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The Best kind of Kingdom

Today, we begin the Kingdom season in the churches’ year which can be signified by red trimmings in the church. It is a relatively new idea to use these last four Sunday’s before Advent to reflect on Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. It is an appropriate time to do it as All Saints and All Souls days at the beginning of November remind us of the all the members of the kingdom both in heaven and here on earth. Also, the poppies of remembrance focus our minds on the kingdoms of the world and the costs to human life as they battle for supremacy.
But what is a ‘kingdom’? How is it established? Perhaps those are questions we don’t think about much, but they are important if we are to understand what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. For me, the standoff between the Spanish government and the leaders of the devolved region of Catalunya has been helpful in thinking about what a kingdom is and how it comes into being.
The leaders backed by a good number of Catalonians wanted to press for full independence, their own Catalonian state or kingdom. The government in the Spanish capital, Madrid, refused in no uncertain terms, sending in crack police forces to break up the referendum they deemed to be illegal. The Catalan leaders went ahead with a declaration of independence against the will of Spain and many their own people. But it soon became clear that they did not have the means to establish the independent state or kingdom. Without the will of the Spanish government, their only other alternative would have been force and they had neither the will or the means to do this. Thus, without the will of Spain and their own people through legitimate electoral process, the project was doomed to failure.
When Jesus begins to talk about the establishment of the Kingdom of God, both the crowds and his disciples assume that he is talking about the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state against the will of the Roman Empire of which they were a semi devolved part, rather like modern Catalunya or Wales for that matter. There were plenty of people around who were pressing for independence and many of them were prepared to use violence. Was Jesus just another such Zealot?
What we see in the gospels is that Jesus is constantly teaching that the kingdom he is seeking to establish, the Kingdom of God is not an earthly or worldly kingdom. It will not be established by the will of world powers, the electorate or by force. Instead, Jesus teaches that his coming into the world represents the presence of the kingdom. (Luke 17.21) All who will follow him and accept the values of the kingdom will belong to it. It is a kingdom established in the hearts and minds of believing faithful people rather being based on any geographical location or people of any given race.
And so, to the words of today’s gospel reading. Jesus is now in Jerusalem, the capital city of his own people and their religious centre. In the verses preceding our reading, he has said some harsh but true things about the religious leaders; about their hypocrisy. His compassion makes him wish that he could gather her children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But Jerusalem was not willing. (Matthew 23.37)
In response, the disciples, acting with pride for their capital city and the new temple; an architectural wonder in their midst, point out to Jesus the splendour of the buildings. It seems that the buildings themselves still represent for them God’s kingdom that was Israel.
Jesus responds with words of prophecy: ‘You see all these do you not? ‘Truly, I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ Jesus reminds them and us yet again that we must not look for the Kingdom of God in the passing earthly things of this world, but in the eternal values of the kingdom he is calling into being.
Jesus retires with the disciples to the Mount of Olives. There they ask him about the future. They have three questions: ‘When will this be?’ referring to Jesus’ forecast of the destruction of the temple. ‘What will be the sign of your coming?’ And, ‘What will be the sign of the end of the age?’ (Matthew 24.3)
Let’s take each of their questions in turn:
Firstly, the destruction of the temple. This happened in 70AD some forty years later when the Jewish rebel factions had pushed Rome far and the city was captured, and the temple destroyed. Jesus speaks more specifically about this from verse 15 of Matthew following on from today’s reading. With allusions to the Old Testament he tells of the ‘desolating sacrilege’ standing in the holy place. Despite the establishment of the modern state of Israel at the behest of the ‘Belfour Declaration’ made just 100 years ago, the temple has never been rebuilt. Strict Jews still pray at the wailing wall, a fragment remaining from the old building that Jesus knew. The Muslim shrine, the ‘Dome of the Rock’, now occupies the site. But of course, the Temple and the earthly Jerusalem are not critical to the Kingdom of God. The old system of sacrifices which was practiced there are eclipsed by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself once for all upon the cross to bear the sin of the world. The ripping of the temple curtain as he died is a powerful testament to that.
Secondly, they ask about signs of Jesus’ glory. By this time, they had a sense that at some point in the future, Jesus would come in glory: that he would no longer be the carpenter’ son who had ‘nowhere to lay his head.’ (Luke 9.58) That he would make his power known in such a way that everyone would recognise it. But when would it happen?
In response, Jesus says that there will be false Messiah’s, people who would claim to be the king of God’s kingdom. So, the disciples must not rush to assume this coming in glory would be quick. Indeed, there will be many things which will come before: wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes and famines. (Matthew 24. 6-8) Jesus describes these as the beginning of the birth pangs. He then speaks of persecution, that his followers will be handed over to authorities, hated, tortured and put to death on Jesus’ account. (verse 9) Finally he speaks of many people falling away from following Jesus and being part of his kingdom. (verse 10) Verse eleven is particularly chilling: ‘And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.’ We could identify much in our world and experience which fits all that. Let us remember that these are signs of the coming of Christ in glory.
Thirdly, is the question about the end of the age. Jesus addresses that one at the end of our reading. ‘And the good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.’ (verse 14) The good news about Jesus must reach everywhere before the end of the world. The disciples only knew a fraction of the extent of the globe. Today, we know it all and rapid transportation and communication mean that what happens in one place can be known instantly in another. This is helping to make huge gains with translation of scripture into all spoken languages and the gospel being made available to all.
So as one commentator on this passage has put it: ‘The wars and rumours of wars do not herald the end, but the completion of mission does.’ (John Nolland; The New International Greek Commentary on Matthew. 2005 Eerdmans Publishing Co) That should give us cause for great encouragement. The world will not end because dark forces have triumphed, but because the message of the good news of the Kingdom of God has reached everyone and they have a chance to share in it. We can also hasten and end to the suffering of the world as we play our part in the proclamation of the kingdom in word and action.
Kingdom 1 05.11.2017

Rev Jonathan Smith

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