"His Kingdom Will Never End"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 18, 2005
2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; Luke 1:26-38
The story in Luke’s Gospel records that the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary; God is about to be very gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be a great leader. People will call him, ‘The Son of the Most High God.’ God will make him king as his ancestor David was. He will be king of the descendants of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end!” (Luke1:30f)
If we fast-forward the drama of Jesus’ life for 33 years, we find Mary completely devastated while standing at the foot of a cross. No doubt she was stunned with disbelief as her son was dying because of capital crimes against Rome that he never committed. No doubt she had a flash back to those moments when Gabriel promised that Jesus would rule over a kingdom that would never end.
For a moment, imagine that you are Mary. What would Gabriel’s words mean when suddenly you are greeted with an overcrowded inn and you have to deliver God’s son in a barnyard? What would those words mean when Jesus is 29 years old and he is still doing the work of a carpenter? What would they mean when Jesus is driven into the wilderness for 40 days and you learn from some of your friends that he is not eating? What would they mean when nothing even remotely resembling a kingdom like David’s appeared to be part of Jesus’ mission and purpose? And now you stand at the foot of the cross as you ponder once again the words of Gabriel, “His Kingdom will have no end.” What would you be thinking?
God’s will is infinitely mysterious. As much as some Christians believe that they have access to God’s will and know God’s plans, they need to rethink their position. The human mind, including those who composed the Scriptures, has always given God human qualities. No one understands the drama in which we all participate. Even Jesus wandered in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. His destiny remained unclear as he debated his future in the garden after Judas had betrayed him.
What are we to make of this kingdom that would have no end? We know that Jesus made love visible in a form we could understand. Truly this is the kingdom that continues forever. Those living in this kingdom can express their creativity in an infinite number of ways.
We think we know how to love. We do not. We often see love only in the context of human relationships. When our relationships deteriorate, often love disappears from them. This cannot be so for the kingdom Gabriel announced.
It is always fascinating to listen to children. Art Linkletter wrote the book, Kids Say The Darnedest Things. He was right! They really do. Recently, Steve Cone sent to me some interesting responses from children regarding their impressions of how love is expressed. Children are generally honest and they link their understanding to their experiences. Here are several questions and answers.
When asked, how do people decide whom they will marry, ten-year old Kristen answered, “No person decides that before they grow up; God decides that. When you grow up, you get to find out who you’re stuck with.” How can you tell if two people are married? Derrick, age 8 answered, “You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids.” What do most people do on a date? Lynnette answered, “Dates are for having fun, and people should use them to get to know each other. Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough.” She learned that lesson by the tender age of 8. When should you first kiss someone? Seven-year old Pam answered, “When the person is rich.” Finally, How would you make a marriage work? Ricky answered, “Tell your wife that she looks pretty, even if she looks like a truck.” He is 8.
How we express love is complicated. If children are confused by what they learn from us, perhaps expressing love is far more complicated than we first believe. When we love each other, such love is frequently viewed as a two-way street, a street that is filled with assumptions, expectations, neediness and many presumed responsibilities, loyalties and faithfulness.
When there is a breach of trust that frequently happens in relationships, the experience of love often fades. Countless times the writers of the Hebrew Bible projected this kind of love on to God. When the Hebrews broke their covenant, God was described as an angry being that engaged in abandonment. Can infinite love be determined and defined by the responses of others? For many forms of human love, the answer is clearly “yes.” God’s love, however, radiates only in our direction. People killed Jesus and God responded with evidence that life is eternal.
Today I want to focus on God’s love that forgives 70 times 7 and is always creating new ways to inspire us. This is the source of the kingdom Gabriel announced to Mary. We can express ourselves any way we desire because God knows that we must first crawl before we walk and walk before we run. God knows what many of us have not yet learned – nothing else works. Such a kingdom cannot possibly have an end.
One Christmas a convicted murderer decided he would like to assemble a group of prisoners to form a choir. He wanted to create a Christmas program for the other inmates. This particular prisoner had been a piano man who had played in various lounges for years before committing the crime that placed him in prison. He was also a member of the prison fellowship, an experience that had radically changed his life.
After wrestling with this very challenging decision, the Warden reluctantly gave his permission. The greatest challenge he faced was being able to manage what might happen when men and women were brought together. These are people who had not been with each other for years.
