The Kingdom of God: Backwards and Upside Down
Luke 6:20-23; John 3:1-8
January 19, 2020
A pastor walked into a pub and said to the first man he met, “Do you want to go to heaven?”
The man replied, “I do.”
The pastor said, “Then stand over there against the wall.”
Then the pastor asked a second man, “Do you want to go to heaven?”
“Certainly, pastor,” was the man’s reply.
The pastor said, “Then stand over there against the wall.”
Then the pastor walked up to a third man and said, “Do you want to go to heaven?”
The man said, “No, I don’t pastor.”
The pastor said, “I don’t believe this. You mean to tell me that when you die you don’t want to go to heaven?”
The man said, “Oh, when I die, yes. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now.”
For most of us heaven is a place we wait to go to once we die, and we may think about that whole process of death and dying as reluctantly as this third man in the joke did. But what if I told you that heaven is not a destination we wait to go to once we’re dead? What if I told you that heaven isn’t just some place our spirits wait to inhabit, but that it is here in our midst right now?
You see, in most religious imaginations heaven is something we wait for and it is that goal that Christianity exists for. Unfortunately, in many places and in most theologies Christianity has been reduced to a shell of what it was meant to be, as our primary concern became making sure we get into heaven once we die. But if you actually read Scripture and if you take the time to read Jesus’ words, then you will quickly find that Jesus is not as concerned about the afterlife as we are.
The reality is, Jesus talks very little about heaven as an afterlife reality, but he does talk a lot about the Kingdom of God. For Jesus, these two terms are actually synonymous, but what we often think of when we hear the word “heaven” is miles off from what Jesus means when he talks about “the Kingdom of God”. And so today we are beginning a six week series on the Kingdom of God, to see what Jesus has to say about it, because we might find that heaven (God’s Kingdom) has much more to do with our lives here and now than we realize. And we might find that Jesus is more concerned with how we live here and now, than we often are.
So let’s dive in. Jesus is preaching to his disciples on a plain.
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
Well, as my sermon title suggests, that’s just about the most upside down and backwards thing you’re going to hear all week. Jesus has this annoying knack for getting our attention and jarring us out of our comfortable seats and out of our comfortable ways of viewing the world. He says things that make us do a double-take: “He said what?”
Jesus’ words here carry a blessing and a warning. A blessing for those who are poor, hungry, looked down upon and are weeping. It is a warning for those of us who are rich, full, and who are thought of and spoken well of by the world’s standards. These blessings and warnings that Jesus speaks are consistent with one of the main themes of Scripture: the reign of God will bring with it a reversal of human fortunes. Those on the underbelly of the world’s kingdoms are lifted up, redeemed. Those who benefit from the world’s systems and kingdoms are brought low and have nothing to be gained from the Kingdom of God. To be honest, this makes me really uncomfortable. This should make all of us a little uncomfortable, because even if we do not consider ourselves wealthy or well off by American standards, we are by the standards of the rest of the world. We live in the wealthiest and most powerful kingdom that has ever existed in the history of the world, and that naturally makes it more difficult for us to read and fully grasp what is going on in passages like this one. For a few moments, let’s just embrace and own our discomfort with this passage.
But Jesus speaks here and elsewhere about a Kingdom of God – a Kingdom that somehow belongs to the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. Typically, the Kingdom of God is spoken about and theologized as something that is coming in the future, something that we must wait for, like heaven. But it is very important to notice the verb tense that Jesus uses in this passage. Notice that Jesus does not say: “Blessed will be you who are poor, hungry and weeping.” Instead, Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, hungry and weeping.” Present tense. And he doesn’t say: “for the Kingdom of God will be yours”, but he says: “for the Kingdom of God is yours.” Present tense. What Jesus is speaking about is a reality here and now.
Jesus is pointing us to something that is going on presently underneath the surface. The good news that Jesus proclaims over and over again in his ministry is that the Kingdom of God is already here in our midst; it is not something we wait for after death – it has already begun. This Kingdom that reverses human fortunes, that brings the proud low and lifts the humble up is already a force in our world.
But how can this be? we ask. It is empirically false! The rich and proud are still on top. The poor and the outcast are still firmly under the boot of those systems and people who are more powerful. How can we say in all seriousness that those who are poor, hungry and weeping are presently blessed? Well, as Jesus points to throughout his ministry their blessedness is not something that can be measured or would even be of value to the citizens who belong to the kingdoms of this world. It is a different kind of blessing.
