“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” That is the message of John the Baptist. And our gospel writer, Matthew, tells us, that after Herod arrests John the Baptist, Jesus takes up proclamation of the same message: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
For most of us here in this room, talk of kingdoms lies in the realm of fantasy. Kingdoms are in the story of King Arthur, or The Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones, or Frozen. We call Disney World “The Magic Kingdom,” and understand it to be populated at least partially by royalty, princes and princesses and kings and queens, along of course with goofy cartoon animals. We know that kingdoms exist and they both fascinate us and repel us. We are fascinated by the British royals and watch TV shows like The Crown and Victoria avidly. We are repelled by what we hear of in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
But kingdoms are not for Americans. A kingdom is what we rejected when the Second Continental Congress sent King George III the Declaration of Independence. Not for us the unquestioned, absolute rule of a king—or queen. Give us instead government of the people, by the people, for the people, run by officials elected by the people who can also be unelected by the people every two, four, five, or six years, depending on the office.
This democratic urge has also affected our theology. A lot of Christians talk about choosing Jesus, about making a conscious choice to claim him as Lord and sovereign over our life. We Presbyterians have never been quite so sanguine with that idea. That’s why we aren’t like some other denominations that only baptize believing adults. We baptize infants like Elizabeth, someone who can’t choose Jesus as her Lord. Why? Because we believe that Jesus is Elizabeth’s Lord whether she chooses him or not. And likewise he is our Lord, whether we choose him or not. That’s what it means to be sovereign ruler. That’s it: you’re in charge. Nobody chooses you and nobody elects you. You just are.
And that’s what we believe about Jesus; and that’s what we believe about God. Whether we believe it or not, Jesus is Lord. And even if no one in the whole world believed in the Judeo-Christian God, Yahweh, Yahweh would still be the sovereign ruler of the universe. We don’t elect God as sovereign over all that is; God just is sovereign over all that is. Period.
Every Sunday when we say the Lord’s Prayer, we define the Kingdom of Heaven. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven is that place where God’s will is done. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we’re asking that God’s will be done here on earth, even as it is done in heaven. And when John the Baptist and Jesus preach, “The Kingdom of heaven has come near”—other translations say “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand”—they are saying that kingdom has started to become reality on the earth.
At some level, for many of us, this idea of God as sovereign, whose will does set the direction for the universe and should set the direction for our lives, makes us very uncomfortable. Can’t we put this to a vote? What about what I want? Does it just get run over by God? Margaret and I have been watching The Crown recently, and we’re in the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. She keeps trying to tell people what she wants, because she’s the queen, and keeps getting gently but firmly shot down, because she actually is limited—she is boundaried by traditions hundreds of years old that say what she can and can’t do, and by a democratically elected government who actually have the real responsibility for the United Kingdom’s destiny. In her early years, much to her surprise and chagrin, the Queen of England needs to learn her place.
I think sometimes that’s the God we want, a God who knows God’s place. And so we say things like, “God rules our hearts,” and partially mean by that, “But not other things—like our material wealth.” Or we say that “God is personal”—by which we mean that God has no place in the public square, no place in political discourse. Or that God is God of the Kingdom of heaven, by which we mean that God’s involvement on earth and with material matters is limited at best. All of these are ways to box God in, using religion and theology to limit God the same way traditions and democratic government box in the British Queen. But God is un-box-in-able. God is Lord of all of it, period, and our challenge as believers is to acknowledge that Lordship. We will not do it overnight—we’ll spend our whole lives figuring out the full implications of God’s Lordship. But God does not need our assent to be Lord. God is Lord whether we agree or not.
If you have an absolute ruler, then everything—really everything–depends on the character of that ruler. And that is especially true of the Lord of the universe. If this sovereign is harsh and judgmental, things are dire indeed. If this God is mad at us, we’re in trouble. Likewise, if this God is strict and demanding, we’d better get busy tying ourselves into knots to do what God wants.
But maybe this God is mild and meek and sweet and non-demanding! If that’s how it is, then everything is unicorns and moonbeams. But then you have to ask, what about evil people? Do they just get let off the hook too? If God is a softy, is there no justice?
