Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Kingdom of God

Colossians 1:15-20 & Luke 10:1-12

In our gospel reading, Jesus instructs the disciples to tell people that ‘The kingdom of God is near’ – but what does that mean? Is the kingdom of God something we experience now or something that is in the future? The kingdom of God is a hugely important thing for us to try and grasp as Christians, but why is it so important? Well, the main reason is that the kingdom of God is our goal – it’s the goal toward which Christians strive. So if we’re striving towards the kingdom of God, we should in theory at least know a little bit about what it means. And assuming you don’t want to be here all day, it’s only a little bit that we have time for in the space of this sermon.

What does the word kingdom conjure up for us? - A realm, an empire, a monarchy, and perhaps even a territory; or the kingly rule of God in the lives of people and nations. By definition, a kingdom has to have a king, and from the earliest days of Israel’s history, God was worshipped as King, and we can look to the psalms to illustrate this:

Psalm 9:7-8
The LORD reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment.
He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice.

Psalm 47:8-9
God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne.
The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham,
for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.

Psalm 93:1-2
The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty
and is armed with strength.
The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.
Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.

So for Israel God has always been considered sovereign over his creation. Even when the kingdom of Israel was established under Saul and David, these were not absolute monarchs – they were ‘the Lord’s anointed’, and only derived their sovereignty from the heavenly King.

The eternal future reign of the Messiah was prophesied by Isaiah in what has now become a very familiar passage, especially at Christmas (Isaiah 9:6-7):

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.

The idea of this coming Kingdom excited the imagination of the Jewish people; and in Israel, about the time of our Lord, many were looking for the Kingdom of God as Luke puts it in his gospel. Paving the way for the Lord, John the Baptist’s message in Matthew 3 was, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’ (the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God being the same thing). The message of John the Baptist was taken up by Jesus, who after his baptism, and the temptation by the devil in the wilderness, also began to preach ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ In Luke 4, Jesus said "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God... because that is why I was sent." And at the Last Supper, in Luke 22, Jesus said to his disciples that he was giving to them a kingdom just as his Father gave to him.

There are many imaginative references to the kingdom of God in the Parables, especially in Matthew chapter 13, where several times Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like...’ followed by an illustration using things or activities with which the people could make a connection. So here’s a scriptural memory question (just to see if you’re still awake): Who can tell me something that Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is ‘like’? It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it can be just a tiny little thing. [a mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”] Jesus also liken the kingdom to yeast, to a fishing net that was let down to catch all kinds of fish, to treasure hidden in a field, to a merchant looking for fine pearls - when he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. The emphasis of some of the kingdom parables is on the present signs of the kingdom and in others it’s on a future aspect of the kingdom when it comes in its fullness at the end of the age, the timing of which we are not to know.

So having laid a little bit of the foundation for why the kingdom of God is important to us as Christians, let’s move on now to a little bit of what it actually might mean for our lives. As I hinted before, there are two possible aspects of biblical teaching we could look at – the kingdom in the present time, which is a gift enjoyed by all who believe in Jesus Christ, and the kingdom in the age to come, when as Matthew’s gospel puts it in ch. 25, ‘the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the angels with him’. These two aspects are sometimes referred to as the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. We live between earth and heaven, between God's act in Christ and the completion of that act. We haven’t time this morning to look at both aspects, so I’m going to focus on the first one: the kingdom of God in the present time – the kingdom of God that is accessible to us now.

So if the kingdom is here now, how do we access it? How do we become a part of it? The answer, of course, is through faith and trust in the Lord Jesus. By acknowledging the authority of Jesus over the whole of our life the kingdom of God breaks in to our life. A living relationship with Jesus brings the kingdom of God into our homes and into our relationships – I’m sure many of us can testify that our faith certainly helps in dealing with difficult issues within our family life. A living relationship with Jesus also brings the kingdom of God into our workplaces and into our working attitudes. We’ve probably all heard the maxim that we should perform our work as if we were working for the Lord himself. And finally, a living relationship with Jesus brings the kingdom of God into our leisure time. It’s great when people know that we're Christians and are surprised that we can still enjoy life – because joy is part of the kingdom. But however we choose to spend our leisure time, if we have given Jesus authority over the whole of our life, then our leisure time should also reflect kingdom principles.

It’s important to remember, though, that in each of these spheres of life we will sometimes fail to live up to this – that’s our human condition. We don’t seem to be able to allow Jesus to have authority over each and every aspect or issue of our lives. And that’s part of the kingdom being both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ in its fullness. We hold this treasure in jars of clay, so easily chipped, cracked and broken.

In Luke 17:21 Jesus says something interesting – he said, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’; sometimes it’s translated as ‘The kingdom of God is among you’, but I think it is both. The kingdom is ‘within’ us as God’s Spirit dwells within us; and the kingdom is also among us, among the members of Christ’s body, the Church. It’s not really clear which of these translations is most accurate, but both meanings are pretty special, and represent the intimacy of relationship that God wants with us, despite the fact that, in the words of my favourite Christian band, we are a ‘beautiful letdown’.

In an unsettled, anxious and sometimes despairing world, the positive and welcoming message of the Kingdom of God takes our faith to a counter-cultural level. When taken seriously, a focus on the kingdom of God in the present can make a great difference in the Church, and through the Church it makes a difference to the world. But there’s still too wide a gap between personal religion and social religion, and also between the various factions in the Church. What matters is the Kingdom of God – and the kingdom of God is present wherever human beings love and serve God and seek to extend the acceptance of his reign over all the earth. The kingdom is present in all acts and attitudes of compassion and efforts to bring about a better world.

The day is coming when every knee shall bow in Jesus’ name and every tongue confess that He is Lord, and we anticipate that day today by acknowledging his Lordship here and now. When the Kingdom is fully come, God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. Yet here and now believers in Christ may know the power of his resurrection and walk in newness of life. And at home, at work or at leisure, the kingdom qualities of justice and mercy, peace and truth should sought by and be seen in God’s people until, as the prophet Habakkuk foretells, ‘the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’. Amen.

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