The Kingdom of heaven is like a dog. Over the past few years, many of you will have got to know Jock, the Vicarage Dog, probably rather more intimately than you intended. The phrase ‘in your face’ takes on a whole new perspective with Jock. He is our midlife crisis. Upon reaching that stage in life when our children were about to flee the nest, I got myself a sports car and Carolyn got a dog. Now, we make no bones about the fact that he is a blatant child-substitute, but when we were facing children first time around, one of the things that worried us was having the sort of nightmare child that all the neighbours talk about, laying the blame squarely at the foot of the parents. And just as we reached the finishing line, sighing with relief at having produced two well-mannered children, Jock entered our lives intent on saving us from pride. He is just the sort of dog the neighbours talk about, laying the blame squarely at the foot of the owners.
The trouble is that, whereas Carolyn, very sensibly, gets well out of the way whenever I get the MG out – after all, it’s my right to look like a complete dork if I want to, but I don’t really need to inflict it on my friends – the dog, by comparison, comes with no similar opt out clause. He is so demonstrably affectionate that however embarrassing his behaviour, he makes it abundantly clear to the world that he belongs to me.
So I just want to explain that the nub of the problem is that he sometimes gets confused about who’s the boss. Most of the time, when I have him out, he remembers perfectly well and so long as he remembers that I’m in charge, all is well. He is focussed on me, attentive to my every word and remarkably good at listening. In fact, even when apparently asleep, he’ll pick up words like ‘supper’, from the midst of everyday conversation and respond in a way that, for dogs, is entirely appropriate. But there are times when he forgets who’s boss, such as when a rabbit or a cat appear in the garden, or when there is something particularly vile-smelling to roll in, or when he just gets so involved in whatever is occupying his little doggy mind that he becomes deluded into thinking that he has no master, or rather that he’s the master. And then, he seems to stop hearing me altogether. I’m sure he’s aware, somewhere at the back of his mind, that the old familiar voice is calling him, but it barely registers in his brain. And it certainly doesn’t connect to any active part of his body. He’s doing his own thing and his brain seems to be stuck on rails. And when he finally comes to himself and returns to me, he is crushed with guilt – until the next time there’s a rabbit…
Much as I love him, he can be an exasperating animal. And it’s tempting to shout and scream and punish him until I break his spirit and bend him to my will. But dogs don’t work like that. I need to win his confidence and trust until he comes to me because he recognises that obeying my will is best for him. At the end of the day he has to recognise that I’m the one who feeds him. There is, of course, the danger that he mistakes my kindness for weakness, but ultimately there is no other way to win his trust because he will do what he wants to do. And he has much more patience than I do, so until I win his loyalty, he will always be trying to get away with what he can rather than cultivating the true nature of a well-behaved dog.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a dog. How we behave tells our neighbours a great deal about our Master. Indeed, you are probably the only Christian sermon most of our neighbours will ever hear. And they will judge our Master on the basis of their experience of us. It’s quite a sobering thought isn’t it? And it doesn’t help that at times we forget our Master. It’s fine when we’re focussed on him, but there are times when we just get so involved in whatever is occupying our minds that we become deluded into thinking that we have no Master, or rather that we’re the Master. We might be aware, somewhere at the back of our minds, that the old familiar voice is calling us, but it barely registers – and it certainly doesn’t connect to any active part of our bodies.
Fortunately, God knows far more about dealing with humans than I do about dealing with dogs. Exasperating as we can be, God doesn’t shout and scream and punish us until he breaks our spirit and bend us to his will. He patiently tries to win our confidence and trust until we come to him because we recognise that obeying his will is best for us. And ultimately there is no other way because unless he wins our loyalty with love, we will always be trying to get away with what we can rather than cultivating the true nature of a Christian.
Now, there is, of course, the danger that we mistake his kindness for weakness, but that would be to misunderstand, to miss the point, to be wide of the mark. And remember that the true meaning of the word sin derives from an archery term meaning ‘being wide of the mark’.
