The Kingdom of Heaven

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Matthew 13 is all about the parable: the story to tell the story. Matthew has Jesus going through a series of parables about responses to faith and how faith can so easily wilt. He mentions the presence of evil and how difficult it is to sometimes differentiate from truth. Then at verses 31-33 and 44-52 Jesus goes into a number of images as he tries to help his disciples understand the meaning of the “kingdom of heaven”: mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearls, and a fishing net.

Some of these images are familiar and comforting. The mustard is small, but that’s all it takes to become fruitful. The yeast helps the bread to grow and become light and tasty—there’s nothing more yummy and comforting than fresh baked bread still warm from the oven. While I’m not into pearls, per se, I can see how Jesus might want his disciples to view the kingdom of heaven as the most important thing in their lives, worth more than all they possess. But I’m a little fuzzy on the hidden treasure (v. 44) and the fishing net (vv. 47-50), especially the dividing of the fish (similar to the parable of the wheat and weeds in vv. 24-30. So, for now, I’m going to leave those alone.

When I was younger I imagined the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God as this far away magical place that probably looked something like Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland—bright, even at night, and filled with wonder and beauty, especially when the fireworks are shot over and behind it. I imagined this castle surrounded by beautifully manicured grass that just naturally grew that way, for no one would have to work in heaven. I imagined beds of beautiful and fragrant flowers, and a sky that is always blue with the whitest and puffiest clouds anyone could imagine. And everyone is smiling and playing and enjoying living in the presence of God.

As I grew older my image of the kingdom of heaven began to shift. I began to view it less as a place than a state of existence—simply existing in the presence of God. But, I still hung on to the presence of God being in a certain place or a certain way. I have gradually shifted to seeing this kingdom as truly a state of existence wherein we acknowledge the presence of God and seek after it whenever and wherever we find ourselves. I have begun to wonder if the kingdom of God is not “far off” and after death, but here, now, on this earth, with these people.

The kingdom of God is much like yeast in my mind—a growing, organic element that works into and is a part of every part of our lives, but we can’t really see or differentiate from anything else. Just as the yeast makes the bread light and delightful, when I am more aware of God’s presence in my life and in the lives of others, I feel more at ease, even when the “stuff” starts to hit the fan all around me. When I am able to truly live in the kingdom—in the presence of God—I am more able to respond faithfully to crisis, from a position of trust rather than fear and insecurity.

The problem for me is that I don’t always feel like I’m there in God’s kingdom. Far too often I am caught up in the day-to-day stuff and can’t see beyond that stuff to see beauty that lays ahead, behind, and all around me. I get annoyed by something or someone. I get hurt by careless words or behavior toward me. I get angry. I get tired. But, when I am able to live more fully into God’s kingdom, I am not tired, and, therefore, less apt to be annoyed or sad or hurt, and thereby less apt to be unjustly angry. The problems of the world still bother me and I still feel an overwhelming need to respond to them faithfully, but I feel more able to do so.

My image of the kingdom has changed. My understanding of the kingdom has shifted. I do not know if I am closer or farther from the truth, but I do know that maybe I need to pay more attention to how I am responding to the world—God’s world. Maybe I need to pay more attention to how intentional I’m being in the world in order to grow more fully in the kingdom. Life isn’t always warm, fluffy bread. Sometimes, it’s [insert your least favorite food that is also, unfortunately, very nutritious]. It’s still good for me, and if I can get beyond my fickle taste buds, I just might get another glimpse into the beautiful wonder of the presence of the Holy One of all creation.

What is your image of the kingdom of heaven? Have you ever thought about it? Is it near or far away? Is there a passage of scripture that you seem attracted to that describes it for you? What does that say about your image of God? What hopes or dreams are held in that image?

9 thoughts on “The Kingdom of Heaven”

  1. Eric, I agree wholeheartedly. God chose to make us, the world, the universe, for his own reasons.

    I’m not comfortable anymore with the traditional interpretation that God actually hates/despises/rejects the world yet is willing to love/accept us once we make a decision for faith.

    If the gospel message is that God LOVES his creation and wants to guide it into becoming a kingdom more predominantly reflecting his goodness, working to alleviate sickness, hunger, hate, injustice, and calling all people to a relationship with him, then WOW did we have it wrong before! 🙁

    How can our churches become more like the kingdom of God? Do they want to? How can we work with God’s plan instead of against it?

    Thanks for the discussion — it does my heart good.

  2. I enjoyed your comments about the kingdom of heaven. To me this is an area where Jesus was vague but hoped that his followers and us would eventually “get it” that he meant something much more. Since his basic repentance message was often phrased as “the kingdom of heaven is near,” I think Jesus meant that the kingdom of heaven was his goal for the world, his reason for coming. I see it as the core salvation message. It’s also the point of the Lord’s prayer — “may your kingdom come”.

    What was Jesus trying to tell us? It can certainly be debated but I think he wants to transform the world into his kingdom, and may take his time doing it! He wants to use us, relate to us, partner with us to make the world a better place, and essentially take over the world for his good purposes gradually over time.

    I think the kingdom of heaven means we should open our eyes to the world around us, to the world of people that Jesus died for, and care about it. See injustice and take action. Respond to the Great Commission by doing so much more than spreading a message to the world but work to spread as much good to the world as we can.

