Mt 4: 12-23, Is 9:1-4, 1 Cor 1:10-18
Sermon, Cotham, 26.01.20
From that time on Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
… change your life, God’s kingdom is here.
In Matthew’s gospel this is Jesus’s first public sermon, indeed his first public words, after recently returning from 40 days in the wilderness, firsts are always important and we know therefore Matthew is trying to tell us to pay attention, these words matter. Without pre-amble, just as I began today, Jesus say’s ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
Well, we are nearing the end of Epiphany season, with just that – an Epiphany. The great ‘so what’ of the incarnation. God’s son is with us
and to embody the Kingdom of God, and thus his first words sum up his entire mission in a nutshell: ‘turn your life around the right way, God’s rule and reign is here.’
St Paul’s is today celebrating their Patronal festival, remembering the apostle Paul’s epiphany on that road to Damascus, the day the kingdom of God broke in upon him.
Jesus infact talked far more about the Kingdom than about himself, He did more than talk, teach, preach the kingdom, he manifested it in his healings, miracles, in the very warp and weft of his life, all the way to the cross and beyond to his resurrection.
The kingdom of God is one of the primary themes of the New Testament and therefore you might think we’d be kingdom experts by now. I will be the first to raise my hand and say this is not the way I regularly conceive of my faith, consideration of what the kingdom is and our part in it is something I haven’t thought about enough, at least in those terms.
And thinking about it may be part of the problem. My western, enlightenment trained rational brain is looking for a set of truths I can assent to, less than a person and a way to be followed. However the disciples needed no such list, they saw, heard and followed, Simon and Peter, James and John, they dropped it all, left the fish in their nets and followed. Their faithfulness was marked by fidelity and trust, not a five point assessment. Their faithfulness challenges me and I realize I am in many ways much more an admirer than follower of Jesus.
To be fair though neither the church nor the theologians have come to a consensus on just what the kingdom of God is.
We are infact rather like the arguing Corinthians we read about earlier. One school of thought says the kingdom is primarily an inward reality in the human soul and its relationship to God.
Another school, like Schweitzer, and which I cannot really get on board with, suggests its altogether a future and supernatural reality.
Another school, from the time of Augustine, identifies the kingdom with the Church, though the joke that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom and it was the church that showed up is rather more painfully true than we wish it was.
Still others understand the Kingdom as being essentially an ideal pattern for human society. Scripture, rather frustratingly if you like things neat and tidy, is equally diverse in its teaching.
We have scriptures that clearly state the kingdom is a present reality – exemplified in Jesus statement today, and many times where he says ‘the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.’, or St Paul’s letter to the Romans ‘for the kingdom is … righteousness, and peace, and joy in the holy spirit.’ (Rom 14:17), whilst others point to a future reality of a greater coming of the Kingdom at the Second coming of Christ, and Jesus himself says to Pilate in John’s gospel ‘my kingdom is not of this world.’ John 18:36
How then might we navigate such a variety of understandings, and what does it mean for us in Cotham today in January 2020? How do we engage with and recognize this kingdom of God?
It might help to have a look at what we think we mean by kingdom and what the ancient world of the bible understood it as, because actually they are rather different.
Today, kingdom is a rather out moded way of understanding a realm or territory over which a monarch rules, like the United Kingdom. The biblical understanding reverses this, kingdom refers not to territory but to the ruler, a kingdom is the authority to rule, the sovereignty of the king. So then we might better translate our verse, repent, for the rule and reign of God is here.
American philosopher, Dallas Willard takes this definition one step further and explains a kingdom as the zone of our effective will, a realm that is uniquely our own,where our choice determines what happens. We all have our kingdoms, I have one, you have one, x has one. I’ve been thinking in venn diagrams all week, picturing my kingdom and how it overlaps with everyone else’s, how much of God’s kingdom I overlap with.
Our kingdoms bump up against each other’s, mine certainly bumps up with my children’s regarding tidying their rooms and who does the washing up on a regular basis, but when we’re living well in community together, our kingdoms mesh.
God’s kingdom, the range of his effective will is rather more cosmic in scale, governing the whole of the physical universe as the Psalms attest to and the poets of Genesis proclaim, God kingdom encompasses the stars in outer space all the way down to the inner world of human consciousness.
