2 July 2017

The Kingdom of God

Passage: Isaiah 35:1-12; Acts 4:23-31; Luke 4:14-21

At the first service Cliff and Sarah McClelland presided at as priests, in St Mary's King's Worthy, Winchester

The news is full of horror stories and things that are wrong with the world around us. But try to imagine an ideal world. What you can see in that vision? What is there? What is not there?

In the reading from Isaiah, this vision is described like this: the wasteland, wilderness, desert and parched ground blossom with spring crocuses, an abundance of flowers, lush green, and plants that like lots of water - such as marsh grass, reeds and rushes - because there are satisfying springs, streams and pools. The scene is so glorious that it feels like the whole place is singing with joy. Can you picture that?

People who are tired, weak, fearful and oppressed are strengthened, encouraged and rescued. People who are blind see; who are deaf hear; who are lame leap like deer; and those who are mute don’t just speak, they sing for joy! Can you picture that?

People can move around freely and easily because there is a great road through the land and there are no evil-minded people, jackals, lions, ferocious beasts or other dangers in the way. So people who are sorrowful and mourning are filled with joy and gladness. Can you picture that? That, says Isaiah, is what happens when God comes to town.

And when is that? In the reading from Luke, Jesus read a summary of Isaiah’s vision and then amazed the people around him by announcing “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (v.21). This is what happens when God comes to town in the person of Jesus.

When John the Baptist was despairing in prison that perhaps Jesus was not really God’s anointed: “Believe me, I really am.” No, he said: “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” (Matthew 11:4-5) You know from Isaiah what happens when God comes to town, so tell John what is happening and he will know that God is here in me.

So what now? Are we just to wait for Jesus to come back again and put things right? In the first chapter of the book of Acts, we discover that’s a question Christians have faced since the very day Jesus ascended into heaven. Acts was written by Luke, who says that in his gospel “I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven.” Which means that Acts is about what Jesus continued to do through after his ascension, through his extended body, the church.

Peter and John were public figures of the church in the early days – both celebrated and criticised. But in Acts 4 it was all the believers (v.24) who “lifted their voices together in prayer to God” and asked God to “give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And (in verse 31) it was not just Peter and John but all of them who were “filled with the Holy Spirit,” so that those around them might experience what happens when God comes to town.

We laugh at Nikita Khrushchev saying that the cosmonaut Yuri "Gagarin flew into space, but didn't see any god there" because we know that heaven is not somewhere out there in a galaxy far, far away. But how different really is what we envision when we pray “Your Kingdom come”? It is hard not to picture of a distant land that we look forward to being transported away to at some vague point in the future – probably once we’re dead. In Luke 17:21 Jesus tells us that we cannot say: “‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” It is simply what reality looks like when things are done God’s way.

Did you spot in verse 10 of our reading from Isaiah that the great highway, the Way of Holiness, was not an escape route – it was a way back, along which “those the Lord has rescued will return”? God comes to rescue, redeem and restore.

In Cliff and Sarah’s priesting service at the cathedral last night, we had these words: “The whole church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.” So “blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever.”

The church’s job is to enable God’s presence to be felt wherever he has placed us; to make the love of God believable – and that means tangible: something you can see and hear and experience. Cliff and Sarah have a responsibility to lead you in that – but it is a calling for you all, not just as private individuals but as a community. How will people around here know that God is not just real but has come to town? What does it look like when God answers your prayers for his kingdom to come and his will to be done in King’s Worthy as it is in heaven?

That is something you will need continually to pray about, reflect on and wrestle with but here are a few things that must surely be part of the answer to the question: “How will they know that God has come to town?”

With the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read, Jesus seems to have scandalised his hearers by stopping at “the year of the Lord’s favour” instead of carrying on to announce “the day of vengeance of our God.” He further scandalised them – to the point of them wanting to throw him off a cliff, which metaphorically, they finally did 3 years later – by then describing how God showed favour instead of vengeance not just to them, or their neighbours, but to to their enemies.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we come to “our Father in heaven” – not to our boss who may hire or fire us, nor to our earthly father, who may stand by us or disown us, but to our heavenly father who accepts us as we are, who remains our father however badly we may have messed up, and whose love for us is based on who we are not on what we do. We ask our Father for things to be done his way, that we might have the things we need but in particular for forgiveness and protection. And we remind ourselves of the vision of his glorious kingdom which will last forever and his unstoppable power to make it a reality.

How will God answer that prayer when your neighbour prays it, or you manage to pray it for your enemy who cannot pray it for themselves? How will your neighbour or your enemy know that God has heard and answered those prayers? More often than not, it will be through you, as God’s people, accepting, providing, forgiving and protecting.

What resources do you have – not just as individuals but collectively as a church, not just for yourselves but for the community? And how might they be used to make Isaiah’s vision a reality so that people will know that Jesus is real, that he loves them, and that he is here?

Think for a moment about the alternative, the opposite: of things being done the devil’s way? Satan means “accuser” or “opponent”? So if we want to be “children of your Father in heaven,” “children of the Most High,” then Jesus tells us we are to “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” and “pray for those who persecute you” “because He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” and “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

According to Luke, when Jesus tells us to: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) that means: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) If we work on nothing else, let us work on that. And the more we yearn for that, the more we will yearn for Jesus.

It’s an extraordinary calling you have – and terrifying, because we can’t do it ourselves. But it such good news! So encourage one another and pray for each other. May God bless you and fill you with his Spirit, that the wastelands may blossom with spring crocuses wherever you go in the power of his name.