Those who exist on the underbelly of this world’s kingdoms and empires are blessed because they can see what we, who benefit from the kingdoms of this world, cannot. When you are someone who does not benefit from the systems of our nation, when you are someone who is in fact harmed by them, who is overlooked, not taken care of, when you are someone who is reviled, treated as less than and of inherently less value than those with money, with white skin, with influence and power, then you will see the kingdoms of this world for what they truly are: ugly, dehumanizing, insatiable.
Jesus knows that there is something blessed about living on the underbelly of the kingdom of this world, because you have the eyes to see it for what it is. The veneer of empire is peeled back. The values of earthly kingdoms, such as wealth, power and influence, are seen for what they are: empty. Those on the underbelly see through the propaganda, they see the ways that earthly kingdoms seek to keep their power through violence, war and always seeking more land, more money, more power. They see how it infects those of us who are along for the ride.
We read passages like this one and realize that there is something we’re missing. There’s something we’re not seeing. There’s something we don’t understand because it seems so backwards, so upside down. And so like Nicodemus in the night, we approach Jesus, looking for answers. And Jesus’ response is this: “Truly I say to you, unless you are born again you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
We are entrenched in the kingdoms and empires of this world; we know them by many different names: consumerism, capitalism, racism, warfare, Manifest Destiny – some would even say America. And we need new eyes to see these kingdoms exposed for what they are, and to see the Kingdom of God taking shape in our midst, slowly and quietly overthrowing the empires, the kingdoms of this world.
We will need new eyes if we want to see God’s Kingdom. We will need new eyes if we are to pull the curtain back on the kingdoms of this world to reveal their shadow sides. In Jesus’ words, if we want to see the Kingdom of God, we must be born again. But the thing about being born again, is that means we need to die. In order for rebirth, or resurrection to occur, there must first be death. Winter must occur before spring can come. There must be death to our old self, our old ways of seeing things, our old values, our old excuses for hitching our wagon to the machines of empire and going along for the ride.
If you want new eyes to see the Kingdom of God, then go to the places left ravaged by the kingdoms of this world, and you will begin the process of dying. Go to the ghettos, the psych hospitals, the homeless shelters, the “unsafe” neighborhoods. Go to the detention facilities on our southern border, go to the slums in India, go to the towns and cities ravaged by war in the Middle East. Go and you will begin the process of dying, because you will see the kingdoms of this world for what they are: Exposed. Gruesome. Dehumanizing. Soul-killing. Ugly.
Growing up in Colorado Springs, I was told the narrative from a young age that racism was dead. I was told it only existed in a few people and a few radical groups. When I arrived at Whitworth I was confronted with a conflicting story. I was told by people who were both white and dark-skinned that racism is still very alive and well in America, but it is more hidden. It is hidden in our economic systems, our criminal justice systems, our urban planning and development systems. And worse, I was told that I was complicit in it; I was told that I was benefiting from a kingdom that devalues people of color.
I chose not to believe those stories because they were too uncomfortable to be true. It couldn’t be true that as a white man I was benefiting from a system that disproportionately harms people of color. I couldn’t handle that truth; I was not ready to let my old self, my old ego, my old way of viewing the world die. But then when we moved to New Jersey, I was exposed to racism in ways I had not previously been. I actually glimpsed life on the underbelly of the kingdom of this world, and my eyes were opened as I saw it for what it is. The stories I heard, the things I saw broke me and a part of me died. Tomorrow we celebrate the legacy of a man, Martin Luther King Jr., who saw the Kingdom of God and whose life was dedicated to help open the eyes of others to God’s Kingdom in our midst. MLK showed us how blind we can be to the kingdoms of this world, and he showed us a new way forward.
To die to self, to die to our ego, our pride, our comfort, our need to be right, to die to your old self will feel like you are losing something; it will feel like wounding, but it is a necessary step in the journey towards the Kingdom of God. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus’ words echo in our minds. We knew this wasn’t going to be an easy road to travel. What is valued in the kingdoms and empires of our world is not what the Kingdom of God values. It must be shed, lost, ripped away if need be.
