The Kingdom That Cannot Be Shaken

Post a Comment » Written on October 20th, 2008     
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CHICAGO, IL (October 20, 2008) – Following is the complete text of the sermon delivered to members of the Executive Board of the Evangelical Covenant Church by pastor Rebekah Eklund, who serves as a member of the board. The sermon text is Hebrews 12:18-29.

By Rev. Rebekah Eklund

I read a sermon recently in which the great theologian Karl Barth preached on one sentence from the book of Leviticus. He preached one long and elegant paragraph for each word in that sentence. Barth took seriously that every word, every word in Scripture – no matter how foreign or puzzling or small – is a word of life for the church and for the people of God.

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “In It Together,” and I decided to preach on the word “It.”  I hope you have read the story on the Covenant website about the recent retreat of Covenant leadership where they gathered around the theme “In It Together” – and if you haven’t, I will encourage you to go to the website and read it as soon as you get home.

In It Together. I’ve been praying about this phrase these last few weeks. In what together? I began to ask myself. I began to think about exactly what it is we are in, and why. We might say we are in the ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church; we are together in the work of God’s kingdom.

But, still, I wonder, what is the “it” to which we are all called? One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says that she entered ministry because she fell in love with God. You might say I became a doctorate student because I fell in love with the word of God, with the Bible and the way God continues to address and challenge his church through it, and I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful than studying it in as much depth as possible – than listening to it as carefully as I can.

So when I think about what “it” is, I think about the ways that Scripture speaks about the “it” to which we are called.

It’s too rich and beautiful of a thing for just one image, so Scripture has an abundance: It is the ministry of reconciliation; it is the glorious mystery of God revealed in Christ; it is good news to the poor; it is a new birth into a living hope; it is the making of disciples; it is the building up of a temple made out of living stones; it is the planting and watering of seeds; it is a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Some of these images tell us who we are: branches on a vine; one body with many diverse parts. Some of them tell us what we are to do: bear fruit; do justly and love mercy and walk humbly. But the image that has come to my mind time and time again in these past few weeks is that of the kingdom that cannot be shaken.

You see it seems to me that there’s another kingdom, the kingdom we live and work in, that is being shaken. It’s a great trembling and shaking and quaking that’s being felt all around the world. The kingdom of the financial markets is shaking. The kingdom of economics is shaking. Our hopes for our futures and our bank accounts and our retirements and for some of us even our jobs – are being shaken.

The gospel lesson for today in the lectionary was from the gospel of Matthew, where some clever pastors ask Jesus if they’re supposed to pay taxes or not, and Jesus complicates their lives by telling them, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. The question of what is Caesar’s and what is God’s takes on a sharper edge in the midst of questions about bail-out packages and taxpayers’ pockets and presidential elections – which is why I decided not to preach on this lesson – but it does help remind us that as Christians we have our feet planted in more than one kingdom.

And into the midst of all this uncertainty, all this shifting sand, the book of Hebrews comes to us with a word of life for the people of God, to tell us what it is that we are in, together. It tells us whose kingdom we really belong to. It tells us exactly where we stand.

You have come, Hebrews says, not to a place of fear – not to darkness, or fire, or death, or terror. This, of course, is Mt. Sinai: the ultimate holy place, where Israel received the law that was to shape their life as God’s holy people. Sinai was a fearful place, but it was a place of appropriate fear and awe, where the people of Israel are so overwhelmed by the holiness of God that they beg Moses not to let God speak to them again, lest they die.

Hebrews reminds us of this place, of the power of our awesome and holy God, but then tells us we are now standing in a different place, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Hebrews says, You have come, through Christ, to an even holier place: to the city of the living God, the living God – and the city is dancing with angels and saints and the souls of the righteous brought to perfection, or maturity. I read this passage to a friend, and she said, how majestic. How majestic, and powerful, and beautiful. You have come not to a physical place, an actual mountain like Sinai, but you have come into the overwhelming beauty of God’s presence – the new reality in which we live. “You have come” is Hebrews’ way of talking about approaching the very throne room of God, entering into his presence, where we find mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

If we read the rest of Hebrews, we might notice that these majestic words were written to a community that was being persecuted – their property was being confiscated, they were being thrown in jail and even tortured for their faith. Their homes, their jobs, their very lives were threatened. Some of them were turning away from Christ, or losing heart and falling away from the church. They may have felt, just perhaps, that the kingdoms of their lives were being shaken. And Scripture says, where you are is a place that cannot be shaken. The life you have in Christ cannot be threatened or taken away. The preacher Sam Wells says, “The gates of Hades may look pretty dangerous, and they may hurt like hell, but they don’t win. That’s the gospel.”

The kingdom we are receiving cannot be shaken. It is not a kingdom made with human hands or by our striving but it is God’s kingdom – God’s rule or reign, which the gospels tell us broke forth in the world in the ministry of Jesus, and it is this kingdom to which the church belongs. One pastor I know describes God’s kingdom simply as “the place where God’s will gets done.” We see God’s will get done in small and sometimes amazing ways here on earth, but it will fully be lived out in the heavenly city. We taste it now when we worship together; we get a glimpse of it when the hungry are fed and the naked are clothed and the weeping are comforted. God promises to reign completely, one day – and that’s the day we long for, with hope, with great joy. Like the hearers of the book of Hebrews, our lives are shaped by the reality of the heavenly city – that’s where we stand; it’s the throne room into which we enter with confidence. Yet Hebrews also reminds us that we still need to run with perseverance – the race is not over yet! The possibility of falling away is a real one. The danger of losing hope is always in front of us. The other kingdom we live in trembles and quakes, and sometimes knocks us down.

But when we think about being “in it together,” we know that whatever “it” is, it cannot be shaken. It is the good news that nothing – nothing – separates us from the love of God made flesh in Jesus – neither stock crashes nor financial meltdowns nor heartbreak nor fear in all its forms. Not even death. Nothing. It is an amazing privilege that we have been entrusted as the bearers of this good news to a shaken and shaking world. It is the possibility of being forgiven people who forgive, beloved people who love, healed people who bind up wounds. What a gift, what a grace.

I will end where this passage of Hebrews ends: Therefore since we are receiving an unshakeable kingdom let us have gratitude, through which let us serve acceptably to God with reverence and awe.
Because we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken: we have gratitude. That’s our response – gratitude. And through our gratitude we serve God acceptably, with reverence, and with awe. What it means to serve God through gratitude, acceptably, with reverence, and with awe I entrust to each of our imaginations and to each of our prayers.

But however we do it, we surely do it together. Scripture simply takes for granted that when we are called to the gospel, we are called into a community – a body of many parts, a living temple made out of many stones, a branch among other branches connected to the same root. To Scripture, we do not make sense as an ankle away from its body, or a single stone away from its wall, or a twig away from its tree. Even the image of the priesthood of believers is a communal image of a whole people engaged together in the ministry of building relationship between God and the world.

This is what it is. We’re in it together. And I, for one, cannot think of a more humbling and joyful and beautiful place to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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