St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 24th January 2016
Reading – Matthew 5:1-12
On 25th October 1967 I was born in Heavitree Hospital in the city of Exeter in the county of Devon. Living in Plymouth, I don’t tend to make much of my birthplace, and I am definitely a member of the Green Army. But the place where I was born is important. Because I was born within the United Kingdom to British parents, I automatically became a UK citizen. It wasn’t something I chose to become; it was an identity I was given.
Most of the time I am quite happy to be a UK citizen. I think it’s great we have a monarchy headed by a Queen who is definitely a Christian. I cheer when our cricket team does well, I despair with everyone else when our football team fails to live up to expectations. But if I had been born in another part of the UK, I might perhaps be rather less happy about being a subject of Her Majesty’s government. There are plenty of Scottish people who would like full independence – perhaps even a few Welsh and Cornish. And who knows? Maybe one day we will have border guards along the river Tamar defending the right to put jam on the scone first.
But I am happy to be a UK citizen, with all the rights that it brings. Anywhere I go in the world I know that I have the protection of a democratic government who will defend my best interests. I enjoy huge amounts of freedom that sometimes I take for granted, such as the right to worship, an open press, the ability to say exactly what I think.
Yet being a UK citizen also brings with it responsibilities. For a start I have to obey the laws of the land and be willing to belong to our society. That sounds obvious, but in recent years it has become clear there is a very small minority of people who are unwilling to share our values, and one of the big political debates has been around whether such people should lose their right to be UK citizens. Of course how exactly we define British values is a hot topic in itself, and what it might mean for us as Christians. But it seems clear at the very least that we ought to be open and generous towards others, and prepared to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Now today we are starting to look at some of the most famous teaching of Jesus, in Matthew chapters 5-7 called “The Sermon on the Mount”. It is teaching which in essence is all about another kingdom, a kingdom which in Matthew’s gospel is sometimes called the kingdom of heaven, and sometimes, the kingdom of God. But whatever we call it, there is no doubt that the idea of a kingdom is central to the Christian faith, and it’s one that’s found again and again throughout the New Testament.
However I also recognise that for some people it can be quite hard to understand what this term is all about. After all, unlike the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of God is not a place. You can’t physically go there and you can’t put it on your birth certificate. And if we are not careful, we can make it an abstract term or a piece of jargon far removed from our everyday lives – which is exactly the opposite from what Jesus intended when, as verse 1 tells us, He went up on a mountainside, sat down and began to teach His disciples.
So how do we start to make sense of the Kingdom of God? Well, the first point to make from the outset is that the whole world is God’s kingdom. One of the big claims the Bible makes about God is that He made the whole world, and He rules over every part of it. That’s why we call Him our king. He is the boss; the one in charge, and as Jonah found out, there is no place where you can run from His presence. In the words of Psalm 47:8: God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. And that is a non-negotiable truth, whether we like it or not.
And I think this morning it is particularly important we remind ourselves of this fact. Sometimes when we look at our parishes and the people we serve, it’s very easy to pray, “Heavenly Father, would you be Lord over Stoke and Devonport?” Now that prayer isn’t necessarily wrong, but let’s not forget, our God already reigns over this part of Plymouth, just as much as any other part of the world. He already has all the power. He already has all the authority. It’s just that most people haven’t recognised that fact and welcomed Him as king.
You see, the problem is that although our God is king over the whole world, all of us, one way or another, have declared our independence from Him. Why? Because we want to live life as we think fit; because we want to make up our own rules; because we see obeying God as a chore and a restriction on our freedom.
And if you want any proof of what I am saying, you only have to listen to so much popular music or verse, – for example, the Victorian poem Invictus which ends: I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul or, again, that Frank Sinatra song played at so many funerals: I did it my way. Or for those of us who want a slightly more up to date reference, some words from the Canadian rock group Rush: What you own is your own kingdom, what you do is your own glory, what you love is your own power, what you live is your own story. There is a consistent message throughout our culture that the best thing you can do is take control of your destiny and follow the desires of your own heart. It’s the message that our young people hear all the time on the TV or the radio or the Internet, and it’s a message that at first seems so appealing and so attractive.
But Jesus of Nazareth tells us: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near. His uncomfortable message is that God has a right to reign over our lives, that He is the master of our fate, that He calls us to live His way. Here is the king calling His subjects to come under His authority once again and give their full obedience to Him. And notice what Jesus tells us to do. He doesn’t in the first instance tell us to receive His love, or feel the presence of His Spirit. He tells us to repent – that is, to turn away from a life where God is at the margins, to one where He is at the very centre. He tells us to admit that we lived as if God was not there and instead to own Him as the Lord, as the boss, over our lives.
