When I was in high school a new music teacher came to town. He was fresh out of college and full of ambition. But here he was, stuck in a very rural community where people didn’t put up with (as they called it) “long-haired music,” either from the Beatles or Beethoven.

Still, he was determined to teach us good music. We were going to sing selections from Handel’s Messiah for our Christmas concert. Most of us had never heard of Georg Frederic Handel, and when we first tried to sight-read through the selections, we became convinced we didn’t like his music. It was too hard, too complicated. More than that, Handel wouldn’t allow us to sing simple harmonies; no, he created different parts for each voice, and we in the bass section weren’t able to hide all our typical mistakes when Handel and our new director demanded that we sing alone.

Our fearless leader did his best, but half-way to Christmas it was obvious that we were all losing: we in the choir had lost our places, he as director and new teacher on the block was about to lose face and Handel had long ago lost interest in all of us. Still, we had gone too far to turn back, and with a grace we didn’t feel, we stumbled through the first part of our concert. Our parents smiled politely, while our little sisters and brothers squirmed restlessly. Some of our grandparents with hearing problems even managed to smile.

Finally, after too many minutes of painful lapses and a competition between ourselves and the piano which neither won, we came to our last section, the one we knew best. As we raced through the opening lines, a few people actually stood up! At first we thought they were walking out on us, but they just stood there beaming until we had shouted our last “KING OF KING, AND LORD OF LORDS! HAL – LE – LU – JAH!!”

Later, of course, we learned why these few fearless folks had risen to the occasion. When the German prince George II became king of Great Britain, he had a special fondness for Handel’s music. At the premier concert of the Messiah in 1743, the king and the crowds were deeply moved by the glory and grace of the masterpiece. When the musicians swelled the “Hallelujah Chorus” and thundered those mighty words “…and he shall reign for ever and ever!” King George – whose English wasn’t all that great – jumped to his feet thinking that they sang about him.

The whole crowd, naturally, followed suit, although they were standing more out of ceremonial habit, and thinking about a different King. Since that day, though, people have continued to stand for the “Hallelujah Chorus” to worship the glory of God whose kingdom shall know no end.

Rethinking the Kingdom

But what kind of kingdom is it? How, among the many nasty dictatorships and the autocratic tyrannies and the changing number of troubled democracies of this world, do we think about the kingdom of God, especially when it plays such a large part in the teaching of the Bible?

Matthew 13, for instance, is a profound collection of parables by Jesus, whose primary focus is the kingdom of heaven. Writing to a primarily Jewish-Christian community, Matthew honors the devout tradition of minimizing public use of the name of God by using the term “kingdom of heaven.” Elsewhere among the gospels and throughout the New Testament the equivalent idea “kingdom of God” is dominant.

Some of us have the notion that the kingdom of God is primarily a secret and personal rule of God in individual hearts. God is no earthly ruler whose fortunes are dictated by the latest research poll. His name won’t appear on the ballots when we vote in November. Time magazine is not likely to declare God as a list topper in one of its annual collections of “most powerful leaders in the world.”

God doesn’t have his own political party, though a few small groups attempt to lay claim to him as leader. Back in 1951, shortly before he was forced from his throne by a military coup, King Farouk of Egypt confided bitterly to British Lord Boyd-Orr, “There will soon be only five kings left – the Kings of England, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades and Clubs.”

That is sometimes the way we see the Kingdom of God, sifted through the world like the kings in a deck of cards. The King of Heaven may have a kind of power when we play a certain game called religion, but for the most part it is a rather invisible and private authority, one held closely in your hand so no one else sees, and played as a trump card when you run out of other options.

Perhaps there is some reason for this view. Didn’t Jesus himself tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36)? And another time, when the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him about the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). Even the Apostle Paul seemed to echo that when he wrote about the rule of God as being “in your heart” (Romans 10:8).

Another thought we sometimes have about the kingdom of God is that it is really the same thing as the church. One of the great hymns puts it like this:

“I love Thy Kingdom, Lord, the House of Thine abode;
The Church our blessed Redeemer saved with His own precious blood.”

These words tie the kingdom of God directly to the church. While national governments may wield temporal power of armies and economies, the church claims spiritual power and a moral sway over values and behavior. This view sees the world in two parts: a “secular” life of weekdays and business and family and school, and a “sacred” life of the church and spirit which sneaks in now and again like the weekend “Religion” pages of the newspaper.

A third view of the Kingdom of God reacts strongly to the individualism and private spirituality of a privatized religion, and sees in Jesus’ words a socially transforming message. In 1917, while the kingdoms of this world were at war, while revolution stalked Russia and set up a dictatorship of the proletariat, while labor strikes were sweeping across North America, Walter Rauschenbusch delivered four addresses at Yale Divinity School. He had been pastor at the Second German Baptist Church in a suburb of New York City politely called “Hell’s Kitchen.” He had seen children working 14-hour shifts in dark and dirty factories. He watched pregnant women hemorrhage to death while standing at their industrial posts. He said funeral prayers for men who died in tragic accidents, whose families would be turned out into streets at the loss of income and lack of insurance or pensions.

