Sermon - 9th June 2013
The Coming Kingdom
Scripture - Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 7:11-17
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The older I get the more I am tempted to despair of our world. It's not just that things are changing that I can't navigate, it's that our world seems to get more and more cruel.
The civil war still wages in Syria with no sign of a truce. The upset in Iraq has meant that most of the Christians in that country – Christians have been there since the earliest days of the Church – have moved elsewhere. Israel and Palestine seem further away than ever before in their attempts to coexist on that narrow strip of land. Afghanistan seems no nearer stability than before. In Europe the French are showing themselves to be increasingly divided and intolerant, Putin's regime in Russia doesn't seem to be advancing human rights and the countries in the EU seem to be more and more intent on wanting the money of the world to flow into it but not the people. In Turkey the almost century long dispute - between those who want a secular republic and those who want a more Islamic take on how to order the common life - has boiled over into demonstrations in most of their major cities. In Africa the continent has more than its fair share of dictators and despots with people fleeing poverty and danger.
Yet the richest people in our world get more comfortable in their wealth. In the North and in the West of our world we are richer and more secure than ever before with all the technology we can dream of. There is a contrast between how most of us live here and how so many others around the world live. It isn't fair, it isn't just and it seems that there isn't much we can do about it. We can make a difference in some ways but often the huge problems of our world seem intractable.
Interestingly, as I read the Old Testament in particular, as well as parts of the New Testament, my temptation to despair seems quite Biblical! Prophets and writers through the history of the Jewish people, and in parts of the story of the Earliest Church have also looked at the world and seen its injustice, pain and warfare and longed for something better.
The prophets of old conceived of something called the Day of the Lord. This was the day when God would finally act and put things right. Sometimes it was conceived of as happening through political power and might – often of Israel's enemies whose actions were God's just punishment of His people. Sometimes the Day of the Lord was conceived of as being about God creating all things new – and placing Israel in its rightful place as the light to the nations. Much of this talk, however, ended after the exile in Babylon as the Day of Lord was seen as God executing his judgement on his people and allowing them to be carted off to become strangers in a strange land.
In the passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah that we heard earlier, there is a vision of the coming Day of the Lord – a day not of judgement but of restoration. The world will be turned upside down – suffering would be over, righteousness supreme and this would be evidenced by the blind being able to see, the deaf being able to hear, the disabled leaping and dancing with joy, the mute singing with joy and deserts springing forth with new life. It is a picture of a Messianic age when humanity, and creation, are in harmony with God and God's purposes.
In the New Testament Jesus reinterprets and re-visions the Day of the Lord as the coming Kingdom of God. A Kingdom is a place under the rule of a King or Queen – though most kingdoms of our world now don't quite work like that as the remaining monarchies are constitutional – but the metaphor of the Kingdom of God is about God's rule breaking into our world and putting things right: and our world is yearning to be put right.
Jesus' preaching, healing, and miracles were all signs of that coming Kingdom – signs of his own authority and glimpses of what that coming Kingdom is all about. The prophets of old foretold its coming, Jesus put flesh on those bones and demonstrated through is life and ministry what the Kingdom was all about.
This is the context, then, of the story of the poor widow of Nain whose son had died. Nain was in Galilee: all the stories in Chapter 7 of St Luke's Gospel are set in and around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus came across the funeral procession for the dead son and he reacted with great compassion. The way St Luke tells the story, however, implies that Jesus' compassion was focused on the widow rather than on the lad who had died. This is understandable when you think that in Jesus' time one's security in old age was dependent upon your children. The widow was destitute without her son.
Jesus always shows concern for those who are on the edge – the poor, the widow, the gentile. Now his concern is focused on this poor widow facing destitution and despair. Most of us, happily, don't know what it is to be destitute though some of us (some members of my congregation) are destitute even in our rich society.
Those from Africa know the absolute destitution that follows from the death or disability of the wage earner. Busani tells me his aunt brings up 9 children in Zimbabwe. She is an old woman bringing up the children of her family as their parents have died. She gets some help from a church charity which pays the school fees – schools aren't free in Zimbabwe - but two months ago had a stroke. Happily she has recovered but those children's future is precarious. They farm their own land which, at least, means they have food but last year the youngest child of the family needed a very simple medical procedure that wasn't covered by the State system. All it took was £100 to save his life – but £100 was beyond the dreams of his Aunt.
Moses sends money back to Uganda for his mum who is quite old, and quite ill, now – she brings up her grandchildren as Moses' brother and sister-in-law are dead. Moses' mum grows her own food and relies on the small amounts of money Moses can send back home to help her survive and have a better quality of life.
People in rural Africa are nearer the condition of this widow in Nain - who relied on her son for her existence – than the majority of people in the UK. This week, however, 10 UK churches, led by the URC and the Methodists criticised the government for how they talk about poor people here. A few months ago they issued a report showing the rising level of poverty in this country with recent policy changes meaning more and more people need to rely on foodbanks in order to survive. Maybe more folk here are nearer to this poor widow's context that we are comfortable with.
Jesus has compassion but compassion with a purpose – he wanted to relieve the suffering of this woman by restoring her son to life. His actions show the power of the coming Kingdom where no-one will be destitute, no-one will be hungry, no-one will be illegal, no-one will be stateless, no-one will be living in exile. The miracle of raising this lad to life is more than a simple resuscitation – it's a means of ensuring that this woman has the wherewithal to live.
As such the miracle offers a foretaste of the coming Kingdom – the Day of the Lord that Isaiah wrote about: the Day when all the wrongs will be put right, when suffering will stop, when injustice will finally be righted. It's a strong Christian vision – of a future which is fair, a future where we live by God's values of justice, love, compassion and right spirituality. It's tempting to despair that the Day will never come, but it's also easy to forget, in the words of Lesslie Newbiggin, that we are the sign and the means of the coming Kingdom.
We point to that coming Kingdom when reports are issued in our name telling the government how it is. We point to that coming Kingdom when we proclaim the Scriptures and hold up the vision of what is to be. We are the means of that Kingdom when we live according to its values, when we turn the other cheek, when we show that love is the only power that really works, when we forgive each other for the hurts we cause, when we ground our prayers and spirituality in God's own priorities, when we work for justice and stand with those who are oppressed – after all not so long ago many of us were oppressed.
Every time we work for justice, every time we make a stand and say this isn't how it should be, we become the means of God's coming Kingdom – just as Jesus was so long ago when he raised that poor widow's son.
Let us pray:
God of Justice,
we pray that your Kingdom may come.
Help us to see the signs of it amongst us,
help us to see you at work on the margins of our society,
with the poor
Give us hope, Lord, that things will change,
that your Kingdom will burst into our world
turning around the rulers of our world,
raising the lowly,
and sending the grasping away empty handed.
Help us to be signs and instruments of your Kingdom,
that, at the last,
we may see our world transformed.