Saturday, July 22, 2006

thy kingdom come: a reflection on the Lord's Prayer

The problem with religion, some folks will say, is that it is pie-in-the-sky. People who are religious are always living in some kind of dream world. And folks who pray, well, they’re just trying to escape. Open your eyes, and wake up, they would say. Get real!

There is a challenge among some folks to the whole idea of prayer. “What good is prayer? they might ask. “ What difference does it make? How does it affect the bottom line?”

In these weeks we are focusing on prayer, especially the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, and this morning is as good a time as any to take on questions like these. Last month we looked at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. And this morning we continue: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

The problem with religion, these same folks might continue, is all of this business about a kingdom. What is that all about? Maybe they can’t quite imagine the kingdom of God, they don’t understand it. Jesus spoke more often about the kingdom than any other subject, but sometimes he spoke in parables, and usually he went in a direction that was exactly opposite from our way of seeing it. The kingdom was the place where God ruled, where God was in charge, where God’s will was becoming a reality. The kingdom is both present---a foretaste of glory divine, here and there, now and then, and---future. Sometimes we have glimpses of the kingdom. The blind see, the lame walk, the poor receive the gospel, this is the kingdom, Jesus said to the followers of John the Baptist (Matthew 11). And sometimes we realize that we are a long way from the kingdom.

When we pray, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, we are praying for something that we occasionally glimpse, but do not grasp. And so we pray in faith, and in hope. We say these words, week after week, Sunday after Sunday. What does it amount to? Fulfilling a ritual? What does it mean to pray these words.

The kingdom of God, in the scripture, is synonymous with the will of God. These two phrases are two ways of saying the same thing, that God will set everything on the right path and arrange everything in the right place and situate all things in right relationship to each other.

These are words that require a great measure of our faith and hope: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Faith and hope because, brothers and sisters, this is not the kingdom of God. The planet earth is not. The holy land, this weekend, is not. The United States of America is not. Your life is not, and my life is not. Because in so many respects, God’s will is not done. The human condition, the fractured family, the divided community, the polarized nation, the empires at odds with each other…we have prayed Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done, but it has not happened yet.

And so what does that mean for praying people? Do we give up on the idea of this kingdom because it seems so unreal to us, it seems impossible? Do we substitute some other hope for God’s kingdom?

Of course, we all look for substitutes, to some extent. We think the kingdom will come when we get that next promotion, when the kids are grown, when the right politician is elected, when my parents understand me, when I meet Mr. Right, or Miss Right, when my team wins the Super Bowl or the World Series.

We replace God’s big dream—a dream that has to do with justice and spirituality and relationship and beauty---- with our little dreams, and we place our hopes in earthly kingdoms, in lesser kingdoms. It’s easy to give up on the big dream, and yet, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday we pray these words that Jesus taught us, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; even when we know, deep in our hearts, that on most days earth doesn’t bear much resemblance to heaven. How can we keep praying these words?

I recently heard about a particular tribe, in Kenya that had an almost mystical connection to the primal element of fire. During the long rainy season certain elders of the tribe had been designated as keepers of the flame. During the heavy afternoon rains, these elders had the important responsibility of preserving a fire in their huts. Losing the fire was almost like losing the heart of the tribe.

Do you ever have days when the rains, the storms, are pouring all around you? When one bad experience, one difficult day, one overwhelming crisis, one personal disappointment follows another? When your dreams, your hopes, your plans, your vision of life becomes more and more fragmented, dampened, empty? Maybe it becomes harder and harder to keep the flame alive, to keep the dream alive. And the question becomes: Where is God's kingdom? Where is God's will?

Some of you may have read Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning. Someone told me that it was listed by U.S.A. Today as one of the ten most important self-help books of all time. In that book Frankl analyzed the lives of survivors of concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and came to a conclusion: those who made it out were men and women who had a very clear reason for surviving: to see a spouse, to tell this story to their children, to be reunited with parents. Those who survived were able to keep the dream alive; they were keepers of the flame.

Last March, The New York Times carried an article entitled “Misery Loves Optimism in Africa”. (March 5, 2006)

“Amouna sat quietly in the shade of her canvas tent, imagining the future of her 3 month old son, Haider, bundled in her lap. My son will go to school”, she declared, absentmindedly waving away the flies that clustered around them…”He will have doctors and plenty of meat to eat. He will live in peace.”

Sitting in a refugee camp, deep in the heart of Chad, where 200,000 people had been killed and millions had fled, where men were slaughtered and women were raped, war spilling across borders, the AIDS pandemic , and yet…

And yet in all of this chaos , here was Amouna, planning a future of unimaginable goodness for her child.

There are so many bad things in the world”, she said, “but I know good things will come for my child”.

She is a keeper of the flame. She sees something. Maybe she sees the promised land.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to be a keeper of the flame. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to see the promised land. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to glimpse and even grasp the coming of God’s kingdom in the world.

The question for us, today, is a simple one: Do we see the promised land? When we say the words, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, do we really expect anything to happen?

Here we get into the realm of God’s dream for the world, God’s hope for our lives, which is so much more wonderful than we might imagine. The prophet Isaiah was given a glimpse of the kingdom: we would live in total communion with God. There would be no more weeping, no more death among children, the old will live long among us, we will build and plant and enjoy the fruit of our labors, the wolf and the lamb will live together in peace.

Sometimes we are given a glimpse of the kingdom. Now there are two important interpretations of these phrases, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. One is that God’s kingdom is going to come, whether we are ready for it or not. We know this because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we pray Thy kingdom come, we await the day when the master will fulfil the scripture of Matthew 25.

Thy will be done. God’s will for us is rooted in his love for us. When we pray for God’s will, that is not something that we dread. It is something that is a gift for us, if we will only receive it. But to receive God’s love, we must root out, overcome evil.

In the 1960s, in the deep south, a spiritual, a hymn, became an anthem. It was a testimony about keeping the flame alive. I would invite you, today, to hear it in a new way. It is God’s invitation, to us, to pray for the kingdom.

When you hear the words we shall overcome, imagine: I don’t grasp the kingdom just yet, but I glimpse it.

When you hear we shall live in peace, imagine: the wolf and the lamb don’t seem to be lying down just yet, but I glimpse it.

When you hear the Lord will see us through, imagine: God will create a new heaven and a new earth, and although I don’t have a grasp of it, I glimpse it.

Prayer makes a difference. When we close our eyes in prayer God helps us to see the promised land. It is the way we keep the flame alive. This prayer is the heart of our tribe. And it is the only way we will overcome all that separates us from God and from each other. And yes, it is the way we participate in the vision of John, in the Revelation, when the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. And he shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11)


Sources: Thanks to Wallace Alston for the his reference to the New York Times article, “Misery Loves Optimism in Africa”. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian.


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