What are we praying for in the Lord’s Prayer? What does Jesus mean by, “Your Kingdom Come.” What kind of kingdom is this?
My wife, Lois and I spent 16 years in a strongly Muslim area of East London. We noticed that when Muslims say the Prophet Mohammed’s name, they always add ‘Peace be upon him’. For them his name is hallowed. Jews know God’s name but never utter it, and because written Hebrew doesn’t have vowels, nobody knows how to say YHWH. Instead they say ‘Adonai’, meaning ‘Lord’, and so our Bibles substitute “The Lord” for those four letters. We Christians are often careless when we come to hallowing God’s name – OMG, we say. That said, hallowing God’s name is about much more than just the words we use, and I think seeking His kingdom and doing His will boil down to much the same thing. So let me focus your thoughts on that word ‘kingdom’ this morning.
There are certain times of year when patriotism is blatant, and usually we’re talking big sporting occasions. At such moments we all become very tribal and like to hear our anthems played. Our son did one of those ancestry DNA tests and discovered that he is 61% Viking, so he’ll probably be rooting for Denmark or Sweden in future!
When kingdoms expand and absorb other kingdoms, they become empires. The Commonwealth Games brings together 56 countries, most of which have some historical link to the British Empire, but history has witnessed many empires. Some years ago my wife and I went to an exhibition of the Qing Dynasty – one of two great Chinese empires. It was not something I ever learnt about at school but was absolutely fascinating. The exhibition featured some amazing artefacts, including a huge vase with 10,000 different characters painted on it in perfect symmetry. Every empire boasts its own cultural legacy, and we tend to love seeing exhibitions of their artefacts, but the darker truth is that, in the first instance, every empire is established on the back of conquest, violence and cruelty.
It was so with the ancient Babylonians, who bequeathed their love of the number 12 and its multiples, and my generation and older have struggled to move from that to decimalisation! The Greeks under Alexander the Great were hugely powerful, and then passed their religious ideas onto the Romans. And the Roman Empire lasted for centuries! Under the Romans the maps were redrawn. Ancient boundaries were changed. The Holy Land of Jesus day was divided into four provinces (Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Decapolis), and in Judea Pontius Pilate was the governor.
Pilate had a reputation for being pretty ruthless, but at the same time, Judea had its own reputation for being hard to govern. So the situation needed an experienced diplomat, a shrewd politician. When the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, brought Jesus to Pilate demanding his execution, Pilate had to make a choice. His conscience told him that Jesus was innocent. But at the same time the Council were saying “If you let this man go, you’re no friend of Caesar’s”. In other words, if Pilate didn’t dispose of him, the Jewish leaders would make life difficult for him.
And as Pilate dithered, Jesus talked with him about kings and kingdoms. My kingdom is not of this world, said Jesus. Now some Christians have misunderstood Jesus’ words and think that His kingdom is nothing to do with life on earth – it’s all about going up to heaven when we die. Heaven is certainly part of the equation, but that wasn’t the point Jesus was making. He meant that His kingdom doesn’t work on the same principles as earthly kingdoms, and we are to pray that His kingdom should come on earth now. Following Jesus the King demands that we reconsider carefully any blind allegiance to the country of our birth.
National loyalty is a very powerful thing. Cecil Spring-Rice was the British ambassador to the United Nations during WW1. He died in office, and when they were clearing his desk, they found a poem.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
It was later set to music from Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’, and was sung in schools up and down the land. It’s the anthem of the Women’s Institute. Princess Diana asked for it to be sung at her wedding, and it was played again at her funeral. But in more recent times the sentiments have come under scrutiny. Despite the second verse, can we sign up to a love that asks no questions of its country’s leaders?
But go a bit deeper. Empires break down into smaller sub-divisions (countries, counties, towns, neighbourhoods, families) – and God’s kingdom challenges all those loyalties. You may be British, a man of Kent rather than a Kentish man, a Manchester United fan, a proud member of your family, but Jesus says all of those allegiances must be secondary to the kingdom of God.
Take families, for example …
A few years ago the Iona Community did a Bible Study. They were given Bibles and texts and their brief was simple:
- Find examples of good families in the Old Testament
- Have a look at Jesus’ family
When they returned an hour later, there was quite a lot of consternation tinged with amusement.