He was supposed to preach the love of God, the grace of God, the providence of God from his pulpit, week after week, Sunday after Sunday. But where was God on Monday, while the bosses treated their workers like slaves? Where was God on Tuesday, when pollution took the life of a sickly child? Was the gospel limited to things “sacred”? Was salvation only for people’s souls, while their bodies could rot in Hell’s Kitchen?

Rauschenbusch searched the scriptures and prayed as Jesus taught, “Thy Kingdom come!” Then he challenged Christians to look for a kingdom that was bigger than the church, a kingdom that stepped into the world on Monday and organized labor unions, that fought political battles on Tuesday, and demanded social justice on Wednesday. He called for people of God who took a piece of heaven and set it to grow here on earth.

A fourth possibility, when we look for a way to read these parables of the kingdom, is that Jesus is primarily focusing our attention on the future, and keeping our eyes trained toward the skies. We know that some day the Lord who spoke these parables will come back again, and then the fullness of His kingdom will become a glorious reality.

Now, however, we live in the kingdom of Satan, the prince of this age, the ruler of the powers of darkness, as Paul put it. So we hide ourselves into our corners and protect our little ones as best we can, until someday we will see Jesus return and then we will live in his kingdom. The old gospel song testified to it like this:

“This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through;
My treasures are laid up, my faith is all secure.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

We Live as Citizens

We have all been touched by each of these views of the kingdom of heaven. Yet today, as we read Jesus’ parables again, it is important to hear the undercurrent of what He is saying. First of all, the idea of “kingdom” implies citizenship, or at least allegiance to a governing authority. This is Jesus’ theme in his Parable of the Treasures (Matthew 13:44-46). Among the pieces of properties that we collect in this life, says Jesus, we may someday suddenly stumble upon a treasure that collects us. It possesses us. It demands allegiance from us.

It is the kind of thing that J.R.R. Tolkien tried to picture in his powerful trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Writing in the recovery years after World War II, Tolkien imagined what powers there are in this world that can possess peoples and nations, for good or for ill. His tale of the struggles of Middle Earth allegorically reflected the biblical idea of kingdoms in conflict.

As Jesus indicates, either we play games with little treasures, buying and selling them on world markets, and moving among commercial districts that hold our attraction for a while, or we are sold out to a greater power. We sell all and buy it. We give up our claims in order that we might be claimed.

Our youngest daughter was born in Nigeria while I was teaching at the Reformed Theological College in Mkar. Because the Nigerian government does not automatically grant citizenship to all who are born on its soil, Kaitlyn was truly a person without a country in her earliest days. Until I could process her existence with the United States consulate in Kaduna she had no official identity, no traveling permissions and no rights in society outside of our home. We took a picture of her at five days old, sleeping in my hands, and this became the photograph used on her passport for the first ten years of her life.

The snapshot may have become outdated quickly as she grew through the stages of childhood, but the passport to which it was affixed declared that she belonged to the United States of America. She had rights. She had privileges. She had protection under the law. When the time came for us to leave Nigeria and travel through three continents to get back to North America, that little passport opened doors and prepared the way for her. She had never lived in the United States, but the United States knew her by name and kept watch over her.

So it is and more with the kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus. It becomes the badge of identification for us, as well as the symbol of our protection and care. When we choose other pearls, or dig around for treasures in our own backyards, we get from them what we are looking for – things that we can possess. But when the great prize of the hidden treasure comes our way, or we stumble onto the pearl of great price, we realize that our little hordes are insufficient. It is not enough to own a piece of fading substance; we need to be owned by something which transcends our time. We need God to lay hold on us.

This is why, in many of the earliest liturgical forms for baptism, those who were newly coming into the fellowship of believers were asked if they renounced the devil and all his works. Early on it was recognized that entering the kingdom of God was more than just adding another spiritual talisman to the mix of superstitious hex warders; it was a fundamental commitment of identity that could not be shared.

No dual passports in this kingdom! The truly great treasure demands that one sell everything else. It is exclusive. And when it is purchased, it actually purchases you.

We Live on a Battlefield

A second implication of Jesus’ parables in this chapter is that we are under orders. Not every citizen in most realms is thereby automatically also a soldier preparing for battle. A few times in history it has been close to the truth – when the modern state of Israel was founded, for instance, and all of its neighbors made a concerted effort to drive it into the sea. Suddenly everyone was under military orders; there was no other way to survive. While this is not a typical occurrence of our citizenship experiences, it does mirror the urgency of Jesus’ view of the kingdom of heaven.

Certainly, of course, we have to be careful with battlefield images as we communicate Christianity. Too often our world has experienced bellicose religion in forms that have destroyed civilizations, dehumanized societies, degraded value systems and diminished piety. We have had enough of religious groups battling for domination at the expense of God’s honor and human dignity.