Our scripture from Isaiah is about the character of the messiah, who will bring about God’s kingdom on earth. This ruler to come, this person who will make the Kingdom of Heaven a concrete reality here on earth, will have wisdom and understanding, counsel and might; he will judge righteously and with a special empathy for the meek and the poor. But also, he will hold the wicked accountable. He will be just, merciful, empathetic but firm. We Christians believe this extraordinary ruler is Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he died and rose again to save us all. That as much as anything, speaks to the nature of the ruler of the universe—someone humble, a servant, willing to die for the sake of everyone in the world, but then powerful enough to thwart death. All this seems ample testimony to the character of the Sovereign of the Universe.
And when that ruler comes:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
When the Kingdom is established, all the animals will live together in peace and harmony and every child will be safe and secure, even with snakes. Heavens to Murgatroyd, it sounds like the Kingdom of heaven really WILL be like Disneyworld!
What’s being described here is a return to the Garden of Eden, with humanity living together in peace with God and with one another and in total harmony with nature, which will likewise be a place of harmony, health and safety. All under the reign of a sovereign who can be trusted to show mercy to those in need of mercy and truly to judge between the just and the wicked. A sovereign who can establish a world of true justice and fairness. A sovereign who can make true and lasting peace between human beings and between humanity and nature.
And yes, this merciful, just, reconciling forgiving, harmonizing Lord is the unelected Lord of the universe. Thank heaven this is so. Because this is true, we can baptize Elizabeth into hope. Baptism means that before she could choose God, God has chosen her. But not only that, we can assure her that because God is sovereign, that means grace, mercy and love are sovereign. We can proclaim that God’s grace surrounds and encompasses her. Because God is sovereign, grace is sovereign. Grace ultimately will reshape the world into the Kingdom of heaven. And we can assure her that there’s nothing we humans can do to vote that gracious, merciful, and just God out of office. We can thwart God’s will for a while, but God will win in the end. Because there is nothing we can do to dethrone the Lord of the Universe.
Nonetheless, though, there is election. It’s just not the election of God. Instead, it is God’s election of Elizabeth: not only into God’s gracious mercy, but also into God’s expectation of responsibility. In her baptism, we are declaring that God has chosen Elizabeth. We are declaring today that Elizabeth is one of the elect, elected as any public official is to service, not simply privilege. God has elected her as God has elected us to the extraordinarily high office of direct representative of God’s kingdom on earth, with the power to enact that kingdom’s most profound directives. We have the power to forgive; we have the power to show mercy; we have the power to speak out for our sovereign’s expectations of justice, equity for the poor, reconciliation, and peace.
Just like any elected official, we can humbly try to live into the expectations of our office; or we can abuse that privilege and misrepresent God’s kingdom. And we will fall far short of being the best representative of God that we could be. Just as even good politicians make mistakes and mix up priorities, so we—and Elizabeth—will sometimes fall short of the high calling to which we’ve been elected.
I had a friend in seminary who grew up in Europe and had a very high, Lutheran theology of baptism. She had been taught about Martin Luther—how he was on trial for heresy by the church and was terrified as he testified before his accusers, fearful that he might be killed–or worse, that he might be wrong. Yet even as they threw their accusations at him, Luther would repeat: “I have been baptized; I have been baptized.” It encapsulated all his theology in a nutshell—even if he was in fact a heretic, his shortcomings were covered by the profound and incontrovertible grace, love and mercy of God, symbolized by the fact that he was baptized. My friend told me that when she was younger, she drifted from the church and started doing things that she knew were wrong; and sometimes in that time she’d wake up late at night and wonder what had happened to her and was ashamed and afraid because of her own behavior. When that happened, she said, Luther’s words came back to her: “I have been baptized; I have been baptized.”
And now here she was in seminary, headed into ministry. The grace of God had sustained her during the time she made the worst choices of her life, and now she wanted to fulfill her elected duties by proclaiming that grace to others. The grace of God is the grace of a sovereign Lord, you see: God’s grace has the absolute authority of an absolute ruler.
Today’s baptism promises us that my friend’s story of grace in a time of straying and return to her calling as a disciple can also be Elizabeth’s story, as well. Grace is absolute because it is the nature of an absolute God. Our election as God’s representatives can be thwarted, but that same grace always draws us relentlessly back to our sovereign, and our calling to be the Kingdom’s elected representatives on earth. Today we set the tone of Elizabeth’s life and assure her that she bears the name of the sovereign God of the universe—and that means that in her life, God’s grace will also be sovereign. Thanks be to God. Amen.
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
The Baptism of Elizabeth Marjorie Scott
December 9, 2019
Isaiah 11: 1-10 Matthew 3: 1-12