A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
November 24, 2013
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-38
Of all the things Jesus said during his three-year ministry in Galilee and thereabouts, what do you think is the most basic, central thing he talked about? In other words, what was the essential message of Jesus? Sift everything down to its most common denominator, and what did Jesus talk about more than anything else? We’re not asking you to consider what was said about Jesus, but what he said himself as recorded in the New Testament gospels.
What do you think it is?
Is your head spinning, trying to figure this out? Well, I’ve been rolling that around in my mind for awhile now and have come to the conclusion that the most prolific teaching of Jesus has to do with the kingdom of God… or as Matthew is fond of saying, the kingdom of heaven.
And in all these years that have transpired since Jesus walked this earth as a man, I’m not sure we have ever really figured out what he meant by the kingdom.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he picked up the mantle of John the Baptist who, by that time, had been arrested by Herod. Jesus began by echoing John’s simple and direct message. “Repent,” he said, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John used the same words, but in the mouth of Jesus it took on a different meaning because Jesus himself embodied what the kingdom is. And it was just the beginning.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
“Thy kingdom come,” Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “thy will be done…
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
“No man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”
“With what shall we compare the kingdom…?”
And on and on… It seems that just about every time Jesus opened his mouth to speak or to teach, the word “kingdom” came out.
Jesus of Nazareth will have the greatest impact on the entire world for the next two thousand years of human history, more than anyone else by far. That we know now because of the gift of hindsight. But when he first came preaching? No one knew how he would be received.Jesus may not have been aware himself of the impact his life and ministry would have, certainly on the world’s history.
As far as the people could tell, he was just another would-be messiah in a land that was just absolutely full of them. Galilee was crawling with people who made such claims, and many of them, like Jesus, suffered a cruel death for their efforts. Rome took these kinds of threats quite seriously, and had no mercy on those who had such aspirations. Down through the years the roadsides of Judea were littered with the crosses of those who would be king.
Still, what made Jesus different from the rest?
Perhaps, at first, it was the way he was received by the people. Every time the common folk heard Jesus refer to the kingdom, their eyes got big and they began to salivate. For such a long time they have yearned for the kingdom to come so they might be relieved of the awful tyranny of the Romans. For such a long time they have prayed the Messiah might come in power and glory and bring God’s people to a place where they are governed solely by the One who, so many years before, led their ancestors out of the bondage of Egypt. For such a long time they have looked forward to the day when there would be no more Caesars, no more Herods, no more corrupt high priests.
Every Jew was taught, when looking toward the future, to say, “When the Messiah comes…” Combine that longing with the charismatic personality and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and you’ve got the makings of an extraordinary, earth-shaking movement… that, from human perspective, was doomed from the very beginning.
Every time someone came along – and this happened more often than you might realize – claiming to be the messiah of God, “the anointed one,” which is what the word messiah or Christ means, the Romans considered it to be a declaration of war.1 Why? Because “Saying ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand,’ is akin to saying the end of the Roman Empire is at hand.”2 And to utter the word messiah was just another way of saying “kingdom.” We tend to think of heaven when we hear any reference to the kingdom, but most people in that place and time – including the Romans – considered it to be a word that sparked revolution. It was not the domain of the after-life. And Rome didn’t take well to would-be revolutions… or their leaders.
But what did Jesus mean by the word “kingdom”? We’ll have to do some work to figure that out because, when Jesus defines the kingdom, he does so, not by calling his armed forces to take up their swords, but by… what? By telling us stories, parables. Jesus hints at the kingdom, he doesn’t define it. Frederick Buechner says, “He heaps parable upon parable like a madman. He tries shouting it. He tries whispering it. The Kingdom of God is like a treasure, like a pearl, like a seed buried in the ground. It is like a great feast that everybody is invited to and nobody wants to attend.
“What he seems to be saying is that the Kingdom of God is the time, or a time beyond time, when it will no longer be humans in their lunacy who are in charge of the world but God in his mercy who will be in charge of the world. It’s the time above all else for wild rejoicing – like getting out of jail, like being cured of cancer, like finally, at long last, coming home. And it is at hand, Jesus says.”3 It is at hand.
In the year 587 B.C, Judah was invaded by the Babylonians, and most of its inhabitants – the youngest, the brightest, the strongest, the best – were carried away into slavery. It was, to say the least, the darkest day in the history of God’s people. The exile followed years of ineffectual leadership by Judah’s kings. It was largely during the time of exile that the people of Judah, with the continuing hope of keeping their legacy alive, decided they better write down their story. Much of what we refer to as the Old Testament was written during these years.
