetuate injustice. Kalas points out that this prayer does not whine, “Will you send your kingdom?” nor does it say, “We want your kingdom.” Instead, it proclaims our expectation that, ultimately, God’s kingdom will come. And we will pledge ourselves to its arrival! “They kingdom come. Thy will be done.” Amen.
Christmas Eve Service
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