This week’s gospel reading contains promises from God to us, promises like,
- if we strive for God’s kingdom everything else will be given to us as well;
- God knows what we need and will give it to us if we keep focused on Him and His kingdom;
- and, we don’t need treasure on earth because treasure in heaven is enough.
It’s difficult to believe the promises, and so it’s difficult to do what Jesus says to do:
- to not worry;
- to not strive for what we are to eat and drink;
- to sell our possessions and give the money to those who need it more than we do;
- to be ready, at all times, for the coming of the Son of Man.
This scripture passage hearkens all the way back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he proclaimed, “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the good news” (Mk 1:14-15). How we respond to the passage we are considering today, whether or not we take seriously what Jesus said and act upon it, depends on whether we believe the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand. If we believe that the kingdom of God is at hand, we are essentially saying that we believe that the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God. We are saying that we believe that the ministry of Jesus demonstrated the reality of the kingdom of God: he healed people; he forgave sins; he socialized with outcasts and sinners; he fed all who were hungry; he challenged unjust political and religious authorities and structures; and he called disciples, sent them out into the world, and taught them about discipleship. These then, are signs of God's kingdom.
In addition to believing that the kingdom of God is at hand, we are to believe that it will be in hand one day. Although the kingdom of God is at hand, it is not yet in hand – it is not here fully, but it will be one day. At that time, God will have prevailed over every manifestation of evil and established His kingdom fully. The Book of Revelation describes the fully-established kingdom of God in the following way:
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away'.” (Rev. 21:1-4)
If we believe that the kingdom of God is the only true kingdom, that all else will pass away in time, then that belief determines what we do. If we have faith in the promises of God, then that faith determines how we act. The Letter to the Hebrews states, “Faith is the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen” (11:1). Faith in the promises of God enables us to act as if they are true, despite all evidence to the contrary. By believing the promises of God, we act in a way that is in line with them, and thus we fulfill God’s will. We actually participate in bringing about the fulfillment of the promises! Abba Poemen, a monk during the Middle Ages, expressed this understanding of faith when he said, “Faith is to live humbly and give alms.” Faith is not an intellectual stance, but an inner attitude of humility coupled with outward service, both of which are signs of the heavenly kingdom.
This is what it means to be dressed for action and have our lamps lit. It means to live in hopeful anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, a hopeful anticipation that is expressed in faithful action. We are to be like those who are waiting for their master to return so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. While we are waiting, we are to go about the work of the kingdom, which is the work of love. We “do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn” (Mk 13:35) but, when he comes, we must be alert, not sleeping.
I will close this sermon with a legend from the first century. It is a legend about the disciple Thomas, who was sent by Christ to India and employed there by the local king, Gundaphorus, to build him a new palace. Thomas was given money to buy materials and hire workmen, but, instead, he gave the money to the poor. When the king asked how the building was going, Thomas always assured him that his palace was rising steadily. The king, however, became suspicious when Thomas kept putting off his requests to see the work in progress. Finally, he sent for Thomas and asked him, “Have you built my palace?”
“Yes,” Thomas replied.
“Then we shall go and see it now,” said the King.
Thomas answered, “You cannot see it now, but when you depart this life you shall see it. I have built you a palace in heaven by giving your money to the poor and needy of your kingdom.”
The King was furious and had Thomas thrown in prison. All that night he considered how he should put Thomas to death. “It seems good to me,” the king said, “to flay him and burn him with fire.”
That night, the king's brother died and saw the king’s palace in heaven that had been built by Thomas’ charitable work. He made a request to return to earth. His dead body was suddenly revived. He told his brother of the magnificent palace awaiting him in heaven. Thomas was freed from prison, and the king and his brother became Christians.
King Gundaphorous needed to have proof that a magnificent palace awaited him. Wouldn't it have been wonderful, though, if he could have looked out over his kingdom and seen that the hungry were fed, the thirsty given drink, the ill given medical treatment, and the homeless given a place to lay their weary bodies, and understood that, indeed, a palace had been built for him: a palace of compassion, a palace of mercy, a palace of grace? Wouldn't it have been wonderful if he had understood that his kingdom was transforming into the kingdom of God, right before his eyes?
Let us see with the eyes of faith and recognize the kingdom of God in our midst, even while we await its fulfillment. And let us – like Thomas – assist in building it all around us. For “where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also,” and God desires that our hearts be with Him. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson on Sunday, September 25, 2016, at the CCBC retreat, Camp Wightman, CT, the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999, 170.
 Norris, 170.
The legend about Thomas is from SermonIllustrations.com, 08-12-2001. It was suggested to SermonIllustrations.com by Richard J. Fairchild.