English service on March 21, 2021
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
God’s Call to Live in His Kingdom
Hello again, everyone online joining those of us gathered here in person. Wherever you are, we’re glad to be with you. Last month we began a series of messages, Living in the Kingdom of God. We looked at God’s plan for His kingdom. Our goal in this series is to discover more fully what it means to live with God as our King. In doing that, we hope to learn not only biblical concepts but through the experience of living out our faith in daily life, come into a deeper, closer, and more meaningful relationship with God Himself. It is my prayer that this will grow us as a church, too, in all the major areas of church life: worship, faith, community, service, and evangelism.
Last month we saw how God originally planned for His people to live directly under His leadership. But they insisted on having a human king. God very sadly let them have what they wanted. They began life under a long series of kings who often failed to lead them into the life of shalom (God’s peace) that the Lord has in His dreams for human society. Finally, their kingdom was destroyed by Babylon. Even when they were able to return to their homeland, soon they were living under the control of the Greeks and (during Jesus’ life on earth) the Romans. At the end of last month’s message, we began to see Old Testament prophets from time to time giving the message that no human king could bring the kind of life God intends for His people. But a time would someday come when the Lord Himself would rule over His people in peace, strength, and justice.
The good news of the New Testament is that through Jesus Christ, God—in unique and powerful ways He had not before—began bringing His kingdom into this world. And through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, access to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the heavens, has been given to all people who will accept it and willingly live under the leadership of God, the King. God has begun His work of a new creation, restoring life to the way He originally intended it to be, the way it was before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, sin entered the world, and we humans began living under false kings of many kinds. We have been trying to find “the good life” by serving the kings of wealth, power, popularity, ease, comfort, addiction, our own desires, or whatever we mistakenly
make number one, put at the center of our values and wills. But in Christ, God has reclaimed His rightful role as king of our lives, begun the work of building His kingdom anew, and called us to live in it under His loving and wise direction. Mark presents an overview of this message in 1:14-15 of his gospel.
That’s the big picture. And it’s a really big picture. In fact, it covers all of life. The problem is that we Christians often in various ways somehow in our minds and hearts reduce God to something much smaller than our King. Our view of Him and love of Him become twisted, or shrunk, or cut into pieces from which we tend to choose. When we do, we are not living in the kingdom of God as Christ teaches us. We are not living out “the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1) that Jesus made the center of His teaching and life.
For example, we may cut the gospel down until it is nothing more than “the gospel of sin management.” Dallas Willard has pointed out that we may focus so tightly on the forgiveness of sin which Christ provided on the cross that we miss everything else Jesus did and taught. People who come to evangelical Christian churches may hear repentance for the forgiveness of sin and the resulting promise of salvation and heaven emphasized so much that they think that’s all there is. Some people come to have the impression that all that really counts is saying “the sinner’s prayer,” truly believing, and asking God to forgive your sins through Christ’s death. That gets your ticket punched.
In this view of salvation, our main goal and responsibility as Christ-followers is to somehow get the right words out of our mouths as a confession of faith and lead as many others as possible to do the same. Then when we die someday, we will be sure to get in the gates of heaven. What are the minimum requirements for going to heaven when I die? That is the question that drives so much of this out-of-focus, unbalanced, largely distorted version of the gospel of Christ. Of course being saved from our sin and given the promise of heaven are very important teachings of our Lord. But if we act like that is all there is, we leave out so much of Jesus’ core message that we in effect weaken and misrepresent His gospel. That is not living in the kingdom of God.
People at churches like ours need to be careful not to give others the impression that ours is nothing more than “the gospel of sin management,” or “fire insurance” (against the fires of hell). We are in the category of evangelical church, though that name is often misunderstood and heard in a clearly negative way. More and more people tend to think of it as meaning politically conservative and linked with certain political parties. (In the case of my country, many people who hear the words “evangelical Christian” will instantly think, “white Trump supporter” and see that person as suspicious or even evil.) We need to say—and even more crucially show—that our faith goes much deeper than politics and connects with all parts of life. Salvation is about your whole life, the Bible shows.
Others can distort the gospel of the kingdom of God by leaving out the uncomfortable parts about sin and repentance and focusing mainly on solving social problems. There is always injustice and oppression in every part of our world. That should not be, but it is. And some Christians make working to change unjust conditions, laws, and organizations the main focus of their mission and service. They may emphasize fighting racism, poverty, substance abuse, or some other particular evil in society. Standing against these forces that actually do great damage to real people’s lives can give a sense that Christian faith is genuine and matters in our daily lives here and now.
Yet there is also the danger of focusing so much on particular social issues that Christ is overlooked and His message gets lost in the process of seeking to serve people. Some have focused, for example, on liberation theology in ways that seemed to largely leave out Christ’s key spiritual teaching about liberation from our own sin and focus on the political actions aimed at overthrowing oppressive governments. History is full of examples of people trying to hijack Christian faith and using it to push their particular form of government, party, leader, ethnic group, or whatever. That is not living in the kingdom of God.
