I am often impressed with the blessings of God. We modern Americans live in the most amazing place in history. Not since very early in human history have any people had the freedoms we enjoy . . . the right to choose our leadership, the right to pursue our dreams, the right to worship as we see fit. The way this world works is also unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. For most of human history people walked everywhere, or rode a horse, or took a horse-draw (or mule-drawn, or oxen-drawn) conveyance. There was no central heat or cooling, no mass communication, except gossip, no indoor plumbing. There was little entertainment provided, perhaps infrequent traveling shows of one sort or another, the occasional theater in a larger town, and, maybe, a local band. Many people never traveled more than twenty miles, give or take a few, in their entire lives. If you wanted to hear music, you made your own. Until some time in the middle ages, you stopped working when the sun set, stopped reading (if you were one of the lucky ones who knew how), ate dinner if you had it, and went to bed. After all, candles and oil lamps were expensive. It wasn't until the middle ages that someone figured out that you could read and study and continue to work after dark by burning the midnight oil (yes, that is where the expression came from). Formal education was relatively rare and usually reserved for the well-to-do.
Some of those facts began to change with the Reformation, such as who might get an education, but until about a century ago, life was pretty predictable, and not too awfully different except, perhaps, in the big cities, where the industrial revolution was beginning to take shape, from what it had been for centuries or millennia; a primarily agrarian society. Today, however, we live in a world transformed by technology. We have electricity, lights, convenient central heat, indoor plumbing, easy travel, ready access to information, entertainments and what-not. One can scarcely recognize the social or cultural landscape today as it might be compared to forty or fifty years ago. That is how transformative the technological advances have been.
Most of mankind throughout history lived in a world of extremely limited resources. Many people today still do, but not in modern America. We live in a land of abundance. Obesity is fast becoming one of the western world's more pressing problems. Even the poor in America have an abundance of things. There are so many clothes, so many gadgets, so many toys to collect and manage and store. Three generations ago, people generally did not have much need for closets. Today storage rental facilities seem to be one of the booming businesses. Many people have so much stuff that they need to rent large places to lock them securely away. There seems to be a new industry arising around storage - with their own TV stars and shows - i.e., Storage Wars. Ours is a world of abundance.
But, while we have an abundance of things, riches, comforts and technology, we have a world of spiritual and intellectual poverty. Our technology is stealing away the ability to think, remember, reason, and learn, and most people are perfectly delighted to no longer need to do those things. Now our technology can even eliminate the need to be able to read: your computers and tablets can read for you, out loud. Recent articles in scholarly journals have noted that writing - cursive writing - is a dying art, and is no longer even taught in some school systems. You just need to know how to text, or keyboard. While technology can be good, and helpful, it can also be debilitating, and many people are taking the easy, and therefore debilitating route with the technology they possess.
The result is becoming a world filled with people who do not know much of anything. They can find it, or so they assume, on their smart-phone. So, they do not need to know it. Having instant access to all sorts of information is of very limited value if you have no idea what information is available, or how it can be applied to the questions of life - or to one's immediate needs. Our society is becoming a shallow, lowest-common-denominator sort of society, focused only on what cannot be easily shed: emotions, desires, lusts, felt-needs, pleasures, entertainments. It is the stuff of mobs and assemblages of slaves, not of cultures or societies of wise and temperate men and women. And many people are self-selecting this diminishing of their abilities and poverty of their minds. It is hauntingly reminiscent of Dumbledore's comment to Harry in a scene near the end of one of the later Harry Potter movies, about how the time was coming when men would have to choose between what was right and what was easy.
In religion, the general populace does not know the Bible. They do not know the fundamentals of the faith their predecessors once professed. Because they do not know it, the substance of that faith is not in them to influence them deeply or shape their consciousness or society. Many "Christians" are unaware both of the poverty of their knowledge and of the possible advantages of having their faith and knowledge of God at the ready in their minds. They do not know how little they know, or how that limits them. It also limits the usefulness of what they no longer know in dealing with life and its challenges. Many people are unable to frame the questions that their faith should be able to answer, let alone answer them!
It is in this context that we face the truth that the Christian lives in two worlds. Luther called them the two kingdoms: the kingdom of the world around us, and the kingdom of Christ. We have the secular society, in which we have certain rights and privileges and freedoms, and the kingdom of Christ, in which we have no rights, but are slaves and under the rule of our Lord. The Christian is called on to live as God's child in both of these worlds.
In the secular society, we have duties to perform, and rights to enjoy. We can vote. We have jobs - or we can retire. We are free to associate, in this country, with the people and the groups with whom we choose to associate. We are responsible to obey the laws, pay taxes, and fulfill the role of a good citizen, particularly as Christians. Those who do not share our faith share those civic responsibilities, as well, and their failure to meet those responsibilities is regulated and disciplined (or not) by the society around them. Christians do not have that same freedom. We belong to the kingdom of the Lord, and are in civil, secular society as ambassadors of our King and bound by His will as subjects. Many who call themselves "Christians" lose track of that fact, and behave as free agents of the secular society, and in so doing, deny their Lord and reject His claim on them.
