Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Kingdom of God

Reading

Luke 17:11-37

Introduction

In the short period leading to the recent election, we've seen quite enough of politicians sidestepping the questions they were asked.  They seem incapable of giving us straight answers!  The outcome of the election perhaps shows that we're clever enough to notice what they're up to.  But are they clever enough to notice that we've noticed?

In the passage we've listened to, the Pharisees asked a direct question of Jesus, and he seemed, on first impression, not to answer directly.  Certainly, his answer wasn't what they expected.  But his answer was truthful, to the point, and gave them something to think about.  We can see this in verses 20 and 21, where we read, "Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, 'The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.'".

The Pharisees' question: When will the kingdom of God come?
The Lord's answer, paraphrasing loosely: Your expectations are wrong; the kingdom is already here!

I want us to think today about what the kingdom of God is, how it works, and why we need it.  We'll do that with three headings to guide us:

  • Exploring the kingdom of God
  • Demonstrating the kingdom of God
  • Responding to the kingdom of God.

Exploring the Kingdom of God

The Jews expected God's kingdom to be established in physical form in the land of Israel, booting out the Romans and bringing them freedom under God as their only king.

They couldn't fail to be impressed by the ever-present display of Roman power and order, which served to enforce the absolute authority of the emperor.  Perhaps they imagined the kingdom of God to be much like that, but more powerful, deployed in their favour, and sweeping away all their enemies.  But when would that happen?

Jesus spoke on numerous public occasions about the kingdom of God, so he was the obvious person to have a view on when the kingdom would come.  So the Pharisees went and asked him.  There's no hint of any attempt to catch Jesus out in his words, so perhaps they were genuinely interested in his answer.

Were they puzzled or confused by his answer?  In effect, he tells them that the kingdom of God isn't  about powerful shows of dominating force, nor is it found in any geographical location.  In our modern way of thinking, we have the idea that God's kingdom is up there somewhere where God lives—but even that idea is ruled out by the Lord's answer.

Jesus tells them—and us!—that the kingdom of God is “in your midst.”  He wasn't telling the Pharisees that the kingdom was within their sect.  Looking more closely into the language used, we could translate his words as saying that the kingdom of God is “within your grasp.”  This fits in nicely with what Jesus says in Matthew 4:17 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These ideas would've been a great encouragement to early Christian readers of Luke's gospel, spread around the Roman world as they were.  The kingdom of God was present wherever they were—and they belonged to it!

We all like to belong.  Our families give us a sense of belonging—that's not always a comfortable sense, is it?  We see church as a kind of family—and, let's be honest, that isn't always comfortable either!  Others see church as a kind of social club—and, obviously, there is society among us that helps us feel we belong.  But the kingdom of God isn't just a family, or a society—it's not even church as we experience it!  It's not a human institution cobbled together by like-minded people.  It's not something that we can bring about by our own efforts.  It's literally God's kingdom—it originates with him and he's made it accessible to anyone and everyone!  In sending Jesus, he's placed it “within our grasp!”

Our modern-world view of kings and kingdoms is very different from the ancient world's view.  Back then, Kings had authority.  They ruled.  These days, monarchs are largely notional figures: heads of state with no or little real power.  Our own queen, for example, reigns—and has done wonderfully for many years—but she doesn't rule.  We can't understand God's kingdom by imposing our modern views on it.

God is king in the ancient sense, not the modern—but he's a benevolent king.  He doesn't demand that we struggle and strive to attain his kingdom, he sends it right down among us so that we can find it and discover his fantastic love and grace for ourselves, and know that we belong whatever our circumstances.

The kingdom of God comprises all people who live willingly under the reign and rule of God.  People who are disciples of Jesus.  People who abandon their own ways to live as God requires: doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly in relationship with God.  People who pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—and mean it, to the extent that they actively engage with finding and doing his will.

The kingdom is within our grasp.  Have you grasped it?

