The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page.
We were in the market for a desk and a table and chairs for our house. Since I enjoy torture, I went to IKEA and picked up several boxes of yet-to-be put together furniture. I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but I’m terrible with following directions so I was incredibly thankful for the picture they put on the directions showing what the piece of furniture is supposed to look like; it shows where this thing is going. If at the end of the day, it doesn’t look like this picture you probably got something wrong along the way.
I think the same thing is true of following Jesus. If I asked what Jesus taught, we would have some ideas we could write down but we probably wouldn’t be able to capture it all. If we’re honest, it seems like a lot of the time people come to very different conclusions about what Jesus taught. As a result, the picture we would come up with about following him could look very different depending on who you are talking to. We grab one verse here and one verse there, and we don’t really look at the whole teaching in context.
You can’t just grab a table leg out of one IKEA box and a shelf out of another IKEA box, because it wasn’t made to work like that. The teaching of Jesus is the same way. Jesus wasn’t teaching us to do a bunch of different things. His teaching was pointing to a picture: a single picture of who he was, why he was teaching, and why it mattered. As soon as Jesus talked about that picture, the people in the first century knew exactly what he was talking about. Jesus called this picture the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God was something Jesus talked about over 200 times, but he wasn’t the first one to say something about it. In fact, we have to back up to the Christmas story to see the whole picture come together.
Since we are just getting out of the Christmas story, it’s still fresh in our minds. We think about the manger, the cute animals, and a little baby who apparently never cries.
The reality is that Christmas, the story of the birth of Jesus, was loud, scary, and looked less like a Hallmark movie and more like Game of Thrones, mostly because of a king named Herod the Great. Herod the Great was one of the worst and most brutal kings in history, though he wasn’t really a king. He was only a king because he was put in place by the Romans who actually ruled that part of the world. As a result, he was always paranoid, insecure, and desperately clinging to his power.
Eventually, some wise men show up in his throne room talking about this prophecy that a child has been born and they call him the King of the Jews. Herod loses his mind because he sees himself as the king of the Jews, and this is a threat to his power. He tries to have Jesus killed by having every baby boy in that part of his kingdom murdered. Jesus only survives because his parents flee as refugees to Egypt.
Everything quiets down as Jesus lives, and Herod the Great ends up dying of old age. When he dies the Romans put in his place another puppet king, his son, Herod Antipas. Things get quiet for about 30 years when all of a sudden a man, who has lived in the desert for 30 years, shows up with a message that changes the world.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is a story about Jesus, isn’t it? So we expect it to be Jesus that shows up but it’s not.
John isn’t a new character. John was the son of an elderly priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. We first hear about John as part of the Christmas story. The short of that story is that John was Jesus’s cousin and his parents believed his role was someday to introduce something that was going to change the world. And that’s exactly what he did.
John is gathering these crowds, and he is telling them about this thing called the Kingdom of God. It sounds revolutionary, like an insurrection or an uprising.
Revolution. Insurrection. Uprising. To Herod Antipas, this sounds a lot like what his father, Herod the Great, dealt with when Jesus was born. And, Herod Antipas was a lot like his father. He was insecure, he was paranoid, but most of all he was afraid of losing his power. So, Herod Antipas has John arrested. The next part sounds like something from the Godfather as Herod Antipas eventually has John’s head cut off so it can be presented it to his step daughter as a present.
Just like that, this thing called the Kingdom of God shows up. But when it shows up it causes all sorts of problems. Herod wasn’t going to allow a revolution so he snuffs it. But there is still a spark. There is always a spark. The spark was there because Jesus was still out there and what John was talking about was actually just beginning.
Matthew 4:12-13, 17
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
When Matthew uses the phrase Kingdom of Heaven it’s the same as Kingdom of God. Using the word heaven was the Jewish way of showing reverence and respect for God’s name but it’s even more significant about what it means.
When Matthew says heaven, he doesn’t mean a place you go. That wouldn’t make any sense here because, according to his words, this kingdom is showing up and arriving. So what is it?
The Kingdom of God was something that was promised throughout the scriptures. It pointed to a time when God would make things right and when there would be no more awful rulers. God would be the king. He would bring peace and justice and turn the upside down world-right side up again.
People had tried to make this happen through violence and revolutions but none of these worked. We find this kingdom looks nothing like what they thought, or we think about, when we think of kingdoms. This was why Jesus told people to repent.
Repent. That sounds bad. That sounds like confession.
But Jesus wasn’t telling them to feel bad about themselves…that would be easy. Jesus was telling them the answer wasn’t found in the old way of doing things. The answers were found in new unexpected ways.
Where judgment existed you will find grace.
Where hatred existed you will find love.
Where kings existed you will find servants.
That is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
John introduced this Kingdom of God and he was murdered.
Jesus taught and shared the Kingdom of God and he was placed on a cross.
Throughout history we find people who gave their lives because they believed that God was painting a picture of something so beautiful it would change the world.
I want to share with you a video of someone else who paints a picture of the Kingdom of God. We celebrate his life tomorrow and in the 1960’s this man stood up and non-violently shared the idea of a revolution where power became justice and fear became love.
Martin Luther King, Jr was murdered just like John the Baptist and just like Jesus, because when someone paints a picture of the Kingdom of God it scares people. And, in reality, it should scare us.
The idea of this kingdom is what led Herod the Great on a murdering rampage. It led Herod Antipas to execute John the Baptist. It led a man to kill a preacher simply because of a dream.
But we are more like Herod and James Earl Ray than we would like to admit.
We are often insecure, paranoid, and afraid of losing our own power over our lives, but that is exactly what Jesus wants us to do. Jesus was born into a time of tyrant kings, but his teaching on the Kingdom of God is about letting go of power and leaning into love, and trust, and grace.
You see, God’s Kingdom isn’t as much about his throne as it is an altar where we bow down and turn our lives over to him. We give him our past, our present, and our future as we join him in painting a picture more beautiful than we could ever imagine.
And, we are just beginning.