    My soap-box (which I won’t go into here) is that the church is usually more fascinated with building its own kingdom than the kingdom of heaven. Bummer. But maybe we can change it by opening our eyes and spirits to God’s call for change.

    1. Brad,

      I think I’m in line with what you say about Jesus inviting us to “open our eyes to the world around us.” I might push it a little further and even say the “kingdom of God” IS this world and this universe, and God invites, through Christ and in many ways, to partner in establishing this world as a place where God exists, interacts and invites all people and all things into a healthy relationship with God (who is in all things and is yet beyond all things).

      I have said many times in many Christian faith communities: “We are not about the business of [insert church name], we are about the Kingdom of God.” Our tendency is to lean toward things that make us feel safe and secure. Buildings can do that. The Kingdom of God is so much bigger and, for many, can be pretty scary stuff (overwhelming). I pray our buildings may be places, markers, for the continued work of God’s loving Spirit in this world–”A beacon of love, hope and service” as our website says. We’re trying to live into that, but, man, it’s not easy!

      Thanks for your comments. Very thought provoking.

  3. I think there is a connection btwn Landon’s observation that the K of G is relational and your description of how the world is different and you are different in the world when you are more aware of God’s presence. I think the strength and well-being of our relationship with God makes all the difference in our ability to be in relationship with each other, and our ability to discern what things need our attention. (Support or celebration or opposition)
    And (here’s A stretch) yeast is a living thing, not mechanism. So bread making is, to some degree, relational. 🙂

    1. Sandy, I’ve heard you speak several times about the “living” aspect of yeast, and how that relates to being relational. I’ve heard you also talk about the collective effort that goes into bread making and bread eating. I can’t remember exactly what you’ve said, but it is poignant to this concept of “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God”.

      And I totally agree that “our relationship with God makes all the difference in our ability to be in relationship with each other.” This is DEFINITELY a point I think Jesus was trying to make.

      I’m still lost on the “net” parable — maybe my knee jerk reaction to people being labeled as “all good” or “all evil.” Last week’s sermon raised the question about all of us being a bit of both (sort of a disconnect with Jesus’ parable about the wheat and weeds. Though I did love calling Jacob a “weed” from the pulpit…that was eventually transformed into food for an entire people).

  4. One thing I’ve come to realize is that “kingdom” was a political structure. Not an institution (as I’m conceiving it), but a organized state of relationship – a polity, in the truest sense.

    Given that, when Jesus spoke of the KoG, I understand him making a statement about the way we are in relationship with one another. He was countering the tyrannical structures of the day with another vision. That leaves me with the question of what structure we (today) need to counter, and how.

    1. Landon, I totally agree and have heard you talk about and write about the historical context of the term “kingdom” in this way. How does “relationship” work within your understanding of Jesus’ use of the term “kingdom”? I mean, I think I get that Jesus was all about the relations (Love God, Love your neighbor, and love yourself as God loves you–we could unpack that a bit someday as well). But how does that look in Jesus’ preaching about kingdom?

      I have often thought about trying to discern language for what Jesus calls kingdom that would better fit our outlook on the world from a 21st century North American. We have deconstructed systems and structures so much it seems that I’m not clear on how we interpret and live in structures in any systematic way. Maybe that’s the point? It’s not about the structure; it’s about God and God’s people (another term that maybe needs unpacking).

      Definitely food for thought. Thanks.

  5. Thanks, Wendy! The “net” stuff is tricky. Does that make us fish and God is just scooping us up, tricking us? Or is there another image here that I’m not seeing. The “net” image and the “hidden treasure” images are little more difficult for me. The hidden treasure one I’m able to get into the “hidden in plain sight” aspect of the kingdom (the “on earth as in heaven” you mention).

    I have read that the cosmology (understanding of the cosmos) in first century Palestine had shifted a bit from early Judaism. In early Judaism, Sheol was the place for the dead (everyone went there, good or bad). God lived beyond the clouds, beyond the dome. By Jesus’ time heaven and hell had become more prominent images, and the “kingdom of heaven” was seen as a far away place where souls go after death, and where angels live. I may be off a bit here as I haven’t read that stuff in a while.

    But the concept of the kingdom of God being here and now, I imagine, was a pretty radical concept. That may be why the Greek scriptures tend to go back and forth between “immediate presence” and “far away place”. I’m still not exactly sure where I’m going with all this for this Sunday, but I appreciate your thoughts! 🙂

    And, know that you are missed when you are not here. But I love that you’re staying connected when and how you can. 🙂

  6. My go-to verse for God’s kingdom being within and all around us–as much as we let it be–is that so familiar passage we say every week–if not every day–without necessarily even thinking about it, “Thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.” I think what you’ve said here is right on, but living it out… There’s the hard part.

    Also, one of my kids’ children’s Bibles has that parable of the net as one of the stories and the girl likes to read it, but I’m never quite sure what to do with it.

    And, I listened to last week’s sermon online. (a) Good stuff. I like that you tackled Jacob and (b) thanks for posting the sermons. I still miss the Whole Service and the Community when I’m not there, but it sure is nice to be able to hear the sermon, anyway, especially when I’ve been pondering the lectionary passages all week.

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