And I very much believe that Jesus’ words are words that are also addressed to us this morning. So before we go any further, let me ask you very simply and very directly: have you ever made a conscious decision to turn back to God your Heavenly Father as your king and your Lord? If not, there is something that this morning you need to do. Because one day, whether you like it or not, you will stand before your King and He will quite simply ask, “Have you lived life my way or not?” And you need to decide now what your answer will be. Will you turn to Jesus and ask Him to deal with all your self-centredness and sin? Or you will shut Him out and declare independence from God, quite possibly for ever? That is the decision that you need to make, and although I may not know who you are, the Lord most certainly does. That is why there really is no better thing you can do than turn back to Him today by believing and trusting in His Son Jesus Christ.
And what about those of us who have already owned Jesus as Lord and become members of God’s kingdom? This is where I want to look more closely at our reading this morning. Because although we may be very familiar with Jesus’ words, my suspicion is, all too often we have not lived as responsible citizens. We have enjoyed the privileges of being sons and daughters of the living God, but we have not taken to heart the values of His kingdom.
So instead of saying Blessed are the poor in spirit we have said to ourselves Blessed are the comfortably off.
Instead of saying Blessed are those who mourn we have said to ourselves Blessed are those who are living in victory.
Instead of Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who can boast of their achievements.
Instead of Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Blessed are those who lead a quiet life.
Instead of Blessed are the merciful, Blessed are those who manage to get to the front of the queue.
Instead of Blessed are the pure in heart, Blessed are those who don’t get found out.
Instead of Blessed are the peacemakers, Blessed are those who get what they deserve.
Instead of Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, Blessed are those who stay out of trouble.
Now clearly we have to be careful to understand what Jesus is and isn’t saying in these verses. But He is deliberately using strong, provocative language to get across one overall point – that if we are part of God’s kingdom, we need to live daily, hourly, minute by minute in humble dependence on our King. That is why He says Blessed are the poor in Spirit; blessed are those who mourn. He is not saying that it is good to be poor or to mourn. He is saying that if we want to know the blessing of the Lord, we need to recognise our need of Him.
So let’s nail down Jesus’ teaching and get intensely practical. Think, for example, about the start of each day. Do we begin by rushing through all the jobs to be done, and perhaps only later on stop to think about the Lord and pray? Or do we start each day by humbly, prayerfully committing all that lies ahead to Him? After all, Jesus, with all the demands placed upon Him, began His working day by finding a quiet place to be with His Heavenly Father.
Maybe for some of us it is hard to find a quiet place; maybe we might say we are not a morning person. But surely all of us can for a few brief seconds to be still and offer ourselves up to the Lord. “Lord, today may your kingdom come and your will be done”; “Lord help me ready for whatever you ask me to do”; “Lord remind me of your presence throughout the day”. All of us, I believe, can offer to the Lord at least one short prayer before we start our day, and if we can read or listen to a passage of Scripture, so much the better.
Or what about when you are faced with some kind of practical decision you need to make? So often our tendency is to make that decision and then to ask the Lord to bless what we have decided. But how can we really do our Father’s will unless we consult with Him first? If we have grasped what a privilege and a joy it is to be a member of God’s kingdom, then we should want to make sure that whatever choice we make brings honour and glory to Him. That’s why Jesus says Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are the people who long above all else for God’s ways to be known on earth – not in some abstract, theoretical way, but in the solid, down-to-earth choices we make day by day. And if you can say, how can I know what God wants for my life, then the answer is clear. It’s all here, in the Bible. Knowing God’s will is not a matter of guesswork, because through Jesus and His word He has given us enough for us to know how to live for Him.
Jesus here is presently His disciples with a radical challenge to be different, to show that although in a physical sense we may belong to an earthly kingdom, in a spiritual sense we belong to a much greater kingdom. And I suggest that if we are serious about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, then we need to respond positively to this challenge. You see, the world is full of people who make all kinds of claims and promises – politicians, advertisers, tele-evangelists, to name but a few. And folk are genuinely weary of those whose words are not backed by their lives. Our calling is not just to talk about the good news; our calling is to be the good news, by lives which are radically different, which show that Jesus is Lord and King over our lives.
So this day will you commit yourself to live by the values of God’s kingdom? Will you live day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute in humble dependence on Jesus? And before you rush to say yes, just consider this. Being different means we will invite misunderstanding, we will invite opposition, we will invite hatred. There’s a good reason why Jesus ends his teaching by saying: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Because when we are serious about following Jesus we will find ourselves walking the way of the cross, as we lay down our lives in our master’s service. But listen to how Jesus ends this verse: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That’s why it is worth turning to Jesus; that why it is worth putting Him at the centre of our lives.
As He says elsewhere in Luke 9:23-24: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.
So today will you take up your cross and follow Jesus as your king?