Yet one cannot read both Old and New Testaments without appreciating the challenge of transformation that places citizens of the kingdom of God under orders. Jesus speaks to that in his Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-52). The kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches fish. It is not like a hook thrown carelessly into the water in case a silly fish might be stupid enough to nip at it. No, the kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is a network of citizens who together are constantly under orders to bring in others.

Some time ago I talked with a pastor of a large congregation in a major city. He was pleased with the worship and the ministries of his church. Everything seemed to operate with care and good taste and competence. He had the right staff in place, and they all were able to find dedicated, trained volunteers to shape a marvelous network of programs.

Yet something didn’t sit right with him. In his words, it was a very, very nice church. And therein was the problem. It was a church that looked after itself so well that it had forgotten that it was under orders to be about the missionary business of the kingdom of heaven.

If people wanted wonderful worship, all they had to do was join the congregation on Sundays. If they wanted terrific children’s ministries and youth programs, all they had to do was drop their sons and daughters off at the right times. If anyone wanted a little diaconal assistance, just stop by the office and a secretary would arrange for a modest handout.

But the onus was on others to come and find the church. The congregation itself had little use for going out to search for the lost and the last and the least. It had given up being a net. It had lost its marching orders. It had gained the corner on “nice” but was losing the ability to call itself church.

C.S. Lewis knew the battlefield connection underlying Christianity. He came about that insight in a very personal way. When he was nine years old, his warm and loving mother contracted cancer. Within a very short time she was confined to bed, enduring harsh treatments, in terrible pain and stinking because of the sores and horrible wasting of her body. At night she would cry out in anguish, and young Jack (as he was known) hid in terror under his covers. He had heard the minister say that God answers prayer, so he begged God for his mother’s deliverance, but to no avail. She died gasping and screaming, and his belief in God went with her.

Years later, when as an Oxford professor he began to rationally think through the possibility of Christian belief, Lewis finally understood what was going on in his mother’s painful illness. He came to see that this world is a battlefield between the kingdom of God and the powers of evil, and that Christianity was true precisely because it took this conflict seriously.

The religion of the Bible was not a streamlined Santa Claus story of a jolly old grandfather figure who always brings gifts, whether you are naughty or nice. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the struggles present in this world and the necessary reality of God’s intervention. Lewis’ mother died not because God didn’t grant a child’s wish, but because the evil one had twisted God’s good world in such a way that even the very cells of her body no longer worked as they should. But though healing did not come in that instant of boyish spiritual lisping, the prayers did not go unheard, and his mother was not lost forever or forgotten.

So the Parable of the Net reminds us of our marching orders in the kingdom of heaven. We are not saved so that we may politely pat ourselves on the back and smile at one another in the tiny corners we occupy. No, we are part of a net that seeks and engages the fish of this world who might be swimming to their own destruction.

We Live in Confidence

Finally, Jesus’ stories in this chapter remind us that we are on the winning side in the battles of life. When Jesus tells the Parables of the Seed and the Yeast (Matthew 13:31-35), He presents a picture of the kingdom of heaven that grows and dominates until it is the primary factor shaping the world. The tiny mustard seed morphs into a tree that provides a home for the birds, and the bit of yeast transforms the entire loaf until it is utterly and completely changed. And, it is important to note, these things happen rather automatically. The change takes place from within the seed, and from within the grain of yeast.

In other words, the kingdom of heaven has the winning power within itself, and invites us along on the journey. We do not create the kingdom, but the kingdom creates us. Even though it appears to be insignificant at the start, the essence of greatness and the confidence of success lies within.

Scripture is filled with testimonies to this. One in particular from the Old Testament is the scene in Jeremiah 32 where the prophet buys a field. Normally this would seem like an ordinary transaction, just another day at the real estate office. But Jeremiah and the salesperson are both holed up inside the walls of Jerusalem, and the battering rams of Babylon’s armies are pounding the gates and walls to rubble.

What is more, in the prolonged siege of Jerusalem, the invading armies have killed and burned every living thing for miles, and made waste of whatever farmland there might have been in the region. Added to that is the sure promise of God, spoke through Jeremiah himself, that this time Babylon would be successful and the city, along with the Temple, would be destroyed.

If there was ever a bad time to invest in real estate, this was it. The land itself was worthless, the currency inflated, the threat of destruction obvious and the future about as grim as any could be. Yet Jeremiah buys the field. Why? Because he knew the power of the seed of the kingdom of God. He knew that God would have his way, even beyond the threat of Babylon. He knew that in spite of the waywardness of the people, God’s kingdom would rise again and thrust itself to the heavens until even the Babylonian vulture would nest in its branches.

When we hear Jesus tell us about the kingdom of heaven, we recover our sense of values and outcomes in the quagmire of daily events. We carry the passport of heaven. We live as those who are under orders to be and do and make a difference. And we know Who writes the last chapter.

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