Thursday, March 17, 2011
March 20, Lent 2; The Keys of the Kingdom: Opening the Border
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
I want you to use your imagination. Imagine that on a clear day, you’re high up in the air, and you’re looking out over a great wide landscape, of farms and roads and villages and a city or two. But there you see a round valley, maybe a couple miles across, not very deep, a shallow depression in the landscape. The valley has its own towns and farms and such. Then notice there’s the circle of a wall around it, just below the rim of the valley, and the wall is just high enough to block the sight from inside of the land outside.
You zoom in closer. You notice that the wall is painted with scenery, lifelike, like a movie set, so that it doesn’t look like a wall, but like you’re looking out into the wider world. Imagine now that you were born in this valley and that you live in it. It’s all you know. You can’t see the world outside. In the wall there is a single gate. And in the gate there is an iron door. The door is locked. You cannot open it. You do not have a key. You are locked inside this valley, this depression, although you are so used to it you think it’s all the world. You have never seen the great outside, you cannot even imagine it.
The world outside is the Kingdom of God. Jesus says, “You cannot enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit.” What does that mean, “born of water and the spirit?” Jesus says, “You cannot even see the Kingdom of God without being born from above?” What does that mean, “born from above”? Or does Jesus mean “born again”? His Greek words are ambiguous, they could mean “born from above,” or “born again.” Either way, what does he mean? He speaks in puzzling metaphors.
Nicodemus cannot track what Jesus means. After his third question he falls silent, like he can’t stay in the conversation. What could Jesus mean? Even for us, it takes the whole remainder of the gospel of John to track what Jesus says, because Jesus will work on these metaphors all the way through chapter 21.
I can tell you this. The Kingdom of God is right here, it’s not a far off country, which you have to journey far to go to, like Abram had to do. The Kingdom of God is not distant up in heaven or far off in the future, that you have to die first to get there. The Kingdom of God is right here, all around us, only you can’t see it from the perspective of the world, which is all closed in on itself. You can’t see it unless you are already out in it You have to enter it to see it, and you have to be born again to enter it.
Nicodemus was looking for it but he couldn’t see it. He spend his whole life working for it but he could not enter it. Nicodemus was a scholar and a politician, and a member of the council of Judea. His political party was the Pharisees, which, like most Middle Eastern political parties, was both political and theological. The Pharisees were looking for the political restoration of the Kingdom of God in Judea, and the removal of the Romans. The Pharisees believed that the Romans were in power because God was angry at the Judeans and therefore had abandoned them. The Pharisees believed that the way to get God to forgive them and come back was for every last Judean to be scrupulously righteous, which perfect righteousness would win them God’s forgiveness, and bring God back, and the Messiah would come and kick the Romans out like David did to Philistines, and take the throne David, and the Glory would come back to the Temple and the Kingdom of God would be reality.
But the political party in power was the Sadducees, and they were in the way. The Sadducees were the limousine liberals. They controlled the temple and had worked it out with the Romans. The Pharisees hated the Sadducees. So when Nicodemus saw Jesus cleanse the Temple, which is in the previous chapter of John, which was an insult to the Sadducees, Nicodemus thinks it’s time to go under cover of the night and make an alliance with this new guy.
He’s diplomatic in his opening, and Jesus comes back at him like this. “You want the Kingdom of God? You don’t even know what you’re looking at. You couldn’t even enter it, you of all people who assume you have the right to it, just by virtue of your birth. Nope, you’d have to be born all over again.” Jesus is saying that the issue is not the Sadducees or the Romans, the issue is yourself, Nicodemus. The Kingdom of God is already here, indeed, it’s sitting right across from you, only you can’t see it, the Kingdom of God is already here, only you can’t enter it, unless you deal with the issue of yourself.
So what’s the key, and what’s the gate, and what’s the wall? The wall is inside you. The border of the Kingdom of God is inside you. It’s not out there. The Kingdom of God reaches into you, but you have a wall against it, a wall that’s built of fear, like all encircling walls. So what are you afraid of? You do have much to be afraid of. If you look at the scenery on your wall, you can see what you’re afraid of. What people might do to you, based on your real experience. The dangers out there you are painfully aware of. Or how you might end up if things go on like this. The mistakes you’ve made that you might repeat, the mistakes that you are paying for.
The gate is guilt, a bastion of great strength, which we have talked about at other times. And the iron door is unbelief. And the key, the key is belief, according to John 3:15&16. But unbelief is closer and tighter and safer and easier. But your belief will open the iron door into the world, the whole world, which is your proper inheritance, according to Romans 4:13, the whole world as the territory of the Kingdom of God.
So what’s belief? What is it to believe? Well, you can believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and the kind of life he offers. Start there. And you can believe in the promises of God he offers, the promises we summarize in the Apostles Creed. We often say that we believe the Apostles Creed, but actually the Creed is a shortcut. It’s the promises of God we believe in, of which the Creed is the summary. Here’s a take home. If someone asks you, what do Christian believe in? You can say, we believe in the promises of God which Jesus has offered us. What Christians believe in is the promises of God that Jesus offers us. If you ask me what I believe, I can say that it’s not in ideas about God but promises from God which Jesus has conveyed to us. The key is belief, and the lock is the promises, and when the door swings open it lets you out to find your place in the world.
You can also believe in something about yourself. You can believe there is another you. There’s the you that lives on one side of the wall and the you that lives on the other. When you are baptized you become a dual citizen, it’s like being born again in another country, so that you are a citizen there as well. And you have to grow up into it, and it takes time. It’s not like you immigrated into it as an adult, but that you came into it like a newborn baby, and you have to learn it from the ground up like a child.
You know the old you, you know it so well, and, for all the grief you cause yourself, you love yourself. You don’t know the new you near as well, but you can believe in it, you can believe the promise that the Holy Spirit has given birth to it in you. You can live into your new self, even as your old self is still with you. And you can even love that old self, that old troubling self. You regard your old and sinful self not in hatred but in love. Because the kind of people who live out there in the Kingdom of God are people who have learned to love even the unlovely, as God so loved the world.
Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.