Sunday, June 17, 2018

What Does God's Kingdom Look Like?

June 17, 2018 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If you were asked to draw a picture of the kingdom of God, what would it look like? The kingdom of God, the reign of God, the rule of God—what would you draw? What colors, what shapes, what images would you use? Or, if you are better with words than pictures, how would you describe God’s reign on the earth? What poem would you write? What story would you tell? When you dream about a world in which God’s will and God’s purposes are in control, what does that world look like?

A few days ago, I sat down with a family to talk about heaven. A couple of people in their family had died recently, and the children (as well as their parents) had some questions about dying and going to heaven. They had questions like, “Is dying scary?” and “Will we recognize each other when we get to heaven?” Of course, I don’t have the answers to questions like those, but they are what make my job a real treasure because they give me the chance to explore the possibilities with people I love in the context of a faith that binds us together. We sat in my office and talked for a while about what heaven might be like. Most of the time, the Bible describes heaven in terms that push the boundaries of human imagination: streets paved with gold, walls built with gemstones, gates made of pearl. That gives us permission to allow our imaginations to run free and to dream about heaven as a place too wonderful for even our most audacious hopes.

For each of us sitting in my office, that meant something different. Now that summer has made it to Alabama, I described heaven as a beautiful home in the mountains where the temperature never gets above 80 degrees. One of the kids described it as a place where she can play on the iPad as much as she wants. When it comes to questions like who will be there and will we recognize each other and how old we will be and will there be any reason to eat, we agreed that we don’t know the answers but we do know that heaven is a place where everything is exactly the way it should be. No one is missing. Nothing is out of place. There is no fear or sadness or pain. The people we love who had gotten to the point that every day was a struggle are no longer battling what life brings but celebrating what God has given them. That’s what the kingdom of God means. We can call it “heaven” or “paradise,” but it isn’t a magical place to which we are transported when we die. The hope that God has given us is a new and everlasting life in a transformed world where everything is the way that God intends it to be. So, when you think about that world, when you allow your imagination to run wild in that place where God has brought everything to its perfection, how would you describe the world of God’s dreams?

Here’s how Jesus described it: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” That’s Jesus vision of the reign of God: a sower scattering seed on the ground and waking up to see that it has sprouted without ever understanding how it happened. That’s not exactly a bold or powerful vision of God’s control. Or how about this? Jesus said, “[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” That’s a little bit better, I suppose, since the tiny seed eventually becomes large enough to shelter the birds, but, when we try to imagine the kingdom of God coming to earth and God’s will for all things being complete, a seedling or a garden shrub isn’t usually what we have in mind. And I don’t think it’s what Jesus’ contemporaries had in mind either.

These parables of the kingdom are from Mark 4. By this point in the gospel account, Jesus has already cast out demons, healed huge crowds, confronted the religious authorities about their hypocrisy, asserted his authoritative interpretation of God’s law, and preached the kind of sermons that bring the multitudes out to hear him. In last week’s gospel lesson, we heard Jesus declare that his Holy-Spirit-fueled ministry was a direct confrontation with the forces of evil. And now that the crowd is convinced that Jesus has the power and the authority to usher in the day of God’s reign, Jesus describes for them what that kingdom will look like, and he likens it to a tiny little seedling that barely breaks the surface of the dirt with its fragile green leaves. And all of God’s people said…what?

You don’t have to live in the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century to become impatient with the gradual, steady, deliberate in-breaking of God’s kingdom. The people of God have been throwing up their hands and saying, “How long?” for a lot longer than you or I have been alive. Even our oldest spiritual ancestors, whose prayerful poetry became the Book of Psalms, knew the agony of seeing God’s salvation on the horizon and waiting for more than a lifetime for its arrival. It is always near. It is always right there in front of us. It is as familiar and common as a new plant sprouting forth on a late spring day, yet its fruition always comes in God’s perfect time, not ours. Even in the person of Jesus, the Son of God who came to earth to save God’s people by defeating sin and death once and for all, the kingdom of God shines upon us in gentle, tender ways. Sure, he could have called forth a myriad of angels to come and defeat anyone and everyone who stood in the way of God’s dream for the earth and set all things right once and for all, but he didn’t. And why not? Because our hope is not found in a moment of victory or a flash of power but in the constant, never-ending, never-failing renewal that is unfolding in our lives and in the world around us.

We want the fullness of that kingdom here and now. We want the knight in shining armor. We want the superhero who will save the day. That’s what we want, but we need something else. We need a savior to journey with us when times get tough. We need a God who will never forget us even if we tend to forget God. We need a kingdom that exists not someday and somewhere but right here and right now, all around us all the time. We may not think of the seed as an image of power, but is there anything more beautifully persistent and transformative than a tiny, lifeless seed breaking forth from its earthen tomb? That is the nature of God’s power, and that is the source of our real hope.

When you dream of a world in which God’s reign is completely manifest, don’t forget to look for signs that it has already broken through here and now. In small, simple, and sometimes quiet ways, God’s dream is becoming a reality all around us. If the only hope we had was that great and glorious day when all things finally will be made perfect, where would we be? If God’s power and purposes were not already real in this world, God’s people would have given up a hundred generations ago. The kingdom of God is here. That dream of yours is already becoming a reality. We don’t have to wait. It’s as close as a ripening tomato. It’s as familiar as a stalk of corn. One day the harvest will be ripe, but, until then, God’s kingdom still grows.

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