Monday, October 20, 2008

Regime Change

(This is the third in a series of sermons titled 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer'.)

The map of the world has changed pretty dramatically in the last 25 years or so. The last examples of colonialism have eroded into history—the breakup of the Soviet Union created a handful of countries that didn’t exist before—and the settling of new nations based on language or ethnicity is happening in Asia and Africa and even here in Europe.

Earlier this year the region we call Kosovo declared itself to be an independent nation. That one is close to our hearts here at this church, because our own former Council president, Andy McGuffie, went to work for that new government.

When a region or group of people decide to be a nation, they look to other established countries for recognition. Actually, in International Law there are four requirements for being recognized as a nation-state:

1. A defined territory, under sovereign control.
2. A definite population.
3. Under control of its own government and services.
4. Having the capacity to engage in dealings with other nations.

When those requirements are met, a nation can be recognized and welcomed into the world community. It’s like the birth of a new child.

This has been a particularly exciting election season in the US. I get emails every day from people on both sides, sharing articles and making arguments. It’s been as brutal as it is interesting. Still, it was good to see both candidates lightening up at a non-partisan charity event last week. At least Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain can be civil to each other, even if not all of their supporters can do the same.

I was interviewed on BBC Radio last week to get an ‘American in Britain’ perspective on the coverage of the American election season in the UK. The hosts of the program were exploring the question of why this presidential choice seemed so important—so interesting.

Free people choosing who will lead them is a relatively new development in human history. Voting in the so-called democracies in ancient times was limited to men who were wealthy landowners, often with their own personal armies. The fact that in our western democracies virtually any adult can cast a vote is a truly amazing thing. That alone should be enough to make any presidential or parliamentary election interesting and important.

It hasn’t always been like that. For thousands of years, whoever was strongest ruled, and after that monarchies were determined by a tiny and non-representative circle of families. When Europe went to war in 1914, the leaders of two of the main nations fighting against each other—Britain and Germany—were related. Kaiser Wilhelm II was Queen Victoria’s first grandchild. That’s one of those historical freebies you’ve come to love…or at least expect from me.

Free people choosing who will lead them is what our text is all about this morning. We’ve been looking at the Lord’s Prayer as an expression of the heart of the Christian faith—taking in believers wherever they are, no matter how broken or depleted or wounded, and restoring them and sending them out to service.

The first two lines of the prayer represent two amazing statements of faith and purpose:

‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
‘Our Father, the one who really exists, we’re awestruck that you have chosen to know us.’

Once those two statements have been made, the ground rules are established. God is God, and we’re not. But it doesn’t end there: God offers a relationship and a purpose to anyone willing to come to him in faith.

With those boundaries in place, we get to one of the truly radical statements in the entire Bible:

‘Thy Kingdom come.’

Free people, given a choice, answering God’s call to come and follow him.

Holy Father, Holy God, come and reign over us.

The Kingdom of God is the centerpiece of Jesus ministry and teaching. It’s so central to the Messiah’s message that if you somehow edited out all the references to it there wouldn’t be much left of Jesus’ words. The entire Sermon on the Mount is an expression of the values of the Kingdom of God—what the world would be like if people answered the call to let God reign.

So many of the parables start with a reference to the Kingdom: ‘The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…or a sower in the field…or a pearl of great price. The Kingdom is the core of the message that Jesus wanted his listeners to take away—to wrestle with—and to understand.

But the idea of the Kingdom of God has been misunderstood for so much of the church’s history.

Some have seen it as a purely political statement. They’ve taken the message of the gospel, filtered it through the doctrines and hierarchy of the church, and decided that the Kingdom should be a place where everyone thinks about Jesus in the same way, and expresses that belief in the same forms and styles. There have been any number of attempts to create theocracies in our history—I don’t mean places where people of faith are elected to leadership, but rather places where only one view of the Christian faith is accepted as accurate and authoritative.

This view has influenced everything from education to the arts to the work of missionaries. Too often being ‘Christian’ meant being just like the culture that introduced you to the faith. One way or another, these are examples of how the Kingdom has functioned as a political reality.

