Sunday, 2 February 2014

who is the Kingdom of God for?

(This was part of a children's sermon)

It is hard to imagine words that have affected the world more than the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). For 2000 years these words have been transforming humanity. In my own life these words have been profound. It was reading these words, and through them encountering the man who spoke them, that I really became a Christian.   For the rest of the season of Epiphany we will be exploring the beginning of this sermon that Jesus spoke. As Christians these words should be neared to our hearts than any other.
            In Matthew this series of teachings take place after he climbs a mountain, which to us in Alberta would be little more than a hill. The crowd was separated by those willing to climb the hill to be with Jesus and those who didn’t. Those who wished to be his disciples (those who really wanted to learn from him about how to live) and the crowds who were maybe just curious or bored.  In the minds of those of the first century mountains were almost like suburbs of heaven. God spoke in special ways on mountains. That is where Moses received the Law from God. That parallel is likely being made in the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses climbed the mountain and delivered God’s word and welcomed God’s people into a special relationship with Him, so also Jesus climbs the mountain and delivers divine teaching and welcomes people into a new covenant relationship. God’s Kingdom is present and available.
            The Gospel of Matthew has been paralleling the lives of Jesus and Moses. They both were nearly killed by a paranoid ruler’s horrific command to kill infants. They both passed through water- Moses passed through the sea and Jesus passed through the waters of baptism. They both endured temptation in the wilderness. And they both passed on divine revelation from a mountain top.
            So just as Moses welcomes the Hebrews in a covenant relationship headed for the Promised Land, so Jesus welcomes people to God’s Kingdom.  Kingdoms have entrance requirements. To enter Canada you need a valid passport and to have a particular legal standing. You need to not be considered a criminal and you need to meet a list of requirements. If you want to move here from another country the requirements are even more strict. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is going to describe the character of the citizens of that kingdom and he begins with the entrance requirements. But, he doesn’t give requirements most of us would give. The language he uses is the language of being “blessed” or “fortunate”-  “Fortunate (or blessed) are those who…”.  We would say “Blessed are the strong in spirit”, but Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit”. We would say “blessed are those who no longer morn, but are now comforted”, but Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn”. We would say “blessed are those who are confident and assertive”, but Jesus says “blessed are the meek (or gentle)”. We would say “blessed are the righteous”, but Jesus says “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”. We would say blessed are those who have had success over their competition” but Jesus says “blessed are the merciful”.  We would say “blessed are the successful”, but Jesus says “blessed are the pure in heart”. We would say “Blessed are those who are victorious”, but Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers”. We would say “blessed are you when people understand and appreciate you” but Jesus says “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness sake”. We would say “blessed are you when people speak highly of you” but Jesus says “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”.       
            From a common human perspective, if we are interviewing someone for a job or interviewing for entrance into our kingdom the common human traits we find acceptable are very backwards to Jesus’.  I don’t believe that we are supposed to try to copy these traits. Perhaps when we get to the beatitude about being merciful or being peacemakers, but it is a bit of a mixed bag and imitation of the beatitudes doesn’t really work all the way through the list Jesus presents. For example, we are not to try to be "spiritually poor" by reading our Bible less and praying less. We are not to seek out "mourning" so we can check that off our Beatitudes list. Though, I should say that some do read them that way.  For example, some say that we are to recognize the "poverty" of our souls- and recognize our need for God. We are to "mourn" over our sin. We are to learn to become more meek, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. I think there is value to reading the Beatitudes this way, but I don’t think that is really what Jesus is saying.
            I think that Jesus is saying that wherever you are you can be a part of the Kingdom he is talking about. The kingdom is not just for those who pray 12 hours a day and have memorized the Bible. If you are 'spiritually poor' the kingdom is for you. He won’t leave you spiritually poor, but that is a fine entry point into the kingdom of God. If you are in the midst of mourning, you can still be a part of the Kingdom of God. You don’t have to wait until the tears have dried up. You are welcomed into the kingdom even in the midst of your tears.  If you are meek or timid in a world that values the strong and assertive the Kingdom is for you too. You can enter into the kingdom. You don’t have to be righteous or holy, you just have to hunger and thirst for it.
            The last few beatitudes speak of living in a messy world. Jesus is essentially saying you don’t have to wait until people have all stopped abusing you to be in the kingdom. The only reason to be merciful is when someone has wronged you in some way and you don’t give them the punishment they deserve- You show mercy, but that implies that you are living in a world where people hurt you. To be pure in heart might imply living in a world that is full of temptation, but even in the midst of that struggle to keep your heart pure you are already in the kingdom. In a world full of violence, those who work for peace are welcomed into the kingdom even before peace is reached. The struggle for peace in a world of violence is a welcome into the Kingdom. In a world where you will be persecuted and hated for doing what is right, even in that moment you are welcomed to live in the kingdom.
            Wherever we are and whatever we are going through we are welcomed to take our first steps into the kingdom. Living in the kingdom on earth isn’t a promise to live a stress-free life. Living the kingdom on earth for Jesus meant a cross. Living in the midst of suffering and struggle doesn’t mean you are excluded from the kingdom. If you struggle because your spirit is poor, or because you are mourning, or because you are timid, or because you thirst for righteousness and don’t feel righteous, or because you are merciful when you would rather punish, or struggle against your temptations seeking  purity, or struggle for peace in the midst of conflict, or struggle to speak truth even when it means you will be treated with persecution. Even in the midst of these struggles you are welcome to live the life of the kingdom. Even on the cross Jesus was living the life of the kingdom.
            With life in the kingdom, at the end of that struggle, comes the fullness of the kingdom of heaven- Comfort, inheritance, righteousness, mercy, seeing God, becoming a child of God, and receiving great reward in heaven.  

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