Last week we focused on the opening words of the Lord's Prayer, and thought a little about what it means to name God as Father and hallow God's name. This week we will be focusing on the next bit of the prayer, and asking what it means to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. We will be thinking in particular about the first bit of that, because the second bit is really a restatement or an elaboration. God's will being done in earth as it is in heaven is precisely what the kingdom looks like when it comes. And there is such a richness of kingdom imagery in the gospels that it seems our best way in to unpacking what this part of the prayer means.
A lot of what follows is about the character of the kingdom, and it’s easy to become quite vague, so let's start with something more solid, so that we can really start to see it. If the kingdom of God is the state of affairs where God’s will is done, as I heard one speaker describe it, then the kingdom of God is the place where everything God wants for creation is realised. It is the place where no one has to flee their homes because they are no longer safe. Where no one goes to bed hungry or doesn’t go to bed at all because they don’t have a roof let alone a bed to put under it. It is the place where we longer fear the news because we don’t know what is true and we wish most of it wasn’t. Where there are no walls to protect us or keep them out. It is the place where shalom reigns and everyone finds the abundance of life that Jesus promised. It looks like the New Glasgow that Doug Gay imagined, and the New Leicester that some of us have imagined.
I’d love for you to be building your own image of the kingdom as we go on, and I encourage you to make that image as detailed and as practical as you can. The kingdom of God isn’t just a vision or a concept, it is becoming a reality, and because we are called to pray ‘your kingdom come’, we are called to take our part in realising it, and that means setting our hearts and minds and bodies to the task, imagining and creating and living a kingdom way of life.
For now though, I want to explore our reading from Mark 4:26-33, which gives us a couple of different images of the kingdom, connected by ideas of growth. In both pictures, the kingdom starts with a seed, which in a sense represents something totally new. This seed hasn’t appeared from nowhere - it has come from a plant that has already had life, and when it grows it will bear a likeness to that plant - but it will grow in a new place to become a new plant with its own life. There’s a sense of excitement and freshness and potential here. But there is also a sense of the unknown. The potential is all locked in the seed, and the beginnings of growth are hidden, so that as the first parable says, not even the farmer knows hows it grows, or indeed if it will grow at all. All the farmer can do is create the right conditions and wait and trust.
So what does all of this mean for the kingdom? Well it means that the kingdom grows from what has been before, but becomes something totally new. When it comes to fruition, it will bear all the characteristics of God’s character and action throughout time - it will be loving and merciful and just - but it will be something that has never been before, something that brings great excitement and renews the world with great freshness and unlocks all the potential of creation. It also means that we cannot always know how and where and when it is growing. That can be frustrating and dispiriting, but we have to do what we can and be patient and have faith for the rest.
I also love the image of the birds nesting in the branches of the mustard tree. It’s an image that appears in Ezekiel 17 too, where God declares that he will take an offshoot and plant it on a mountain, and “birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. I think this picture tells us that God doesn't grow his kingdom for his own pleasure, but so that we may have somewhere to make our home. The kingdom might be a new work which God is growing but in a strange way it is also a homecoming because it is where we belong.
At this point I want to move away from our reading and ask what else the kingdom looks like. Jesus didn't give us many straight answers, but he did give us many clues. I think the first thing to say about the kingdom is that it seems clear from the way Jesus speaks about it in the gospels that is not just about the other side of eternity, but it is also about the here and now. It is both now and not yet, as it starts in this world and finds fulfilment in the next. And so it is not so much about where we live as about how we live, and I find that both enormously challenging and tremendously exciting. It will take work on our part, but if the kingdom of God is the state of affairs where God’s will is done, then it is life as God always intended it to be, life lived in fellowship with God and one another. Why would we want to wait for that?
Lots of the clues Jesus gave can be found in the Gospel of Mathew, so let's dive in. In Matthew 13:3-9 we read that the kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seeds across his field, but only those which land on the good soil grow to become healthy plants. The kingdom is offered to everyone but it is difficult to understand and so not everyone can accept it. I think that often when we read these verses, we focus on the second part of that, but maybe we need to give more thought to the first. The kingdom is offered to everyone. We need to prepare the ground and make sure we are ready to accept the word of God, and do what we can through prayer and conversation to help others accept it too, but the crucial thing is that the opportunity to grow in the kingdom is there for all of us.
In Matthew 13:24-30 we read that the kingdom of God is like a field in which wheat and weeds grow together, but the farmer tells his men not to pull up the weeds because he doesn't want to damage the wheat. The good and bad grow together because the kingdom is worked out in the midst of the trial and tangle of our everyday lives. Being people of the kingdom of God doesn't protect us from the hardships of the kingdom of the world, and so we will experience both sorrow and joy, and we will meet both people of peace and truth and people of anger and lies, but the farmer is still watching over us. And if God can make a dry tree flourish, as he says in the passage I mentioned earlier from Ezekiel, perhaps there is a chance for the bad to become good. Perhaps the good and bad grow together because the kingdom of God doesn't give up on anyone.