You see, from God’s perspective the world has been turned upside down by sin. And our trouble is that we’re so used to that world that we see everything upside down. We think that true power is forceful. We think that real kings are tyrants. We think the real victors are those who overpower and suppress the weak. But Jesus overturns all that. He sets out the manifesto for his kingdom in the beatitudes. There, the earth belongs to the meek, joy belongs to those who mourn, and true power belongs to those who are persecuted for doing right.
And the lessons of history bear him out. Every great empire there has ever been has fallen – and great has been its fall! They are, just as the Bible says, like a flower of the field. They glitter and dazzle for a day, and appear so solid, but they do not last. In the end those who live by the sword will die by the sword. But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever and ever.
We should not mistake God’s kindness and patience for weakness. It is quite the reverse. It is, in fact, the greatest power in existence. It overcomes all persecution, injustice, evil and even death itself. God’s love, kindness and meekness is the ultimate power. It is the ultimate power because it is truth. And truth is knowledge. And knowledge is power. And God’s power is invested in the Church. That’s why St Paul, in our epistle reading today, draws attention to God’s power and says this remarkable thing:
“I pray that God…may give you a spirit of wisdom…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know…the immeasurable greatness of his power… God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion… He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Did you hear that? The Church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all”. All Jesus’ power and authority is exercised in the Church! And all we do is talk about how weak we are. We have no money, we have no people, and we are all too old. But we are the fullness of him who fills all. We are the body of Christ – Christ the King! The body of the greatest power in all existence.
You see, we only seem weak because we’re looking at it upside down. Jesus turns us upside down so that we can see clearly again, see what real power and authority is; see what real riches are; see what life really is. There is nothing that can stand against us or our King, not even death itself. We may not have much money. We may not have much energy. We may only have a bunch of creaking joints and grey hairs, but we wield the greatest authority on earth because Christ is our King.
So how do we wield his authority? We learn to obey him by focussing our attention on our Master. We listen to his word and we learn his ways and thus we learn to trust him and to do his will because we recognise he is the one who truly feeds us. And then we start behaving to the world as Jesus himself behaves towards the world. We visit the sick and the imprisoned, we clothe the naked, and we feed the hungry, when we behave as his body. And each time we do that to the least of the world’s inhabitants we do it to him. And we say something about the true nature of our Master.
You see, imperfect and exasperating as we are, we proclaim our Master when we obey him in the face of a world that thinks his way is weakness. And when his way transforms lives, we show that what appears weak is in fact infinitely powerful, that our Master has power to release them from addiction, from fear, from isolation, even from death. That, in his love and kindness and humility, he can give the peace which the world cannot give. It is the power of life over death – both in the sense of the resurrection of the dead and in the sense that he transforms everything that diminishes our lives and brings them bursting back to life again.
When we who are weak and imperfect begin to do things God’s way we transform ourselves and our neighbours. In being Christ to our neighbours, his power to transform the world comes visible and tangible.
Today we celebrate Christ as our King. We celebrate the one who was persecuted and triumphed over all power and authority. We celebrate one who was poor, but now possesses all things. We celebrate the one who served and who is the Master of all. We celebrate the one who died and is eternally alive. We celebrate the one who bursts into the midst of our troubles and saves us. What a Master we have! What a privilege to serve! Weak as we are, we triumph over everything that troubles us because of our King. So let us turn our focus away from our troubles, from our weakness, from our sin and focus on Christ our King, our divine Master. And let us proclaim him to our neighbours in the way we serve them and in the way he uses even us, imperfect and exasperating as we are. The very fact that we are learning to trust and obey proclaims the true king and his power and authority over all power and dominion. It demonstrates that he is active in the world to transform them. It tells them the true nature of our Master and of his gentle and just kingdom. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Preached: Morland, 26 November 2017