The total lack of blogging is not because I was actually writing this talk but because I was feeling guilty about not writing it and feeling I couldn't very well blog when I should be writing it. etc. etc. Anyway, here's the audio, which is vaguely different than the text here. And also, I said out loud, "Revelation Chapter One" when I obviously meant "Twenty-One". Have a great weekend!
Citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven
I was tasked tonight to speak about citizenship in the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of Heaven. The word 'kingdom' is kind of arcane in this age. We live in an age of republics, democracies and political states. But we do understand the idea of citizenship. Citizenship comes with rights and responsibilities—and place, belonging in a definable, visible, geographical place.But it is more than that, isn’t it. Citizenship is more than a passport, or where you’re from. It is a legal status, certainly, but en more, it is a matter of identity and of the heart.
I grew up very far away from this city of Binghamton, as probably most of you have. My parents are American and I hold an American passport, but I was born in England and my earliest memories are of village life in Sub-Saharan Mali, West Africa a village far far away from the main road, whose name hearkens to the sound of a particular bird. My mom and dad were there to learn the language, write the language down, and begin to translate the bible—the scriptures of the old and new testament—into that language. It’s been a life's work for them. My dad is finally, after thirty plus years, ready to publish a dictionary of this language, AND in the last few years, the New Testament was completed and dedicated.
Now, you might be able to imagine, I am about as white as it comes. I was the only child that looked like me for at least 50 kilometers.I grew up in an in between space. Some people call it a third culture. I'm clearly not from Mali. And this visible difference buys me a lot of grace. I can say the greetings wrong, I can neglect to reciprocate a gift, I can give the wrong number of cola nuts to the village elder,and everyone cuts me some slack because I am a 'stranger', I am an alien. But of course, I try not to make mistakes, and when I do I apologize a whole lot and try to fix it.
But even though I am a stranger, Farakala is the place of my heart. When I think about where I want to spend all of eternity, both this life and the next, I look out the window of my house in the village, across the fields, up into the great vast African sky. When I imagine a perfect life it is one without electricity-where the lamps have to be filled and lit in the cool of the day.Where water is hauled up from the well, bucket by bucket, and stored in great cool clay jars. Of course, in this perfect life, I can do without pounding millet into flour all day and working hard in the fields, or grinding my own peanut butter, or loosing some of my children to malaria before they can walk. Life in Mali isn't all a fun happy picnic. But it is the place of my heart.
So the big trauma for me, in my life, was in returning 'home' to the country of my citizenship, of my passport.I had to go to college. I had to come 'home' and I did. But, you might have noticed, there are some white people here in the States. Lots more than in Africa. And so I don't really stick out like a sore thumb here, and as a result, there is a lot less grace. Like getting on the bus for the first time and trying to figure out how to stick your money in the slot and being yelled at by the bus driver for taking too long.Or, even worse, giving up the bus and learning to drive. Making change with dollars and cents instead of francs. Walking into a grocery store and then walking right back out again because the lighting is unbelievable and you can't just buy cornflakes. Honestly, where are the cornflakes—carefully hidden behind some fancy honey oat nut crunch cereal. I feel like a fish out of water here, still sometimes, though, gasp, it’s been almost 20 years. I'm not from here. What is most strange and alien to me is that my children think this is the center of the world. When they think of the place of their heart, they think of the play place at Wegman's, or the parish hall at Church of the Good Shepherd, or our cruddy toy filled basement. At least right now. Who knows, as they grow, what will be the landscape that lies at the back of their mind's eye, filtering everything for beauty.
In other words, I'm not talking about what your passport says, as we circle around Citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, I am asking you to think about something deeper. Where is your allegiance, where is your loyalty, where is your heart?
I think there should be a slide if someone could flash that up.I'm going to read out loud from the book of Hebrews, chapter 11.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. ...13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
We are going to have define the word 'faith', obviously, but let me pull out a couple of other names and phrases first, leaving 'faith' till last because it is so important.
Abraham, you might remember, heard from God, the true God, as distinct from all the other gods floating around in his day, and this God called him to an identity and purpose that was entirely distinct from anything else he had previously encountered. And the writer of this book tells us that he 'by faith' believed God and went away from his home, his family, his country, without knowing where he was going. This call of God, to this one man, Abraham, and the belief and trust in this call is so remarkable, so definitive, so immense, it sets up as a type throughout scripture. From Abraham you can trace through the centuries the call of God to both whole groups of people, but also to individuals to leave what is known and go somewhere else and do a particular task,live in a certain way, to be an alien and a stranger. You all, I am given to understand, this term are reading one of the most fascinating examples of this type, this call.
Daniel was captured, as nobility in Judah, he was particularly singled out to be taken to Babylon. And there he was to be fully integrated into the life of the court. Remembering, of course, that Babylon stands for, is a picture of all that is evil and wrong with the world. It is Babylon, in the book of Revelation, that stands for the pure evil of the Roman Empire, of the world as a whole. This is the Babylon into which Daniel and his friends were supposed to settle into and be comfortable and do work. And they do work. They are obedient. They learn the language and the law. They don't sit around moaning about how much they'd rather be somewhere else. But as you read through the whole book, you might get a sense that they are sort of always somewhere else. They eat and drink differently, they pray, they break the law strategically through peaceful civil disobedience. They dwell in but are not subsumed into Babylon. On the contrary, it is the King of Babylon is brought to his knees in humility and ruin—you haven't got that far yet. Daniel in particular retains his alien strangeness, his devotion to and love for God in this foreign land.
