English service on February 21, 2021
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
I Samuel 8:4-11,17-22
Living in the Kingdom of God: God’s Plan for His Kingdom
In recent months, I’ve brought you a number of messages specifically related to the coronavirus situation. I have felt guided to do that, but I also see a need to make sure that we focus on the core of God’s teachings in the Bible. If we stay on special circumstances and needs for too long, we can lose touch with the most important parts of God’s message to us. In other words, we need to keep the main thing the main thing. By doing that, we can hear God speak about things that are relevant to all times, including the continuing pandemic crisis.
So what is the main message of God’s word? That should be the guiding question for us who stand here to preach. It should be a key concern for church members who, under God’s guidance, choose the group’s leaders. The teaching of Christ is central. The gospel is the core of it. And the heart of the gospel, it is clear to those who study it carefully, is the reality of the kingdom of God.
You may not hear that many sermons on the kingdom of God, but you can’t miss it if you read the gospel stories. Matthew, for example, tells us in 4:23 of his book, “Jesus went all over Galilee. There he taught in the synagogues. He preached the good news of God's kingdom. He healed every illness and sickness the people had.” In 9:35, too, it’s “the good news of the kingdom” that Jesus teaches. And as Christ nears the end of His teaching in Matthew 24:14, He is still focused on this theme, and says His people always will be. He announces, “This good news of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world. It will be a witness to all nations. Then the end will come.”
A journey through Luke shows much the same clear emphasis by Jesus on God’s kingdom and a word about how important it is to Christ. In 4:13 He states, “I must announce the good news of God's kingdom to the other towns also. That is why I was sent.” Even after He dies, rises, and returns to heaven, Acts 8:12 describes His continuing work this way: “But Philip preached the good news of God's kingdom. He preached the name of Jesus Christ. So men and women believed and were baptized.”
If the kingdom of God is that important to Christ, then we as His followers need to place it at the center of our lives, too. But we may feel that it’s kind of abstract, and it’s difficult to see how it connects with our lives in this world. We know that Jesus prayed to “Our Father in Heaven, . . . May your kingdom come.” But what does that mean? Jesus explains in the next sentence: “May what you want to happen be done on earth as it is done in heaven.” What are relationships like between people in heaven? I think it’s safe to say that they are marked by peace and love. So what does God want to happen in our relationships with family members, co-workers, fellow church members, and others? Well, He wants us to do our best to understand each other, even if we can’t do it perfectly. He wants us to treat each other the way we would like to be treated. When we do that, it’s living in the kingdom of God. Some people call it “bringing up there down here.”
I’d like to begin today exploring with you more of what that means and what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God. If we can actually learn how to live with God as our king, we can fulfill our purpose for being here in this world. After all, the main point of our being here, in a biblical worldview, is to prepare for heaven. We are here to learn how to live in love—with God and people around us. That’s what we are going to do for eternity in heaven, He teaches us. So it only makes sense for us to spend our limited time in this world becoming people who are in the habit of giving and receiving love. That makes it possible for us to become our best selves, human beings fully alive, as someone has called it.
I think you have already noticed that we are thinking of living in the kingdom of God as something we can begin doing here and now. It’s not limited to some day at the end of time or the afterlife. When Jesus in the Bible speaks of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, He is being extremely practical and telling us how we can live here and now in this world with the greatest meaning, purpose, and power—and continue that same eternal type of life forever after our bodies die.
And, as I’ve said here before, the New Testament Greek often uses both the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of the heavens.” Part of a worldview is what exists and where. In the New Testament writers’ worldview, there are levels of heaven. Paul writes in II Corinthians 12:2, for example, about “the third heaven.” Well, how high are these heavens? For example, where does the first one start? From the Bible’s point of view, from the ground up. In other words, we are in it. If we have been accepted as children of the God who made the entire world, and He makes our hearts, minds, and bodies His home, we are already linked with Him in a bond that can never be broken. We have already begun the eternal life in the kingdom of God that He had in mind for us when He first created us. Of course we are still weak, sinful human beings, and we will not be completely fit for heaven until we finish life in this world someday, our bodies, die, and Christ takes us to be with God on a new level of existence. But the process has begun. Through Jesus, we have been forgiven, cleaned, accepted, and claimed as children in God’s family. So it is now our task to learn to live as the people we really are—citizens of the kingdom of God. I’m excited about beginning to learn more fully with you how to live in God’s presence through this message series: Living in the Kingdom of God.
Today, I think it will help us to get a clear view of what God had in mind in the first place when He decided to form a group of people who would live with Him as their King. In the Old Testament especially, this was the nation of Israel, though even then it was not limited to one ethnic or citizenship group. God chose people of diverse backgrounds; the common point was that they were open to Him and willing to follow Him in faith.