The first rehearsal was pure confusion and chaos. Everything you might imagine happened. People could not keep their hands off each other. Two men fought over a woman they had just met. Just as the prison guards were about to intervene and restore order, a woman stood up and started screaming. She delivered an extremely persuasive and eloquent speech that was punctuated by countless obscenities. Instantly the room fell silent. With some editorial adjustments, this is what she said,
Sit down and shut up! Every one of you knows the kind of mess we have made of our lives. You are behaving like animals and I am ashamed to be among you. This man wants to teach us to sing. Some of you may think that is corny, but I don’t think it is. I think it is darn nice that somebody cares and has made arrangements with the Warden to allow us to be together. I haven’t wanted to sing for years but maybe it is time that we do. You either sing or just sit there and shut up so that the rest of us can.
The piano man nervously cleared his throat and thanked her for her effective leadership. He sat down at an old prison piano that he had just tuned by ear with a Crescent wrench. In front of him sat rapists, murderers, prostitutes, thieves, drug kingpins and the like. As they practiced, something unexpected happened to them. For once they were doing something for someone else. They were giving rather than taking. A new energy emerged from them. They were singing about something God had done for everyone, including them.
From this vast assortment of people, that piano man slowly built his choir. Each prisoner began to work on learning his or her part. They met daily and the animal in each of them no longer reared its head. They wanted their performance to be good and it was. In 1999, the inmates of that prison were treated to a very decent Christmas program because one transformed person believed that others had it within them to focus their lives in a more creative direction. The female prisoner who used language each of them understood and the skills of a reformed piano man reached in and touched them, allowing God to give their spirits eyes.
This love came from the kingdom that has no end. Love never has an end. Sometimes it only advances in tiny increments, but it advances. We have missed so many opportunities when we believe we need to receive before we love. That is the ultimate error in our thinking. If we ever look upon God as our ultimate role model, we learn that God is always reaching, always searching for the sheep that have strayed.
Behind my office desk is a close up of Michelangelo’s painting of God’s hand reaching toward the outstretched hand of Man. That scene is part of the much larger work found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The hands are close but they never touch. How does the spirit of God connect with humanity that mostly understands and takes cues from the physical world? Can we ever love without needing to receive? We were created with this ability. All we have to do is use it and we will become part of the kingdom that has no end.
It was Christmas break for the students at Boston University. The Dean of the School of Music was walking to his car when he noticed one of his students talking to an old man who was playing his battered violin while sitting under a tree that had long since lost its leaves. His beggar’s tin cup was empty and the shivering poor soul was all but invisible to the passing parade of people hurrying to get home for Christmas.
The coed listened for a while to his untutored playing and then she asked, “May I see your violin for a minute?” He looked up at her with fear in his eyes, afraid that she might be cruel to him as others had been. Something about her reassuring smile convinced him that she was different and he reluctantly surrendered his instrument. The snowflakes were flying and the air had a chilling bite to it. She laid down her books, removed her mittens and spent a few moments tuning the old violin.
She put his instrument under her chin and began to transform the entire world around her with a rendition of Ave Maria. Her playing was flawless. People stopped and began to gather around the two of them. As the crowd grew larger, she began to motion with her head to fill the poor man’s tin cup. They got the message and immediately filled his offering plate generously.
In recounting this fragment in his life the Dean wrote in his personal journal,
I was touched in a way that a thousand sermons on good will could never have done. I was very proud that Rebecca would take the time to bring joy to someone who could not give her anything in return. Truly I have seen the spirit of God in one of its purest forms touching all of us who witnessed this tiny deed of compassion. This afternoon many of us were drawn closer to what makes this season so sacred.
When we are living in the kingdom that has no end, we should understand that we are expressing ourselves as God created us to be. When we do not expect anything in return, our neediness is gone. What is left in us is our love that freely flows away from us. To recognize that kingdom and live in it is our only real choice in this life. That each of you may find that kingdom and want to live there today, I humbly pray.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, how grateful we are for these Advent days. As our spirits draw us closer to you, we learn that you give without ceasing. You call us to become more than we ever thought we could be. Help us to harness the powers of spirit so that we can transform reversals into possibilities, hurts into forgiveness and failures into growth. Guide us to radiate compassion and understanding in our daily activities so that we will not confuse your will with our own. Amen.