It is where peace reigns, and justice rolls on like a river, it is light overcoming the darkness, it is marked by righteousness, peace and joy (Rom 14), the great jewish word shalom encompasses the sense of deep well-being and flourishing in all areas of life that is the Sovereign rule of God. This is great and good news, and we need our best poets to help explain it and I particularly commend psalms 145 – 150 to you as a good place to start.
The ways of the kingdom,
the ways of the rule of God are however not those we expect to accomplish great things like rivers of justice and peace.
So schooled are our imaginations in the power plays of our world, of wars, of the fight for first place in the all consuming clamour of capitalism, we find it harder to see God’s kingship and power consists not in coercion but in God’s willingness to forgive and have mercy on us.
In Jesus, kingship came in the form of vulnerability, humility, kindness and sacrificial love. He showed Israel and he shows us still just how different the ways of the kingdom are to our expectations.
It’s noticeable just who Jesus welcomes into the kingdom, the leper and the supposedly unclean, the prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor and the social outcasts, all those who were exiles in their own communities. Those struggling with sickness, exploitation, wanting more money, not having enough money, those ostracised and lonely, to them in particular, Jesus message was, welcome, the good news of the rule of God is here, it is where all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. He healed their presenting problem and pointed them to the kingdom.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Repent, it’s a familiar word within our faith, yet for me at best the imperative has a bit of a bran flakes association – it’s going to be good for me, it’s needed to keep me healthy, but I’m probably not going to like it much. On an emotional level I associate it with feeling pretty awful about something I’ve done, or on bad days who I am. I don’t think I’m alone in these connections. But it’s a misunderstanding, an unhelpful misdirection. The Greek word for repentance offers us some course correction. Metanoia means a fundamental change of mind, a transformative change or turning of heart. It’s really not about feeling bad about yourself, rather it is a committed change of direction, worked out in what you do, not what you feel.
My family on my Dad’s side has had a long association with the Lake District, and he would tell me stories of their walking holidays there back in the 50s, put it this way, it was wild camping well before that was a cool thing to do. One particular time, the weather being so wild, they upgraded the usual tent to stay in a local farmhouse. The stories he told about that house always rather scared me. It was the only house in the valley without electricity, so come dusk, it was candles, dark creaky corridors and being sent alone to a freezing damp bed at the other end of the farmhouse. He admits to being rather terrified of the experience, and the noises he heard in the pitch black night. It seemed rather gothic and exciting to me.
The other houses in the valley had electricity and domestic life was transforming with light, cookers, refridgeration etc. But the farmhouse they stayed at had decided against this mod con, unwilling to face the cost and changes required, but changes that would be ultimately very life giving.
You could say that the other houses had repented, had engaged in metanoia, they’d undergone a transformative change for the electricity was at hand. They had made a big change in the way they lived life to tap into the power and the possibilities of electricity.
The farm my dad stayed at had decided metanoia or ‘repentance’ wasn’t for them.
The kingdom is here, rather like that electricity, it is now, it is coming, and Jesus invites us to turn, align ourselves, to plug in, to stretch an analogy and switch from trying to light our own way to living in the light and power of God’s rule.
Just like that farm, we are not forced into the kingdom of God, there is a choice to be made, an invitation to respond to and worked out in concrete actions. Change or turning may mean taking things up or laying things down and we can trust the Spirit of God will show and empower us as much as we ask for.
Dr Ruth Valerio, Tearfund’s Global Advocacy and Influencing Director, in her excellent eco focused book ‘Just Living’ talks about examining our lives and involvements on four levels which I’ve found a really helpful tool – the personal, the local, the national and the international.
Where personally is there a need for a change of life that welcomes in more of God’s good rule?
Where locally in our church and community can we see signs of the kingdom and where do we need change to welcome in more of God’s kingdom?
Where in our city, in our ecosystems, in our global community do we need the kingdom to take root?
We pray Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ We are daily invited to pray and partner in extending God’s good rule.
Let us remember too though that in our searching and turning, we too are being sought. The one and the kingdom which we choose, is the one who first chose us. As ever CS Lewis gives us wonderful wise words to keep us on track:
Our faith is not a matter of our hearing what Christ said long ago and ‘trying to carry it out.’ Rather, ‘the Real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ his kind of life and thought, into you’; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part of you that is still tin.’ (Mere Christianity.)
From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’