Once again, I completed this sermon in a rush. The second of two grant proposals I’ve been writing (with thanks to several folk who helped me!) over the last three weeks was due Saturday at midnight. Saturday at 10:30 pm, I began to write the second half of this sermon. With that preface let me say: considering, it’s not too bad! It could stand for some tightening up, though, much like last week’s.
Proverbs 1:20-33 ; Isaiah 50:4-9
We are spending this month trying to pray the Lord’s Prayer from the heart. We know that real prayer has to be from the heart. It has to be honest, and sincere. That’s why we share personal petitions a little later; and why we always leave some time for silent prayer; we all need some solitude to pray what is on our heart. We follow Jesus’ advice to go into your room and pray to your Father in secret.
But we’re not here just for each one to pray by herself or himself. You can do that at home. Jesus also wanted his disciples to share in a prayer, and thus to say “Our Father” together. It’s a first-person-plural prayer: “Give us this day….” He wanted to leave us a prayer that we could all share in together, just as he left us sacraments we can share. And not only us in this room: when we pray the Lord’s prayer, we should remember that we are joining in with all Christians everywhere and at all times. The “our” of the Our Father is a very big We.
But whenever you have a collective, a We, there’s always a chance that I might not feel fully a part of that we. You might find yourself just going through the motions, going along with the crowd. You might mouth the words of this prayer, or swallow the bread and juice, without really feeling it, or without really understanding what and why all this means to you. I think we’ve all been there. Well, what I want us to do this month is to close the gap between what’s going on in your heart and secret, honest thoughts, and what we say together when we pray Jesus’ prayer. Our goal is simple: we want to be able to all pray this prayer together, from the heart—so that it really means something to you, as Kaitlyn put it.
“Thy Kingdom Come.” I wonder what that means to you. What are you praying for when you repeat those words every week? I bet there are some honest souls here who would admit, I really don’t know what I’m praying for when I repeat, “Thy Kingdom come.” (You honest souls can go ahead and nod; if you’re smart and sat in the very back row, no one will see you but me!) I am more and more in love with honesty and in awe of truly honest people. Maybe you take Thy Kingdom come to mean, God, let me into heaven when I die. Fair enough. The Bible elsewhere talks about our hope beyond this life. But in this prayer, Jesus goes on to say: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is not a prayer to God to take me away, take me to heaven. We can find that elsewhere. Here it’s a prayer for heaven to come down here. Thy Kingdom come: come here. It’s a prayer for earth to become a place where God’s will is fulfilled, as it presumably is in heaven.
My friend Matt Boulton wrote a blue-grassy song that starts like this:
I ain’t goin’ up to heaven in the sky
I ain’t flyin’ with the angels when I die
I ain’t gonna rise up in the clear
Cause I do believe my dear
Heaven’s comin’ down here
That’s what Jesus is praying for in this prayer. And so much of his preaching centered on this coming Kingdom of God, so many parables described it in fantastic and sometimes baffling ways.
Jesus goes as far in Mark’s gospel to say: “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” Well, now wait a minute. That sounds like we have a problem. That sounds like Jesus is saying, this Kingdom of God, which we are praying for to come to earth, will indeed come before some of his listeners die. And indeed, Paul and many other NT writers talk like they expect the Kingdom to come soon. So for them, this prayer was a very imminent one: Thy Kingdom Come. Maybe next week. Now, it sure looks like that didn’t happen. But some Christians today still pray like that; as if any day now the Kingdom might come.
But maybe 2000 years later, we need to stop looking for the signs of when it’s coming—because how many times do people have to be wrong about that? Maybe we need to approach this Kingdom more poetically, and less like we are expecting the Amtrak Vermonter to pull into Springfield station any minute now. Jesus, after all, is very cagey about this Kingdom in all his parables and prophesies. At one point he says, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst” or among you. Now he knew people were expecting some cataclysmic end; so he must have been deliberately messing with people a little, trying to throw them off what they thought they knew about this Kingdom. So maybe the early church took him too literally about this Kingdom Come business; and then when it didn’t literally come like a freight train, they started losing interest in this Kingdom coming to earth. And so their hopes drifted off to a far away heaven.
Now, around the turn of the 20th century, our Christian ancestors were getting much more interested in the second line of the prayer: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And they started talking about the Kingdom of God again, but now as something we will build on earth. We’ve learned about God’s will from Jesus, and now, they said, we are going to make that will happen on earth. (It would take another 87 years until Belinda Carlisle would sing: We’ll make heaven a place on earth; ooh, heaven is a place on earth.”) The turn of the 20th century was a time of great optimism. Americans thought that we were advancing so quickly in our “civilization” that an end to misery was near and a golden age was about to dawn. Take a look sometime in our old Pilgrim Hymnal at “Hail the Glorious City,” # 424, published in 1904. “Hail the glorious golden city…Wrong is banished from its borders, justice reigns supreme over all.” The second verse goes: “We are builders of that city…All are called to task divine.” The Kingdom of God is something we are building. This idea is part of our heritage.
Is that what the Lord’s Prayer is about? Well, maybe. The prayer is certainly about God’s will being done on earth. But maybe our forebears were too optimistic, even grandiose, about what they would be able to accomplish. Two World Wars sure didn’t establish the Kingdom of God, nor a bunch more smaller wars since. And now, think closely about that prayer for a minute. It’s broken into two parts. The first part is called the “thou” petitions, because they are addressed to God. “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The second part is called the “us petitions,” because they are about us: Give us this day our daily bread; forgive us our debts…lead us not into temptation.” Bringing the kingdom is among the things we entrust to God to do. We don’t pray: Our Father, help us build the Kingdom of God.