The Lord called His people and raised up a nation of followers especially through the great struggle for the Hebrews to leave Egypt, eventually cross the desert, and enter the Promised Land, today’s Israel. For years they lived there without being an official country, but with certain individuals whom God would raise up to lead His people for a period of time. These were called judges, and examples are Samson and Deborah.
This worked pretty well for a while, but over time problems came up. For one, after a faithful and effective leader, Samuel, grew old, the leaders put in to replace him were corrupt. At that point, God’s people were faced with an important question: whom could they best trust to guide and protect their lives? This is where the high-sounding phrase the kingdom of God connects with daily life in 2021 in very specific ways. For example, many people in our time also struggle with the problem of weak or corrupt human leaders. Especially if we have the right to vote, there are opportunities and responsibilities to choose honest and effective leaders, but they can seem very difficult to find. And we often cannot agree with each other about who is best to choose.
The Bible does not tell us which person or party to vote for in a given election. It does not tell us what tax rate is best or whether a big or small government is better. It does not set up one system of human government and tell all countries to use it, whether it is democracy, socialism, communism, a monarchy, or whatever. So I am not here to push one particular political organization or policy or position on a political issue. What I see God giving us through the Bible much more is teaching on how to build our lives on a foundation that is more solid than any particular political system or power. He shows us how living with Him as our King can free and enable us to live well within a wide variety of human political systems. His instruction can help us live in peace with understanding, respect, and kindness toward the people around us, whether they agree with us on political questions or not.
When God brought His people into the Promised Land, His plan was to lead them to live freely in a community of loving persons under His direct leadership. His plan for their society is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. As His people, they were to be marked by justice and compassion, living in freedom and security and safety. There, parents were to give love and acceptance to their children, and the hearts of the children would be turned toward their parents. Culture was there to bring beauty and moral instruction and goodness. They would rest one day a week on the Sabbath. Nobody would be a workaholic. Everybody would live in a spirit of leisure and rest.
In God’s kingdom, they were to have the practice called tithing, so they wouldn't be enslaved by consumerism or materialism. They would not be controlled by the questions, “How much more can I get?” and “What’s in it for me?” There would be a spirit of generosity, and they would help one another to live in goodness and excellence of character. That was shalom. He gave them the Old Testament Law as a kind of a framework for shalom. That was God's plan for Israel and the whole human race.
But, again, there was a problem point for the people of Israel. They thought, “If we choose that way of life, then we have to make God our King. We have to surrender our little lives to him. Do we really want to do that? When we have problems, when there is a threat, when I feel anxious, I have to just live in trust that God is going to take care of me? I’m not so sure I want to do that.”
So the leaders of Israel, the elders, went to Samuel. He was a prophet. They told him what they wanted. The elders said (v. 5), “. . . Appoint a king to lead us. We want a king just like the kings all of the other nations have."
Samuel wasn't pleased with this. He prayed to the Lord. God told him, “. . . You are not the one they have turned their backs on. I am the one they do not want as their king.”
Can you hear the sadness in God’s heart as He says this? He knows that things are not going to go well if His people insist on a king. But He is the God of love, and He knows love does not grow well where freedom doesn’t exist. So he lets His people have what they want, even while grieving the damage He knows they will cause themselves. He tells Samuel (v. 9), “Let them have what they want. But give them a strong warning. Let them know what the king who rules over them will do.”
This old story does not tell us which candidate or party to support in an election. It's not political in that way. More, it has a spiritual message about the kind of decision that we make when we choose our leaders and how our societies will be run. As pastor John Ortberg describes it, God is saying something like this:
Samuel, this isn't about you. It’s about me. Every time people choose idolatry, every time people decide to make their lives about money, every time they refuse to help the poor, every time they oppress someone because of their nationality or ethnic background, every time they forget to care for a widow or an orphan, every time they break my command to keep sex inside marriage, every time they refuse to forgive someone who has hurt them, they will be saying, “God, we don't want you as King.” If they choose to place their ultimate trust in human political power, they will have to learn the hard way what power always does to people.
Samuel goes to Israel and warns them of what will happen to their sons and daughters when the king begins making decisions. Their families, their money, their possessions, the people under their control, will all belong not to them but the king. And, of course, that’s what happens in later years. “In spite of what Samuel said, the people refused to listen to him. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king to rule over us.’”
God punishes them by letting them have their way and try to be like everyone around them. Some kings are better. Some are worse. Most of them have noted weaknesses and failures of different kinds. That's kind of the way it works in life, isn’t it? Coming to have great power tends to bring out the worst in a lot of people. None of Israel’s kings are able to create the kind of change of the human spirit and character that is needed to form shalom, to succeed in God's plan for humanity.
