Our Gospel reading begins with Jesus saying, “Fear not little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” It seems an odd way to begin a conversation, don’t you think? “Don’t worry, God wants to give you His kingdom.” If this feels a bit abrupt to you, you are feeling it correctly. It reminds me of the story of a Scottish mother who called her son who had recently moved to New York City and had a small apartment. She asked him, “How do you like living in America and how do you like the Americans, Donald?” “Mother,” he replied, “I like America fine but the Americans, they’re such noisy people. At night one neighbor won’t stop banging his head against the wall, while the other screams all night long.” “Oh Donald!” His horrified mother said, “How do you manage to put up with them?” Donald replied, “What can I do? So I just continue to lie there practicing my bagpipes.”
So why were Donald’s neighbors beating on his walls and screaming? Why did Jesus say what he said? Like the realtors always say, “Location, location, location.” Or when we are talking about the Scriptures it is always context, context, context. In our gospel reading the context of what Jesus said follows last week’s gospel lesson. Last week we heard of a wealthy man who was planning to retire, to enjoy his life after retirement. He had said to himself, “Look, I have ample goods laid up for many years: I am going to eat, drink, and be merry.” (I am going to play golf and go on cruises–that part is not in the original Greek but it fits.) But then God says to him, “You foolish man, tonight your soul will be required of you. And now what will happen to all your stuff; what will happen to all your plans?” Jesus concludes this story with “This is what happens to the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” So what is it that happens? What has happened that we want to avoid? It is not that he dies—hello—we are all going to die. None of us gets out of here alive. No, this man’s problem was that he died unprepared. He was not ready to meet God. This is what we want to avoid; being unready.
Jesus goes on to tell his disciples to change their priorities. They are not to worry about food or drink or what they will wear but instead to seek and look for God’s kingdom and then all these other things, the food, the drink, the ‘what we need to wear’ will be given to you because God knows that we need them. It is here and in this context that Jesus tells them not to fear, not to worry because God wants to give the kingdom to those who really desire it. So the issue is not that God is playing ‘hard to get.’ This issue is whether or not we are indeed looking and desiring God’s kingdom in the first place. In the first century there were many devout Jews who were longing for God’s kingdom to arrive. But they thought the kingdom would arrive with a Messiah who would drive out the Romans—they were looking for an earthly kingdom, a materialistic kingdom, a physical kingdom. But the kingdom Jesus talks about is different. It is a kingdom to be sure, but it is a spiritual kingdom that is bringing heaven and heaven’s values to earth. This kingdom that Jesus ushers into the world is not a wipe the slate clean sort of kingdom. It is not a blitzkrieg that comes in with a massive army and wipes out the enemy. Jesus describes it in one place like yeast in a batch of dough, or a small seed in a garden that gradually grows larger and larger. It is light glowing in the darkness; it is a clean spot in a filthy location. The kingdom Jesus brings comes in by infiltration. It occurs as people change their allegiance. Instead of people being loyal to Caesar or in today’s world, people being loyal to our present world’s values, instead now people are loyal to Jesus. It happens one by one; it happens family by family. The citizens of God’s kingdom live in a new way because through the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection his followers have been changed into new people. This kingdom that Jesus is bringing is one that the Jews have been longing for but it is far better. It is better because it not only encompasses the nation of Israel; it brings in the whole world. It is better because it brings change not simply to the outward circumstances of a national government but it brings change to one’s soul, one’s very being.
So then to begin with, on the one hand Jesus tells his disciples and us not to worry about the things of this world—don’t worry about what you are going to eat and drink and wear. For that matter you can give it all away. And don’t worry about just getting newer and better stuff; after all, this world and the stuff in this world are only temporary. And then from today’s readings don’t worry whether or not God will allow you into His kingdom. No, these are the things about which one does NOT need to worry. But he doesn’t stop there does he? Jesus is not advocating a worry-free existence; instead, we are to worry about something. And what are we to be concerned about? Remember our context. Remember we still have this story of this wealthy fellow who was just going to retire and then he dies. So how do we avoid ending up like this rich man? I want you to note the issue is not that the man was wealthy; the issue was not that he had been a shrewd business man; the issue was not that he had prepared for retirement—actually according to the book of Proverbs those are all good things, right? —the issue was that he was not rich towards God. The man had been living for himself; he was concerned only for himself. He loved this world and the things of this world. He clearly had not taking into consideration that he was going to have to face God. He was going to have to answer to God for his selfish life and actions. This had not occurred to him. So how do we get ready? Scripture is clear. We are to change our allegiance from loving this world and its values and the stuff of this world; to following Jesus. We are to seek God’s kingdom and live like Jesus taught us. That means we need to be serious about serving God. That means we need to be serious about serving others and being concerned about those around us. That means we need to be serious learning more about God and trying to follow his ways better. That is what being prepared and being ready is all about.
Today (this weekend) we are having a baptism. Baptism, interestingly enough, is all about this very issue. In our baptismal vows we say that we will continue in the apostles’ teaching and in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. We say we will persevere in resisting evil and whenever we do fall into sin, we will repent and return to trying to follow the Lord. Do you see? Baptism is not simply a one-time event. No, it is only a first step. We are committing ourselves to a new life. We are committing ourselves to staying ready, staying prepared.
Jesus tells us not to worry about whether or not God will let us into His kingdom—don’t be afraid about that. God wants us to be part of His kingdom. He loves us; He sent Jesus to die for us. Instead, we need to be concerned about our part, about our end of the deal. Are we hanging in there? Are you and I going to persevere? Let us realistically review our lives especially in the knowledge that one day, ready or not, we will have to stand before God and let us reaffirm in our hearts and in our actions what we vowed in our baptismal covenants. Amen