God’s Pleasure: to give you the kingdom

Aug 11, 2019 by

Sermon by Bob Bond

 

I want to talk with you, this morning, about the sweet spot of Christian faith.

You know what I mean by a ‘sweet spot’, right?  It’s that point where there is true fit, balance, comfort, strength(!) … all together, all at once.  When you are hammering a nail, if you hold the hammer too far up or too far down then every blow hurts and it doesn’t do a very good job; but when you hold it in the sweet spot all the energy is delivered to the nail and your hammering even sounds good.  When you sit in a well used chair, it can be the case that if you are just a little bit too far to one side or the other, or if you are not ‘leaning back’ quite right, the thing is uncomfortable; but when you hit the sweet spot it’s like sitting right into an embrace.

Well, religion in general and Christianity in particular has a sweet spot.

Let first me tell you about what happens too far to one side or the other.  The Old Testament Prophets were quite consistent in pointing out the sore spot on the side when followers are too caught up by the practices, the rituals of their faith.

Between the Old Testament writings and the traditions built up around them, there were seemingly endless details to know and follow in offering sacrifice, in conducting worship, indeed in the conduct of agriculture and commerce and communal life and – perhaps above all – every-day household life.  Focussing on rules and regulations – doing it all perfectly – could be way more than a full-time job.  But as today’s Psalmist pointed out, the person who “recites God’s statutes, or takes God’s covenant on their lips” can at the same time be keeping company with and actually doing evil.  There is probably no clearer corrective call than the one we read this morning from the prophet Isaiah:  God declares to the errant nation,

Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.  … Your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

It is not that the Prophets were anti-cult.  To quote R.B.Y. Scott as he comments on this first chapter of Isaiah,

It is not that formal worship has no place; rather, it must be the expression and symbol of reverence for the moral character of God and of the corresponding moral standards which should characterize <God’s> people.  Otherwise worship and sacrifice become meaningless, or even a positive evil, since <humanity> may thereby deceive themselves and falsify the meaning of true religion, exhausting their religious impulse without real commitment of themselves to the service of God.

We might say that this off-the-sweet-spot position is what comes from holding everything too close.  It is the ‘not seeing the forest for the trees’ problem within religion.  It is going through the motions without connection to God who is the actual point.

On the other side lies the experience of holding things too far off.  Our North American Christianity has been overwhelmingly polluted by this error, I’d suggest, for more than a hundred years now.  Baptists – particularly those of the “Southern” ilk (I’ll confess from this Baptist pulpit) – have been among the major polluters!  There is considerable collusion between conservative evangelical focus on the End Times, on the one hand; all the political efforts to set the global stage accordingly (hence the western support for Israel); and all the religious effort to win the world for Christ by any means (even when exploiting and violating the earth’s resources and people so as to have the means).  The much-touted prize (the heralded pearl of infinite value) in all this is the Second Coming of Christ and the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of heaven, which “Followers” excitedly get to inhabit for the rest of eternity.  Followers seek, followers strain, followers pray “Thy kingdom hurry-up-and-come!, so we followers can enjoy our mansions on streets paved with gold, and feast at a table that never runs empty!”

This stance, dear people, is perversion.  It is a pervasive one, going even beyond the walls of the Church of Jesus Christ; it is active in the hearts and minds of people who have seldom if ever entered a church’s doors.  Lots of the deathbed scenes I’m part of, as a hospital chaplain, find people consoling and comforting one another by declaring how their loved one is now ‘set up pretty’ in the sweet by-and-by.

There is a sweetness about it.  And a certain faith.  But it is not the sweet spot of Christianity.  Indeed, I’d suggest it is the current largest sore spot.

There’s a piece of wisdom penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson – a popular saying – that actually offers corrective to this error.  You know the slogan from other arenas of life:  things like household discussions about travel itineraries.  The slogan goes, “its not about the destination, it’s about the journey”.  Whether you apply this thought to help dislodge the overarching North American ‘take’ on Christ, or you just plow into the Scriptures themselves with an openness to let them speak for themselves, look what happens … and it happens in the very first verse of today’s Gospel reading.  The true prize is not far-off in space or time; God is not ‘holding out’ on us at all; the place of focus is here-and-now in our very journeying; it is said (in present tense!), “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

I know I’m not alone in having been raised up within the Church to hear such kingdom-talk as a ‘somewhere up ahead’ thing, at which point the (theological) pre-millenialists, post-millenialists and a-millenialists all chime in to argue what we’re in line for, and in what order it is supposed to happen.

And, okay, there is a certain “not yet” quality to Jesus’ kingdom statements; but I want you to consider that quality as the thing that adds depth (like a shadow) to the punch line Jesus is delivering over and over again; namely, that the kingdom is at hand.  It was present in Jesus; and our shared faith is that on Easter Sunday morning it took up permanent residence.

A way you might see-and-realize this truth is this:  Know (contemplatively know) that God is within you, surrounding you, providing for you.  God is the ground of your being.  God is at every point in your journey.  If you think life is about a destination, then you are missing the sweet spot.  It’s not about a destination, it’s about the journey.  God holds the journey; God holds you.  “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Another way to run at this [and this is an ever-deepening discovery within MacNeill’s experience of worship across the past three-year lectionary cycle]:  The biblical use of “kingdom” language applied to God is antithetical.  Everywhere the Bible offers a picture of human kingdoms with their amassing of power and wealth, their abusing of power of wealth, their unconcern for the ordinary majority let alone the marginalized poor, it is to juxtapose this original and continuing sin with the picture of God who is not over but rather underneath everyone and everything, lifting up and working to resource, to nurture, to heal, to make whole-and-complete … to fulfill the near-infinite possibilities.  God’s is really an anti-kingdom.  And it is fully in effect, here and now.  When there’s a wound on any aspect of creation, oh the layers upon layers of responses that come into play to heal and restore … be it

  • in the immune systems and regenerative processes built into living things;
  • in the shifts in natural cycles, physical structures and interrelated systems of the planet;
  • in the ever-increasing complexity of the universe’s mass and forces, energy and motion;

the power and grandeur of the Creator, the sheer brilliance of the love of God is at playYou and I are smack dab in the middle of it all, immersed in it, unable to escape it!