What can we learn here that can help us today? One thing is that when people don’t live by a faith that God is king—that is, the Lord is number one, everything in the end rests in His hands—we can easily give in to the temptation to place too many expectations on human leaders. When our side loses political fights, we may too quickly feel that all is lost and we face a bitter, hopeless future. Some are even tempted to violence, feeling it is their only option or whatever. We can easily lose sight of the fact that God can work through almost any type of government run by weak, far-from-perfect people to do necessary and important things. He often uses governments to protect people, meet basic needs, and otherwise give order to life. In the Bible, He often accomplishes His purposes specifically through leaders who do horrible things that go against His most basic teachings.
When we don’t take God as our king and live under His control, and on the other hand we win political victories, we may too quickly think, “We’ve got it now! Our side, the good side, has the power, so we’re going to make things go the way they should.” The sad truth is that, even when “our side” is in control, many times we are disappointed at how little really changes before another election or whatever brings someone else in power with a whole different set of plans.
In other words, whether we win or lose politically, when we place our highest hopes in human beings, we are going to be disappointed. That’s why God teaches us (Psalm 146:3-5):
Don't put your trust in human leaders. Don't trust in people. They can't save you. When they die, they return to the ground. On that very day their plans are bound to fail. Blessed are those who depend on the God of Jacob for help. Blessed are those who put their hope in the LORD their God.
If you believe political power is the greatest tool to make things right, you are setting yourself against the teaching of the Bible and the message of Jesus. After Israel suffers for many years with many kings, they lose their kingdom, go in exile, and suffer under other countries’ rulers. Finally, a unique idea begins to form in the minds of some in Israel, some prophets. What the human race needs is something no earthly king can give.
But that is another story for another day. I hope we can look at it together next month. But for now, let’s pray about the words we have received today.
God, we pray to you as the King, the ruler over all things in heaven and on earth. Seeing your greatness, it is amazing that you call us your children and make us free to exercise control over so many things in our lives. All is yours, yet you give us our little kingdoms with freedom to choose how to use our time, money, abilities, bodies, and many things. Father, help us to choose to place these little “kingdoms” and “queendoms” of ours inside your great kingdom and live willingly and intentionally under your control. Teach us the joy and freedom and goodness of living from day to day in your kingdom. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Ortberg, J. (2016, October 30). How not to be anxious during an election. House of cards. Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.
Willard, D. (1998). The divine conspiracy: Rediscovering our hidden life in God. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
I Samuel 8:4-11,17-22 (NIRV)
1 When Samuel became old, he appointed his sons to serve as judges for Israel.
2 The name of his oldest son was Joel. The name of his second son was Abijah. They served as judges at Beersheba.
3 But his sons didn't live as he did. They were only interested in making money. They accepted money from people who wanted special favors. They made things that were wrong appear to be right.
4 So all of the elders of Israel gathered together. They came to Samuel at Ramah.
5 They said to him, "You are old. Your sons don't live as you do. So appoint a king to lead us. We want a king just like the kings all of the other nations have."
6 Samuel wasn't pleased when they said, "Give us a king to lead us." So he prayed to the Lord.
7 The LORD told him, "Listen to everything the people are saying to you. You are not the one they have turned their backs on. I am the one they do not want as their king.
8 They are doing just as they have always done. They have deserted me and served other gods. They have done that from the time I brought them up out of Egypt until this very day. Now they are deserting you too.
9 "Let them have what they want. But give them a strong warning. Let them know what the king who rules over them will do."
10 Samuel told the people who were asking him for a king everything the LORD had said.
11 Samuel told them, "Here's what the king who rules over you will do. He will take your sons. He'll make them serve with his chariots and horses. They will run in front of his chariots.
12 He'll choose some of your sons to be commanders of thousands of men. Some will be commanders of fifties. Others will have to plow his fields and gather his crops. Still others will have to make weapons of war and parts for his chariots.
13 "He'll also take your daughters. Some will have to make perfume. Others will be forced to cook and bake.
14 "He will take away your best fields and vineyards and olive groves. He'll give them to his attendants.
15 He will take a tenth of your grain and a tenth of your grapes. He'll give it to his officials and attendants.
16 He will also take your male and female servants. He'll take your best cattle and donkeys. He'll use all of them any way he wants to.
17 "He will take a tenth of your sheep and goats. You yourselves will become his slaves.
18 "When that time comes, you will cry out for help because of the king you have chosen. But the LORD won't answer you at that time."
19 In spite of what Samuel said, the people refused to listen to him. "No!" they said. "We want a king to rule over us.
20 Then we'll be like all of the other nations. We'll have a king to lead us. He'll go out at the head of our armies and fight our battles."
21 Samuel heard everything the people said. He told the LORD about it.
22 The LORD answered, "Listen to them. Give them a king." Then Samuel said to the men of Israel, "Each of you go back to your own town."