Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Showing the Kingdom to the World

Preached Sunday, October 3

Scripture Readings: 1 Peter 3:8-18a; Matthew 5:1-16

Why are we here?
I mean: why has the Lord gathered us and called us together? But not just in this building on Sunday mornings: why has God made us belong to each other?

There is an old Presbyterian list of reasons called “The Great Ends (or purposes) of the Church.” One reason on that list is: the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.

Now the kingdom of heaven is the same thing as the kingdom of God (at least because heaven is, sort of, the “capital” or center of the kingdom of God). And yet “capital” is completely the wrong idea, too. The kingdom of God is not like a nation and its government. The kingdom of God is nothing like what you would find in Olympia, or Washington, D.C., or London, or Tokyo.

In the Book of Revelation it says: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” (Revelation 11:15) But this does not mean that there will be a world government in the kingdom of God. It means that the Lord will rule everywhere. It means that everything will be different.

For the people in the Bible, a kingdom was not an organization, or an institution. A kingdom was a king’s responsibility and authority. The relation of an ancient king to his kingdom was like the relationship of a farmer to his farm, or a homeowner to his or her house and yard and garden. It was the thing they took care of. It belonged to them; and (even more than that) they belonged to it.

A good king would have a plan and priorities, and he would see to it that these were carried out. A good king would make improvements where they were needed. A wise king would repair what needed fixing. A wise king made things work.

The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is something we enter where God makes things work. We do not enter by crossing a line on the map or a page on the calendar. When we enter, we cross over the line of God’s ownership. We come under God’s rule.

When we come into God’s kingdom, God has a free hand to manage us, to fix us, to improve us, to remodel us, to cultivate us, to do his plan of rotations and cycles upon us: like summer fallow to wheat, seedtime to harvest.

Now it is important to realize that the church is not the kingdom of God. The church is the exhibition, the demonstration, of the kingdom of God. God has called us together, gathered us together, to show how his kingdom works; to show how he does things, if only we will let him.

I have a satellite dish for my TV reception and it gives me access to lots of channels. There is a channel available to me called the Home and Garden Network which shows what creative homeowners and gardeners do with what is theirs. Actually, I never watch that channel. But one of God’s reasons for the Church is to be something like his own Home and Garden Channel: the place to show what he does with what is his (assuming we let him do what he wants with us).

Or the church is like an experimental farm, or field, or a test plot. Farmers visit these places to see whether the experts are really as smart as they claim to be.

In Matthew we read from the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This sermon, this message, describes what the kingdom of God looks like when people enter in. Verses 3 through 10 give us what we call “The Beatitudes”. Beatitude means blessing, or happiness, or goodness. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” On Jesus’ lips, these blessings describe the goodness of being in a place in life where God can really work; where God can truly rule as king (if we let him).

In these eight beatitudes, the first and the last refer directly to the kingdom of heaven, and that sort of encloses all of the other beatitudes into the description of God’s kingdom-work. They are like the top and bottom slice of bread in a sandwich that holds the whole thing together. The beatitudes are “a kingdom of God sandwich” that gives you the basic flavors of the whole kingdom.

I am going to read each of the beatitudes over again; and then, after each one, I will read a paraphrase of from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message. I hope this will help us think more clearly how each one of the beatitudes describes God’s kingdom at work.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the paraphrase it says: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” In the paraphrase it says: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The paraphrase says: “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The paraphrase says: “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” But we could read it as: “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full’ you find yourselves cared for.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” But we could read it as: “You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Or we could read it as: “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” In the paraphrase it says: “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”

The beatitudes show us the kingdom of God because they show us where, in our own lives, God finds the greatest freedom to work. Places in life where we are most aware of our spiritual poverty, hunger, and thirst are the places where we are the neediest. There we are the most ready for God to work and for God to bring us deeper into his love and power. Where God works with the greatest freedom; there is our greatest hope. Those are the parts of our lives where we have the most to hope for from the work of God.

