In this series of sermons we are going to be thinking about the major themes of the Advent season. Advent prepares us to embrace the full meaning of the birth of Jesus, not just as a sentimental tale, but as the truth that God Himself has drawn very close to humanity and acted decisively in a final way. It is with these ultimate themes that we shall be concerned in this Advent series.
So first we look at the Kingdom. What did Jesus mean by the Kingdom of God (or Heaven as the Gospel of Matthew uses)? It is beyond all doubt that the Kingdom of God was the central theme of Jesus teaching, and that what he taught about it and how he himself lived it led people to identify him with the Kingdom he proclaimed. He became its reality and presence.
But just what is the Kingdom of God? Some questions reveal the range of understanding within the Christian tradition:-
These tensions in the interpretation of the meaning of the Kingdom are reflected in the history of the church and in its willingness (or not) to understand Jesus announcement of the Kingdom as a call to engagement with (or disengagement from) the world. For instance, some parts of the church have emphasised the churchs task of working for the establishment of the Kingdom in this world as an ideal society characterised by equality, justice and truth. The Kingdom is used as a critical tool by which to evaluate present structures and to challenge them, whilst holding out the vision of a new order of justice to be worked towards. Other reject this interpretation and see the Kingdom of God in more individualistic terms as primarily a personal hope, particularly of heaven.
What then about the teachings of Jesus? Do they help us answer the questions above? It has to be made clear at the beginning that Jesus did not offer any definition of the Kingdom or of Gods reign. His concern was not to clarify a concept nor to tidy up religious thinking but to declare the Kingdom of God as a present reality, to demonstrate it and to incorporate those who would into its life and freedoms. He did this by his actions in healing people, by associating with those on the fringes of society and respectability, and by his own suffering. He did it by his teaching, using a rich profusion of metaphors and comparisons to bring the Kingdom of God closer to people in a way no mere definition could. What was radical and original about his teaching and actions was his message that the Kingdom of God is here, is now. Israel had long held onto the hope that the day would come when Gods truth, mercy, justice and peace would be established, supreme and sovereign. The Gospels echo with Jesus proclamation that this hope is now fulfilled:-
This message is so closely tied in with Jesus own identity, presence and authority that the first disciples came to see Jesus and the Kingdom as inseparable. As one theologian has put it recently,
Jesus did not define the Kingdom but made it present. As we go back again and again to the gospels and read the stories and hear the parables we see the Kingdom taking shape, we see its character and its power to transform and liberate. This is what happens when God draws near and people accept and receive Him. Look at the people Jesus mixed with, ate with, touched and allowed to touch him. We begin to see and feel what it is to be in Gods Kingdom, to share in Gods life. There is a turning upside down of expectations and values and judgements. We see that the reign of God is inclusive, liberating and reconciling. The lost are rescued, the estranged embraced, the hungry are fed, the feasts are thrown open to the poor, the marginalised occupy the palaces, the sick and disabled are no longer excluded or disadvantaged, and people experience the companionship of God in the person of Jesus. And we experience Gods Kingdom when we are involved in something like this. The Kingdom of God is the energy of Gods love breaking open our exclusivity. Whenever we see that happening be sure that the Kingdom of God has drawn near.
Yet this also brings with it a challenge. It is dsturbing and faces us with hard choices. There must be a letting go of all holding onto power and all that binds us in to exclusiveness and into the scramble for privilege. How hard it is for those rich in this worlds privileges to experience the Kingdom of God. So Jesus points us, to help us, towards the poor and the children as those who most naturally experience and receive Gods life, His Kingdom.
So how does this help us with their questions I posed at the beginning ? Let us draw some conclusions about each of them.