First of all, when it came to the Old Testament, they struggled to find any good families. Adam and Eve had Cain and Abel – enough said! Abraham passed his wife off as his sister; righteous Lot offered his two daughters to be abused by a mob; Gideon had 71 sons via many wives; Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to keep a stupid vow; Isaac, Jacob, Eli & Samuel all had dodgy sons; King David, allegedly the man after God’s own heart, systematically slaughtered whole villages according to 1 Samuel 27, ordered the death of an army officer to cover his adultery, and not surprisingly had a very dysfunctional family. I doubt that Solomon even knew the names of his 700 wives.
But then they looked at Jesus’ family:
- Conceived out of marriage
- Answered his parents back when he was a 12-year-old boy (Luke 2)
How many of you got away with that with your parents?!
- Barely concealed his exasperation with his mother for telling him what to do at a wedding (John 2)
- Challenged family loyalties (Mark 3)
- Told his followers to expect opposition at home (Matthew 13).
But then, of course, Jesus was interested in a different kind of family, a new unit of belonging. He founded the Church, which was never meant to be some elaborate building with magnificent architecture and obscure rituals, but a community that welcomes and nurtures all sorts of people who share a common allegiance. In His kingdom, water is thicker than blood, not the other way round!
So for us, which is more important, the United Kingdom with all those little sub-divisions, or the Kingdom of God? Do we help Ukraine just to protect our own long-term economic interests or because these besieged people are men and women made, like us, in the image of God? Do we leave the future wellbeing of earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria to their fellow Muslims, or do we pitch in and do our bit?
Since 2016 the UK has taken more refugees from Iran than any other country. The current regime emerged after a revolution in 1979 and, as with all revolutions, people were very clear about what they wanted to get rid of but remarkably unclear about what they wanted to put in its place. What they got was a repressive form of Islam.
The last church I pastored welcomed a lot of Iranians seeking asylum in the UK – I think I baptised 20 of them. One man had been tortured in prison, numerous women were fed up with their second-class status. All of them had encountered the underground church, been converted, found out and finally forced to flee the country.
In September 2019, we had a church weekend away. We made sure that lack of finance didn’t preclude anyone from coming. The theme was Future Church and we reflected on how different everything might look in the future. There was one particularly introspective session thinking about how we could be better as a church. What was nice was that our Iranian brothers and sisters had no criticisms – just gratitude for the welcome they had received. It felt like a kingdom of God moment.
Every week we pray the words “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. In his majestic vision of God’s future kingdom (Revelation 7), the Apostle John sees a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before God’s throne, but right now we are called to embody such diversity … on earth as in heaven! Right now, we are to transcend differences of nationality, tribe, class and skin colour. We pay our taxes and obey the law as good citizens, but we also stand with the Apostle Peter in saying that, when there’s a conflict of interest, we must obey God first (Acts 5:29).
And to be part of His kingdom we must be born again, reviewing all our previous loyalties, for Jesus demands our total allegiance. In this kingdom our brothers and sisters are those who share the same values and who eat bread and drink wine at the same table. We celebrate the one King – Jesus the King of kings.
Years ago, not all countries were defined by geography. There was an agreement by the kings of Laos and Vietnam that when it came to taxation, those who ate short-grain rice, built their houses on stilts and decorated them with Indian-style serpents would be considered Laotians, whereas those who ate long-grain rice, built their houses on the ground, and decorated them with Chinese-style dragons would be considered Vietnamese. People were defined not by where they lived, but by the culture they embraced.
Jesus’ life was defined by obedience to the Father’s will rather than conformity to the Judaism of His day. His Father had sent Him here to be the Saviour of the world. He did not pursue a career or accumulate a fortune, but gave his life as a ransom for many. His kingdom has no place for conquest or cruelty, but is characterised by service and sacrifice, which brings us to our reading about Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane; not my will, but Yours be done (Matthew 26:36-46).
Back in the 1980s one of my church members visited Israel. The stay in Jerusalem involved descending the Mount of Olives and into the Garden of Gethsemane. The great rock of the agony, where Jesus is alleged to have prayed that prayer, is now encased inside the Church for All Nations, and a rail surrounds it so that worshippers may kneel in homage. As he knelt, he said that he distinctly heard the voice of Jesus saying just four words: All this for you!
And so the challenge of the Lord’s Prayer for us is: How much for Him? Empires and kings will continue to rise and fall, but the kingdom of Jesus will outlast the years, and before His throne we will all one day bow. So why not vow your allegiance to Him today? The final verse of an old hymn captures it so well:
So be it, Lord, Your throne shall never,
like earth’s proud empires, pass away;
but stand, and rule, and grow for ever,
till all Your creatures own Your sway.