But others haven’t seen it as political at all. For some the Kingdom of God is a purely heavenly thing—somewhere off in the distance, in the sweet by and by, up in the clouds. I remember a song when I was in youth group that said: ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.’

The Kingdom of God in that song was anywhere but here—it was in every way, somewhere else—away from this place and after this time.

Both of these expressions of the Kingdom of God miss the mark, and oddly enough they miss it in precisely the same way.

Both of these expressions of the Kingdom of God think of that Kingdom as a place, a here or a there, as a nation-state with defined territory, a limited population, self-determination and the ability to look over its walls and have relationships with other places.

The here and now political understanding, and the ‘this world is not my home’ heavenly understanding of the Kingdom both think of it as a realm somewhere—a boundaried place where very little gets in or out.

I know we spent a lot of time on this last year, but let’s review our definition of the Kingdom of God for just a moment:

The Kingdom of God is not a place or a realm with limits and boundaries, but rather Christ’s reign that reaches into all times and places, and rules over all things, even death.

God’s Kingdom—God’s reign—is an ongoing thing. It’s a demonstration of power more than a limitation of space. It’s a recognition of sovereignty more than a set of boundaries and coordinates.

Thy Kingdom come.

May your reign come.

Lord, rule in our hearts and minds and jobs and homes and bank accounts and lives.

Thy Kingdom come.

One writer proposed that it’s the word Kingdom that gets in our way of fully understanding this idea. He offers a handful of phrases that represent different translations of the original language: Instead of Kingdom of God we might say…

God’s regime has taken power.

The dominion of the God of Israel has arrived.

The Yahweh Administration has been sworn in.

The point is that when we say ‘thy Kingdom come,’ we’re saying that we are standing up, ready to be counted as people who want to live God’s way—who are willing to live by the values of God’s Kingdom instead of any other. That may be the most radical thing about this entire prayer.

It’s a proclamation that tells the world around us that we live by a new set of cultural values that just might offend them: it’s a set of values that places a premium on forming loving connections with people, on worshipping God with creativity and recklessness, on growing in our knowledge and relationship to Jesus Christ, and on going out into the world to serve in Christ’s name.

Those four things, by the way, represent this church’s commitment to being a living and healthy church: fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

Because the Christian life isn’t about having cultural power, or resigning ourselves to cultural powerlessness, or even trying to exert a form of counter-cultural influence. The Kingdom of God is about ushering in a new culture altogether. It’s about recognizing that when we’re done with our campaigning and arguing and voting and even governing, that Jesus Christ still reigns over all times and places, and that he rules over all things, even death.

This phrase, just as the prayer gets going, is a declaration of our dependence on God, but it’s also an expression of our hope: our hope that God is who he says he is, that he loves us as much as he has led us to believe, and that he will make good on the promises to be involved in his creation and make all things new again.

Thy Kingdom come.

May your reign come.

Lord, rule in our hearts.

We started by talking about the recognition of nation-states, and what an important thing that is for people who are seeking self-rule, self-determination. In international law, recognition isn’t required to be state—it’s given freely by the nation or government doing the recognizing.

It’s important for us as we move past this part of the Lord’s Prayer to remember that God reigns whether we recognize him or not—that he lives and loves and rules, just as he said he would.

But when we say ‘thy Kingdom come’ we express our faith that Christ’s reign is present in the here and now, and also the hope that Christ’s reign will come in its fullness sometime soon.

When we say ‘thy Kingdom come’ we step into a new way of living—like the birth of a new person. We experience a regime change that can’t be compared to anything we might see on the news or read in a book.

As we continue our time in this prayer, and as we begin to talk about stewardship and set a vision for the ministry of this church in the coming year, take time to reflect on what the reign of God means in your life.

You might feel very close to Christ right now—very aware of how he rules in your heart.

But for some of you that might not describe your experience at all at this moment.

Either way, take this journey through the Lord’s Prayer and make it your own declaration of dependence on Jesus Christ.

God made us to be free people who can choose who leads us. The Lord’s Prayer breathes life into our lives by reminding us of who to choose.

Let’s stand and pray that prayer together.

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