For those who don’t see this (who don’t get this):  well, these stand in and equally benefit from God’s near-to-overwhelming providence but are essentially unconscious of it as they look for a kingdom they can readily identify, with a king and a court, and a place (their own reserved spot!) squarely in that magnificent court … because everyone knows the folk close to the centre get everything (they have everything); and “Surely,” they say, “it’s my turn for some of that!”.

You’ll recognize, I’m sure, that here we’ve moved far off the sweet spot and back into the error of “holding things / holding God way far off”.

I’d observe with you that what I’ve called ‘the sweet spot’ – while it is literally heaven-on-earth to be there – is, in this respect, the exact opposite: it is terribly hard to find, and even harder to stay there.  To live the truth that God is giving us the kingdom here and now is to fully live out how God comes to us in everything we experience.  When Jesus counsels that, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”, it is because the next face you meet is in some manner the face of Jesus, as is the next, as is the next.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews characterizes this as living the desire for a better country, a heavenly country.  Jesus characterizes it as “… making purses for ourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

It is much easier, instead, to put all such thought-and-demand aside and put in our time waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for that better country (that heaven with its treasures) to come to us, filling in the meantime by observing the appointed festivals and solemn assemblies because such a track record should surely shoe us in when – bye and bye – the glory time comes.

The Gospel, good people, is this:  you woke up this morning from a night of sleep God orchestrated for you (an entire hemisphere was in darkness in support of your down-time!), in that sleep you dreamed the dreams – all of them in the language of symbol – by which God whispered to and worked with you down to the core of you; you opened your eyes and breathed in the morning air that the world’s plants renewed for you, you washed in and drank of the water God cycled around fresh for you, you ate the food God’s earth yields for you.  Wherever you have personal brokenness or sickness, and where we have them familial-ly / communally / globally:  well, these (like our dreams) stand as symbols and sign-posts leading ongoing discovery … even as (seemingly miraculously!) a multitude of built-in reparative processes ‘turn on’ and ‘get engaged’.  You are as provided-for by God, and as close to God, as is humanly possible; glory-time is now; the journey is the prize; “God’s pleasure is to give you the kingdom.”

Your worship, your response, your life is then to resonate with God’s provision / God’s nature.

  • God is in the business of creating; your life’s business must echo this.
  • God is in the business of providing; your life’s business must echo this.
  • God is in the business of uplifting / healing / saving / completing; your life’s business must echo this.

“Wash yourselves;” says Isaiah, “make yourselves clean; … cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

“Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;” says the Psalmist of God, “to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

Let it be so for you; let it be so now and always.  Amen.

 

Prayers for Ourselves and Others

God, whose pleasure is to give us the kingdom, let our prayers align with this great gift from You to us.  So when we pray – when we so often pray! – “Thy kingdom come”, let us recognize ‘what we’ve said’ as acknowledgement of what You already accomplished in Christ, and what You are continually in process of delivering.  Let us speak these words as a call from You to us, that we might be awake and conscious about your kingdom flooding in, around us and within us.

  • Remind us to be ever-grateful.
  • Help us to be alive to all the feedback You are ever-providing; for indeed there are many signs when we go off track, just as there is blessedness when we truly, deeply live the journey (“the Way” of Jesus).
  • Help us to be focused in our pursuit of the society your kingdom entails, for we know its true nature as both taught and lived by Jesus and by the prophets before him, and after him.
  • Help us to live the integrity of worshiping You alone, the One God (the anti-kingdom God(!)), whose alone is the universe’s power and the glory. (Lord you know there are so many other presenting possibilities to chase after, to follow without questioning, to sacrifice self and others to … God safeguard us from entrapment by the idols, the addictions, the materialism, the nationalisms, the plethora of false fears and divisions of our place and time.)

God we speak to You out of the complexity of our lives in the world …

  • the changes which make demands upon us;
  • the people around us in obvious need;
  • the threats due to leadership gone amok on so many levels and in so many realms of life;
  • the causes and campaigns with which we involve ourselves, and those we ignore …

these things weigh heavily on our hearts and minds and souls.  It is difficult at times to discern the paths wherein we remain true to You (where our use of ability and energy and relationships is appropriate and faithful stewardship; where our lives are expressions of love and hope).  Grant us your Spirit’s wisdom and grace, so that our ambitions might be holy ones, our choices might align with the Way of Jesus, and our endurance might be equal to the many tasks at hand.

Having mentioned the people around us in need, O God:  each of us thinks of those we personally know:  those who are sick, those who have been harmed, those who grieve, those who have not enough resources, those who are worried and depressed, those who flounder without purpose, those who are not understood.  For these, and others who come to mind, we pray your love and we pledge our support.  And in thanksgiving for caregivers who attend to them, we pray for the curers and healers; attendants and technicians; teachers, advisors and enablers:  May these become increasingly skilled and capable, increasingly inspired by and grounded in You (the source of all good works!).

Our prayers – corporate and individual – we would ‘sum up’, by saying together the words Jesus taught us to pray:  “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. … Amen.”

Commission:  Joshua 1:9

Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Benediction:  Psalm 72:18-19

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,

Who alone does marvellous things;

Blessed be God’s glorious name for ever,

And may God’s glory fill all the earth.  Amen.  Amen.

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