The Kingdom of God Has Come Near- for you, with you, and through you

Outside beautiful Thabor Lutheran on a beautiful and crisp late November Sunday morning.

I had the privilege to be with the good people of Thabor Lutheran Church in Wausa, Nebraska on Sunday November 21, 2021 for Christ the King Sunday. I was invited by their council stewardship person, Conrad, and their PMA Richard Bloomquist to come and preach, and also to share music as their organist and pianist for worship. I also joined conversation before and after worship. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based especially on the readings appointed for Christ the King (Year B): John 18:33-37; Revelation 1:4b-8; and Psalm 93. A video recording shared by the congregation of worship can be viewed below as shared via YouTube and the congregation’s Facebook page.

“Grace to you and peace from God in Christ who is and who was and who is to come.”[1] Amen.

Good Morning Thabor Lutheran! It’s great to be with you today. Thank you Conrad and PMA Dick Bloomquist for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring you greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas who I know was with you just two weeks ago for All Saints Sunday. I also bring you greetings from your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Kristen Van Stee, as well as from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

I’m grateful to be with you today, on this feast day and the end of our church year. I’m grateful to be with you with the stories before us about our God who loves us, is with us, and is for us. And I’m grateful also to be with you to share some more words of gratitude just as Bishop did for your generosity, but more so to think with you again about how we are each called and invited to be stewards of God’s love. Let’s see where the Word takes us today.

Situating Our Gospel Story
We find ourselves in our gospel story today in the passion narrative of John. Jesus is being questioned by Pilate. The stage is set. Jesus talks about his mission “to testify to the truth,” and points to who and what the kingdom is.[2] Jesus is clear. He knows what lies ahead. He knows too that Pilate is not going to understand, even though he might honestly want to be able to. But the thought of another king in the Roman Empire is something that just cannot be. Of course, Christ never does claim the title of king nor say he is one. That’s what others might say- in hope or spite. But Jesus is focused on truth and an understanding of kingdom no one else might have seen, understood, or imagined.

To Pilate’s question about whether Jesus is a king, Jesus responds instead, “My kingdom is not from this world.”[3] He makes rational sense in explaining how this could not be. Because if it were, if he were a king of a kingdom of the world that you and I are a part of, Jesus surely would have had people rising up. Instead, Jesus repeats, “my kingdom is not from here.”[4] The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven is something that far surpasses human understanding and conception. It far exceeds our wildest dreams and imagination. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first we really need to spend some time with the last couple sentences Jesus says in our gospel reading today.

The recording/live feed of worship as shared by Thabor Lutheran’s Facebook page, if you would like to watch worship or watch and/or listen to the sermon instead of reading it here.

What is Truth?
Jesus answers Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”[5]
If we keep reading just a little further past this story we hear today, we’ll hear Pilate’s next question, which is “What is truth?”[6] What is truth? Surely in the way it’s being written here, the Gospel of John is trying to make a point it has been making throughout. From the beginning of the gospel, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”[7] The truth that Jesus is talking about here, is one that brings light out of darkness. One which acknowledges human sin and brokenness, but where the light shines and the darkness cannot over come it. A truth that has at its core, love.

Inside the beautiful Swedish sanctuary early in the morning before worship.

The gospel of John has been consistent about this. In our lead-up to this story today we have seen example after example of this in action with Jesus. Think of the story we heard just two weeks ago from the Gospel of John on All Saints Sunday. The story about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and how Jesus wept at the death of a friend.[8] That weeping, that act of presence and relationship is an act of love. An act and sign that God in Christ is and wants to be in relationship with you and with me. And that’s a big part of the truth that Jesus is pointing to saying, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”[9]

Another example would be the story from just hours before where we find ourselves with Pilate questioning Jesus now. Back up in the Upper Room in Jerusalem in that famous Maundy Thursday story we know. Where Jesus breaks bread and wine and gets down on his knees and washes the disciples’ feet.[10] That act of service is an act of love. It’s a sign of the truth that God brings of healing, presence, comfort, and abundant and abiding love. It’s also a glimpse and sign of the kingdom. Where true greatness rests in servanthood and relationship. Where leadership means meeting your neighbor where they are at and being a sign of God’s promise and presence now.

Glimpses of The Kingdom of God- for you
So if truth as John writes is about love, presence, and promise, that is something that Jesus embodies. But it’s a different truth than what the world might have us believe. It’s a different truth than the one that guides the way things work in the Roman Empire that Pilate is entrusted with authority in. It’s a truth that comes with what Jesus has taught, preached, and pointed to about the Kingdom of God. The thing that Jesus speaks about the absolute most in all the gospels- the kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of God.

Some of the kingdom building work that the congregation is currently involved in- collecting supplies, clothing, food, and other items of need for its larger community.

