Powers and Principalities

Duration:17 mins 59 secs

Our Second Reading this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter six, verses 7-10a. In this New Year we have begun a series on the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus shares it with his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. Each week we are adding a phrase or a verse to our reading as we move through the prayer together. Especially in the midst of the vision of authentic and alternative Christianity which Jesus presents in the Sermon on the Mount, we discover this is no ordinary prayer. It is a prayer which reminds us about who God is and who we are. It teaches us about the world and the kingdom of God. In weeks to come we will her about faith and reliance; about justice and mercy. Yes, to pray this prayer, this Lord’s Prayer, in the quiet of our rooms and together as the people of God, is to discover what it means to follow Jesus.

Also as a part of this series I will attempt to share at least one word or practical tip with you about prayer before we read the scripture each week. Last week I suggested that you should pray the Lord’s Prayer several times a day. As it becomes a part of your life and your faith, other more spontaneous prayers will begin to bubble up. One of those bubbles is what I like to call: Arrow Prayers

As we learn to pray, let me encourage you to just shoot up to God prayers that emerge in a moment or situation. Shoot them up to God like an archer would shoot an arrow. When you hear an ambulance siren, shoot God a prayer asking for healing for whoever is being carried to the hospital. When you experience an unexpected blessing, shoot God a prayer of thanks. When you see something disturbing on the news, shoot God a prayer for help or for peace. These don’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be, very elaborate, eloquent prayers. Just a few words. But lift up your heart and spirit to God in prayer in ways that keep the conversation with God going throughout the day. Yes, develop a habit of arrow prayers.

Now, let us hear this Word of God to us as found in Matthew, chapter 6, verses 7-10a.

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Here we were, just minding our own business, having our hearts and minds and spirits lifted up to the Father in heaven, bathing in the holiness and hallowedness of God’s name. Yes, Jesus was teaching us an awesome, spirit filled, prayer. But then suddenly, without any warning, we get “Thy kingdom come.” With this petition, as one of my former congregation members used to say, Jesus “went from preaching and praying to meddling.” Yes, Jesus apparently missed class the day they told you that you are not supposed to talk about politics in church.

Some of you might be taking a deep breath right now in hopes that I am not going to start meddling myself. And you would not be alone in the thought that talking about kingdoms and politics is dangerous ground for preachers. Southern American Presbyterians in particular have been overly cautious due to a long-standing commitment to the so-called “spirituality of the church” doctrine. One of its chief 19th century proponents, South Carolina theologian James Henley Thornwell, expressed this doctrine quite clearly when he wrote:

[The church] has no commission to construct society afresh…to change the forms of its political constitutions….The problems, which the anomalies of our fallen state are continually forcing on philanthropy, the Church has no right to solve. She must leave them to the Providence of God, and to human wisdom sanctified and guided by the spiritual influences which it is her glory to foster and to cherish.

According to Thornwell, the church has only the Word of God, the scriptures, as the source of its proclamation and life. So, in a very narrow way, if the Bible says nothing explicit about a topic, then neither should the church. Applied to politics since constitutional democracy is never mentioned in scripture you don’t talk about politics in church.

The challenge with the “spirituality of the church” is that the Bible certainly does speak to issues which involve social, economic, and political realities. Those who embrace the spirituality of the church tend to pick and choose which scriptures and which political realities are acceptable to discuss. For Thornwell and others in the 19th century while the doctrine was used to prevent conversations about slavery and race, it was conveniently ignored on topics like public education, temperance, and sexual morality.

In addition to these practical, and frankly sometimes sinful, ways that the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” has been used, it also has theological implications for our understanding of God and the world. It assumes that there are areas, realms, topics, and places in our life as individuals and together as a church or society which fall outside the providence of God. In the kingdoms of the world we are on our own because either God does not care or, even worse, God has no Lordship there.

But again, Jesus seems to have missed class on the day when they discussed the “spirituality of the church.” In his very first public sermon as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, (which we heard as our first reading today), he declares, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has drawn near.” Here in the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus teaches us to pray, he doesn’t just let us ponder the glory and hallowedness of God in the heavens, he prays, “Thy Kingdom come.” You can imagine how both of those were received by the earthly kingdoms in power in that day. This kind of talk helped to get Jesus crucified. Yet even there, hanging on the cross, one of the criminals asks Jesus to remember him when he comes to his kingdom. From the beginning to the end of Jesus’ ministry, he is talking about and living out the deep connections between kingdom, politics, and faith.

And as he does so, no one seems to understand the strange kind of kingdom that Jesus inaugurates and proclaims. Jesus kingdom does not rely upon power and violence and control. It confused all those looking for God’s kingdom in Jesus’ day. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright puts it this way:

The Jewish people of the first century were expecting their God to come back in person to rescue them, revealing his glorious presence, defeating their enemies, and reestablishing them as his people once and for all.

They got Jesus.

They were hoping for a new exodus – that is, a repeat performance of what had happened fifteen hundred years earlier, when the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt and their God (they believed) came to rescue them. He had overcome the powerful Egyptian rulers, liberated his people, and led them in person through the Sinai Desert to bring them to the promised land. Many prophets had said that one day God would do something like this again. Many people were hoping it would be soon.

They got Jesus.

They were hoping for a new age of justice and peace. Ancient scriptures had spoken of a time when the wolf would lie down with the lamb, the mountains would drip sweet wine, and the earth would be full of the knowledge and the glory of the one true God like waters filling the sea.

They got Jesus.

Yes, in Jesus Christ himself this strange new kingdom has drawn near. Jesus himself is the intersection of heaven and earth, the first fruits of a new world order, a new creation, the Kingdom of God. Throughout his life and ministry Jesus gathers a group of disciples around him like an advance team for an invasion. After his death and resurrection, he sends them into the world to proclaim the good news that God’s vision and plan to put the world right have begun. The essence of their proclamation, again according to NT Wright, is:

The one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection … and we humans, every single one of us, whoever we are, can be caught up in that transformation [of all creation] here and now.

My friends, two thousand years later, the essence of the church’s proclamation has not changed. It is not merely that through Jesus we gain access to heaven and eternal life somewhere after our earthly death. No, our proclamation is that through the life and death of Jesus Christ God’s plan to put all things right; to transform with love and justice and wholeness and peace all of creation (not just the churchy parts); to inaugurate the Kingdom of God here and now has begun and that you and I can be caught up in that unfolding new world here and now. This new world is still unfolding, but the end is sure. So as Christians we engage the world and the kingdoms of this world with a sure and certain hope that God’s kingdom is coming in all its fullness soon and very soon.

The sure and certain hope that the kingdom is coming literally transforms our present life together in the church. We need to pray this prayer, we need to pray specifically “Thy kingdom come,” to remind us of that hope that God’s kingdom is indeed coming. So often we forget and begin to accept that the ways things are is the way God intends them always to be. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written to white pastors who had used a version of the “spirituality of the church” doctrine to criticize his presence and non-violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. … Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

My friends, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” as a confession that we have lost our hope. We have forgotten that the kingdom is indeed coming.

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” because we have lost our status as “a colony of heaven.” We have forgotten that we are not ultimately citizens in the kingdom of the status quo.

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” because we have lost our God-intoxication. We have forgotten that already Jesus reigns over heaven and earth and nothing falls outside his Lordship.

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” because while it is not our job to reach up and drag the kingdom of God down to earth, we have been called to join the advance team of disciples to prepare the way.

My friends, that may be enough meddling for today. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: