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What is the Kingdom of God?

Before you answer that, and it’s a real question, I asked this question to a group of young adults and they all looked blankly at me. One finally raised his hand and tentatively said, “Heaven?” That bummed me out. Severely. If we’re teaching so little about the Gospel of Jesus Christ that they don’t know about God’s Kingdom, we’ve really missed the boat.

Okay, no pressure. What is the Kingdom of God?

One more thing: Heaven is part of the answer. It just isn’t the whole answer.

???

Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That was his stated purpose. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verse 14: “now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, [the Gospel], and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Matthew 1:17 beginning of Jesus’ ministry: from that time Jesus began to proclaim, repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are the same thing, interchangeable terms. Matthew 1:23: Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Luke 4, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has healed a bunch of people and done crazy stuff, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, cast out demons. The next morning, Jesus goes out to pray before the sun comes up. And the folks who’d had a really good day with Jesus the day before went looking for him and when they found him, they said, “That was amazing! Let’s invite some more people here and you can do more of these miracles.” But what did Jesus say? “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities, also; for I was sent for this purpose.” For I was sent for this purpose. Why did the Father send Jesus? The first reason Jesus gives is to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. That’s. Why. Jesus. Came.

So Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and in Luke 4:18-19, we get a glimpse of what that means: Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah ws given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the bling, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he sat down, everyone watching him, and said, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom. The good news is the good news of the Kingdom. When we’ve told people that the Gospel is “Jesus died for your sins so that you can be forgiven and go to heaven,” we’ve missed the whole what-is-life-here-for part. That’s a big deal. The Gospel is not only “God wants to make you clean from your sin so that you can be with Him in Heaven.” I would go so far as to say that God’s forgiving your sins is just a crucial step to get you started with the Gospel. God definitely wants you with Him in Heaven. He wants you to be part of His Kingdom, here, now.

After John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the coming of God’s Kingdom, was arrested, Jesus began his ministry. And John is in prison. He still has disciples, he’s still trying to live the calling God has given him as faithfully as he can. And he’s hearing these funky things that Jesus is doing. He’s in prison; he can’t see for himself, he can’t go ask for himself. But he’s confused, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?” Get the gravity of this: John the Baptist went out into the wilderness to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, who was Jesus. He said things like “I’m not worthy of untying his sandals” and “I baptize you with water but one is coming who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.” John baptized Jesus! And now he asks, through his disciples, “Are you really the one? Or did I misunderstand and we should wait for someone else?” This is John’s purpose, John’s calling before he’s born, while he’s still in utero, remember? And how does Jesus answer?

Luke 7:24 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sigh, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Yes, I’m the one, yes, these are the signs of the Kingdom of God, yes you got it right, and blessed is anyone who receives the Kingdom of God, not with offense but with joy.

Jesus did miracles. He healed and restored. Now tell me what all these people had in common in Jesus’ time: the lame, lepers, the deaf, the dead (uh, what?), the poor. What do they have in common?

They have need, and they are outcasts from society. They are the unclean. They are the rejects, the disadvantaged, the persecuted, the oppressed. They are the poor.

Isaiah 58

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

We’re near the end of our series in Isaiah and I consider this passage pivotal. I wanted to begin with the Gospels so we could see clearly how this prophetic passage foretells Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom of God. It also rejects, I would say categorically, a self-centered religion that allows people to pray and go through their rituals while living unjustly.

Get this: Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.

These are sins. This is rebellion. Ready?

For day after day they seek me out;
they
seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and
seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Fasting is, arguably, the most intimate thing we can do with God. We are praying, we are seeking God, and we are foregoing food, so that we can focus exclusively on God. Fasting is not “Okay, God, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t eat for a day and you do what I ask.” Fasting is “I am utterly dependent on you, and I am throwing myself before you.” In the Old Testament, you see five categories of fasting: (1) fasting as a sign of grief or mourning, (2) as a sign of repentance and seeking forgiveness for sin, (3) as an aid in prayer, (4) as an experience of the presence of God that results in the endorsement of his messenger, and (5) as an act of ceremonial public worship. We first see fasting in Exodus 34 when Moses fasts before the Lord.

The way God describes fasting is like, “Okay, you want to seek me, here is a direct route. Here, take this megaphone, not because I can hear you better, but because you will feel more like you’re getting through to me.” When we are desperate, truly desperate, we fast. That’s not a bad thing. God says to. It’s a good way to express grief or repentance. It’s also a spiritual discipline that many people incorporate into their regular rhythm of life. There was a stretch in which I would fast one day a week, and doing so really impacted me. It helped me focus more on God, it brought me into a place of clearer dependence, it actually helped me be more peaceful, which I thought was a surprising fruit of that discipline. I’ve been returning to fasting lately.

But like prayer, we can fast wrong. Can you think of an example of people praying wrong in Scripture? Good. Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray int the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Turly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

 

The people of Israel are asking, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?” God answers.

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.

You are doing the “right” acts of worship, but you are not worshiping! Your hearts are not toward God! You say you’re humbling yourself and going before God, but you’re quarreling and fighting! You’re exploiting your workers! You’re oppressing instead of siding with the oppressed! You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it
only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

What kinds of questions are these called? Rhetorical questions. No, no this is not the kind of fast God has chosen.

You should humble yourself. You should bow your head before God. You should lie in sackcloth and ashes. You should forego food and call out to God.

That sounds pretty good, right? That’s fasting, isn’t it?

The key word here is “only.” Is it only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing your head? For prostrating yourself before God?

Absolutely not. And why not? Because the Gospel is not just me and Jesus, getting me “clean,” going through the right rituals, showing God my piety. That’s not the Kingdom of God.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Do you understand why I began with the Kingdom of God and with John the Baptist’s questions? This is the Kingdom of God. This is not some discarded Old Testament instruction that some old prophet told the people of Israel that doesn’t apply to our lives. This is the heart of the Gospel. Why? Because this is God’s heart.

I didn’t plan it this way, but this is my third consecutive sermon on biblical justice. I don’t know how you’d preach Isaiah 58 without talking about justice—it would be like fasting while fighting with wicked fists. Now I said that fasting is foregoing food for a time of focused prayer and seeking God with your heart. And I do believe that’s a decent short definition of the spiritual discipline of fasting. But our inward spiritual disciplines must coordinate with our outward ethical lives. The Israelites here were bowing and humbling themselves, but rejecting God in their hearts by continuing with their immoral practices.

But hear what God says is an acceptable fast, the fasting God has chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Poverty doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Poverty is a cycle that is both a result of people’s choices and of systemic injustice—which, when you come down to it, is also people’s choices, but powerful people’s choices, usually rich people’s choices, choices of people with something to gain by oppressing others. If you believe that people are poor only because they make self-destructive choices, you have not understand the depth of sin in this fallen world nor the teaching of Jesus about wealth. Hear me, yes, people’s choices play into their condition, but the state of poverty in the world first comes as a result of massive injustice, exploitation, oppression, and greed. When we get out our magnifying glass and look at one household and see that they are making foolish choices with their meager resources, we are choosing to be blind to the bigger picture, to the spiritual battle happening before our eyes.

When I tell you that Jesus is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, that doesn’t mean merely that he is compassionate and feels bad for hurting people. That means in the spiritual warfare between those who evilly oppress and defy God and those who suffer oppression, Jesus chooses sides. That means he chooses sides for us, too. That means we follow the King by living out his Kingdom in all the ways these passages describe: loosing the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.

That, God says, is an fast he will accept. That is fasting from our power, fasting from our desire to be favored with the wealthy and the powerful and the successful when it means we have to turn a blind eye to injustice, when we have to pretend we don’t notice how things got so imbalanced in the first place—and continue to stay imbalanced.

In case I’m upsetting you here—and I’m okay if God is upsetting you, he does that—having wealth does not in itself make you sinful and greedy and oppressive. How you use your wealth is how God judges whether you are greedy and making the chains of oppression or just and breaking the chains of oppression. We have wealth and power, all of us, and God calls us to use it to make His Kingdom more present here, today. I’m not a legalist, I don’t believe we have to tithe our herbs and spices or that God expects us to eat only bread and water; God is extravagant and lavishes us with abundance. And. And we are called to share, and to use our power for righteousness and justice. Period.

