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We are praying. We are praying together in slow motion, if you will, our core, unifying prayer. And this week, we pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done.
So let’s talk about kingdoms, a particularly appropriate subject just a few days prior to the 237th anniversary of the date on which the original thirteen colonies threw off the shackles of one particular kingdom. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Here, probably the most famous sentence from the preamble:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In a few short sentences, it becomes clear that the king whose rule is being overthrown is guilty of denying these “unalienable rights”. The longest part of the Declaration is the part known as the “indictment,” which lays out offense after offense on the part of the King of England against the people of the now United States.
All of which leads me to this conclusion: as US citizens, we come well-supplied with a deep suspicion of “kingdoms,” and with good reason.
Isn’t it odd, then, that as children, we Americans are regularly plied with the stories of kings and queens and princes and princesses, and that these stories offer reassurance that somewhere, even if only in the imaginary castles of our storybooks or animated Disney films, there are kings who are just, or, at the very least, harmless?
Then we grow up, and we discover shows like Game of Thrones a fantasy about medieval-type kingdoms filled with HBO’s usual dose of extreme violence, nudity and blue language, (so don’t tune in unless you can live with all those). One central icon of Game of Thrones is the Iron Throne itself, constructed from the swords of one powerful king’s defeated enemies. For any watcher of the series, it soon becomes clear that concepts such as “unalienable” or innate rights for non-royal people don’t even exist in the world inhabited by these characters.
They don’t exist in most Biblical kingdoms either. I have shared with you before God’s scathing indictment of the ways of kings in 1 Samuel 8. God tells a prophet (this is a paraphrase), “here’s what human kings are good for: forced labor, taxes, harems, armies, war.”[i] And the people to whom Jesus is talking this day, on this hillside, when he teaches them this prayer we are praying together over these many weeks, they know all too well the ways of kings, whether we are talking about their own corrupt and murderous king-for-rent Herod Antipas, or Caesar and all his minions of the brutal occupying Roman Empire.
Which is why it is so stunning to have Jesus, not only use, but embrace; not only embrace, but proclaim the concept of kingdom and kingship when it comes to God, every chance he gets. And here, he says, “Your kingdom come.” Which, of course, is what sets this kingdom apart from those of the human kings. It’s God who is king now. But even that’s not quite right. The Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic words translated into the word “kingdom,” don’t quite mean that. They mean, “reign” or “rule”, or even, “way of ruling.”
If you’re anything like me, if you have a deep-seated mistrust of kings and kingdoms and anything that smacks of people getting stuff just because of who they’re related to, you probably feel better already. Still, just in case we’re not sure of what God’s “way of ruling” might be, let’s turn to the thousand times (or so) Jesus mentions “the kingdom of heaven,” i.e., God’s way of ruling, in Matthew’s gospel.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 8:11)
“But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Matthew 12:28)
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field…” (Matthew 13:31)
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind…” (Matthew 13:47)
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
In looking at the God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom we are praying to come—as soon as possible!—we find something that bears no resemblance to the kingdoms we know, whether in our storybooks, or TV shows, or 18th century Great Britain, or 1st century Rome. This is a kingdom best represented not by thrones made of swords, but a seed. This is a kingdom that has to do, not with armies, but with that delicious yeast smell while the bread rises, and searching diligently for something so beautiful it catches your breath. This is a kingdom you will recognize by the banquets—hey! That’s something like those other kingdoms! Oh, wait. To get into this banquet, it helps if you’re actually poor and hungry, or maybe really grieving and in need of consolation. (Sorry, completely different banquet situation.) This is a kingdom you can identify by the fact that people are being healed and released from the demons that haunt them, and not slain in brutal displays of royal power unchecked.
“Your kingdom come,” Jesus has us pray, but this is a kingdom that is already within us and among us, because Jesus himself is the sign it has come. So to pray “your kingdom come” is to pray that our eyes and ears and hands and hearts are ready to take part in Jesus’ work, what someone has called “the great Divine clean-up of the world.” To pray “Your kingdom come” is to pray, “Help me find and plant that seed.” To pray, “Your kingdom come” is to pray, “I am ready to share your healing.” To pray, “Your kingdom come” is to be ready to give all for this priceless treasure of God’s vision for humanity. To pray, “Your kingdom come” is to yearn to serve and be served at that banquet. One writer has summarized it like this: “To pray that God’s kingdom will come is to ask that God’s power to create will prevail over forces that destroy, and that [God’s] power to redeem will bring release from bondage.”[ii]
Your kingdom come, your will be done.
My first instinct about God’s will was simply to wonder, isn’t God’s will inextricably tied up with God’s kingdom? By which I mean, if we understand God’s kingdom to be the radical vision of God preached and lived in the work of Jesus, the ministry of healing, of table, of justice and care for all God’s most vulnerable… If we understand all that to be the hallmark of God’s already inaugurated kingdom, isn’t saying “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” sort of like saying the same thing twice? And the answer to that is “Yes. But there’s more.”
It is impossible to talk about God’s will without taking note of the only other place that phrase occurs in the gospel.
Twenty chapters later, after his work has led him on a path to Jerusalem where he is spending the Passover with his friends, Jesus again uses the phrase “Your will be done” in prayer to God. Only, this time, he is not in the midst of a teaching moment with his disciples. He is praying in deep anguish, in agony for what he knows he is about to face: his own death. Here is the passage, beginning at Matthew 26:39:
And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” ~Matthew 26:39-42
I want to be very careful about equating God’s will with Jesus’ death. I struggle with the notion of an all-powerful God who sees the only way of salvation for God’s people as being a dreadful, bloody sacrifice of this Beloved Child Jesus, a God who, in theory, when asked about it later, could say, “My hands were tied! It was the only thing that would work!” That to me is a mockery of the power of God, as well as a mockery of the character of God, whom scripture tells us again and again… are you sick of it yet?... is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. It does not make sense to me.
Here is what does make sense: A God who is so committed to healing the breach created by the effects of sin, that this God would accept the life freely given by that Beloved Child… this is not a substitution; it’s a gift, like the gift made by the man who died last week because he dove into a shallow creek to save a little kid he didn’t even know. This gift is given from one who is so utterly in harmony with the will of God, with God’s kingdom-vision for humanity, that he would not raise a hand in resistance even when faced with torture and death. “Your will be done…” not in the sense that God wills Jesus’ death, but in the sense that God wills Jesus’ lifelong demonstration of God’s vision, the whole thing, even if this is the consequence.
To pray “Your will be done,” is to add our prayer to the one who made his life a gift to the world, and to ask that our own life might be a gift.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
We are praying. We are praying together in slow motion, our core, unifying prayer. And we come to the end of the God-half of the prayer, the parts of the prayer having to do with our asking God to help us to participate with the “great Divine clean-up of the world”, just as Jesus participated in it. And we pray that all these things may be as true, boots on the ground, as they are in God’s clear and gorgeous vision, that heaven and earth may be indistinguishable, the earth holding a mirror up to heaven. “Your kingdom come,” we pray. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.