Monday, December 16, 2013

The Kingdom of Heaven and Violence

    There is a fascinating line in our Gospel lesson today.  Matthew 11:12 reads, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  During our staff meeting this week, we read this gospel lesson, and many of us were struck by this particular verse.  Why?

    Well, we are not exactly used to seeing the kingdom of heaven and violence butted up against each other.  During this time of preparation for the arrival of our Savior, we dream about peace on earth and goodwill toward men.  Last Sunday, our choir sang a cantata entitled, “And On Earth Peace.”  We hear Jesus say to those of us who follow Him, “My peace I leave with you.”  Indeed, for many of us the term “kingdom of heaven” conjures up a time of peace without conflict or strife.  And yet, here Jesus says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  What on earth is going on here?

    I think we need to put this into a little bit of context so that we might be able to understand it better.  And, we are going to have to dig a little deeper than the texts which are printed in our bulletin.

    I’d like to ask you a moment to turn in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 10.  Let’s do a fast walk through this chapter as we see what leads up to those words about the kingdom of heaven and violence.

    In Matthew 10, verses 1 through 15, Jesus calls the twelve disciples and sends them out to proclaim the gospel, giving them authority over demons and illness.  He gives them instructions on what to do and how to go about doing it.  In verses 16 through 23, Jesus tells His disciples what they can expect, and some of it is not too pretty.  “See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves...they will had you over to councils and flog will be dragged before kings and governors because of me...”  Preaching the gospel will not be a walk in the park.  Tough things will happen to you when you follow me, Jesus says.  Yet, a word of hope in verse 26 and following, “So have no fear of them...Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell...every hair on your head is counted.  Do not be afraid.”

    And here is an interesting little snippet beginning in verse 34, “34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

    Jesus finishes with a few words about welcoming and who will not lose any sort of reward.  Throughout this chapter, Jesus talks about the proclamation of and the breaking in of God’s kingdom, and the results of what happens when His disciples bring it.  Not all of it is pretty.  In fact, the proclamation of the Gospel oftentimes stirs up a hornet’s nest, and people react–sometimes violently.  “You will be dragged before the councils and flogged in the synagogues...”

    Our appointed text for the day comes next, and John, who was sent to prepare the way for Jesus is a bit confused.  He’s sitting in prison because he dared to speak an unkind word about Herod.  He hears all the stuff about Jesus, but he also knows he is suffering because of his proclamation.  We can speculate about all the reasons John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if Jesus is the Messiah, but given the context of what comes before and what follows, let me suggest John is wondering why Jesus isn’t getting him out of jail.

    If the kingdom of heaven is arriving, and Jesus is the promised Messiah, why isn’t Jesus exercising power and authority to bring release to all the prisoners?  John certainly is a prisoner.  Perhaps John is asking, “Haven’t I been faithful?  Haven’t I proclaimed the coming of the Word?  Haven’t I done that which I am supposed to do?  If Jesus is the one coming to free us, why am I still here, in prison, suffering?  Shouldn’t I be free?”

    Jesus tells John’s followers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”  Jesus unequivocally tells John, “Your wait is over.  I am performing the things the expected Messiah is to perform.”

    John’s followers go away.  We have no record of whether or not John accepts Jesus’ words to be true.  We have no idea whether or not this satisfied John as he sat there in that cold prison eventually beheaded because of a woman’s jealousy. 

    What we do know is that Jesus has some strong words to say about John.  “Truly I tell you among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  If this is the case, then why is he in prison?

    “12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

    Hope you are still following along with me, because skip down just a few verses, and let’s round out the context, “18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

    Jesus points out something very, very true in this statement.  Both He and John are messengers about the kingdom of heaven.  Both of them are polar opposites.  John was the wild prophet out in the wilderness “neither eating or drinking,” and those intent on discrediting John said, “He has a demon.”  Jesus, is the opposite.  Jesus eats and drinks, and those seeking to discredit Him say, “Look, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”

    “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

    This statement very much reminds me of the scene in “A Few Good Men” when Jack Nicholas’ character screams at the top of his lungs, “You want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”

    You want the kingdom of heaven?  You can’t handle the kingdom of heaven!

    Herod tried to silence it and it’s arrival by imprisoning John the Baptist.

    Humanity tried to silence it by crucifying Jesus.

    There are those who still try to silence it today.

    Last week, I got my hair cut, and a very interesting exchange took place in the barber shop.  We managed to get on the topic of heaven and hell, and one of the barbers there said, “I don’t agree with those pastors and priests who visit a guy who is on death row after that guy has murdered or raped.  They listen to that guy and then come out and say, ‘He is forgiven.’  I don’t think so.  I was taught that if you are a good person and you do the right things, then you are going to heaven.  If you don’t and you do something like that, then you are going to hell.  I think those guys are in hell.”

    I responded, "I think there is a difference between God's forgiveness and the necessity for justice."

    "I don't think so," was the reply.

    "And so, is Moses in hell?  Because he committed murder."

    Silence for a moment.  Then a half-hearted joke, "Maybe he should be."

    "Don't mess with a pastor who knows the Bible.  God operates differently than we do.  God offers forgiveness."

    It's called grace.  The kingdom of heaven isn’t primarily about peace.  When it arrives in its fullness, it will be.  But in this time, the kingdom of heaven is primarily about grace.  It’s about God’s reconciliation of the world unto Himself through Jesus Christ.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    Many don’t like that.  Many don’t want grace to reign.  Many want to make it about what we do or don’t do.  Many want to make salvation contingent upon our work, but it is not.  It’s about Jesus’ work.  People wanted to silence Him then.  Some want to silence us now.

    But what do we do with grace?  Do we allow violence to continue to reign over and above the kingdom of heaven?  Do we allow our voices to become silent because of fear?  Not if we have experienced the grace of God.  Not if we have experienced the love of Christ poured out for us on the cross.  Once we have experienced this in our inner most being, we simply cannot be silent.  We have to spread the news.  We have to tell the world what God has done, is doing, and will do.  Go and tell what you hear and see.  For this is what it means to live God’s Word daily.  Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The truth of Jesus' kingdom does include a grace that in Mt. 11:19 involves being a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Earlier, in Mt. 9:9 Jesus calls the tax collector Matthew to leave his table and follow him. This leads to Jesus eating with many tax collectors and sinners (9:10). When Pharisees complain, Jesus says he came not to call the "righteous" (like the Pharisees) but the sinners (9:11-13).

This grace does include forgiveness, but it also includes the call to follow Jesus, the call to repent from their previous sinfulness and follow Jesus in a new way. (The parallel passage to Mt. 9:13 is Lk. 5:32, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.)

This grace also rejects powerful leaders like the Pharisees, who dominated the people like bullies while pretending to be righteous. It is especially such leaders who were the wolves Jesus warned his sheep about.