The kingdom of heaven, the one of which Jesus speaks, is not at all like the kingdom in which we live. The truths which guide often run counter to all we assume to be true about many aspects of our life: the order of things, the ways of reward and punishment, the best ways to care for ourselves, and the best ways to assure our safety. In all of these matters, if we believe what we read in scripture, heaven is not like earth.
Let us begin with Isaiah. In this morning's reading, he vigorously scolds the political leaders of his day. A commentary on this passage says he is accusing them of plotting a secret alliance with Egypt. This is in direct opposition to Isaiah's insistence that the nation should put its defense and trust in God alone. He calls this political plan a pact with death.
It is one more example of the kind of thinking and conniving that makes us humans rush here and there, hurrying to protect ourselves from disaster. "One who trusts will not panic," he tells them. More than that, faith in God will be adequate for our needs. Any other dependence puts us in a place where "the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it." Any other faith or religion is inadequate.
The people of Israel heard God's voice in a variety of ways. There was the fire of the burning bush, the voice in a storm, and a voice so thunderous on Sinai that they asked God to talk to them through Moses. Jesus' voice is different, as the author of Hebrews points out. It is a human voice, complete with a human face and body, it is a voice that knows intimately the ways of men, women, and children. The writer calls Jesus "the mediator of a new covenant." But, he too urges his listeners to "See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking, for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven."
The warning in the gospel is ominously clear. In this reading from Luke, Jesus tells us four very important things about the kingdom.
- The door is narrow.
- There will come a time when the door will shut, so time is not unlimited.
- There will be no favoritism.
- The truths, which govern us now, do not govern the kingdom.
This last point had to be particularly painful for Jesus' audience. He told them that Abraham, Jacob, and all the prophets, the most revered men of their history, would sit down and eat with strangers, gentiles even. That notion was horrifying enough but he went on to say that they, good Jews, would be thrown out. He upset the social order on which they depended.
Where is the Jesus who, only two weeks ago, was telling us, "Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom?" Who is this one who now says, "for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able?"
This new teaching is not so much about the nature of the kingdom as it is about us. We are creatures of free choice. It may be the Father's good pleasure to offer us the kingdom, but whether we enter or not is our choice. We are responsible for ourselves.
This does not mean we must search for the invitation to enter that narrow door. Every moment of every day, the door stands open. With every breath we take, Jesus invites us to enter. But, as surely as it is the father's good pleasure to offer us the kingdom, it is equally certain that it is his grief to watch us brush it aside or even reject it.
Is it not possible that the kingdom of which we speak is not a far away destination but a present possibility? Can it be, not a place, but a decision, a state of being which rests in our relationship with Jesus Christ in our present circumstance?
If this is true, life in the kingdom lies in our choices, especially those choices found on page 302 in the Book of Common Prayer. (The Baptismal Covenant)
- Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
- Do you renounce the evil powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
- Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
- Do you turn to Jesus and accept him as your Savior?
- Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
- Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
These are not just familiar words. They are sacred words, sacred intentions, and sacred choices about our being.
In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is the door. Our choices are the keys.