Romans 12:1-2 & Luke 17:20-22 (NRSV)

So, last week I was sharing some thoughts with you on the Lord’s Prayer, specifically, the phrase, “Lead us not into temptation.” If you feel like you missed out because of the snow storm that hit right as we were starting worship, the sermon is available on our website. Tell you what. Why don’t I just wait a minute while you all look it up on your cell phones. No? Well, anyway, if you’re wondering what I had to say about temptation, it’s available. And since you got me started on the Lord’s Prayer, I thought I’d go one step further this week and talk about the Kingdom and the Will of God.

First of all, some years ago there was a study that came out about people’s attitudes toward the church. People across the country were asked about what they liked and didn’t like about going to worship. One of their biggest complaints was that sermons tended to be filled with what they called meaningless and unnecessary jargon. They cited words like “salvation,” “judgement,” “redemption” and “gospel.” I’d wager most of you here today have a a pretty good idea of what these words mean. But people who were not raised in the church often don’t know our language. Coming to worship, for some people, can feel like a visit to a foreign country. We may speak English, but it isn’t always the English they know.

However, some of these words are hard to avoid. We say the Lord’s Prayer virtually every time we have a service and I doubt you’d want to stop saying it just because it uses language that can be hard to understand. The Kingdom and Will of God, particularly, are ideas that need some explanation.

Kingdom, to begin with, is not really a very familiar idea to us. Maybe you noticed our first hymn this morning. “Praise, my soul, the God of heaven.” Those words used to be, “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven.” But in newer versions, there’s been a recognition that we don’t relate very well to kings and kingdoms, so the word was changed. That makes sense of you think about our history here in the states. We’ve been around for a few generations now, but right from the beginning the idea of our being a kingdom was rejected out of hand. There were people around George Washington, I gather, who did a fair amount of arm twisting trying to get him to declare himself our king. But he absolutely, adamantly refused. So, we ended up with a Constitutional Democracy instead. In our country, the voice and will of the people is heard through our representatives in government, at least theoretically. We certainly know what kingdoms are. They are nations ruled over by kings. But most of us don’t have a lot of direct personal experience living in one. We might not really appreciate how thoroughly despotic they can be.

Henry the 8thof England once stripped a man of his lands and title simply because he had the audacity to laugh at the wrong time. Louis the 14thof France once imprisoned a man for life because he didn’t like the way he looked. Tamerlane, the Mongol ruler, used to have whole cities destroyed when they didn’t please him. After the destruction, he had his soldiers erect huge pyramids of the skulls of the dead as a warning to others. We hardly need to even mention the Roman Emperors, or, more recently, Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, not all kingdoms have been this horrible, but the list of despotic rulers in history is long and bloody. The point about kingdoms, is that they are places ruled over by the will of the King. If that will is healthy and positive then great. If it isn’t, the people suffer.

And it’s not like the people didn’t know that. In Jesus day, they were right in the middle of the Herod family dynasty, which was, by all accounts, pretty terrible. And, they were further ruled over by the Romans. Don’t let Jesus Christ Superstar fool you. Pontius Pilot was not a nice guy. Superstar portrays Pilot in a very sympathetic light, but in reality, he was every bit as a much a tyrant as Herod was. So, when the disciples came to Jesus and asked him what they should pray for, one of the things he had right on the tip of his tongue, was that they should ask for the coming of God’s kingdom; a kingdom of justice and compassion, a kingdom ruled over, not by the will of capricious and ego centered human beings, but by the righteous and just will of God. This prayer, which we call the Lord’s prayer, was, in fact, an expression of political disobedience. It was a rejection of the rule of King Herod and Rome, in favor of the rule of God.

When we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” these are actually two ways of saying the same thing. The kingdom of God is that place where the will of God is done. And when we submit ourselves to the will of God, that is what makes us subjects of God’s kingdom. And when the prayer goes on to say, “on earth as it is in heaven,” part of the message is that heaven is where God’s will isdone, which makes it a synonym for the kingdom. In the gospels, kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are used interchangeably. They mean the same thing. But the other part of the message is this: when Jesus said we should pray to bring that kingdom of heaven down to earth, he was, in effect, saying that the current rulers should be overthrown. Keep in mind, in ancient Israel, there was no such thing as a separation of church and state. As Jesus said in one of his parables, we cannot serve two masters.

Jesus had more to say about political activism in his day than we usually realize. But, he clearly rejected the path of violent revolution. His life and ministry, and particularly the way he approached the end of his life, was more about bringing in the kingdom by peaceful means, even when it required self-sacrifice, even when it meant our taking up the cross and following in his footsteps. Jesus told his disciples to, “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness,” to “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than on earth. For, he said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

In a sense, the whole of our Christian faith is about praying for and doing God’s will. But exactly what that means is not always as completely clear as we would like it to be. There’s an interesting website called Open Bible that has a lot of useful information about faith and scripture. Type in: “The Will of God,” and up pops a page with 100 references to various chapters and verses. It is God’s will that we be saved, that we believe in Jesus, that we avoid sin, that we come to understand, from God’s perspective, “what is good and acceptable and perfect,” as Paul said in Romans. And “therefore,” as Paul also said,“do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:17)

