November 22, 2015 – Proper 29B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Text and audio of other sermons preached at St. John's, Decatur, can be found on its parish website.
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says. Well, he ain’t joking. Has there ever been a time when God’s kingdom—when God’s reign of love and peace and salvation—seemed further away than it does right now? Terrorists have brought the battlefield into our back yards. Gun violence and murder have come to our small town. Our nation seems to have lost its moral compass. Christianity is shrinking—both in numbers and in influence. And the fastest growing religion in the world—in fact, the only religion that is growing faster than the world’s population—is Islam.
And all of those factors have combined with the timing of our political cycle to create a perfect storm of ungodly proportions. As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I have never felt greater disappointment in our political leaders and candidates than I do right now. In an attempt to satisfy the demands of the electorate, politicians are saying things that, in any other context, would be dismissed as fear-mongering and hate speech. And we are buying into it! In this political season, candidates are appealing to our desire for power and prosperity by promoting unabashed greed. In this season of fear, politicians are capitalizing on our irrational anxieties by calling blindly for more walls and more guns and more bombs. That might be a good way to run a state or a country. That might be a good way to get elected. But that way of being, living, and doing is antithetical to everything that God’s kingdom stands for.
In fact, those are exactly the things that Jesus tells us to let go of. What does he ask us to do? Sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Lay down your life. So what does that mean that God’s kingdom looks like? Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are those who suffer. If that is going to be a reality, what is God asking us to do? Welcome the stranger. Bless those who persecute you. Render to no one evil for evil. Live peaceably with all. Those aren’t campaign slogans. They’re the pillars of God’s kingdom. And that kingdom is getting harder and harder to find.
Standing before Pilate, having been arrested by his own people, Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Remember: the Jewish leaders had accused Jesus of leading an insurrection against the Roman Empire—of pretending to be a king who rivaled the authority of the Emperor. But Pilate looked at the humble prisoner before him and thought, “What sort of a king is this? Where are his followers? And why have his own countrymen betrayed him?” So Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And, while we know him to be the King of Kings, Pilate saw Jesus as nothing more than a radical preacher whose threat was not to any earthly empire but only to a religious hierarchy that had no place for him or his message. Naturally, that Roman prelate was looking for a king who reigns in power, but that’s not the sort of king that Jesus is. Instead, Jesus’ kingship is nothing like the kingdoms of this world. It is one of weakness and vulnerability. It is one in which the king himself wears not a crown of gold but a crown of thorns.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” but what does that mean for us? “If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus continued, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” That’s a really big “if,” and it’s one we need to remember. If Jesus’ kingdom were an earthly kingdom, then fighting would be an appropriate response. But it’s not. So what is an appropriate response to the threat of violence for those of us who claim God’s kingdom to be our own? How is the reign of Christ demonstrated when our lives are inundated by fear? By laying down our arms, by setting aside our hate, by searching for the humanity of our enemies, by choosing love, by opening our doors as well as our hearts, and by accepting the vulnerability that is indicative of the kingdom of God.
But how is that possible? In this climate of fear, how can we surrender everything that we hold dear—even our own lives—when our instincts tell us to defend ourselves and protect our own interests? The only thing that makes that possible is the cross. The cross is what turns the ways of the world on their head and demonstrates once and for all that God will turn weakness into strength, vulnerability into invincibility, even death into life. The cross is what frees us from the need to win the victory for ourselves. The cross is what makes it possible for us to put to death our own needs for protection and survival and success and let God achieve all of those for us. When Jesus died on the cross, God raised him from the dead not so that he could come back and rule over us in earthly power but so that we might die with him and then be raised to life everlasting. That is the power of God. That is how God’s kingdom works.
We must be sure that our kingdom matches our king. Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world. If we want to claim him as our king—if we want to worship him as our Lord—we cannot remain tied to the kingdoms of the earth. We cannot embrace the old ways of winner-take-all and I’ll-get-what’s-mine and let’s-take-care-of-our-own if we want a place in God’s kingdom. Instead, we must embrace the cross as the way of true life—the posture by which God welcomes all people unto himself. We must become followers of the crucified one. We must let his sacrificial, vulnerable love become the model for our lives—not just a dream for the future. As we will sing in a few minutes when we present our offerings at the altar, “The Church of Christ is calling us to make the dream come true: a world redeemed by Christ-like love; all life in Christ made new.” We must allow that kingdom—God’s kingdom—to come in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world—not tomorrow, but today.