The Centrality of the Kingdom
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2016
Each year as we enter the Season of Lent, we read the story of Jesus’ temptation. The assumption is that this story is somehow directly relevant for Christians as we enter a period of self-examination and repentance. But to most of us, this story seems to have little to do with our experience of temptation. Encountering a devil in the flesh who asks us to leap of cliffs or bow down to worship him? The power of these scenes to move us now is quite limited. We don’t hold conversations with a visible devil, nor are we whisked from place to place as Jesus is in the story. Moreover, the temptations that Jesus faces are particular to him; they seem very remote from what we face day to day.
“Jesus!” we cry, “what do you really know of our struggles? What do you know of the temptations we face daily as recovering alcoholics and substance abusers? What do you know of the emptiness within marriage that we are tempted to fill with an affair? What do you know of the temptation to cheat, to cook our books, to make ourselves or our companies look better than we are? What do you know of the temptation to lie about our ability to take care of ourselves as we age? Or the temptation of adolescents to exaggerate their experience and confidence in order to be accepted or taken seriously? Jesus! What do you really know of our temptations?
“OK,” Jesus says, “you may not be tempted to turn stones to bread, but you are tempted to trade what God offers for what you can control.” And he’s right! Though none of us is likely to put God to the test by leaping off a cliff, we are tempted to question God’s presence when life pushes us over the edge. And while bowing down before Satan probably didn’t cross our minds as we had our breakfast this morning, kingdoms of wealth, power and pride are offered to us each day. We see great injustice and have the opportunity to cross by on the other side of the road.
But if Jesus (and we) are tempted to treat God as less that God, we are also tempted to think of our relationship with God as all about ourselves. Just before his temptation, Jesus is baptized and a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And of course Jesus wonders, what does it mean to be Son of God? Satan tempts Jesus to use his power as the newly baptized Son of God to advance himself. Satan shows Jesus how Jesus’s power, his possibility, his unique relation to God could be used for his personal advantage rather than for the benefit, indeed the salvation, of all creation. But Jesus is a savvy Savior. In his responses to Satan, he turns the focus from himself, back to God. And in this way Jesus forces Satan and us to recognize that his identity as Son of God is not about the man but about the message. It’s not about being a new king, but about ushering in a kingdom – a kingdom meant for everyone. After resisting temptation, Satan vanishes, and Jesus emerges from the wilderness inspired and convicted, proclaiming, “Repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Being Son of God means establishing God’s kingdom. Being Jesus disciples means being recruiting for this work.
Unfortunately, the church does a pretty good job during Lent of helping us focus elsewhere than on God’s kingdom. Typically, we think of Lent as a season of personal regret, of individual introspection on how morose and terrible we are. But is that not precisely the temptation of self-preoccupation that Jesus faced?
Jesus refused to understand himself as more important that his ministry. Similarly, we must not see our journey with God as a quest for personal righteousness, but as an exercise in imagining and enacting a new way of living together justly as God’s people. To put it another way, there is no such thing as personal sin, as we usually conceive of it. For when we sin, our sin is not against God alone, but against God’s kingdom. A kingdom in which not only human welfare, but the well-being of all creation in intimately bound together with the well-being of God.
In fact, we cannot understand what sin is until we have a glimpse of God’s kingdom. Over a hundred years ago Walter Rauschenbusch wrote,
“A clear realization of the nature of sin depends on a clear vision of the kingdom of God. We cannot properly feel and know the reign of organized wrong now prevailing unless we constantly see it over against the reign of organized righteousness.”
Further, if we miss the vision of the kingdom, we miss the hope that propels us forward to live God’s world of justice and peace.
Lent invites us to confront injustice, to confront organized wrong not only as it is manifest in our actions as individuals but in our collective action as the church, as workers and as corporations, as investors of money, as citizens of this democracy and as a nation, as tillers and keepers of this earth. But injustice will not be transformed by simply good intentions or strength of will. Injustice will only be transformed when repentance takes place – when we as people refashion those systems of power and wealth, when we re-make them together, so that they ensure the well-being of all as God intends.
In short, we have a responsibility during this Lenten season to reflect on how God intends for us to be citizens of God’s kingdom. And I think it would be immensely useful if we put our energy into pointing out and naming such glimpses of God’s realm when we see them. I see them throughout this congregation’s annual report, as your church committees report on the ministry and mission we have accomplished this past year. I see glimpses in the members who have responded enthusiastically to God’s call to serve as elders on the church council. I hear the kingdom in the conversations already beginning about Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which we will be reading together as a Lenten discipline. And I see it here, and in this beautifully diverse congregation of every shade and color from every continent and many islands, when we come together around this one table to eat of one loaf and drink of one cup, that we might draw strength together to face to the challenged of our time.
This Lent, let us envision together the kingdom that Jesus promised in our time and in this place. With consciousness and commitment, let us step forward to live toward that vision now.