Saturday, February 18, 2017

Year A, Epiphany 7, Matthew 5:38-48 Living in the Kingdom, NOW!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen
In Genesis 12, Israel’s history begins with a promise, given to Abraham, that to this day remains in effect. 
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
Over the years, there have been many things that caused people to doubt that promise, many challenges that would get in the way.
Abraham doubted the promise.
“How can I believe the promise, when you’ve given me no children?”
Abraham and Sarah, now old, took matters into their own hands, and Sarah offered her maid, Hagar, to Abraham.  With Hagar, Abraham conceived a child, Ishmael.  But that was not what God intended.
Finally, Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah, but still, one child is a long way from a great nation.
A few generations would pass, and Abraham’s children would journey south to Egypt, and there live first as refugees fleeing from the great famine that had taken over their homeland.
In time, as their numbers grew, the Egyptians took these refugees and made of them slaves.
Again, the promise was in question.
Being a slave in a foreign land is not exactly what Abraham envisioned when God promised to make a great nation out of his descendents.
Then came Moses.
“Let my people go!”
God had heard the cries of his people, and delivered them from Pharaoh, and led them out of Egypt back toward the land that he had promised them.   There they would become a nation.
Under Moses’ leadership, but with God alone reigning, the Kingdom of God was born.
And as with the beginning of any nation, first they would have to organize themselves and decide upon the laws that would govern their nation.
God led them to Mt. Sinai, and there from the mountain God gave them the Ten Commandments, a covenant that would bind them together in this new nation, the Kingdom of God.  If they would obey the commandments that God gave them, then they would prosper and become great.  If not, then adversity would overcome them.
From Sinai, God led the people through the wilderness, and eventually into the land of Canaan, where they would finally become a nation. 
It was God’s intention that Israel would have no King, except God alone.
But that didn’t satisfy the Israelites.  They wanted a King like other nations.
God gave in.
First, there was Saul,
Then David,
And David’s son, Solomon.
Under David and Solomon the kingdom grew, and indeed became great.
But that was short lived.
After Solomon, for hundreds of years, Israel was plagued by kings who were not faithful, and their own failures to live according to the covenant that God had made with them on Mt. Sinai. 
As a consequence of their sin, in 721 BC, the northern ten tribes of Israel were overthrown, and the people were dispersed, never to be heard from again.
The Southern part of Israel, called Judah, survived until 587 BC, when they were overthrown by the Babylonian Empire and hauled off again into slavery.
“Where is the Kingdom, God.
Where is the great nation you promised to Abraham?”
These were the questions they asked.
What about that promise?
A Generation later, Cyrus the Great, from Persia, conquered Babylon, and let the people of Israel return home.
But what they returned to was a land destroyed.
Everything they loved, including Solomon’s Temple, was gone.
And the years which followed were not much better.
One nation after another sent their armies on conquests of Israel, and though they were not slaves, they were captives in their own land, ruled by one foreign King after another.
The last of these foreign rulers, would be Rome.

I say the last, because during the reign of the Roman Emperors in Israel, God renewed his promise of a Kingdom.
Jesus was born, a son of David, and when the time was right he burst onto the scene with a revolutionary message.
“The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
After years of exile, slavery, and occupation by foreign powers, God was reestablishing the Kingdom of God. 
Jesus message about the Kingdom of God, was a declaration of independence. 
It was God’s way of assuring the people of Israel that he had never forgotten the promise that he made to Abraham, nearly two thousand years before.
The Kingdom of God.  Now.
Like Moses before him, Jesus led his followers to a Mountain, and there he sat down and taught them.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ Mt. Sinai.
Like Moses, who from Sinai shared God’s covenant with the people of Israel, Jesus would share with us a new covenant.  This new law, this new teaching, would be the basis for the reestablishment of the Kingdom of God.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus teaches the people about the new covenant:
He begins by quoting from the Code of Hammurabi.  Hammurabi was a Babylonian King whose system of justice became the norm for that part of the world.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
This was the way that the nations of the world were governed.  But it would not be so in the Kingdom of God.
“But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Imagine a Kingdom, run like this?
Imagine a Kingdom in which Jesus mandate to “turn the other cheek” was followed.
In our wildest imagination, it just doesn’t work that way.
Can you imagine how the world would have responded if President Bush, following the September 11th attacks, and “turned the other cheek” and let them strike us again?
Last week we heard about how if we even called our brother or sister a “fool” we have violated the law.
Likewise, merely looking upon a person with lust is to commit adultery.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts forth an agenda, a covenant, a vision for the Kingdom of God that seems simply impossible.  How can we do anything but fail?
And then, if everything else Jesus has said to this point isn’t enough, our reading today concludes with these words:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Well, then, what shall we do?
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It’s as though the promise God gave to Abraham has become a good news/bad news joke.
The Good News:  God is reestablishing the Kingdom of God, a new beginning, and you, are part of this glorious Kingdom.  Now.
The Bad News:  All he requires of you is to be perfect.  That’s all.
That’s one of the reasons that many of us have understood Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God to be impossible in this life, and that the Kingdom will only be experienced in the life to come.
We just are not capable of perfection.
But then the Apostle Paul helps us to understand what Jesus is saying here.  He writes in Romans 13:
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
This is the thing.
God created us with the capacity to love.
We love our spouse.  Our children.  Our parents.  Our friends.
We even love our dogs.
So when Jesus says that:
'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it:'You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ' 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
He is not talking about something that is simply impossible for us.  We can love.  That’s a fact.
Jesus talks about this again, in slightly different words, in John’s Gospel:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
The Kingdom of God.
We live in the Kingdom, that great nation promised to Abraham, whenever we love as Jesus first loved us.
It is that simple.
And life will be good, not just one day, but today.
A piece came across Facebook this last week, by one Dallas Willard, where he writes:
The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.
Would you like to live in the Kingdom of God now?
It is this simple:
Just love all people, the way that you love some, and then you will find the Kingdom of God.


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