There is no end to the ways we may skip over parts of Christ’s gospel or misunderstand it so badly that we in effect receive a half-baked or even false gospel and then pass it on to others—often without planning to do it or maybe even noticing that we are. In 2005 two sociologists named Christian Smith and Melinda Denton wrote a book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In it, they describe the faith that U.S. young people say they have. So some of what they say is limited to America, people who may not be your age, and a time different in important ways from 2021. But I think there is also a lot of overlap with our lives, this culture, and today, so let’s look a little closer at their work.
They call the faith of these young people moralistic therapeutic deism.
The main teachings of this version of Christianity go as follows.
1. God created and watches over human life.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when He is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when we die.
If you take those ideas one by one, you might not find many that conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ found in the Bible. But there is so much missing, made far too simple, or conveniently changed at key points! If you hold it up to the light and compare it to Christ’s core message, you see that this is the understanding of a god made in our own image. We are at the center of life, according to this view. But when we face the reality of pandemics, natural disasters, loss of life, and more, the god of this understanding of life is not up to the task. Trying to go through life with a faith like this, we can easily become like the disciples on the road to Emmaeus after Jesus’ death. They said about Him, “. . . We had hoped that he was the one who was going to set Israel free.” We can reach the point of giving up on faith.
The real danger to Christian faith is not only that an unbelieving world will not accept it. Even more it is a Christianity that is a poor, weak, empty version of itself--or basically another religion which is using authentic Christian faith to reach its own, different goals. In other words, when we fail on a fundamental level to understand and accept the gospel of the kingdom of God, we are at risk of living as something essentially different than followers of Jesus and leading others to do the same.
So there’s a need for us to go back to the beginning and see again what Christ has in mind when He calls people to follow Him in living in the kingdom of God. The philosopher and Baptist minister Dallas Willard used to call a kingdom “a system of personal power.” You have a kingdom—the things over which you have control. There are your choices of how to spend your money, time, and physical energy, for example. Your body is part of your kingdom, and no one else has the right to violate it. The kind of person you set your heart on becoming, the career you decide to pursue, the person you choose to marry—all these are parts of your kingdom. The people around you have their kingdoms, and there are kingdoms over which groups like families, classes, committees, churches, cities, prefectures, and nations are free to exercise power in making decisions. We may think, “People in Bible times had kings, but we don’t in my part of the world today, so I can’t understand the kingdom of God.” Yet Jesus is really still talking about something that we experience every day.
When the things that God wants to happen are the ones that really happen in our lives, we are living in the kingdom of God. He tells us, “Love one another” (John 13:34). So when the things we say to our family members—especially when we disagree or have personality conflicts or whatever—are marked by doing our best to understand and by respecting each other even when we can’t, we are living in the kingdom of God. What is living with God as our king when we look at political leaders of our countries on the news and feel deep disappointment because they are not the people we voted for, and they are doing things that are deeply offensive to us? It is choosing to pray for them as our Lord instructs us, finding ways to live in peace with people who support them, and refusing to break Christ’s most central teaching by becoming bitter and unloving toward them. When we choose to obey in situations like these, God is happy, His world is working as He designed at least our part of it to work, His shalom is there, unbroken and in force. We are living in the kingdom of heaven. We are saying no to making the values of “the kingdom of earth” the ones that form and guide us. We are saying yes to God’s word, His will, His way. That’s what Dr. Willard meant when he called the kingdom of God “the range of God’s effective will.”
So God’s call to us is to learn to know Him better and arrange our lives every day in ways that match the wise, loving design He had when He made human society in the first place. As we do, we will learn to love the things He loves, want the things He wants, commit ourselves to the plans that He makes clear are His for us, and make His smile what we seek more than anything else. To repeat, that is what we call “making up there come down here,” what Jesus meant when He prayed, “May your kingdom come. May what you want to happen be done on earth as it is done in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Let’s make that our prayer again right now.
God, we pray to you as our kind and gentle Father, but also our Lord, Master, and King. “. . . On earth as . . . in heaven.” Make it happen in us, dear God. In heaven, no one is left out. So help us to look around and see the people in our communities, places of work, schools, families, and elsewhere who feel they don’t have a voice, don’t have a place. Help us truly see them and so be moved by the spirit of your love to make ways to become their friends, partners, brothers, and sisters. In heaven, everyone’s needs are met. So help us to look around and find the people who have needs that we can meet at your leading. Give us your sense of understanding and respect and knowledge of how to help well. In heaven, no one has to fear the future. So help us to become the people of deep peace, security, stability, and wellness that you want so much for us to become. Then enable us to share that shalom with everyone we meet. There is so much trouble now, so much that seeks to take our peace. But our worries are not king. We acknowledge you as king and ask you to help us learn more and more through our lives in the days ahead to live in your kingdom. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Ortberg, J. (2014). The kingdom of God. Pepperdine Bible lectures. Pepperdine University. Retrieved March 14, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOJ8Jrrc8vs&t=1191s
Smith, C. and Denton, M. L. (2005). Soul searching: The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers.
Updated edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Willard, D. (1988). The spirit of the disciplines: Understanding how God changes lives. New York:
HarperCollins. Wright, N. T. (2015, October 22). The kingdom of God, with the Rt Revd Dr Tom Wright. St Paul’s Cathedral. Retrieved March 14, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLiy-WlS9mA