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Matthew 3_1-12

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Here Now -- The Kingdom of Heaven      Matthew 3:1-12

Lots of people love to hate the U.S.A.  But there are also many people who would like nothing better than to move to the U.S.A.  Our immigration crisis isn't about how to persuade people to come here, but how to manage the millions who would like to do just that.  It isn't like that everywhere.  There aren't many places in the world where people are lining up to get in.

But I can think of one -- Bermuda.  Bermuda is a cluster of islands in the middle of the Atlantic.  I have heard that some people thinks that the perfect vacation is a cruise ship to Bermuda.  It has luxuriant vegetation --lots of flowering plants.  It also has a mild climate -- neither very cold in the winter nor very hot in the summer.  Tourism is the major industry, because people love to go there.

Whenever I hear of a beautiful place like that, I start wondering whether I might like to live there.  So many people want to live in Bermuda that they have rules.  To move there you have to bring some sort of business with you -- a business that will provide jobs for the people of Bermuda."  That leaves me out.

I also thought it would be nice to live in Hawaii.  Hawaii is beautiful and has a paradise climate, but I could never afford a house in Hawaii.

That pretty well describes most of the really gorgeous places in the world.  Either they won't let you in, or you couldn't afford it if they would.

When I read our Gospel lesson today, I was reminded of those paradise places -- places that I would love to live -- places so beautiful that everyone would love to live there -- places so beautiful that they have to have rules to keep people out.

In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist is preaching out in the wilderness -- out in the desert.  The place where he is preaching is no paradise.  It is hot and dry.  Not much grows there.  Not many people live there.  None of us would care to move there.

But lots of people went to hear John preach in the wilderness, and this is what they heard.  John said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

That doesn't sound like much of a sermon, does it!  "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  The first thing that comes to mind is a fanatic carrying a sign that says, "Repent!"  That is a warning, of course.  When someone carries a sign like that, they are trying to warn us that we must change our ways before it is too late.  They are trying to keep us from going to hell.

When I read John's short sermon -- "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" -- I realized that it could be a warning -- but it depends on how you look at it.  John could be saying, "Look out, or you will get whacked!" -- but he could be saying, "Look out, because there is something wonderful coming, and you don't want to miss it!"

That's what I saw when I read John's short sermon.  "Look out, because there is something wonderful coming, and you don't want to miss it!" 

It's funny how we sometimes see only the dark side without ever considering the light side.  When John says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," we tend to hear it as a warning.  Maybe it is -- but maybe it is also an invitation.

If someone said, "The boat is leaving in thirty minutes for Bermuda.  Hurry!" -- we would probably hear that as an invitation rather than a warning.  It could be meant as a warning.  The person who tells us that the boat is getting ready to leave could be wagging a finger in our face and scolding us -- but more likely he or she is just trying to help us to get on the ship so we can enjoy the cruise.

If someone said, "Come along.  We're going to have a party!" -- we would probably hear that as an invitation rather than a warning.  It could be a warning.  The person who tells us about the party could be scolding us -- warning us that we are going to miss the party unless we get our act together -- but more likely he or she is just trying to help us to enjoy the party.

If someone said, "They're hiring at Microsoft!  Come along!" -- we would probably hear that as an invitation rather than a warning.  It could be a warning.  The person who tells us that Microsoft is hiring could be scolding us -- warning that we are going to miss a great opportunity unless we start moving -- but more likely he or she is just trying to help us to get a good job.

It just depends, you see, on which side you choose to emphasize.  Most often when we hear John the Baptist say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," we hear a warning -- "Watch out or God will get you!"  That's OK!  That's part of what John was trying to say.  But there was also another side to his sermon.  He was also saying, "Come along!  God's kingdom is at your doorstep!  Jump in!  The water's fine!"

Let me take a moment here to explain something about this sermon of John -- "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell many of the same stories.  Mark and Luke always say "kingdom of God," but Matthew usually says, "kingdom of heaven."  He does that, because he was writing to Jewish Christians -- and Jews hesitated to say God's name lest they somehow profane it.  So, instead of saying, "kingdom of God," Matthew says, "kingdom of heaven."  He isn't talking about someplace up the sky.  He is talking about the place where God is king.

In Matthew's Gospel, John the Baptist says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  If you look at the original Greek --he is actually saying something like, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here -- is at your doorstep now."

That was true in John's day, and it is true today as well.  Has it ever occurred to you that the kingdom of God -- the kingdom of heaven -- might already be here -- might already be at your doorstep -- might already have arrived!  Well, it has! 

Let me tell you a secret.  The kingdom of God -- the kingdom of heaven -- is right here among us today.  It is here in this sanctuary -- and in a million other places as well.  The kingdom of heaven is anyplace where God is king.  The kingdom of heaven is already present among us whenever we allow God to be our king. 

Take a minute to look around you at the other people in this sanctuary.  Do that!  Look around.  Do you know what you are seeing?  You are seeing the kingdom of God -- the kingdom of heaven.  It is here right now -- in this sanctuary.  It is embodied in the people who have made Christ king in their lives.  Hopefully, you are part of the kingdom.  You are part of the kingdom of heaven right now, if you have accepted Christ as Lord of your life.  Right now!  Already!

Don't misunderstand me.  I am not saying that everyone in this sanctuary today is part of the kingdom of heaven.  I am saying that many of you -- probably most of you -- have enthroned Christ as Lord in your heart.  If you have done that, you are part of the kingdom of heaven.  Now!  Already!

And don't misunderstand me.  You don't have to live a perfect life to be part of the kingdom of heaven.  Every person in this congregation is a sinner -- every one of us!  But we are also saints.  The New Testament labels Christians as saints?  That's the word that it uses -- saints.  Paul said, "To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints" (Romans 1:7).  He appealed to the church at Rome to "contribute to the needs of the saints" (Romans 12:13).  In each of these cases he was calling ordinary Christians saints.  Did he mean that they were perfect?  Hardly!  They had clay feet just like we do, BUT they had made Christ Lord of their lives -- so for them the kingdom of heaven had come near -- was already present with them. 

Allow me to preach you one more sermon this morning.  That sermon is this:  "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  You can hear that as a warning if you choose, for there is an element of warning in it.  But I would prefer that you hear it as an invitation.  The kingdom of heaven is not only near, but it is here.  You can be part of it.  You have only to make Christ Lord of your life. 

The British poet, John Oxenham, put it this way.  He said:

    To every (person) there openeth

    A Way, and Ways and a Way.

    And the High Soul climbs the High way,

    And the Low Soul gropes the Low,

    And in between, on the misty flats

    The rest drift to and fro.

    But to every man there openeth

    A High Way and a Low.

    And every man decideth

    The Way his soul shall go.

Let us choose the High Way.  Let us make Christ Lord of our lives.  Let us enthrone him in our hearts.  Let us serve him through each of our days.  Let us choose to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

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