The writer of Hebrews tells us why Abraham and Daniel and so many others were willing to live this way.
10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. ...
This city is the opposite Babylon. It is described in the book of Revelation chapter 21, let me just read the description for you.
2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Sounds really wonderful, doesn't it? But Abraham and Daniel didn't have a picture of this city. The writer of Hebrews interprets their, and here's that special word, 'faith' for us, giving it furniture, making into a picture we can see and understand. Faith is the key into this city, it is the only door in. So what is faith? The writer of Hebrews says this, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
The two key words here are not 'not seen' but rather 'assurance' and 'conviction'. Assurance is like a promise. If I assure you of something, I am convincing you that it is true, that you don't need to worry, that whatever it is will be carried out. Conviction is a deep and strong belief or knowledge of something. Your convictions are something you aren't lightly going to fling away, I hope. Many people read this verse by itself and think 'well, here I go, leaping off into an abyss, hope God's on the other side'. Other people look at Christians and think, 'what fools. There clearly isn't anything there, what a bad idea.’ The writers of Hebrew's anticipates both these reactions. Instead of trying to explain his terms, as I've just done, or reason with you,he begins a documentation of the life of people, the witness of actual human beings who had this faith. He's calling, if you will, his witnesses forward to make his case. People we know exist. People whose stories have withstood the test of good history and time. In fact, he brings forward one event in human history so huge it was never disputed in its time—the Exodus had more than 600,000 eyewitnesses—as evidence that what he's calling 'faith' doesn't mean a blind leap into a dark chasm. His claim is that ‘faith’, true Faith, is grounded in solid, assured truths—maybe not visible truths, but truths that have been verified and validated in this world both in our hearts and before our eyes.
All these people have a conviction, an assurance of something we can't see. They were willing to leave everything they had, to travel far distances, in some cases to be killed or tortured, they were willing to forsake their own selves, everything for whatever this is.
I suggest to you that 'whatever this is' is not a belief system or a powerful idea or guilt or a desire to do good. Last week many of you were moved to good works, to compassion for others, to give so that others around the world might have water. And your speaker mentioned that some might give to just feel better for a time. That you might feel guilty, and so give. Or you might want to change the world, and so give. But that kind of motivation will only last a while before it becomes exhausting. The 'faith' described in this chapter of Hebrews always encompasses a whole life. Each person listed in the chapter didn’t do just one or two good things. Each whole life evidenced ‘faith’. Daniel, you will discover, never saw the land of Israel again. He died in Babylon, faithful. Abraham never went back to Ur of the Chaldeans. He died in a strange land, surrounded by strangers, hoping in a promise made to him that one day that land would belong to his children.
This 'whatever it is' that causes a person to leave everything behind is actually a person. And that person is Jesus. Abraham, Moses, Daniel, all of them were living for a Person who they could not see but who is far more real and true than anything they could touch or taste or see. And because they saw him and loved him and lived in him, their lives looked like his. Jesus himself is the perfect and complete culmination of the type of Abraham and Daniel. He left the place of heart, that is, the Godhead—the perfect love of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit—and put on a body, put on the clothing of flesh and limitations and frailty and came to this far distant land to be with us, to know us, to speak our language, to follow our laws and finally to be killed by us. He came to establish, that is to set up or create, what, in the church, we call the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is the most real, the most powerful reality in the hearts and minds of those who love Jesus. It is the place where they live. It is always at the back of the mind's eye. It shapes everything. Now, of course, this kingdom isn't something you can visibly see—it has no walls, no boarders, no roads. In this way it is more powerful, more subversive than anything else on earth. It claims people, it spreads from one person to another to another, as the news about Jesus spreads, as individual people come to love him, he actually makes a home in them. When you come to love Jesus and give your whole self to him, he, through the Holy Spirit, lives in you. You become the boarders of his kingdom.Wherever you walk, there is the kingdom. Whatever you say, there is the kingdom. Whatever you do, it is done for the kingdom.
This places you in a somewhat awkward position, doesn't it? Because you visibly fit in here. No one can tell, just by looking at you, that you don't belong to this world, that your allegiance and love is fixed in a place and person no one can see—except maybe by the ridiculous beaming smile on your face. But they ought to be able to tell when you open your mouth, or choose your major, or whatever it is that you might be doing at that moment. Whatever you say or do, as a member of the Kingdom of Heaven will be to either tell the truth about that place and it’s King, or a lie.
In other words, your frame of reference, the way that you see things, your point of view, your world view—there are a thousand ways to describe it—will be more and more shaped by that whom you love and the place you long for. If that place and person is Jesus than there’s a chance, over time, you will look like Daniel, or Abraham, or any other of the people listed in Hebrews 11. If that place and person is you, or something else in this world, your eyes will not be fixed in the far distance. You will not have a sure hope in someone that has always been and will always be. You will stumble over yourself and over the things of this life and meet with grief and destruction.
If Jesus is the place and person of your heart, though, all the things that you can’t see with your eyes now, you will one day see. The heavenly city that I read about in Revelation will be the place where everyone who loves Jesus will live. The thing about it, is that you can live there already. In Jesus you have the key to go in and live there, to get used to it, to learn about what it’s like and how life will be. I hope very much that if you’ve never met this person, Jesus, you will begin to look for him tonight, to talk to someone here about him to find out more. And for those of you who know and love him already, my hope is that you will fix your eyes on that far distant city and to let your words and actions and life be shaped by the King.