It had its intended result. The Hebrew scriptures kept the fires burning within the breast of every Jew, the hope that one day God would restore the kingdom of Israel to its rightful place in the world. The prophets foretold it, which is why they included the works of the prophets in their holy scriptures. The signs pointed to it, and everything they read in their holy book convinced them that the day would come when the kingdom of Israel would reflect the kingdom of God.
So when the people heard Jesus say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” as far as they were concerned, the kingdom of Israel was the kingdom of God. And they were ready to take up their swords and follow anyone who was willing to lead the charge. The people of Israel, especially Galilee, were ready for a fight, for a revolution. All they needed was a king.
But Jesus wasn’t that kind of king.
What does a king look like? A crown upon his head, servants at his beck-and-call, an army to do his bidding, a mansion in which to dwell with security all about? That’s what we think of when we think of a king, is it not? A king gives orders and they are obeyed… or else. A king sends emissaries with messages to other kings, and they are delivered. That, in our minds, is what a king looks like.
Jesus the Nazarene did not look or act like a king… certainly not like that kind of king. He wore no crown, at least not until the day of his death, and that was a crown of thorns put rudely upon his head in mockery… a crown that pierced his skull at the Place of the Skull, a crown that did not represent royalty but sacrifice, service not authority… a crown that symbolized the cruelty of those who put him to death.
He had no servants. Even those who followed him, who gladly would indeed serve him – and who vowed to die with him, if need be, and yes, who were more than willing to take up a sword – these he now referred to as friends. And they were not at his beck-and-call. They followed him gladly, giving up family and profession to do so. Then, they were sent out, commissioned to tell the good news of his coming kingdom.
He had no army, only those who struck out on their missionary journeys with little or no provisions… no purse, no bag, no sandals. They were sent, not to enforce a political or military agenda but to heal the sick and provide comfort to the least of these, to proclaim the day of salvation, the coming of the Lord… and his kingdom.
He had no mansion. By his own admission, he had no place to lay his head. He was at the mercy of those who received his mercy.
When it comes to the way Jesus does things, that is what a king looks like. But is that the kind of king they wanted? Perhaps a more important question is this: is he the kind of king we want, you and I?
If you were present the Sunday we first considered in this series the kings of Israel, you might recall that the tribal leaders of Israel came down from their villages to call on Samuel, the man of God. Things were getting out of hand in their respective tribes. The Philistines, especially, were constantly raiding and pillaging, and the future looked awfully bleak. They needed a king, they told Samuel, someone who could bring the tribes together and represent a united front against their enemies.
God is king, Samuel told them stubbornly, and if they will put their trust in the One who brought their people out of the bondage in Egypt, everything would be all right. But it wasn’t Samuel’s sons that had been taken away, it wasn’t his daughters who had been violated, his wife who had been assaulted. It was easy for Samuel to talk this way. He had a direct pipeline to God. And besides, what had their God done for them lately?
They didn’t have this kind of personal relationship with their God. In fact, it was becoming increasingly clear to them that they didn’t have much of a relationship with their God at all. They wanted a king who had a face, who could put together an army, if need be, who could issue orders and have them carried out. They needed a king they could see.
Of course, what they got was Saul with his evident mental illness. What they got was David with his penchant for solving problems with the sword. What they got was Solomon with his desire for women and spending the peoples’ money like it grew on trees, while ignoring the fact that his kingdom was crumbling all around him. What they got were Rehoboam and Jereboam with their divisive spirits, Ahab with his weakness and Ahaz his nearsightedness. Even Josiah, the good boy king, came to the rescue too late. What they got, it almost goes without saying, was far, far less than what God could give them.
Until… until, centuries later, God in his heaven finally agreed with those ancient tribal leaders… not that they needed a king who could muster an army or even build temples, but one they could see and touch and hear and believe in and follow. And what happened? They put him on a cross.
But it is that very cross that leads to the kingdom, that brings us to eternity… because what we have is a king who would not save himself in order that you and I might indeed be saved. What we have is the King of kings and Lord of lords, forever and ever. Now that is a king worth following. Don’t you agree?
Lord, we follow you… in all our weakness and sin, in our selfishness and self-desires. Help us, despite all this, to give ourselves to you with all our hearts. In the name of King Jesus we pray, Amen.
1Reza Aslan, Zealot (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 19.
2Ibid, p. 119-120
3Frederich Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006), p. 157.