Kingdom: What He Left Behind

Original Date: 
Sunday, May 4, 2014

Matthew 13:24-30, 37-43 The Jesus Profile: Kingdom: What He Left Behind

God Bless America?
When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to attend our denomination’s annual meeting as a student. We call it General Synod, and on this particular occasion it was being held in Milwaukee. On the Sunday we were there, we were given the option of worshipping at any number of denominational churches in or near Milwaukee. I don’t remember which church I ended up at, but it was in one of the smaller towns in the area.

As it turned out, this church had recently celebrated its 150th year. And as a part of their celebration they had held a pageant covering the history of their church. So, knowing that the General Synod crowd was around, they decided to stage this pageant again.

It was clear that they were quite proud of it. Many of their members were involved. They had a lot of period costumes. There was a large choir.

It was particularly patriotic. The American flag was prominently displayed. The choir sang numbers like “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.” The history of the church was told alongside the history of our country. There was a lot about the pioneers settling the prairie and local soldiers serving in the two World Wars. There was a lot about freedom and the faith of our fathers and the blessings of being American.

It was fairly typical for a church in the Midwest. It made me proud to be an American Christian.

Until I heard the warcry.

Our denomination has a number of Native American congregations. These congregations had representatives at General Synod. A number of them were attending the pageant that day. And, I imagine, as they heard this retelling of American history--a very white, very one-sided history, a history in which God blessed westward expansion and ordained every decision our government made—they began to feel very excluded. And so, they let their frustration be heard. They let loose a number of warcries, and then they got up and very noisily left the sanctuary.

It was a good lesson for me, it taught me that Christianity and patriotism are not the same thing. It taught me that even though I believe our nation was founded on Christian principles, that does not mean that everything our country has done has been God-honoring. It taught me that God’s kingdom and the United States of America are not the same thing.

Establishing the Kingdom
Today we are finishing our series called “The Jesus Profile.” We’ve been looking at various aspects of Jesus’ life. Not a biography, per se, but snapshots of different things that stand out about Jesus. Last week I talked about the Ascension, Jesus’ return to heaven. Now, today, I want to talk about what He left behind. I want to talk about His Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ message. The first words the gospel of Mark records Jesus saying were: “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Throughout His teaching ministry He uses the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” repeatedly. A book in my study says that “modern scholarship is quite unanimous in the opinion that the Kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus.” (Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, p. 54) Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God.

So it isn’t surprising, as we saw last week, that following His resurrection, His disciples were wondering if He was going to establish His kingdom on earth (Acts 1:6). Clearly, they were thinking of a geo-political kingdom. A kingdom with armies and borders, with a throne and a capital city. A kingdom like King David had. A kingdom like Caesar had.

And, honestly, many of Jesus’ followers have been trying to establish that kind of Kingdom for Jesus ever since. At various times, and in various places throughout history, nations have been governed in the name of Jesus; people have been forced to convert to Jesus; wars have been fought on Jesus’ behalf. I think that’s what was happening with that church pageant: American history was being shaped to fit into a particular vision of the Kingdom of God.

But that wasn’t what Jesus meant when He talked about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom He came to establish wasn’t defined by borders on a map, it wasn’t earned by victory on the battlefield, it wasn’t governed by access to channels of power. The disciples wanted a chicken in every pot, full employment, and a strong army to repel invaders. That’s what everybody wants from their government. But Jesus was talking about a kingdom that meant denying yourself, taking up a cross, renouncing wealth, even loving your enemies. The Kingdom of God Jesus was talking about was being established in people’s hearts. The Kingdom Jesus was talking about was the recognition of the sovereign rule of God over the earth.

“Jesus is King.” This has been the church’s cry for 2000 years. Those of us who follow Christ consider ourselves to be citizens of His Kingdom. But do we really know what this means?

A Story of Agro-Terrorism
The passage of scripture I’d like to look at today is a parable Jesus told about the Kingdom. It’s Matthew 13:24-30. It’s commonly known as the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Let me read it:

24Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who
sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. 27"The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?' 28" 'An enemy did this,' he replied. "The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' 29" 'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.' "

This is a story about a rather well-to-do farmer. He has servants and employs harvesters at the proper time. Apparently, he has sizable fields. And when planting time comes, he makes a point of planting good seed. That is, he has made sure his seed is well-sorted and free of weeds.

But he has an enemy. And during the cover of night, this enemy comes and carries out an act of agro-terrorism. He sows weed seeds in this man’s fields. The Greek word is zizania and it refers to a very specific kind of weed—a weed that looks exactly like a wheat plant. It only grows in cultivated fields, and it isn’t until the grain head starts filling in that you can recognize the difference.

At that point, however, it is pretty much impossible to do anything about the problem. Anyone walking into the field to pull out the weeds will trample the wheat. Moreover, the roots of the wheat and the weeds will be so interwoven that with every weed pulled up there is the risk of also pulling up good plants.