In Matthew 13:44-46 we read that the kingdom of God is like a man who finds a hidden treasure or a beautiful pearl, and gives up everything he has to own it. The kingdom is precious and exciting, and we should be intoxicated by and infatuated with it. It might seem improper to speak of intoxication and infatuation, but we find the language of feasting and courtship in the Bible. Psalm 104 talks of God bringing forth wine to gladden the hearts of men, and in Hosea 2 God says he will allure his people and betroth them to him in love and compassion. We should delight in the kingdom, just as we delight in pleasures and people, and in that delight we should share the good news so that more people can experience it. The kingdom is one of those wonderful things that increases as it is shared, so we should be generous not possessive with it.
In Matthew 20:1-16 we read that the kingdom of God is like a man who hires workers in the morning and at lunchtime and in the afternoon, but pays them all the same at the end of the day even though those who were hired in the morning complain. The kingdom is gloriously unfair, but the truth is that none of us get what we deserve because we all get far more than that.
And in Matthew 25:14-30 we read that the kingdom of God is like a man who gives his servants one and five and ten coins, and praises those who give him back more than they gave him but condemns the one who hid the money and gave back only what he was given. The kingdom grants us both reward and responsibility. It's not as simple as saying that God helps those who help themselves, and it certainly doesn't mean we have to earn our blessings, but it does mean that we have to engage with God and with his kingdom. It doesn't matter how much we have or how much we give back, as long as we do something with what we have and give something more back. It's probably clear by now that this is a kingdom unlike any other. In fact, Jesus seemed reluctant to accept the title of king, and I have a suspicion that he used the language of the kingdom because it was the language he knew his listeners would understand. What we are talking about here is not just a new and improved version of the systems and society we already have, but a radical new way of life. It is a way of life that turns everything on its head, only for us to find the world is now the right way up.
We started with seeds, and I want to go back to the horticultural metaphors now. I’ve already said that all the potential is already in the seed before it goes in the ground, and so although growth might be slow and difficult, it is inevitable under the right conditions. If the kingdom of God is like a seed then, I want to ask what might be the right conditions for its growth.
A plant needs a gardener, someone to look after it and make sure it gets everything else it needs. In the same way, the kingdom needs people who are active and involved in growing it. We pray your kingdom come, but that doesn't mean we leave it all to God. A kingdom can have the most perfect king, but it will only function properly if all his people work with him, and so the kingdom needs our help. We need to be active and involved, beginning by living out the kind of life modelled by our king.
And of course it is so much the better if gardener has a bit of knowledge and experience, if they understand the right time to feed or move or prune the plant because they’ve read the books and they’ve practised their skills. In the same way, it is so much the better if the people of the kingdom know what they are doing. There will be mysteries and there will be failures, but we are called to spend time getting to know what the kingdom of God means, and discovering how our gifts may be used to further it, through prayer and through study and through getting stuck in.
A plant also needs water, in part (as the internet reliably informs me) because that it is the water pressure that keeps the stems and leaves strong. In the same way, the kingdom needs a solid core. Of course that core is Christ. He must remain at the centre because his life and his teaching reveal the true nature of the kingdom, and because he is our support when we are weak or troubled.
A plant needs sunlight, as this provides the energy it needs to keep itself living and growing. In the same way, the kingdom needs enthusiasm and passion. In Revelation 3:16, God warns the church in Laodicea that he will spit them out of his mouth because they are lukewarm, and so it is clear that we can't be half hearted about working for the kingdom. That's partly because there are times when building the kingdom is going to be hard work, and we're going to need that enthusiasm to keep going, but it's also because the kingdom is exciting and if we're not passionate about it, it can only be because we haven't understood it yet.
A plant also needs carbon dioxide, as it is used to create the food that sustains it. In the same way, the kingdom needs people to put in time and resources. We've already seen that the kingdom isn't just for the other side of eternity, it’s for here and now, and that means it needs to meet people's physical and social needs as well their spiritual needs. The kingdom needs to feed people and heal people and teach people...and because we are people of the kingdom we need to do those things. That might sometimes mean making sacrifices for the sake of others, but if we are all willing to put one another first, then we will all be cared for. That's how the kingdom works.
And of course a plant needs all of these things to work together, as it uses the sunlight and water and carbon dioxide the gardener uses their knowledge to make sure it has, bringing them together in the process of photosynthesis. In the same way, the kingdom needs all of the elements we have considered to be brought together. That means we all need to be and do all the things we have just described, but it also means we all need to work together. Everyone has something to bring, and so the more of us are involved, the more knowledge and experience and passion and giving we have to work with.
If these are the conditions the kingdom needs to grow, then these are the conditions we need to be seeking to create. If we do that, growth may still be slow and difficult, but it will be inevitable. And I’m not just talking about numerical growth in the church. I would love to see more people join our church family, but that is only ever going to a consequence of us taking part in something far greater, and so that’s where we need our focus to be. If the kingdom is the way life as God intended it to be, that is so much more than numbers and so much bigger than the church. We can grow in love and wisdom and understanding and justice and mercy and action and prayer. And families, schools, communities, businesses, governments, arts, sciences, environment - every aspect of life can be transformed to become part of the kingdom.
Your kingdom come is a mighty prayer because it is a prayer to change the world. Sometimes we look around and think it can't be done, but it is done every time we choose to live the life of the kingdom. Every time we show kindness to a neighbour or speak up against injustice or share the joy of knowing God, the world becomes a little more kingdom. The kingdom is coming but the kingdom is also here because the kingdom is among us.