Many of us know the story of the young rich ruler who comes to Jesus asking: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response is not what the young man is looking for. Jesus tells him to give everything away and then he will find true life. He tells him to give it all up: your money, your status, your influence, everything you cling to that you think holds value—and once you are rid of it, you will see how little value it actually held. We and the young man see this as tremendous loss. Jesus sees it as freedom. Jesus offers him to be free of the shackles that such wealth, power and status have upon us. It blinds us to the things that truly matter and blinds us to the Kingdom of God.
Jesus knows that we and the rich young ruler want a spirituality that doesn’t cost us anything, that makes us feel good, that doesn’t involve too much loss or sacrifice. We want to get to heaven by ascending, not by descending.
Admission to the Kingdom of God is free, but the entrance is difficult to find for those of us who have tasted the benefits that the kingdoms of this world have to offer. The way there is through descent, through dying, through being exposed to the underbelly of things; but the worldly kingdoms we occupy have only taught us how to ascend, how to climb the ladders to success, how to get more money, more property, more status, more influence. The Kingdom of God is found only as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
The core of the Christian message is all about death and rebirth (or resurrection). Dying to what is old and being reborn to what is new. We must submit to the dying part, but it is only God who can do the resurrecting. Only God can give us new eyes to see the world upside down and backwards. Only God can breathe new life into us and give us the eyes to see that God’s Kingdom is infecting every part of our world and is quietly, through love and grace, dismantling the kingdoms of this world, exposing them for what they are and ushering in a new way of living and being in the world; a new way of valuing and including those who have existed on the underbelly of empire for too long.
Regardless of what is happening in the world, God’s kingdom quietly continues and grows behind the scenes, manifested in lives that are adept at seeing things for what they really are.
God’s Kingdom is not a Kingdom that can be attained or entered into through success, force or violence. It can only be entered into through dying. Dying to our former way of viewing the world. The tools of the world’s kingdoms—status, power and violence—are exposed for what they are: ugly and dehumanizing. These weapons only have the power to destroy, not heal; violence and war only have the power to incite more violence and war.
Jesus revealed the ways of the Kingdom of God to us when he let himself be killed, rather than take up the sword and kill. Jesus, rather than perpetuating the brutal cycle of violence, chose to absorb the violence of the world and expose it for what it is: ugly and ultimately powerless. Jesus overcame the violence, the thirst for power, the ugliness of the world, not with more violence, but with sacrifice and with forgiveness. Jesus died and rose again, demonstrating how powerless the Roman Empire was compared to the Kingdom of God. Rome came and went. God’s Kingdom remains forever.
God’s Kingdom beats swords into plowshares; it turns weapons of destruction into tools for cultivation and growth; it transforms the cross, a weapon of state execution, into a symbol of hope. Because in the Kingdom of God violence and force are no longer used to solve problems. The ways of God’s Kingdom turns everything upside down, or we might say it turns everything right-side up.
Jesus shows us a new way to bring redemption, a new way to solve problems, a new way to interact and live in the world that involves giving and transforming life rather than taking away life. Jesus saves us from ourselves and gives us new eyes, new freedom to see that empires come and go, but the Kingdom of God will reign forever.
The Apostle Paul says that this message is foolishness. And to anyone who like Nicodemus has not been born again and given new eyes to see, it will remain foolishness.
“The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and few will find it,” Jesus tells us. Because it is easier to buy into and benefit from the kingdoms of our world, than it is to oppose them. It is easier to garner money, power, influence, privilege and comfort than to give it away. It is easier to possess a spirituality that costs us little, than it is to believe God is actually calling us to sacrifice our old habits, our old views, our old ways of solving problems. It is easier to ascend than descend.
Jesus invites us to take the first step of choosing to descend, of choosing to go to those places that suffer under the boot of the kingdoms of this world. But it is God who carries us down through the valley of the shadow of death; and it is God who gives us new birth, new eyes, new life – resurrection. God offers us freedom from the shackles that bind us. The Kingdom of God is not a place we wait to inhabit once we die; the Kingdom of God is in our midst, and it belongs to those who have nothing to gain from the kingdoms of this world. The Kingdom of God belongs to the least of these. The Kingdom of God belongs to those who see the ugliness of our world’s kingdoms, and who are actively working to redeem, to forgive and to bring new life. Amen.