Sermon for Sunday, 22 November 2020
The kingdom of heaven is the most important concept in the preaching of Jesus. It’s one of the most important concepts in the Gospel. And we find Jesus preaching about the kingdom right at the beginning of his ministry, as Matthew records it back in chapter 4.
And we find that having heard that John has been arrested and put in prison, he goes on a great preaching tour and his message is summarised in just one verse; From that time on, Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.’ [Matthew 4: 17] The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It is close enough to touch. There’s a wonderful concept of now and not yet. It is breaking into the world as Jesus preaches. It is breaking into the world as God acts in the world. But it still lies ahead as something to be grasped, something to be gained. As Jesus goes on his great preaching tour, we hear that he preaches the good news of the Kingdom and as he preaches, he also heals the sick and puts people back in the place of wholeness that God would want them to be in. And that’s what the Kingdom is all about, it’s the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, everything being the way God would have it be, everything put right, everything broken in the world made whole. It’s the dream of God’s people through all these ages leading up to this point, waiting to be fulfilled. It’s what God’s people want to see: everything put right; it’s total peace. And Jesus preaches the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, and that has consequences. And he calls people to repent, to change, to turn around, to do things differently.
And we’re going to find some clues in Matthew’s Gospel to what that might look like. But the very first teaching that Jesus is recorded to give is the words that we often call the Beatitudes, where Jesus goes on a mountain top and begins to teach. And he is teaching inevitably about the Kingdom of Heaven. And he says these words at the start of his teaching:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
Matthew 5: 3
The Kingdom of Heaven is the heart of Jesus’ preaching. He is preaching about the coming Kingdom and trying to help people to enter into that Kingdom to find the peace, the wholeness, the world as God would want it to be. And the beginning of his preaching is these words: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ This is one of my favourite verses in the Bible, because it says so much of what is broken and what needs to be changed for many, for all human beings, really. Blessed are the poor in spirit. What does that phrase actually mean? I don’t think it’s a kind of spiritual phrase that says blessed are those people who don’t go to church or don’t do spiritual things.
Spirit, of course, in the Bible – ‘pneuma’ – is about life. It’s about wholeness. It’s the breath of God breathing in to people. It is life itself. So when someone is poor in spirit, they are poor in life. They are lacking the things that they would need in order to flourish, to live life in all its fullness. And that, of course, is what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about. But when Matthew, or Jesus, who’s putting these words forward, says the poor in spirit, the word ‘poor’ doesn’t simply mean lacking. It means, the root of the word is about crouching down to beg. So by talking about poor, we are talking about those who are bent over begging in desperation for something. They are poor because they are desperate for things that they need. And what they need is spirit. It’s life, it’s pneuma, it’s the breath of God. So for me, this phrase ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’, it means blessed are those who are lacking in the very things they need in order to live and flourish. Blessed are those who are so lacking that they are begging for life. Blessed are those who are begging for life, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is saying here that those people who are desperate for the Kingdom are those that the Kingdom is for: the Kingdom is everything that God would want to be true about the world. The Kingdom is perfection. It is peace. It is wholeness. It is hope.
And the Kingdom is for those who are suffering such a desperate state that they are begging for life.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ So let me take you to the parable that our reading tells this morning: the parable of the sheep and the goats. This is a parable of the Kingdom, and it points ahead in the way that many stories about the Kingdom do: to the end of time, to the time when the books are opened and judgment is made and there is an expectation amongst people that all wrongs will be righted and everything will be made as it should be.
These are the stories that the Jewish people had been telling for centuries up to this point. And in the story, the nations are gathered. And the King, Christ the King, comes and stands and begins to separate the people from one another: to separate the sheep and the goats, and it is worth taking a moment to think that the sheep is a wonderful biblical image for God’s people. It’s the image of the sheep being gathered by the Good Shepherd. And so sheep, for the people listening to this story at the time, would have represented God’s people, those people who felt they had a right to all of God’s blessings. Those are the sheep, those who are waiting for God to come as the shepherd and rescue them. But in this parable, instead of rescuing them, he begins to separate them, separating out the sheep from the goats, from those who aren’t sheep, who aren’t part of the shepherd’s flock. And it happens in a most unexpected and challenging way, because the people listening to this story would have expected to have been regarded as sheep. Because of their nationality, their race, their religion; they’re the things that they have done to worship, the rituals they have taken part in. They would have expected to have been regarded as sheep in this story of how things are judged and how peace is given. But instead, in this story, Jesus does something really unexpected, and the King, instead of separating out people according to which race and religion and background deserves the blessing of the King, the King separates them according to the way they treat those in most need.
The righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick and in prison and go to visit you?’ And the King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,’ which takes us back to that line in the Beatitudes of ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ Blessed are those who are hungry for life. And what the parable of the sheep and goats tells us is that those who enter the Kingdom are those who put aside all the differences of race and nationality and ritual, and instead focus on the needs of those who are most desperately in need of help, those who are hungry for life.
And so for us in Milton Keynes in 2020. How can we be people who respond to the needs of those who are hungry for life and, by responding to those people, enter into the kingdom? Not just in the day, in the age to come, but in this world, how can we become people of the Gospel of Good News, who welcome the Kingdom which is now at hand?