Demonstrating the Kingdom of God

Jesus told the Pharisees that the kingdom of God isn't something that can be observed.  It's not like an army arrayed on a battlefield, or a geographical state we can pinpoint on a map.  But, quite clearly, God's kingdom is demonstrable, and Jesus went about making the kingdom evident and close at hand to all he met.  We can see that in the story of the ten lepers.  They came to Jesus and he healed them—that was pretty amazing!  One of them—a Samaritan for goodness sake!—discovered he was healed and came back to Jesus, thanking him and praising God in a loud voice!  Luke makes a point of mentioning that the man was a Samaritan: the kingdom can touch anyone, even the despised Samaritans; it wasn't just for the Jews!  Who might we see today as despised social outcasts?  Well, the kingdom of God is within their grasp too!

We heard of a modern-day example of the kingdom being made visible in the film clip [https://youtu.be/iXwmoypOHKw] we watched earlier.  Let me remind you of the salient points.
  • Joanna and Julian had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and once that had seen a successful outcome, they went to God in prayer to find out what they should do next.
  • They eventually heard about the terrible conditions in Pollsmoor Prison, with 279 acts of violence in one year.  They realised that this wasn't God's will.
  • So they visited the prison every day for a year, and introduced a very ordinary programme: bible studies and prayer meetings.
  • In the following year there were only 2 acts of violence, and just 8 the year after that.
  • What was their secret? recognising that God was already present in the prison; his kingdom was already within the grasp of the prisoners.  All they had to do was make God and his kingdom visible.
Take careful note how this was discovered in prayer, through spending time in God's presence; and our circuit leadership has been encouraging us to do that.  There's a world of a difference between, on the one hand, asking God to bless our ideas and, on the other hand, finding out what he wants to do and then becoming a blessing to others by engaging with his will.

How do we demonstrate the presence of God's kingdom?  The point has been made on numerous occasions that completing our “Room to Grow” building project was not the final goal.  Now that we have room, it's time for us to grow!  How do we do that?  Just what is God's will here in Wylam?  How do we make the kingdom visible?  We, too, like Joanna and Julian, need to pray, to seek out his will.

But there are some things we already know about.  For example, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: love one another.  As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34-35 NIV).  It's God's will that we love each other so much that the people around us take notice.  And, while we're at it, we can let that love overflow to them!

God has a plan for us.  He wants to make that plan known to us.  He has things in mind for us to do that make his kingdom visible.  It need not be complicated, and we can begin with prayer and by loving each other even better than we already do, and grow from there; and if God throws in some miracles along the way . . .

Responding to the Kingdom of God

The kingdom is in our midst, it's within our grasp.  But it's important that we grasp it for ourselves. It's been made available to us because it's something we desperately need.

All of us are in need of the salvation that comes with God's kingdom; we can none of us save ourselves.  All of us are offered the gift of salvation found only in God's kingdom.  All of us who grasp the kingdom, and live under God's rule, can know for certain that we are saved.  All in the kingdom can be saved to the uttermost, transformed to be like Jesus.

Right now, the door to the kingdom is open.  But this is a time-limited offer.  In the latter part of our reading, Jesus gave his disciples a fuller answer to the Pharisees' question.  There will be a time when Christ returns and the kingdom appears in power.  At that time there'll be a clear distinction between those who are on the inside and those on the outside.  At that point, the door will be closed. 
Christ may not come in our lifetime but, at the end of our lives, we'll certainly be held to account by God.  Are we on the inside or the outside?

The kingdom is within our grasp!  So how do we enter?  First of all, it requires a step of faith, a decision to trust in Jesus for forgiveness and the free gift of salvation, and with the rest of your life.  Secondly, Jesus told people to repent.  That's a total change of direction.  It means to recognise our need of forgiveness, to abandon our own ways, our own thoughts, and to follow Christ.  Living in the kingdom means learning to live under God's law of love. It's a lifetime's pilgrimage of discovery.

If you've not yet responded to God's offer of a place in his kingdom, today would be a good day to respond!

Summary

It's important to have a proper understanding of what the kingdom of God is and what it means for our lives.  As the Pharisees demonstrated for us, you can be as religious as you like and completely miss the point!

The kingdom of God may not be observable, as Jesus said, but neither is it invisible!  Our main response to God's grace in our lives is to discover and live out his will, and so make the kingdom evident in the world around us.

Salvation is found only within the kingdom of God.  God hasn't put this beyond our reach;  he's put it within our grasp so that anyone can find it and benefit from it.

Let's grasp the kingdom and live our lives so that others can see it and grasp it for themselves!

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