“The Kingdom of God Has Come Near”
The Rev. Dr. Ross McGowan Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018
Text: Mark 1:14-15
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Jesus the Christ is inviting us into his kingdom. A great door has swung open, because of who Christ is and what Christ is doing in the world. The Lord is inviting us to walk through that door and into his new world.
Now, speaking to you about the kingdom of God, I feel a little like Lucy in C. S. Lewis’ Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lucy and her brothers, Edward and Peter, are exploring an old house where they have been sent to stay for the summer. As she is rummaging through an old closet, she suddenly feels the chill of air on her cheek; and feels snow under her feet. She realizes that what she thought was the wall of the closet is actually the entrance into a new world, the World of Narnia. Narnia is a kind of parallel universe that exists alongside Lucy and Edward and Peter’s familiar world. The children will have life transforming experiences in Narnia. But Lucy’s first job is to try to describe to Edward and Peter what this new world is like.
So how can I talk about the kingdom of God in a way that will present its reality to us? Jesus’ favorite way of speaking about the kingdom is through stories, parables. In preparing this sermon, I reread Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God – mostly in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. And I was dazzled by the variety of images and impressions. Instead of defining the kingdom, Jesus shows us a series of little scenarios, drawn from day to day life.
Some of the parables convey the surprising power of the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of heaven [= God] is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds; but when it has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. Mat 13:31-32
The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. Mat 13:33
What is surprising about the kingdom of God is that God’s power begins in small, unimpressive ways – like a small seed or like yeast – which is invisible when you put it in the dough. But God’s power is silently at work in small things, in small people.
The kingdom is like a man who sowed a seed; went to bed; and, while he was sleeping and was doing nothing, it was mysteriously growing. So the kingdom is the power of God silently working around us, under us. The most radical petition in the Lord’s Prayer is Your kingdom come on earth – as it is in heaven. So, the kingdom is a present reality in this world of ours. And we have a role to play in the activity of the kingdom. The man sows the seed. The woman puts yeast in the dough. So the kingdom of God is God’s work, God’s life, God’s activity. And, at same time, human activity is part of the mysterious work of God in the world. We are part of the kingdom’s presence.
Other parables convey the surprise and the joy that comes from discovering God’s power and presence in the world.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Mat 13:44
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Mat. 13:45
When you encounter the living God, you know that you have found the pearl of great price; you have found the greatest and most important thing in the world.
Still other parables touch relationships and our sense of justice and the need for reconciliation. In many of these parables, Jesus signals that the kingdom of God challenges our normal assumptions about justice.
The kingdom is like a landowner who hired day laborers to work in his fields; they came at different times, but he paid them all the same. Mat 20:1-16.
The kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom: God turns things upside down: the greatest is the least; the first will be last and the last first. When we come into the presence of the kingdom, God shakes us up; rearranges our priorities.
And then to round out this little survey, Jesus’ parables of the kingdom are a call to action. To hear them as Jesus intends for us to hear them is to be confronted with a moment of decision. Hearing a parable of Jesus is like coming to a fork in the road and realizing that we are being asked to turn one way or the other.
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves out to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet,” but they all gave excuses why they could not come, so the master sent the slaves into the streets and said: invite anyone you see. My banquet is ready. Come to the banquet. Matt 22:1-10; Lk 14:15
This call to action may be as simple and yet as profound as coming home, like the younger son in the famous parable. He took his inheritance and left the Father’s house for the far off country where he squandered all he had. But he came to his senses. He turned toward home. Before he got to the house, he saw the father running out to meet him.
Jesus said that he has given to the church the keys to the kingdom: whatever you forbid is forbidden; what you allow is allowed. This is usually interpreted in a punitive authoritarian sense: the picture comes to mind of heavy handed groups of sanctimonious believers making judgments about who is in and who is out. But here is another way to think about it. Keys represent entrance; doorways. The way we conduct our lives as believers has an immense effect on whether Christian faith is seen as attractive, as a place people would like to enter — or not. Ultimately, we come to faith because God draws us. Still, we hold in our hands the means to be an inviting community or one that lives unto itself. I am a Christian today because of the way that members of my family practiced their Christian faith: my parents brought me to the waters of baptism; by the way that they prayed and worshipped, they showed me that God is a personal God who can be approached in awe as well as love. I am a Christian because high school students in Columbia SC and the youth minister began to meet together as a Christian fellowship. And they invited me to join them.
If you remember only one thing from this sermon, I hope that it is this: the kingdom of God is the power of God at work around us here and now. God’s kingdom is happening in and on this earth. Wherever Christ is present, his kingdom is present and he is getting his work done. If you have thought that the kingdom of God is just about heaven or where you go when you die; if you have thought of the kingdom as flight from the world, then consider this. The gift of the Spirit, the resurrection, etc. are not to take us away from this earth but to make us agents of transformation — anticipating the day when the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God.
So, what can you do?
First, you can pray for the kingdom. Every time we say the Lord’s prayer: we pray — Let your kingdom come on earth as in heaven. To pray for the coming of the kingdom is more than rattling off that phrase. Take time for concerted prayer for the needs of the world, the church, our community. We do this briefly in the Prayers of the People. Once we have a vision for the kingdom – for how God intends life to be – then we are motivated to pray for the kingdom to be a reality.
Second, you can seek the kingdom. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added to you. Seeking begins with paying attention: what is God up to? When reading the newspaper or listening to the news, where do you see signs of the kingdom? Where are signs of the creation in rebellion where we long to see the kingdom break in? N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian points us to the human longing for justice; for beauty; for relationships; and to experience God. These are some areas of human life where we can seek for the coming of the kingdom.
Third, you can believe in the good news of the kingdom. Ultimately, entering the kingdom is a matter of trust. It is a risk. The life of faith always involves an element of surrendering control or the demand for certainties. In My Dinner with Andre, one of the characters compares the life of faith to setting out in a sail boat; letting the lines go; heading out to sea. There is skill in navigating the boat, to be sure. But there are forces at work that may take you to destinations other than what you planned. And at the end of life, not knowing where you are being taken, but trusting that the wind of the Holy Spirit of God is blowing, you let go as you head out to sea.