November 25, 2012
First Sunday of Advent
In popular usage, the term Apocalypse is associated with disasters and destruction, but this is not the basic meaning of this biblical term. An apocalypse is grounded in the idea that the meaning of events, of human life in general, is hidden from people and that a vision from beyond our world can “remove the veil” of ordinary perception and show the true, underlying meaning of history. The point of the Book of Revelation is to understand that the real struggle for people is to either follow the Way of Jesus, or the way of the world. In this view, history is a contest between good and evil, and everyone must eventually choose one side or the other.
Even though the lectionary only calls for a few verses from the Book of Revelation, we can see John’s Vision incorporates the ideas of “Kingdom” (or politics) with priests (or religion.) So what is this talk of Kingdom? We know that there were empires that are referred to throughout the Holy Scriptures, from Egypt to Babylon to Rome; we also know that God does not respect the apparent power of these empires. Jesus continually teaches this idea that true power comes from God, not from military or economic domination. Jesus specifically addresses this in the 18th chapter of the Gospel of John, when Pilate accuses Jesus of being the King of the Jews. Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate is ready to take that as a confession that Jesus says he is a king, thus a traitor or a political dissident of some type. Jesus explains, “I came into this world to testify to the Truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Of course, Pilate does not understand at all!
The real question is how do we understand this? What do we think about concepts like Kingdom, Power, or Truth? Is the Apocalypse or Revelation correct in saying that the Kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms are mutually exclusive concepts, perspectives, attitudes, & priorities? And if they are diametrically opposed to each other, what Do we mean by the expression, The Kingdom of God? What sort of power do we see in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and is that the same as the power we profess to believe in, the resurrection of Jesus the Christ? Does this really make any difference in how we live our lives?
For many of us, this vocabulary can be hard to understand. After all, we live in a democracy, where the separation of Church & State is part of the first Amendment to our Constitution. So, how is the kingdom of God different in any way from our government? Well, maybe the differences are large and clear, or maybe they are subtle, but I think we need to start with an understanding of what the values are in God’s Kingdom, as taught by Jesus and his early followers. Jesus was not impressed by the power of Rome or the power of the Roman bureaucrat, Pilate, because Jesus taught that the real power which makes all the difference in life is the power of love. Jesus taught his followers how compassion for others does have powerful consequences in our lives here on earth. Jesus taught about what makes your life worthwhile; the key to the meaning of life is to learn how to forgive, to show compassion, and to build communities where all people are respected as being God’s Children. Jesus did not agree with values of empire and the kingdoms of this world that assume power is measured by the ability to oppress people. I think we saw another example of the worldly view of power this week in the military conflict between the Palestinians led by Hamas, and the reaction of the Israeli military. We can see how both sides are putting their trust in weapons of war, while the rest of the world expressed concern that this conflict could easily escalate into a huge and terrible war, and now we are all hoping that a political solution can be developed with some compromises on both sides, so that all of the people in the region can learn to live together in peace.
The people I have come to respect who are trying to bring some sanity to this conflict, are the members of the Michigan Peace Team, who are appealing to both sides to respect all people and avoid the use of deadly violence. I think the Michigan Peace Team witness serves as the prophetic witness of how the world might yet become. Obviously it is still extremely difficult for political parties and countries in the Mid-East to forgive or show compassion, in no small part because of their recent history of violent conflicts, as well as the longer-term histories of the cultures in this part of the world.
Closer to home, what is the role of Christians in sharing our vision of the Kingdom of God in our society? Should we be a prophetic witness against the use of guns by criminals? The inter-denominational group, “Heeding God’s Call” is working with Congress and with gun retailers to implement a ten-point Code of Conduct to reduce the sales of guns to criminals. I have recently started working with a group of churches called Michigan Prophetic Voices, which is working with our elected leaders to take reasonable steps to reduce gun violence in urban areas of Michigan. The statistics about how many innocent people in the United States are killed or injured by guns is one measure of how we are failing as a society to care for each other. This is not a group opposed to hunting; however, it may be an important area for each of us as followers of Jesus to become better educated and more effectively involved. It is possible to agree on policies that would make gun violence in America as rare as it is in the other industrialized countries of the world. The question for us is whether we can see that the values taught by Jesus have real-world implications for us in our lives today.
We have seen how we can share Christ’s love out in our society by working as a Kids Hope mentor, or volunteering at Hospice, or Eaton Clothing & Furniture; we may demonstrate compassion on a personal level, and that is the first step toward helping to create the values of God’s Kingdom, instead of accepting the hostility or callousness that we see too often on display. God’s Kingdom is not a political or bureaucratic system of controlling, manipulating, or exploiting people. God’s Kingdom is about seeing all of God’s Children the same way that Jesus did, and reaching-out with love, acceptance, and support. Perhaps it may involve helping people who are struggling with poverty, or working to correct the systems that create homelessness, or poverty in our society. Perhaps it involves helping people who have been living and working in our country for many years, but do not have a path to citizenship or legal documentation; or perhaps it means working to change laws and policies that are doing more harm than good in creating an “immigration crisis” that results in splitting-up families who have not broken any laws other than having legal documentation paperwork to be here. And yet, to bring about the reality of the Kingdom of God, we need to do much more that change little pieces of the bureaucracy.
We need to go beyond challenging the institutions that cause and sustain homelessness. We need to move beyond political strategies, and embrace the life-affirming love of all creation that Jesus taught. Instead of hoarding power and trying to dominate or demonize those who do not agree with you, we must learn to let humility guide us to treating others with humane respect. Love is not held captive by ambition or popularity; love is free and freely given.
Saying “The Kingdom of God” is exactly like saying “The Kingdom of Love.” Just as perfect love casts out all fear, love is not conquered by any sort of worldly power. Instead love transforms the priorities of the world, showing us that we are all brothers & sisters within the body of those who recognize the true power of compassion, forgiveness, peace, and health. Certainly we can see evidence of the wisdom and power of the kingdom of God in how we choose to live our lives; if we have grounded our priorities in love, we will work to help people who are oppressed by systems of exploitation. Justice is a natural consequence of living in the Kingdom of Love or the Kingdom of God. Justice for all people is what people all around the world are trying to create, and the best way to make it happen is to start by accepting God’s love in your own life, and then sharing that love with all the people who you encounter as you grow into the person that God created you to be.
The Kingdom of God’s Love is not just something we hope to experience after we die, but rather the pattern for how we can make our lives and our communities meaningful & worthwhile right here, right now. The world may present us with many challenges, many examples of sin & violence & oppression; people are messy and not always easy to love. Love your neighbor, and in learning how to do that, we shall all learn how to love God.
Grace and Peace be with you today.