On Kingdom Come
July 30, 2023
Psalm 119: 129-136
“Your decrees are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.
The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.
With open mouth I pant, because I long for your commandments.
Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your custom toward those who love your name.
Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me.
Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts.
Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.
My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept.”
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven 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.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” “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. “Again, 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. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Today’s sermon is titled, On a Kingdom Come.
Part of my research for the sermon this week involved watching interviews of children who were asked the question, “What is heaven like?” Many of their responses included the cloud motif, of course, but I was surprised at how many of the children imagined heaven as a place they would not get hurt. One young boy who looked to be about 5 said, “In heaven you can’t fall down.” Had I been asked about heaven at 5, I’m not sure what I would have said, but my answer would have been different at 15, at 25, and different again at 45 and now at 55. I imagine if I am alive at 95 my idea about heaven will be different, yet again.
In our scripture reading today we hear Jesus describing what the kingdom of heaven is like. My attention goes right to the word “heaven” because that sounds so much more intriguing than the word “kingdom” but the word kingdom is used over 150 times in the New Testament and it turns out that I was mistaken about what it meant. When I hear the word “kingdom” I think of a territory ruled by a monarch but “kingdom” is just the closest word we have in English. The book of Matthew was written in Greek, and Jesus spoke Aramaic. Rev. David Brisbin offers the following explanation: “The Greek word behind the English word “kingdom” is basileia, and the Aramaic word behind that is malkutha. Both baseleia and malkutha have as their primary meaning, not the territory of the king, but the dominion, sway, or the principles by which the king rules. We could translate it to mean, without a stretch, the will of the king. So to be in Kingdom is to literally be in the will of the King–the will of God or the reign of God. The Kingdom is not a place.”
The kingdom of heaven, or as it appears elsewhere as the “kingdom of God,” is not a physical place at all; it is a way of being, a way of being aligned with God, with goodness, with love. This is pivotal. Actually, one could say this is axial, as in axis, as in that which is at our very center. So if the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God is so often referred to in the scriptures, I think we had better pay close attention.
There are two places in the scriptures I’d like to look at with our new understanding of what it means to be in the kingdom, what it means to be aligned with God’s love. The first is in the oldest gospel, the book of Mark, widely considered to be the most authentic of the gospel writings. In the very first chapter, verse 15, are the very first words we hear from Jesus. He says, as he comes out of the wilderness and faces the people for the first time, “The waiting is over; the kingdom of God has come near.” With this new understanding of the kingdom of God as not being a specific place, but rather a way of being that is aligned with God, it seems as if Jesus is identifying himself as that alignment. Is he the manifestation of the kingdom of God?
The other place in the scriptures that caught my attention is in the gospel of Luke, chapter 17. Listen to this: “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is.’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”
Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” This past week, Russ French, a good Friend of mine, died, and I can truly say that the kingdom of God was within him. Russ’s death was sudden and unexpected but, like any death, it presents an opportunity to consider what was most valued and appreciated. You may not have known Russ French personally, but you may have seen him standing along 101 or in downtown Keene, bearing public witness with his signs, signs that said things like, “God loves ALL of us,” “Black lives matter,” and “Honor our American Indians.” You may have read some of Russ’s letters to the editor in the Keene Sentinel. One of the more recent ones, focused on the dangers of banning books, ended with the following sentence, “Truth expressed in love bears fruit.” Russ labored over his letters, striving to deliver his truth through a message strong and clear that could build bridges instead of burn them. Russ was a public witness for justice and equality and I very much respect him for that. Russ reached a point, as a follower of Christ and a student of the scriptures, that he just had to do something. It was time for his knowledge to be translated into action. So he picked up the pen to write letters, he picked up magic markers to make signs, and he put himself out into the public square, at personal risk. The kingdom of heaven is not a place; the kingdom of heaven is a way of being.
Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven in our reading today and through the five parables he offers, each in some way aims to convey the value of the kingdom of heaven, or the value of living in alignment with the love that is God. The kingdom of heaven is compared to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a giant shrub, and the little bit of yeast that leavens dough for many loaves. The kingdom of heaven is a treasure greater than any other, like a pearl of unsurpassed value.