So the farmer tells his servants to leave both to grow until the harvest. At that time the harvesters will receive instructions to sort the wheat from the weeds, bundle up the weeds, and then save them for burning. In this way the farmer turns a disadvantage into an asset: fuel for the winter.

And yet, this isn’t a great situation. The farmer knows that the weeds have been taking up moisture and nutrients that should have gone to the wheat plants. In spite of his skill as a farmer, his yield will be reduced because he could not tell the difference between wheat and weeds until it was too late. He has to face the consequences of the scheme of his enemy.

Now, normally, we would have to sort out the meaning of this parable. Using our knowledge of that culture and clues from other passages of scripture, we’d have to try our best to understand the spiritual lessons Jesus is trying to impart. In this case, however, Jesus handles this for us. Just a few verses later, His disciples ask him to explain the parable of the weeds in the field. Here’s His answer:

37He answered, "The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 40"As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

It’s a story about the kingdom. Jesus uses that word 3 times in these 7 verses. It’s a story about how the kingdom looks and works here on earth.

Jesus—the Son of Man—is the farmer (or the king). The field is the world. In other words: all of creation belongs to Him. It’s all His to rule. Whether you are good seed or bad, there’s no place on earth where you can be on property that is not His. And the good seed that He is sowing in the world are the “sons of the kingdom”. In other words: those who belong to Him, Christians.

But at the same time that Jesus is planting Christians in the world, there are also weeds: “sons of the evil one.” In other words, at the same time that there are Christians in the world, there are also non-Christians. Those who do not submit to Jesus. Those who do not recognize His rule and reign.

The harvest represents the end of the age. A time yet to come, when His angels will go throughout the earth and separate the “sons of the kingdom” from the “sons of the evil one.” The Bible calls this the “Final Judgment.” That’s the time when every “knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).

But until that time, the wheat and the weeds will coexist. In other words, the Kingdom of God will exist alongside an active rebellion against God. For now, God’s Kingdom is growing up in a world that does not always recognize it.

There are three things I’d like to say about the Christ’s kingdom based on this parable. Three things that will help us to understand the kingdom He has left behind. Three things that might have helped that church in Wisconsin better understand the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the rest of the world.

No Country for God’s Men
First, God’s Kingdom is spiritual, not physical. That is to say, allegiance to the Kingdom of Christ is not marked in the traditional ways of citizenship. Says Philip Yancey: “God’s kingdom has no geographical borders, no capital city, no parliament building, no royal trappings that you can see. Its followers live right among their enemies, not separated from them by a border fence or a wall. It lives, and grows, on the inside, on the inside of human beings.” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 248)

In the parable, it’s interesting that there was no physical way to distinguish the wheat from the weeds. It wasn’t like all the wheat lived in one part of the field, and all the weeds in another. They were intermingled, in the midst of one another.

When Jesus was asked point blank by Pilate if He was the King of the Jews, Jesus answered: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was going to rally an army, challenge Rome. Jesus had a different sort of kingdom in mind.

Wheat among the weeds. Sheep among the wolves. A tiny seed in the garden. Yeast in bread dough. Salt in meat. These are some of the metaphors Jesus used for His kingdom. Almost like He was describing a “secret force” that would be working from within. Jesus never envisioned His followers taking over earthly governments and spreading His gospel by force. He always imagined them as citizens in a foreign land.

Indeed, an early Christian named Mathetes gave this description of Christians in the second century:

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity either in locality or in speech or in customs. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast… the constitution of their citizenship is nevertheless quite amazing and admittedly paradoxical. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners…Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, every fatherland is a foreign country. (quoted by Ortberg, Who is this Man?,p. 110)

“Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, every fatherland is a foreign country.” Christians have a sort of dual citizenship. We are called to be good citizens of the country in which we live, to submit to lawful authorities and honor the laws of our land. But, at the same time, we have an allegiance to Jesus that transcends our earthly citizenship.

What this means for us, living in a participatory democracy like the U.S., is that we should take full advantage of the opportunities we have to shape the direction of our nation. We should vote, and campaign, and perhaps even run for public office—seeking to reflect our Christian values in the way our country goes. We should, as Jeremiah told the exiles who were living in Babylon, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city [in which you live]…Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

But what we shouldn’t do is confuse our citizenship in the Kingdom with our citizenship as Americans. America has a wonderful form of government and all kinds of freedoms that would not be possible without a Biblical worldview, but that’s not the same as saying that America is a Christian nation. God does not love America more than any other country on earth. God has not chosen America as His new Chosen People. The success of God’s Kingdom will not rise or fall with the success of USA.

God has sowed His kingdom like wheat among the weeds. It’s a spiritual kingdom, not a physical one.

Until Christ Comes
The second thing I want to say about God’s kingdom is that it is already, but not yet. That is to say, Christ’s reign and rule has already begun, but it is not yet everything it is going to be. Theologians sometimes talk about Christ’s inaugurated kingdom and Christ’s fully realized kingdom.