This notion of Kingdom is something that Pilate cannot fathom. His only experience of a kingdom is one in which there is a king or emperor, who is benevolent or malevolent, with people to rule and economies to run and support the whole empire. But in Jesus’ view, what is this kingdom? Our words fail. But signs of it breaking into our midst do not. Signs like Jesus pointed to through parables and stories, through healing and presence, through seeing God’s people in the good, bad, and ugly of life and meeting them where they are at.

Signs like where the hungry are fed. Where the poor are satisfied. The lost and the lonely are seen and welcomed. The homeless are given shelter. The hurt provided compassion. The vulnerable, cared for. The refugee, welcomed. Whereas the prophet says and we’ll hear again in a few week’s time during Advent, lion lays down with the lamb.[11] Where the rich do not have too much, and the poor do not have too little. But where there is enough, as God provides. And all are in relationship with all.

Thabor Lutheran’s choir shared a beautiful anthem with a Thanksgiving theme during the offering, a perfect compliment for today’s focus on stewardship.

This sort of kingdom challenges everything of our world and understanding of our world as is. It scares those in power. The very thought of it might well have been the reason Jesus was arrested and crucified. But such is the way of God. There is change. There is reversal. But why? Because of love so deep that it transcends all human brokenness, division, and conceptions of what is fair and right. God’s sense of justice and righteousness is one grounded in inclusion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and of course salvation.

Jesus knows his mission. The mission “to testify to the truth.”[12] He knows, that “Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens” to his voice. This is where our lives as disciples and stewards commence. We are entrusted with Christ’s mission. We are entrusted with a call to discipleship. We are entrusted with a call to stewardship for the sake of our neighbors. It is for this, and for a vision where all have a place around the table and at the heavenly banquet, and where all might be welcomed and fed, no questions asked, where everyone receives, tastes, and knows that “The Lord is good,” which Jesus is willing to go to and through the point of death on a cross for you and for me.

This is good news, people of God. There’s tons of Good News here in our stories today. Jesus’ work and mission isn’t about the lies of scarcity or the lies the world might have us believe. No. It’s to counter them- fully on every argument and potential merit. For Jesus’ work and mission is about a Kingdom of relationships with one another. Where questions are welcomed. Where doubt is okay. Where you and I, and everyone else, no matter how we might appear, no matter what baggage we might bring, no matter how much of a sinner we all may be, we are all welcome, seen, known, and loved.

A small group of the congregation reflecting on story and who the congregation is, as the first part of the congregation’s work in its walk through the call process to call another rostered minister. (There have been a number of groups like this meeting and collecting stories as a congregation.) From what I heard of this group today, it was a very rich conversation. God is definitely present with and up to something through this faith community.

The Kingdom of God With You- as Disciples
The Kingdom of God that Jesus points to is not something that is over there, or over here. It’s not something that has happened in the past. It’s a “both and,” thing. It’s coming into being. It’s breaking into the world, bit by bit. And signs of it happen each day all around you and me, and sometimes even I believe, with you and through you and me, through our lives as disciples and stewards.

The Kingdom of God breaks in every time the people of God pray, worship, gather together for conversation, to listen and learn with the Word of God.

It breaks in each time we gather as God’s people with the water and the word, the bread and wine. It breaks in anytime one courageously asks big questions without easy answers and opens themselves up to see the world beyond themselves. It breaks in, more and more, anytime the Good News is shared, and when disciples grow. The Kingdom of God is indeed with you as disciples. This very morning, I sensed it with you in the meeting that was held here- reflecting about who you are as God’s people in Wausa and imagining what God might be inviting you to. I sensed it as the Sunday School youth practiced preparing to share the Good News of God in Christ coming into the world which you will all remember and share together in during the Advent and Christmas seasons in the weeks ahead.

PMA Dick Bloomquist leading the Children’s Message with the children gathered in worship.

The Kingdom of God Through You- as Stewards
And the Kingdom of God enters into the world in part, through you as stewards. But what do I mean by this? Let’s consider our psalm for this week. In reading Psalm 93 we hear that “The Lord is king” as we proclaim today.[13] But we also hear a declaration of who God is and what God has done. We hear that God “has established the world; it shall never be moved.”[14] This echoes Psalm 24 which we heard two weeks ago on All Saints, where we remember that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” This is a stewardship lesson about who God is, and whose we are. God is “from everlasting,” and “more majestic…” The psalm helps us get a better grasp of saying who God is and who then that means that we are. For God is our creator, sustainer, reconciler, provider, and even entruster. As Psalm 24 tells us that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,”[15] it means that you are God’s, and I am God’s. That by extension, all that we have and all that we are, are God’s too. When we remember this, we remember that what we have has been entrusted to our care by God.

A beautiful sign of the season- fall, harvest, and Thanksgiving.

God does this because God wants life to go well for us. God wants to be in relationship with us, and God invites us to be in relationship with God and with our neighbors. God provides for us so that we might have life and have it abundantly. And so that we too might be able to join with God in some of God’s on-going work of caring for neighbor, stranger, and all of God’s beloved children and creation. Through us, some of God’s kingdom building work is done. And through you too, the Kingdom of God does break into the world, bit by bit. There is responsibility that comes with stewardship when we remember and acknowledge that God is the one entrusting us with all that we have and all that we are. But there is also great joy and gratitude.