Whether we actively search or whether we stumble into it by some miracle, in living in alignment with the love that is God, we become so much more. In living in alignment with the love that is God we approach what, in Latin, is known as summum bonum, “the highest good, the ultimate goal.” How on earth could we put a value on that?
The poet Robert Browning wrote a poem titled “Summum Bonum.” Some of the lines are well-connected to our scripture and its meaning:
All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee:
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem:
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea:
Breath and bloom, shade and shine,—wonder, wealth, and—how far above them—
Truth, that’s brighter than gem,
Trust, that’s purer than pearl…
Nothing that we physically own can come close to the value of what Browning references, the value of breath, the value of truth, the value of trust. And Jesus says that nothing that we physically own can come close to the value of the kingdom of God. It is of greater worth than treasure. It is of greater worth than the most perfect pearl. Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of God is within you.” How do we know this? How do we nurture this? How do we not stray from this? The answers are all contained in the Psalm we heard this morning.
The Psalm is number 119. It is the longest Psalm in the collection. One Biblical scholar calls Psalm 119 a “total fusion of law and love.” In Psalm 119, the laws and commandments are not seen as a burden, they are seen as blessings, as liberating, even. Listen again to the words:
“Your decrees are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of your words gives light. Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.”
We can relate to love of law, can we not? Civil laws are in place to protect us, environmental laws are in place to protect our resources, and there are spiritual laws and commandments, too. Jesus said the most important two are to love God and to love one another. All of these different kinds of laws are not meant to be a burden. Laws that govern us and spiritual commandments that guide us can liberate us…liberate us from fear of undue harm, from fear of oppression, and from fear of exploitation. But the laws are not always kept. The last line of the Psalm reads, “My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept.” Every generation knows this sadness. When we are faced with practices and policies that go against the laws that govern us and the spiritual commandments that guide us, it becomes our work as citizens and as Christians to keep our minds and hearts trained on the higher good, the ultimate goal, the summum bonum, the kingdom of heaven. For then we can access the wisdom to know what we can do to effect positive change in the world.
In closing, I want to circle back around to the question, “How do we know if we are living in the kingdom of heaven?” We are living in the kingdom of heaven when we are engaged in the work of forgiveness. We are living in the kingdom of heaven when our knowledge and experience of God overflows into action. We are living in the kingdom of heaven when we choose love over fear and hatred, and instead of seeking revenge we seek understanding and justice that heals. The kingdom of heaven is not a place to get to; it is a place within, an axis around which we center ourselves. It is a way of being that beacons us to love, to light, to all that is God. So be it. Amen.
Summum bonum is a Latin expression meaning “the highest good”, which was introduced by the Roman philosopher Cicero, to correspond to the Idea of the Good in ancient Greek philosophy. The summum bonum is generally thought of as being an end in itself, and at the same time containing many other pursuits typified as Good by philosophers of the time.
The term was used in medieval philosophy. In the Thomist synthesis of Aristotelianism and Christianity, the highest good is usually defined as the life of the righteous and/or the life led in communion with God and according to God’s precepts. In Kantianism, it was used to describe the ultimate importance, the singular and overriding end which human beings ought to pursue.
Videos interviewing kids talking about their ideas of heaven and God:
God of earth and sky, we are blessed with so many gifts; open our hearts with gratitude for the areas of our lives that are full and healthy and functioning. Inspire us to give thanks to the people who have been most instrumental in our lives, the people who have believed in us, the people who have loved us just because of who we are. Bring them to our minds, Lord, in prayer. When we are faced with challenges, lack of necessities, sorrow or loss, illuminate the presence of goodness in our lives, past and present, so that we may be guided homeward by your holy light. In the ways we need healing, I pray we are open to receive. For all of our brothers and sisters that are struggling, may they be noticed, may they receive the care and comfort they need, we pray, in the name of Jesus, who gave us this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you now with words from Ephesians chapter 1:
“May the eyes of your heart be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which God has called you.” Amen.