This is what the parable is getting at when Jesus talks about the wheat growing in the field right now, and the harvest to come at the end of the age. Right now, Christ’s kingdom is growing in the field, but it’s mixed with the rebellion of the world. Christ is ruling, but His rule is being challenged. When the final judgment comes, however, there will be no more challenge to His reign. Then His kingdom will truly reflect the kind of kingdom His disciples expected Him to begin following the resurrection.

This “already, not yet” nature of the kingdom is reflected in a verse like 1 Corinthians 15:25: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Christ is reigning right now. He won the victory at the cross and the empty tomb. He is King.

But He still has enemies. Right now, the wheat and the weeds exist together. The full extent of His kingdom will not be seen until the end. I’ve heard it described like this: Satan is bound, but with a long rope. He’s not going to win, but he’s still able to cause mischief in the field.

Or, here’s another illustration, one I’ve probably used before. Most historians agree that in World War II the decisive battle in Europe took place on June 6, 1944. That was D-Day, the invasion of Normandy. Once the Allies established a beachhead on the continent, and opened supply lines, most experts agree the war was effectively over. There was no way Hitler’s Germany could compete with the productive capacity of the Allied nations.

And yet, the war didn’t end on D-day. It raged on for another 9 months or so. There was even the horrible Battle of the Bulge when Germany tried a desperate attack in the Ardennes forest. There was no way the Nazis were going to win, but they kept on fighting.

Well, you can think of Calvary as a sort of D-Day for the devil. That’s the day Satan’s defeat was assured. There’s no way he can win. And yet, he continues to fight and rage until such time as God decides to come back and shut down history for good.

So why the wait? Why doesn’t Jesus fully establish His kingdom now? C.S. Lewis explains:

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force: we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying: He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely…God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. (quoted by Yancey, p. 252)

God is allowing the wheat and the weeds to coexist for a while, so, if you will, the weeds have an opportunity to change sides. Clearly Jesus is giving the opportunity for more people to trust in Him. For those of us who are wheat, that means sharing the good news of Christ’s reign. It means inviting the weeds to become wheat.

On Earth as it is In Heaven
And that brings me to a third point about the kingdom: God’s kingdom is advanced by love, not power. At the end of the age, when the Son of Man sends out His angels to “weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil”, then God’s kingdom will be taken by force and with no opposition. In the meantime, though, for as long as the wheat and the weeds exist together, Christ’s kingdom is advanced not through the world’s means of power and force, but by means of love and sacrifice.

Here’s where I get uneasy about efforts to create a Christian government, or arguments that we need to be a “Christian nation.” Again, we are blessed to live in a participatory democracy, and Christians should take full advantage of the opportunity to be involved in the public forum. But we have to be careful that we do not reduce the gospel of Jesus to a political platform. We have to be careful that we do not fall into the trap of thinking that if we just had enough Christians in charge then God’s kingdom would grow.

It doesn’t work that way. Christ’s kingdom does not advance by the tools of the world’s kingdom. And, if anything, history should show us that where the church has tried to work through the channels of world government, bad things happen. Whether it is the Crusades that pillaged the Near East, the conquistadors who converted the New World at the point of the sword, or the Christian explorers in Africa who cooperated in the slave trade; we have plenty of examples of Christians who held power only to be corrupted by that power.

The tools of Christ’s kingdom are different. They operate not from the power of the majority or control of the reins of power, but through forgiveness and grace.

A political movement by nature draws lines. It’s “us” versus “them.” Politics polarize. And we see plenty of polarization in our nation today. But Jesus transcended those kinds of distinctions. He calls us to love our enemy, to give grace. God’s kingdom calls us to love the woman who comes out of an abortion clinic (and her doctor too!) God’s kingdom calls us to turn the other cheek to the person who disagrees with us about how to fix healthcare. God’s kingdom calls us to show mercy to those who would marginalize us, or mock us, or prefer that we kept quiet about what we believe.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, He told His followers:

34Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

It wasn’t by passing laws, enforcing morality, restoring decency to the family and government that Jesus called us to change the world, but through love.

Jesus fought plenty of “culture wars” while He was here on earth—both against a religious establishment on the right and a pagan empire on the left—but He responded by giving his life for those who opposed Him. On the cross, He forgave them. He came, above all, to demonstrate love.

Philip Yancey points out that in the book of Revelation the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse give a preview of how the world will end: in war, famine, sickness and death. But Jesus gave a personal preview of how the world will be restored, by reversing those four deeds of the Horsemen: he made peace, fed the hungry, healed the sick. In Christ’s life we get a preview of the final kingdom, of the way things are supposed to be.

In the meantime, it is up to us, citizens of Christ’s kingdom, to bring a taste of that coming reality into being right now. As the Lord’s Prayer says, to help His kingdom come, His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So Christ is building His kingdom through us. It doesn’t look like the world’s kingdom. It isn’t something we will achieve by passing legislation or redefining history or winning a culture war. Instead, Jesus calls on us to love.