The Kingdom of God

First Sunday of Advent – Year A – Rev. Aimee Baxter 

This summer, my husband and I took a trip to New York without kiddos. I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t great! Because this is such a unique position that we don’t normally find ourselves in, we discussed everything we wanted to do in the Big Apple that would only be fun sans children, especially the five year old. A visit to the United Nations bubbled to the top. This tour was one that I had always thought would be pretty cool to do, but I was surprised with how much I enjoyed our time there. 

As we sat down for lunch at the UN, I looked at Shannon and said, “That tour was such a gift to me. I’m amazed at how much I saw of the Kingdom.” Yes, we are church nerds and yes, we have conversations like this all the time. Even on this day, my comment was too nerdy for Shannon so he asked me to explain. 

I replied with something like this, “The mission of the UN is so intentional in recognizing how to care best for humanity and creation. The visuals are stunning. You walk up to the building and your reminded of just how big the world is because you see flags from every country. 

When you come up the escalator, the first thing you see is a big mosaic by Norman Rockwell of all the people of the world with an inscription of the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ 

You turn right and there is a wall of the 30 basic human rights that the UN strives to obtain for all people and all countries. (Fun fact, no country has been able to pull it off – even the U.S.) These rights are not just written out but have a drawing with each that is simple enough for a child to see it and know what it means. A simple, but effective way for a child to know their worth. 

The meeting rooms are designed where the participants in the conversation face each other. 

Everything in this restaurant where we are eating is sustainable and good for the Earth. It’s overwhelming how much this looks like Kingdom to me. I think I want to work here when I grow up!” 

Yes, friends, never ask a nerd to explain her observations about a place. You run the risk of getting a full on proclamation. 

I continued, “But the one image that immediately took me to Kingdom was the big statue of a gun twisted at the barrel. It makes me think of Isaiah’s words that one day nations will beat their swords into plowshares.’ 

Our Old Testament reading today contains these words from Isaiah and continues, they will beat “their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Oh man, I read these words and almost weep at the harsh reality that this is not yet realized! There is still so much work we still have left to do. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed and do nothing, but in the words of Atticus Finch, “(Courage) is knowing you may be licked before you begin, but you begin anyway.” This unrealized reality is worth fighting for until we get there. One of the ways we do that is by changing how we live and operate in the world. 

Brene Brown, a sociologist that some of you may have heard of, talks often about how it is hard to hate up close. What she means is that once we get close to people and don’t keep an arm’s length or more between us, it’s really hard for us to not see their humanity. This visual given to us by Isaiah helps me to see her words in a new way. Swords put us in opposition to one another. Plowshares put us to work with each other. Spears are cast at each other, but pruning hooks require focus on reaping the harvest. Proximity breaks down our prejudice and nearness puts us to work with each other, not against. And that sounds a lot like the Kingdom of God.

 Our Gospel reading opens up this conversation on the Kingdom of God a little more and challenges us in other ways. The readings are not taking it easy on us today! We see in this Scripture images of people doing what we just talked about - working in the fields together, eating, drinking and being merry! Living in close proximity to one another. And yet, there is a bit of an ominous tone to it as if this even is not going to go well. One will remain and another will be taken away? Thieves will come into your house and steal? The Son of Man is coming, so look out? This does not sound like Kingdom and is honestly a bit scary and confusing. While there is certainly an apocalyptic tone to this Gospel, I think there may be something a bit less ominous for us to hear in Jesus’ words. What if we heard his words this way? “Be intentional and look for me. I am here if you have the eyes to see. The Kingdom of God is at hand, don’t miss it. I will show up when you least expect it.” 

Several years ago, I had it my mind that I wanted to be sure to do some intentional things throughout Advent. One of those was paying for the person’s meal behind me in the drive-thru. Y’all have heard of these stories and I thought it would be a fun way to consider others during the holiday season. Two days before Christmas my family and I were sitting at a local Arby’s having lunch when it occurred to me that I had not done what I wanted to do. I remember feeling such disappointment that I hadn’t done this one small thing that I wanted to be part of my Advent experience. 

So, I started looking around to see if there was anyone I could help in the Arby’s. And that’s when I saw a gentleman who was dressed in tattered clothing that I had already observed come in and talk to the manager. From what I could tell, he had asked for food and they gave him some. A-ha, that was it! I would go and inquire about this gentleman and help him. I asked the worker behind the counter the story about him. She told me that he came in regularly and depending on which manager was working they would give him some food. I have learned over the years that one of the biggest gifts we can give to someone is dignity of choice. I decided to buy this man a gift card so that he could come in and buy whatever he wanted on the menu whenever he needed it without having to ask or take whatever was given him. Who knows? Maybe roast beef isn’t his thing and he’d like to mix it up with some turkey. Remember, it’s the small things that remind us of our worth. 

I bought the gift card and walked over to the gentleman, gave it to him and wished him a Merry Christmas. He seemed surprised, but appreciative of the gift. I went back to my seat feeling pretty good about what I’d done. My family was watching me with a twinge of embarrassment and resignation of knowing who they live with. I live with a bunch of introverts who would rather die than have attention brought to them in public. Then, I saw the man get up from the table and go to the counter with the gift card where he engaged in a lengthy conversation with the woman behind the counter. It hit me like a punch in my stomach – he was trying to get her to give him cash for the gift card. I was sick and decided to just leave because I couldn’t watch this all play out. I thought, “Well, no good deed goes unpunished and here I had just been part of a bigger problem of enabling him.” Sigh. 

We had gotten everyone in the car when the Arby’s employee came running up to the window. I started to panic and thought, ‘oh man, I am in trouble now!’ I rolled down the window and she said these words, “The gentleman you bought the gift card for just told me that he had prayed to God for a sign that God was real today. He said that gift card from you was his sign. I just thought you should know.” 

It still gives me chills to talk about it. This seemingly small, and what felt at the time a bit silly, act was an expression of the Kingdom that I could have never seen coming. You see I was acting in many ways out of a selfish desire to do a good deed, but God took this moment where I had eyes to see, where I was actively looking, and made it so much more. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Will you see Him? 

For us as Christians, the Kingdom of God is both here and not yet fully realized. We can’t get so caught up in the not yet, that we miss what is already here. I came across these words in a devotional not too long ago: “Eating together in the kingdom is the kingdom, realizable now as the foretaste of what is not yet.” You can replace the word eating with serving, playing, working, or worshiping. Buying gift cards for strangers. Taking cookies to those who have to work on Christmas Day. Eating the bread and taking the cup. It’s all Kingdom. 

Advent is a season that invites us into this realization. To know that we still need Emmanuel to come release us from our sin and fear, and Thy gracious Kingdom bring. Advent begs us to sit in the tension of the here and not yet, acknowledging that God is very near. 

Luke 12:32 tells us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” The Kingdom is yours. God is here. Do you have the eyes to see it?