These places are very odd. They are supposed to be about happiness and goodness, and yet they are completely different from what we would expect happiness and goodness to be: spiritual poverty, meekness, hunger, and thirst. These are completely different from where we expect to find happiness.

The happiness of the kingdom of God is like the happiness of salt.
There are a lot of things we can put on our food to make it taste better; things like spices and herbs, or oils, or dressings, or sauces, or butter, or bits of bacon or egg. But these are actually food, themselves. They come from plants and animals.

Salt doesn’t. Salt is something completely different from food; but it flavors food and preserves it.

We are the salt of the earth when we let God make us, in some way, completely different from the earth; but in a way that fits. In the same way, we are the light of the world when we let God make us different from the darkness of the world, in a way that blesses the world and gives it a better taste.

How does God make us different? Some Christians used to make themselves different by the things they didn’t do: like not dancing, or not going to movies, or not playing cards. But God’s difference makes us different in a completely different way.

For instance something in human nature makes us happy when we judge other people and think how stupid, or bad, or incompetent they are, and how much better than them we are.

But Jesus way is completely different. Jesus says don’t judge. Which does not mean don’t think about what is right or wrong, but it means don’t be self-righteous. Don’t go around thinking you are better than others.

God’s different happiness means not going around looking down on others. This makes us completely different.

Something in human nature makes us happy when we get even with other people. But the happiness of God is completely different, because the happiness of God teaches us to forgive others.

Some Christians try to make themselves completely different by becoming a doormat to others, but God’s happiness is completely different. God’s way of happiness is found in standing up for what is right and not giving up, but truly forgiving the wrongs others do against you.

This is what God does. This is why God came down from heaven in Jesus to die for the sins of the world: to offer something completely different.

The Sermon on the Mount describes the kingdom of God in a way that would make us completely different from what we see in the news, and from most of the entertainment on TV, and from what we read in the papers or see on the internet. It would make us a blessing, if we listened and entered in.

We could say, “And now for something completely different!”

The world is always ready to notice something completely different. If you are completely different, the world will respond. People will laugh at you, or put you down, or try to stop you or hurt you.

Or else they will like what they see, or see what they are missing, and want it. Perhaps they will even ask you about it. Peter says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

The older translations describe this hope as “the hope that is in you,” and I think that is best. Hope is not something we “have”. There is an old way of seeing things (as old as the Bible) that sees us actually living in Christ, and Christ truly living in us and bringing his hope along with him.

We never own hope. We never generate hope for ourselves. Hope is Jesus in you, Christ in you.

Jesus is also the light of the world, but he gives us the honor of shining for him. We hope to be a light in this world because the Lord is the light within us.

We hope to be something completely different in this world, and bring a better taste to it because we have found something completely different from what this world can offer. We have found something that brings us joy in the very same life we share with others.

We have found Jesus. We have been found by Jesus, and Jesus has gathered us together to be his presence in this world. We are called to be the presence in this world of something from beyond this world, something completely different, and yet something that belongs here.

The Lord’s Supper is like this. We know we live in need of something from beyond this world, and it comes to us in the form of something completely different; in simple bread and wine (well, grape juice).

Often this world thinks it needs something that has been tried over and over again; like a great leader, or a sound policy, or a foolproof system; a power that will set things right from the outside by regulation. But the secret of the kingdom of God is a servant who dies for the sins and evils of this world, and changes human lives from within, one at a time.

Jesus is this something completely different, completely surprising, and he gives us this meal as a way to receive him, and enter in. When we enter, then we can go out and show the answer to what the whole world needs to see. We can go out as Jesus’ light of the world and Jesus’ salt of the earth.


  1. Hi Pastor Dennis,

    I'm so grateful for your lovely and insightful comments on my blog.
    I've been running at full speed lately... I'll come back to comment on your recent post.

    Betty :)

  2. Thanks for this post! What inspiring thoughts!
    Loved what you said about church and God's Kingdom...there is a big difference between those meanings, indeed.
    Thanks Pastor Dennis for sharing another inspirational post.
    Didn't get to read it until today but you started my Saturday off with a great delight.

    Hope you're having a wonderful weekend!