Part of our duty as the chosen people of God is to live in this secular world as witnesses to the glory and grace of God, and to show the world our God by how His people live in it. Some Christians either reject that task or are simply not up to it. They seem to lose track of who they are, and what this world really is, as they live in it. The acquisition of wealth becomes a priority. Personal honor, in the crassest terms of ego, takes precedence over humility, compassion, or even decency and honesty. In short, their daily lives indicate that they have forgotten about God and His Word and kingdom.
That is, in principle, easy to understand. This world around us is so real. We can see it. We can feel it, and it can impact us very powerfully. The kingdom of Christ is, by comparison, ephemeral. We do not sense it as clearly or consistently as we do the world around us. The odd thing is, the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ is more real than the world around us. This world is fleeting and temporary and destined for the trash-heap. It will pass away. And, it is enveloped within the kingdom of our Lord. The kingdom of our Lord, on the other hand, is eternal. Our attention to the immediately sensed world, the limitations of our flesh, and the overwhelming nature of what we see as reality tends to blind us to the reality of the kingdom of Christ and focus us automatically on this fading and temporary world.
There are signs of the kingdom of Christ among us. We call them "churches". God speaks through His chosen servants, there, to awaken our awareness of Him and His reign among us. He claims us by name in Baptism and makes us members of His household. He comforts us with His absolution. He feeds His people with the Lord's Supper, cleansing us of sin, filling us with Himself, and impressing us with His presence and His grace. It is the Medicine of Immortality. He also guides our behavior and our attitudes by His Word, and gives us His Holy Spirit to bless, strengthen, lead and preserve us as His children. He surrounds us with His people, that we may have a sort of physical confirmation of His kingdom, and so that we may not feel so all-alone in this life in the world of the flesh.
While we are ambassadors in this world, we are not always welcome. The world, and its ruler, take great offense at us and our presence and our God. We must face the wrath of the old evil foe and the displeasure of the world at times. Oddly, that is part of our mission here. We are placed here to bear the burdens imposed by the fading world, endure patiently the sufferings imposed by this world from time to time, to forgive those who sin against us, to help those in need and struggling in this world, to confess Christ and the salvation which He has purchased at the price of His suffering, death, and resurrection, and to continue here as long as it shall please our sovereign Lord, living in patience, trusting God that His will shall be done, and is good, and that He will keep us unto eternal life. There are other, more mundane and obvious tasks - jobs and household chores and the like - which also form part of our mission here, but those things are so obvious to everyone that even the unbelieving sense the need to do them. It is the deliberate service of our Lord that we see overlooked and dismissed so often.
Or parodied. Desperate to find some sign of the Kingdom of our Lord among us, many people invent works that they call good and religious. Not all of those works are unworthy or to be condemned, it is just that they are self-chosen, not commanded by God. They choose them over kindness to a neighbor, faithfulness to their duties, attention to their families, prayer, humility, and the like. What was it Jesus said? "You tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others." (Matthew 23:23-24) Luke has a similar quote which includes "the love of God" among the neglected items.
As Christians, we are given both worlds to live in. We do not have a choice between one and the other. If we mean to be faithful Christians, we MUST live in both. We must live in the secular world because we are in it. We live here, work here, play here, and sleep here, until God calls us to our heavenly home. We want to live in the kingdom of our Lord, since only those who live there in this world can live there in the next. If heaven is not your home here, it will not be your home after this life. Since the kingdom of our Lord Jesus is not tangible and visible in the way this present, secular world is, we must live in it by faith. That is not faith in a fantasy, or a condition that does not exist, but in a reality of which we are not sensible - able to verify by sense data. It is living as though our God is watching us - and He is - and as though everything we do here and now is of great significance even though we cannot feel the significance, and no one is praising us for it right now. Everything is of great significance, for it either confesses Christ, or denies Him and His claim on us.
Our sins are forgiven. That is not a fantasy, but the proclamation of God, written in the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son. You have everlasting life right now, it just is not apparent yet, but it is the promise of Jesus Christ Himself: "Because I live, you shall also live!" We do not see the things of that kingdom, such as forgiveness and resurrection and eternal life, in this world for the same reasons that we do not directly observe that kingdom's reality. Our flesh and the stuff of this transitory age stand in the way, and that is just the way God wants it, because His people are the ones that take Him at His Word, and trust Him to do what He has promised for no other reason than He has promised it. He that believes, and is baptized, shall be saved.
I guess the point of all of this is to remind you to be deliberate about living in the kingdom of our Lord. Remember, give thanks, and rejoice that you have two worlds to live in, so that when our time in this one runs out, the eternal one will still be yours by the grace of God!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.
Send Pastor Robin Fish an email.