February 10, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I want you to imagine for a moment that you are on the game show, “Let’s Make a Deal.” The host has just called your name to “Come on down!” and so you run down the aisle and if you are in good ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ form, you jump excitedly about in your chicken costume or whatever outlandish outfit you wore to catch the camera’s attention. Once you have calmed down, the host holds out a stack of cash to you and says, “I have here in my hand $1000. You can walk away with this cash right now, or if you would like to make a deal, you can give up the money for what is in this box.” He pulls out an ornate box, opens it, and there, nestled on velvet, is a shining pearl the size of a baseball. 1 For those who doubt a pearl could grow that large
“This pearl was harvested from the wild by divers in the south seas. As you can see, the pearl is without blemish and its size is extremely rare. What do you want to do? Do you want to keep the cash or take the pearl?” The audience starts shouting out their advice: “Take the pearl!” they yell in unison, “Take the pearl!” Not a single voice advises you to keep the cash because anyone can see that only a fool would turn down such a deal as this one.
This is exactly the scenario Jesus presents to his listeners: the kingdom of God, he says is like being offered a pearl of incalculable value. The Kingdom of God is worth more than anything you could possibly own, he says, and only a fool would hesitate to give all he or she has in order to obtain that pearl. The analogy is a simple one and in Jesus’ parable, the choice is an easy one to understand which makes you wonder why everyone didn’t immediately jump on board with Jesus. And why do we still struggle to live unselfishly, or make sacrifices in Jesus’ name if the benefits are so obviously clear? Why aren’t we willing to trade all we have to get that pearl? The audience on “Let’s Make a Deal” wouldn’t hesitate; why do we?
The problem is that my analogy of “Let’s Make a Deal” to Jesus’ offer of the Kingdom only works when we can see exactly what is in the box. We can visualize pearls — maybe some of us have even purchased them for loved ones or have some of our own passed down from mother to daughter as prized possessions — or in Jesus’ parallel parable, we can imagine that treasure in the field, a pirates’ chest full of gold doubloons buried underground for centuries, but the Kingdom of God? Honestly, we’re not sure what that is. What exactly is it that Jesus is offering us when he promises us the Kingdom of God? He says that being offered the Kingdom of God is like being offered a priceless pearl but it feels more like we are standing on that game show stage and the host is saying to us, “You can walk out of here with this $1000 in cold hard cash or you can trade it all for what is behind the curtain.”
What would you do then? How much are you willing to risk when you are not even sure what you are going to get in return? The fact is that most of us are still a bit murky about this whole concept of the Kingdom of God.
It’s odd that the meaning of the Kingdom of God should remain so elusive to us because the Kingdom of God was the central theme of Jesus’ entire body of teaching. Do you know how many times the phrase “Kingdom of God” rolls off of Jesus’ tongue in our gospels? Before I tell you, let me give you some comparisons of other words that we would consider important to our Christian faith.2
Let’s start with the word ‘church.’ The church, which has become for some the be all and end all of their faith, is mentioned by Jesus a grand total of 3 times, and in two of those passages he is telling people what to do when they are having problems with another church member which not only doesn’t speak well for the quality of this institution but it also means it’s likely that those passages were inserted later because the church didn’t even form until after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus told his disciples to carry on his ministry when he was gone but he didn’t leave specific instructions on how to organize that ministry; how many boards they should include in the church structure, who was to be allowed in the pulpit, or what we should serve at coffee hour. Jesus was simply not very interested in talking about the church. He figured he’d let us figure it out.
Now, Jesus was a little more interested in sin than he was in the church, which could actually be said of a lot of people today! He mentions “sin” about 15 times so it was something that concerned him but I still wouldn’t call him as obsessed about the subject as some of his modern day followers are.
What about salvation, then? You’d think given the frequency with which Christians ask people if they are saved, that Jesus must have been very invested in the state of our souls, and yet surprisingly he only mentions salvation three times. If you throw in the word ‘saved,’ you can squeeze out a total of about a dozen times that Jesus mentions the subject.
Compare all of that to the number of times that Jesus says the phrase “the Kingdom of God” (or as Matthew calls it, “the Kingdom of heaven.”) Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God over 50 times (honestly, I stopped counting); at least three times more than he talks about sin, four times as much as salvation, and his concern with the Kingdom of God leaves his concern for the church in the dust. The Kingdom of God is the first thing Jesus preaches about when he begins his ministry and it’s his last concern as he’s eating with his disciples the night of his arrest. It is the subject of nearly every parable, is central to his teachings, and it is the platform for his ministry. At one point, he says to the crowds, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God ….. for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43) He sees it as the reason he was here. It should be very disturbing to all of us that for all of Jesus’ talk about the Kingdom of God, for all of the hours he spent describing it and urging his followers to be part of it, that we in the church are better equipped to debate organs versus praise bands in worship than we are to describe the Kingdom of God.
One Sunday morning, a father said to his daughter, “Time to get up. We’ve got to get ready for church.”
“I’m not going,” said the daughter. “I don’t need to go.”
“Yes, you do,” her father replied. “We all need to learn more about God.”
The daughter said, “I told you I don’t need to go. I learned about God last week.”
The father smiled. “I’ve been going to church all my life, sweety, and I haven’t learned enough.”
The daughter replied, “Well, maybe you weren’t paying attention!”