Think about it. As the writer of Revelation writes and we heard again today, Jesus in whose name the writer writes, is the one “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom…”[16] This is God’s work. For you and for me. The work of the cross and resurrection which we know lie shortly ahead in our gospel story for this week, are God’s work. It’s not ours to do. Only God and God in Christ can do it. And God does so out of deep love and compassion for us as pure gift and grace we could never earn or deserve. Stewardship then comes as our response.

How could we not respond with joy and gratitude for all that God has done, continues to do, will do, and promises to do for us? How could we not echo the words of John the writer of Revelation saying, “to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”[17] Yes, we give our thanks and praise and say glory and hallelujah to God.

Giving Thanks for You
I give thanks to God too, for you. Thabor Lutheran, I know you get this. You are a generous and faithful congregation of disciples and stewards who have long demonstrated Jesus’ love through all that you say and do. I have seen it. I have witnessed it. I was last with you two and a half years ago. A lot has happened since then in the world and in our lives. My wife and I had an 11-month-old daughter Caroline then. We now have a 3.5-year-old Caroline, and another daughter Cora who just turned one year old last month. I mention my daughters because when I look at them, I give thanks for all of God’s people who see the young and old all as disciples and Children of God to be welcomed, equipped, and empowered. You do that well here in your congregation, friends.

I always love to see the visible signs of mission share publicly for all in the community to see.

I know this is true too through your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA through which you do ministry that spans the globe and literally changes lives. But you know that already, don’t you? I mean what other congregation presents a mission share check to the Bishop in worship and celebrates it as good news as well as you did just two weeks ago? Thank you for that by the way.

Through your mission share you do so much Kingdom building work, and I’m grateful for it. For the way you help support and raise up new leaders of the church- pastors, deacons, and PMAs who walk alongside God’s people. For the way you spread the Good News of the gospel through sending missionaries around the globe and supporting new and renewing ministries here all across the Big Red State. For the way you help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling. And for supporting so many serving arm partners of the church through whom you see your neighbors and meet them where they are at- like through Lutheran World Hunger, Lutheran Disaster Response, and Lutheran Family Services, just to name a few.

But again, you already know this. That said. I have the privilege and joy like Bishop did two weeks ago, to be with you today and say thank you on behalf of your siblings in Christ around the world and across Nebraska. Thank you for your faithful discipleship. Thank you for your generous stewardship. Thank you for being visible parts and signs of God’s kingdom building work happening all around, and for all that you do as the People of God here in Wausa. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Kingdom of God- Now and Not Yet
The Kingdom of God is a “now and not yet thing.” You all are signs of how it is a now thing in some small ways. And we know that as God is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end- God is active and up to something bringing about the not yet parts of God’s kingdom. When we answer God’s invitation to come and see and to follow and grow as disciples, we join in and witness God’s mission and work. We join in as stewards of God’s love and of all that God entrusts. And we witness, experiment, discern, experience and wonder about what it is that God might be up to and inviting now.
There’s a level of faith and mystery in this. We can’t easily define what, when, and where the Kingdom of God is, after all. This mystery is a big reason why in our gospel story, Pilate couldn’t understand what Jesus was saying. Sometimes, we can’t wrap our heads around it either. But in our better moments, we start to understand what Jesus means by “truth” and “God’s kingdom.” It’s in these times, when we might step back and look, dive in deep as disciples, and respond with joy and gratitude as stewards, that we do start to see glimpses of God’s kingdom breaking in now.

You know I had to stop and take a picture of the Viking ship. It’s a reminder or sign of my home, Little Norway, Poulsbo, Washington that I couldn’t help but capture on my way home from Wausa. Thanks for another great visit!

Together we embody the truth that Jesus is, and that he points to. The truth that our God has been, is now, and will be, forevermore. That God is with us, for us, and loves us, always. And we are God’s beloved- part of God’s kingdom and the beautiful Body of Christ together. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Revelation 1:4, NRSV. Quoting the beginning of this week’s appointed second lesson.
[2] John 18:37, NRSV. (With kingdom references in 18:36).
[3] John 18:36, NRSV.
[4] Ibid.
[5] John 18:37, NRSV.
[6] John 18:38, NRSV.
[7] John 1:1, NRSV.
[8] John 11:32-44.
[9] John 18:37, NRSV.
[10] John 13:1-17, especially.
[11] Based on the idea of togetherness described in Isaiah 11:6-9, especially. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calif and the lion and the fatling together, and a child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall grace, their young shall lie down together…” (Isaiah 11:6-7, NRSV for example)
[12] John 18:37, NRSV.
[13] Psalm 93:1, NRSV.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[16] Revelation 1:5-6, NRSV.
[17] Revelation 1:6, NRSV.

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