Friday, August 01, 2008

The Kingdom of Heaven is like....

Preached at St Francis' Church, Hilsea.

We have before us this morning a series of short parables about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, it is like yeast, it is like treasure, it is like a fine pearl, it is like a net.
Before we can begin to unpick some of these metaphors, it might help if we put ourselves in the position of Jesus' first audience, for a moment. We live in the United Kingdom...but really, this is not a kingdom in the sense that Jesus' disciples would have understood the word. We, in fact, live in a liberal democracy, in which the will of the people, expressed through the ballot box, is ultimately what drives our country. Of course - nothing is quite that simple. We are also driven by economic factors, by the prevailing wind of national desires and interests, and by the forces of the media, international companies, and perceived outside threats. But ultimately, our system is about people-power...and it is people, collectively, who decide how we are governed, and in what direction we move. Our Queen - and one day, our King - has no real power to speak of. She - or he - is little more than a ceremonial figurehead.
But in Jesus' day, things were very different. Kings had real power in those days. Kings - and even more so, Emperors - ruled with total power...what the King said, went. If a King declared war...then off to war the nation went. If a king decreed that every child in a town like Bethlehem should be slaughtered (as Herod the Great did after Jesus' birth) then, with no questions asked, innocents were slaughtered. The King decided how much tax should be paid by his subjects. He decided what new buildings could be built. He decided everything of significance in the entire kingdom.
So, kingship, and the idea of a kingdom, was a very real idea for the people of Jesus' time. At the time of Jesus, the Hebrew nation had Kings once again - from the family of Herod. But Herod the Great, and his Sons, only ruled as subsidiary Kings...under the Romans. They didn't have the power of the kings of old. They were rather more like our own Queen...somewhat ceremonial monarchs.
Many Jews longed for the day when a new Kingdom would be established...and a new powerful King set on the throne of Israel. And into this melting pot, comes Jesus, proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
But the Kingdom of Heaven was a rather different notion than the Kingdoms of ancient Israel. When Jesus declared that the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God - which is the same thing - was at hand...he was not suggesting a mere replacement for the Kingdom of Herod, or the Kingdom of the Romans. He had something rather more radical in mind.
The kingdom of heaven was, for Jesus, a kingdom in which mighty arrogant rulers would be thrown down from their thrones, and humble and meek people would be raised up. His was a kingdom in which the poor would be blessed, and in which justice and mercy would supersede violence and war. Jesus spoke of a kingdom in which the hungry would be fed, the sick would be healed, and even the dead would be raised to new life.
And this, according to Jesus, would truly be the Kingdom of God...a Kingdom in which God himself would take the initiative to establish his just and merciful rule. Jesus draws attention to this in two of the metaphors that we just heard - those of the mustard seed, and the measure of yeast.

The thing about both of these images is that they speak of something very small, very embrionic, which has the capacity to grow. A tiny mustard seed will grow into a large plant - large enough for birds to roost in its branches. The tiny grain of yeast will grow, and cause the dough to grow, until it makes a full loaf of bread. In both cases, it is part of the essential property of the mustard seed, or the yeast grain, to grow. And that is what Jesus promises will happen to the Kingdom of God.
For Jesus' first hearers - and for us too - this idea is pregnant with hope. Jesus' first disciples could never have dreamed that as a result of just 12 of them choosing to follow Jesus, that billions of people would also do the same. But now, here we are, in a world where well over a billion people willingly declare that Jesus is Lord.
So for us too - there is hope. A modern way of rendering these parables would be to say something like..."the Kingdom of Heaven is like a group of 30 or 40 Christians who gather together week by week in a city of 150,000...until the whole city comes to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord."
We might well ask ourselves what God's Kingdom will look like once it is fully established. Well, perhaps it might be easier to say what it won't be like. The Kingdom of Heaven won't be a place in which 20% of the world's population owns 80% of its resources. It won't be a place where bad management of finite resources will lead to rising sea levels, the loss of millions of acres of land, and the wars that will inevitably flow from that. The Kingdom of Heaven won't be a place where countries like the USA and UK make many times more money from selling weapons than they then give in aid to the countries who have had wars with those weapons. The Kingdom of Heaven won't be a place in which children die from curable diseases because nations would rather kill one another than heal one another. The Kingdom of Heaven won't be a place where people kill one another over the question of what God might be like.
No - the Kingdom of Heaven will, and is already becoming, a place where peace matters more than war, where sharing is more important than having, where consumerism is replaced with charity, where hatred gives way to love.
And we have real hope that God can bring about such a transformation. After all, he is the God who was born in a stable, the Lord of the Universe, who became a refugee. He is the King, who rides on a donkey. He is the dead man, who came to life. Jesus has a track record of turning the world, and its expectations, upside down. We do have reason for hope. There is a God, the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, whose purposes will not be denied, even though we live in a time of rebellion against the King right now.
Our task, then, is to remain faithful to the promise of Jesus...the promise that mustard seeds do grow, and yeast does multiply, and that the Kingdom itself is like a precious pearl, or a hoarde of treasure...something worth giving up everything to embrace, to follow, to pray for, and to help to usher in. Sometimes we might feel like small, weak, mustard seeds as we meet here week by week...but Jesus calls us to a greater vision...and enlarged perspective...of a Kingdom in which God is in control, working his purpose out, as year suceeds to year.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting message in everyday language.