Now, that doesn’t mean we have nothing to do with it. That doesn’t mean we just sit around and wait. Jesus’ wording is very odd, using the passive voice that I was taught in school never to use: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” Not “God, bring your kingdom, and do your will.” This prayer, Thy Kingdom come, might indeed include even our even small acts of justice, of love, of breaking out of the old order and living life anew. After all, when we do these things—and you know, you get this incredible feeling when these breakthroughs happen, and it feels like the whole universe just shifted a little bit—when you do that, or it happens around you, are you doing that or is God? Maybe it is God doing it, doing God’s will, and that’s why it feels so amazing.
The Kingdom of God, as Jesus taught it, is fuzzy, it’s very hard to pin down. We think of it, as did the Bible writers, as some grand, once and for all re-creation of all things, but maybe it also comes in our local, mighty acts, or even almost unnoticeable acts done with the goodness of GOd.
Be that as it may, we’ve got to deal with the main message of the Kingdom of God throughout the NT: it is not something we will build ourselves, nor is it something God will build through us. It will come as a thief in the night, and “we will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” And there are many such scriptures. We can be pretty sure that when the first Christians prayed, “Thy Kingdom come,” they had in mind some dramatic and final overthrow of all unjust and ungodly authorities, at the end of which even nature would be healed and perfected—the lion will lie down with the lamb—and the last enemy to be destroyed is death. They believed that even now death holds no dominion over us, but that on the Day of the Lord death and suffering and wrong would all be ended on earth.
What do we do with that prayer, 2000 years later? I bet that question has gnawed at some of you. (Now, some of you are gnawed on by nothing. You aren’t bothered by these things. You checked out of this sermon long ago. That’s ok.) For those who have these maybe vague doubts and questions about this prayer, Thy Kingdom come, here’s what I want. I want us to keep praying it, and to mean by it something close to what the biblical writers, those first Christians, meant by it. And I want that prayer to be real enough for us, that we can really pray it from the heart.
Try this. To pray, Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and to pray it from the heart, is to be filled with both hope and great longing. The great longing is borne of a weariness with the suffering of this whole world, with the corruption, the baseness, the evil stupidity of the world, its foolish people, and its corrupt systems. It’s the sin of the world in the biggest sense. Now Jesus’ prayer will deal with our personal sin in a few lines. When he tells us to pray, “Forgive us our debts,” he takes for granted that we have them, we do sin. So similarly, when he prays, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he’s assuming that the whole world is not yet what God intends it to be. And this prayer is our opportunity to gather up all the hurt and harm and horror in this world and come before God in great longing and say: may all this be blotted out. With Proverbs we ask impatiently: “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” That longing gives this prayer a depth and urgency in our heart.
To pray it in Jesus’ name gives us the hope in our heart. For we believe that God has already, somehow, blotted out all this misery in Jesus, who was subjected to the world’s worst and yet triumphed. And God is always triumphing over sin, and evil, and corruption, and godlessness and inhumanity. The resurrection assures us that God and humanity belong together, and in God humanity finds its enduring, unimpeachable triumph. And once you have that assurance, then think about what an optimistic, upbeat prayer this is. The earth is a place where God’s will can be done. This humble, fragile earth, and we who walk lowly upon it, are capable of fulfilling God’s will. God’s will isn’t only for some distant heaven; it is for the earth. That’s hope. Hope that acknowledges real pain, real longing, and yet affirms the infinite potential for goodness in this life.
But don’t skip the longing part, the painful part, the honest part—for some easy, chipper optimism. There’s no resurrection without the cross. I myself can’t pray Thy Kingdom Come, and get on board with those Christians and others who say, “everything is going according to God’s plan.” “There’s always a silver lining, because God’s got a reason for everything.” “Everything always works out for the best.” Sorry, I know some of you say things like that. I just can’t. Not everything and always. Because whenever I pray as Jesus taught me, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” I confess that God’s will is not yet being done on earth as it is in heaven. I just don’t see how you can pray Thy Kingdom come, like you really mean it, from the heart, until you are honest about the pain and injustice that has no damn good reason to be here. It’s not a test, it’s not a lesson, it’s not only so much as we can handle; and it is robbing the life from the widow, the poor, and the alien, and robs us of our integrity, because we are all caught up in the waywardness of the world. Proverbs reminds us of the brute fact: Waywardness kills.
If we have forgetten that, or ignore it, and have tried to put a sunny, optimistic face in the place of the need in the world and in us for total transformation by God, which is what the prayer is saying, it’s probably because we would like to feel comfortable in the world, with the status quo. We’d like to think that it all makes sense. Everything is beautiful. Of course we want to shut our eyes to the ugliness, the senselessness. Well, there is plenty of beauty, plenty of sense, plenty of goodness. God creates this world, remember. It is good, however fallen we have made it. But that’s not where the passion, the heart of Jesus’ prayer comes from. It comes from recognizing that, despite all of the heartlessness and ugliness, God has not given up on this world, and wants more than anything to bring this world into perfection, to bring us into perfection—to see peace and justice and goodwill reign in every heart and every nation.
Pray that from the heart this week: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Lord I believe your world can do better than this, I believe this can be the place of your reign. And I want to be a part of that. Let your will be done in me, and in us, as a sign and promise to the whole world that Christ came to bring the Kingdom of God to all. Amen.