The Kingdom of God begins in the most unlikely places. You might expect it to turn up in the places of power, with the sound of sackbuts and trumpets, the sway of bejewelled costumes, and the authority of one who won the national election, including the popular vote. Look hard, seek diligently, but you are not likely to find the Kingdom of God there.
The Kingdom of God doesn’t show up in moments of triumph and success, but creeps in when there is trouble and danger.
In Jerusalem, Herod Antipas had arrested John the Baptizer and put him in jail. Herod Antipas had divorced his wife, in order to marry his half brother’s wife, his niece Herodias. It was messy. It was scandalous. It was a betrayal of kinship – you don’t treat your step brother like that. It was against every convention of health family life. And John the Baptist had made his views clear – he didn’t approve at all, and he left you in no doubt about it. So Herod Antipas had John arrested. It was the act of an immoral leader who didn’t want to be told how wrong he was.
After that, things were a bit tricky for itinerant preachers in Judah. Jesus had recently been baptized by John in the river Jordan. He was just getting going. But for the moment, it was safer to leave the city and go north to the sticks. So he went to Galilee, but didn’t settle in Nazareth, which had been home for his growing up years, and settled in the lakeside fishing village of Capernaum. And it was there that he began to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near.
The kingdom of heaven is when God is in charge of our world. When God is king, when God is President, when God is Prime Minister, you can trust the leadership. In the kingdom of heaven, the President will not have a history of groping women, of cheating his contractors, of bullying the people who live on the edges of his golf course. Most humans can’t handle the power with integrity. Human leaders are always flawed. We live in a sinful world.
But in the kingdom of heaven, we imagine what the world would be like with God in charge, and we try to put those dreams into action. In the kingdom of heaven, there is compassion for those who are struggling, there is a place for those who live on the margins, there is health care for those who are ill. In the kingdom of heaven, you are encouraged to be a good person and to help others.
You can’t keep the kingdom of heaven to yourself, living it privately away from the gaze of the neighbours or the politicians. Heaven is never just a personal matter. You can never say: I’m saved, never mind everyone else; I am one of the chosen, so I’m OK. NO!
The kingdom of heaven is for sharing. The kingdom of heaven is good news for everyone.
A lot of people think that the kingdom of heaven is what happens when we die, if we’re lucky, or what happens when Jesus returns at the end of time to establish the glorious kingdom. It may involve those things, but it is also about NOW, about how we live in God’s way, and how we work with God to make good things happen here in our communities, in our nations, in our world.
So Jesus went round telling people all about it. And what Jesus did, he expects us to do too. Jesus couldn’t do it on his own. So he recruited ordinary people to help him. As he walked beside the lake, he saw Simon and Andrew fishing, and he called them to follow him. Did he know them already? Had he seen them among the people who came to listen to him? We don’t know. But Jesus asked them to join him to fish for people, and that meant telling people about the kingdom of heaven. Then shortly afterwards, Jesus recruits two more fishermen in the same way, James and John. So he has his first four disciples, the core team. They weren’t scholars; they weren’t trained preachers or doctors. They were fishermen, ordinary workers.
And together, they walked with Jesus from town to town, village to village, telling everyone the good news that the kingdom of heaven was near, and bringing healing to those who were broken and in pain.
And that’s what he wants us to do. To live the kingdom of heaven, and to share this precious treasure with those whom we meet.
But we hide behind our church walls. Afraid.
We hope that the way we live will be so impressive that people will want some of what inspires us. The reality is that most of us live just like our agnostic neighbours. What makes your lifestyle different from that of the people around you? For that matter, what makes my lifestyle different from anyone else?
OK, talking to people about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven is scary, but there are ways of doing it.
During the first weekend of March, the Talking Jesus mission is happening in Durham Diocese. Here in Gateshead, we have two bishops and their teams coming to help us. They will do assemblies in lots of local schools, and Q&A sessions with bishops. You will suddenly find sofas in Saltwell Park and all sorts of strange places, where you can chat to a bishop. Or you might find a bishop offering you a free shoe-shine. At the Angel of the North, they will be handing out knitted angels to strangers and having conversations about the important things in life. Here in Bensham, we’re going to take members of the team on a pub crawl. These events will create opportunities for good conversations about the things that really matter, the big questions: Who am I? What am I here for? What does it all mean? And on the Sunday, we will have a special preacher, and the service will be somewhat different from usual. I don’t know exactly what we will do yet, but if you have any ideas, let me know. Bring your family and friends to that special service – who are you going to bring with you?
God’s kingdom is coming and that is good news. God’s kingdom is here! Now we can live it. Now we can tell other people about it.