I’m going to begin a series next week on Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God and for those who want to get a leg up on this series, I encourage you to take some time this week to read those fifty or so passages in which Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God and see if you can begin to form a picture of what it is and why Jesus believes it to be as precious as treasure. You can use an old fashioned concordance to find the references or go online to biblegateway.com and put the phrase in the search bar. In preparation for that work and the next few weeks, let me just take a moment to tell you what the the Kingdom of God is not.
First of all, the Kingdom of God is not the physical territory of a male God. The Greek word that our Bibles translate as “Kingdom” is basilea which is actually feminine in gender so if you were going to translate this phrase literally, you’d have to translate it the “Queendom of God”, but the gender in the Greek word wasn’t mean to be taken literally anymore than French people think that ‘la table’ means their tables are girls. Basilea simply meant “realm” and could be used for both Kings and Queens or rulers of any sort.3 It would be more accurate to translate Jesus’ phrase as the “realm of God,” or “God’s imperial rule.” The only reason today that I am using the phrase “Kingdom of God” rather than “realm of God” is because most of your Bible translations haven’t gotten with the program and I don’t want to confuse you by using a phrase that you will not find in most of your Bibles. If I had my druthers, I would substitute “the realm of God” everywhere that you read “the Kingdom of God,” and I will probably use that phrase in later sermons, but for now I’ll stick with the sexist, “Kingdom of God,” and ask you to try not to take that as a literal description of God’s gender.
Secondly, the Kingdom of God is not referring to the afterlife. This is a common mistake and we can be excused for being confused about this because Matthew muddied the waters when he used the phrase “the Kingdom of heaven,” instead of the kingdom of God. (Speaking of which, if you do your homework, make sure that you also search the concordance for references to the Kingdom of Heaven.) When Matthew used the phrase “Kingdom of heaven,” he wasn’t thinking of our modern day idea of heaven with pearly gates and angels floating on clouds; he was writing his gospel for a church that had a significant number of Jewish Christians in it and good Jews did not utter the name of God. Even today, orthodox Jews will write G-D in order to avoid writing or reading the name of God because they believe God’s name is too holy to be uttered by human beings. Likewise, Matthew carefully substituted “Kingdom of heaven” in any place the other gospels had the “Kingdom of God,” in order to be sensitive to the religious feelings of his Jewish-Christian church members.
And finally, the Kingdom of God is not the church. As I said, the church didn’t exist as an institution until after Jesus’ resurrection and was formed as an expedient way to manage the continuing ministry of Jesus. When the church is doing its job well, there will be overlap between the church and the kingdom because as followers of Christ, we in the church are called to reflect the kingdom of God for the people, but we should never mistake of confusing this imperfect human institution with the perfection of God’s rule.
So the Kingdom of God is not the geographical territory of a male God; it is not the afterlife, or where we go when we die if we are good; and it is not the church. It is, however, the foundation of all of Jesus’ teaching and the reason he came to minister to us and die for us. And when we are grasp it and become a part of its rule, it is as precious as the most precious treasure. Over the next few weeks, I will explore the nature of the Kingdom of God but let me leave you with a glimpse of the Kingdom in our midst.
On January 30th, the Bethel Church in the Hague, Netherlands, blew out the candles on their altar and ended their worship service, a service that had lasted for 2,327 hours. The congregation had been worshipping continually for 96 days in order to protect an Arminian family from being deported. The Tamrazyan family had been living in the Netherlands under the care of the Bethel church for nine years waiting for their request for asylum to be resolved but the Netherlands, like so many countries today, has become increasingly resistant to immigration and on October 26th ordered their deportation. When officials came to apprehend the family, the church moved the family into the church building and began their marathon worship service. Dutch law prohibits police officers from entering a church while services are being conducted so as long as the congregation continued to worship, the police could not come in and the family could not be deported.
At first, the small church managed the vigil on their own but as word got out, other pastors and congregations began to lend their aid, taking shifts in the preaching and prayers, some coming from as far as Germany, France, and Belgium. The congregation swelled as Christians made pilgrimages to support the church’s efforts, and there were so many people in attendance on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, that the church had to stream their service online. Over the three month long worship, over 1000 people took part in the leadership and finally, the worship generated so much publicity that on January 30th, the government announced it would reassess the asylum applications of the Tamrazyans as well as the families of 700 other children who grew up in the Netherlands.
After it was over, the minister of the church was interviewed on NPR, and he said that there is still a lot of work to be done on immigration policies in the Netherlands, but he added, “What stays with me from this is that we accomplished what we did by simply being the church. We weren’t on the streets protesting; we were simply worshipping and praying and doing what we do. The church in the Netherlands is small now and is not seen as very consequential anymore, but this whole experience has made us begin to rethink our role in society.” 4
This is the God’s Kingdom made manifest in our midst, the church doing what it does to create a place of compassion, hope, and peace.
Or as one of the Tamrazyan children described it in a poem she wrote,
“Around-the-clock 7 days a week
We praise and worship God
It makes the flowers in my heart grow
It makes me thankful
In a way I’ve never been before.”5
As precious as a pearl. This is the Kingdom of God.
- For those who doubt a pearl could grow so large, see https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/08/24/491191461/filipino-fisherman-reveals-75-pound-pearl-he-kept-hidden-for-a-decade
These counts are approximate. I didn’t count passages that were repeated in each gospel or times when the word appeared several times in the same sentence.
I should also point out that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek and so we have an English translation of a Greek translation of his Aramaic. To assume that this phrase indicates anything about God’s gender is a huge leap in translations.
Paraphrase from memory