Now, I’m all in favor of not being foolish, but knowing the will of the Lord is not an exact science. These biblical references to God’s will almost always leave me wanting more specific information. I was saying last week that part of God’s will is that we avoid temptation, but where exactly do we draw the line between what is good and healthy and what is bad and addictive? We know that Jesus was a healer, but when we pray for healing, we’re not usually interested in broad generalities. We normally have some particular sick loved one in mind. We might wonder what God’s will is for the college we should attend, for the person we should marry, for the career we should pursue. Jesus told us that God cares for us more than the sparrows and has the hairs on our heads numbered, so we shouldn’t worry about anything. But it’s hard not to worry when so many things in our lives cause us anxiety and threaten to overwhelm us. Very often, when we pray, “thy will be done,” what is left unsaid is, if only we could know what that will actually is. God’s will raises questions for us that people have been trying to answer ever since the beginning of time.

Something I find interesting, in these days when so many people have so much ambivalence toward religion, is the number of shows on TV lately that have religious themes. There’s one called, “Mercy Street,” and another called, “The Good Place.” You might like “You, Me, and the Apocalypse,” or “God Friended Me.” There’s even one called, “The Gospel of Kevin.” Who knew? But the one Pam and I have been watching lately is called, “Lucifer.” It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s basically a cop show, in which Lucifer Morningstar, decides to take a vacation from hell and turns up as a playboy in L.A. (City of Angels. Get it.) Lucifer ends up helping Detective Chloe fight crime. I’d give it about two stars, but it’s fun. However, there is one scene in the show in which everything has gotten pretty messed up. Lucifer becomes angry, shakes his fist at the ceiling and shouts at God, “none of this would have happened if you’d just tell us what you want!”

Yeah. Exactly right. We have a general sense of what God wants of us, but that general sense leaves us very much in the dark on many of the most important questions of our lives. What we’d really like, is a God who functions as a sort of magic 8 ball. Ask a question, shake it up, turn it over, and God’s perfect will magically appears in the window. No muss, no fuss. Obviously, God didn’t set it up that way. Did you ever wonder why?

Well, it’s not like I have that answer all figured out, but I have wrestled with the question for a long time, and I’ve come to some understandings. One is that, I don’t believe it is God’s purpose simply to give us a set of instructions that will perfectly allow us to live the kind of lives God is inviting us to live. God is not interested in a rule book. God is interested in a relationship. And in a relationship, there is a gradual getting to know one another that takes place. There is a gradual building of trust. There is a gradual coming to understand the needs and desires, the thoughts and priorities of one another. Those are all part of any healthy relationship, and they are equally part of a healthy relationship with God.

We’d love to be able to just flip through and look up our questions in the Bible when we have a question. But what God seems to have more in mind for us, is that we come to view our human lives on this planet more along the lines of the way God views us. That all of us are God’s children and as God’s children we are called to be in a certain relationship with one another as well as with God. We’re called to accept that we ourselves are loved, but also that all those other people are loved just as much. That’s a hard message for us sometimes. Our natural tendency is to narrow down our understanding of who’s in and who’s not. We want to have our own monopoly on God’s blessings. But God doesn’t seem to want it that way.

Another thing about building a relationship with God is that the kingdom of God is not solely about God’s will. The kingdom of God is also about God honoring our will. We talk a lot in the church about free will. God is not going to impose on us even those things which we know, and God particularly knows, are good for us. We have choices to make. As I said in my newsletter this week. We have choices to make. And those choices are real choices, and God is not going to take those choices away from us.

So, what we end up with, when we pray for the kingdom and will of God to be brought down to earth, is that we, by the grace of God, might grow to align our own will with the will of God, so that there comes to be a harmony between the two. That, I believe, is what God wants from us; for us to take seriously all of those things that, each in their own way reveal the will of God –– certainly scripture, but also prayer and meditation and kindness towards others––all of those things that give us deeper and deeper understandings of what our relationship with God is truly meant to be.

This is not a black and white process by any means. We make mistakes, we mis-judge, we take our own will as important even when it veers wildly off the path of God’s will. But still, gradually, in fits and starts, we are building a relationship with God. That, I believe, is what Jesus is encouraging us to understand when he gave us his prayer.

I’d like to close this morning with the words of a song that was very popular in my youth group when I was growing up in the church. It just so perfectly captures the spirit of what I’ve been trying to do throughout my ministry. It also happens to fit nicely with what I’ve been talking about this morning. The song is called “Of Your Love,” and was written by a man named David Yantis.

Day by day you call me follow, down a path I know not where.
Like the blind I reel and stumble. Still I’m in your care.
Here today, I fear for tomorrow, burdened by all I can’t change,
Weighted down by trouble and sorrow, and a searching pain.

Yet you call me now to follow, even when I cannot bear
All the bitter strife around me. In the midst of doubt you’re there.
And when I stand on the brink of this madness, searching for the why of it all
You hear my cry in the midst of my sadness. You hear my cry and give me strength
To fight for what I believe in. Love and patience every to grow.
Faith to build a better tomorrow, based on what I know of your love. Of your love.

Amen

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