I hope, I actually pray, that you will understand this is not my hobby horse or my soap box. This is God’s heart for his people. God seeks to set the oppressed free, to liberate those suffering poverty, and God seeks to transform us into his image by making us his partners in this purpose. That’s another way to describe God’s Kingdom: our partnership with God to love hurting and broken people and seek justice, through which we will become more like Jesus.

Do you see how different this is than the personal, private, just-me-and-Jesus approach to the Gospel? Because I don’t believe that is the Gospel. If I think the Gospel is only about me and Jesus, then my fast is not acceptable to God. Can you read this passage any differently? [I’m going to go a step further: we can make an idolatry of our ] Because this is acceptable fasting, this is the heart of seeking God:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

This is a dangerous road. What if we understand the people suffering hunger and illiteracy and depression are our own flesh and blood? What if they are our family? What if they belong to us and we belong to them? How will that change our choices? Our priorities?

God speaks through the prophet to make clear how fasting this way will change us:


8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

I had someone suggest, with a very good heart, that we could preach more on the Glory of God in Isaiah. Okay. This is the glory of God. To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—who is the poor wanderer?

Yeah, that’s Jesus. That also might be the immigrant, but it’s definitely Jesus. He says so. And God, our glorious, almighty God, cares for all people, and will say especially those suffering—not because he loves them better, but because they have more need. God’s glory is many things, a sermon series in itself, but one thing I know shows God’s glory is the horrible enemy, the Samaritan, kneeling down beside the bleeding, bludgeoned Jew to carry him to the inn and save his life. That is God’s glory, that action glorifies the Almighty God of Heaven and Earth. These matter to God. When TJ’s One World Health opens a clinic and people who were suffering get the medical care and medicine they need, God is glorified. That reveals God’s glory! Can you read this passage any differently? ‘

then, then, your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Two more things and I’m done.

Why will God respond to us when we do these things but call us in rebellion and sin when we do the opposite?

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The answer is: Because this is who God is. I said this before: Grace is for freeing us to seek God with all our hearts and minds and to live God’s calling, to be free for obeying Jesus’ words and having our joy made complete in him.

God loves us first. God doesn’t wait for us to be acceptable to love us, God loves us and his love changes us and makes us acceptable. But—and this is crucial to our understanding of Grace—when we sin and rebel and oppress and abuse, God doesn’t say, “Welp, I gave you grace, so I guess you’re good.” God says, “You’re killing yourself and you’re abusing my beloved and you must stop!” Grace doesn’t mean God’s turns a blind eye to our obedience, ever! That’s the point of Isaiah telling them their fast is unacceptable—they are exploiting their workers, they are doing as they please instead of as God pleases, they are opposing God’s Kingdom instead of seeking it. Grace means God will forgive you no matter what, and nothing you can do will make God love you more nor can you do anything to make God love you any less. Grace also means that God will keep calling you to repentance. If we’re not living for God’s Kingdom, we’re wasting our lives. It isn’t that God is manipulative and will only bless us when we finally do the stuff he prefers; the true blessings God desires to give us come through seeking God with our whole hearts, we are made in God’s image and He himself is our blessing, is our home, is our treasure. “Christ is enough for me?” Yeah, and also Christ is everything. Everything that matters.

That’s one. Acceptable fasting and grace go hand in hand. They are inseparable. God’s grace leads us to acceptable fasting. We can get there no other way. We only seek God’s Kingdom through God’s grace.

Two: God makes and gifts each of us uniquely. There are, literally, seven billion ways to seek God’s Kingdom, to fight for justice, to care for the oppressed, to love the least. God gives some of us gifts of healing. Then go heal. God gives some of us gifts of preaching. Then go preach. If you love kids, love kids—they need it, so bad. If you can disciple young people, disciple them—they need it, so bad. If you hate injustice, then fight it. If you feel compassion for depressed people, learn to counsel, learn to listen. An acceptable fast to the Lord our Glorious God, to Jesus Christ our Savior, happens when we seek God with our hearts and our gifts and join Him in the work to which he calls us. Yours doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. How can you spend yourself in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed? How can you help loose the chains and set the oppressed free? How can you share God’s love with people who don’t know they are loved and forgiven?

What part has Jesus given you in His Kingdom? Live that and 11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Amen.

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