I have entitled this sermon: “A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” and I would like to start with a parable.
There was once a very dynamic pastor of large megachurch in Dallas, Texas: The Rev. Nathan J. Pride. Thousands of congregants would come from the suburbs and even rural areas surrounding Dallas to hear Rev. Pride preach on Sundays.
Because the church was so large, several Sunday services were required. At each service, Rev. Pride would preach with fierce intensity, demanding that sinners turn from their wicked ways or face eternal punishment.
Rev. Pride was very famous and on the boards of many different corporations, to give them spiritual support and a vision for the future. He was called upon to give invocations at community events, college football games, and various celebrations.
After a long and illustrious career, Rev. Pride decided to retire. Upon his leaving, the massive congregation staged a great celebration in honour of his many years of ministry. The governor of Texas even showed up that Sunday to proclaim it: “Rev. Nathan J. Pride day.”
The congregation sent him on his way with a million-dollar check in his pocket and an all-expenses paid trip around the world.
Some years later, however, a very feeble Rev. Nathan J. Pride fell seriously ill and eventually passed. After his passing Rev. Pride found himself in front of huge pearly gates that automatically opened for him.
It was just as he had preached on earth, you do the Lord’s work and one day you will be rewarded at the pearly gates of Heaven. As Rev. Pride walked through the pearly gates, a couple of rather large and important looking angels approached him.
The angels smiled, and bending down said to him, “Hello, we are Heaven’s welcoming committee. Welcome to heaven.”
Folding his arms across his chest, Rev. Pride smiled right back at them and said, “I am Rev. Nathan J. Pride, the retired Senior Pastor of a large megachurch in Dallas, Texas. I assume you have heard of me. It is because of me, that many souls are heaven today.
But the angels just looked quizzical, not seeming to understand that they were in the presence of such a famous preacher. After a bit of discussion among the angels, one of them finally said, “I’m sorry, Rev. Pride, but we have never heard of you.”
Well, Rev. Pride was getting more than a little frustrated by this time. In no uncertain terms he informed the angels that on the Earth, he was a very important man!
The angels again conferred with one another privately. After a while, they came back to the frustrated pastor and said this:
“ Rev. Pride, we have just one question:…What is a man?”
My friends, it seems we human beings, even those claiming to be powerful religious leaders, are afflicted with pride and arrogance; afflicted with the desire to be admired and congratulated; the desire to be famous and sought-after, the desire to be praised and exalted.
It seems that this is a flaw that has plagued humanity since time began. Certainly, it was present in time of Ezekiel in our old testament lesson today. Allow me to sum up Ezekiel’s story just a bit.
Some 2500 years ago, Ezekiel was a young priest in Jerusalem. At this time the Kingdom of Israel was besieged by the Babylonians and many Israelites were taken prisoner and exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel is one of them.
About 5 years into his exile, Ezekiel is sitting by a river, grieving, homesick and singing the blues. Suddenly he has a vision of God on his throne. God commissions Ezekiel to be a prophet to Israel and to the nations of the world; to tell them that they have failed to keep the covenant and are now worshipping foreign gods and idols.
Even more damning, God tells Ezekiel that their kings are worshipping themselves and setting themselves up as god. And because of this, their kingdoms are doomed to fall.
God tells Ezekiel this: “Mortal, say to Pharaoh, king of Egypt and his hordes: Whom are you like in your greatness? Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds…so it towered above all the trees of the field…
All the birds made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived.
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, I gave it into the hand of the prince of the nations; he has dealt with it as its wickedness deserves…I have cast it out. Foreigners from the most terrible of the nations have cut it down and left it.
On the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen, and its boughs lie broken in all the watercourses of the land; and all the peoples of the earth went away from its shade and left it.”
Ominous prophecy indeed, for Egypt and Syria have never regained the greatness they once had long ago.
And yet, this prophecy is as true today as it was 2500 years ago. That which makes a nation great is not its military power and its ability to dominate other nations. What makes a nation great is its benevolence, its generosity, its justice for all persons and its service to the needy.
It has been my experience that life has a rather interesting way of humbling those persons and those nations with massive egos, whose arrogance and pride have caused them to act selfishly, recklessly and brutally. After all, nobody likes a bully, not even his friends.
On the other hand, we have the example of our Lord, who basically owned nothing but the clothes on his back, a pair of sandals and a walking stick. He healed all those who came to him without regard to their race, their gender or how sinful they were. He provided profound life-changing teaching wherever he went and did not charge one red cent.
Not even once did Jesus act out of arrogance or pride. St. Paul reminds us of this in his letter to church in Philippi. He says this:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
Jesus further illustrates the power of humility in our gospel lesson today, when he likens the Kingdom of God to that of “a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on earth; yet when it is sown and it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
A tale of two kingdoms…indeed.
My friends, Jesus repeatedly presented his followers, the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees with the contrast between two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of men.
The kingdom of God is ruled, not by pride and arrogance, not by brutal military power or oppressive emperors, governors and kings. The kingdom of God is ruled by love, humility, benevolence, generosity and service, especially to the needy.
The kingdom of God lifts people up, and heals and frees them, while the kingdom of men oftentimes enslaves and crushes them, even crucifies them if they dare speak of another kingdom, a greater kingdom...A kingdom not of this world…but it could be, and that is precisely the point of the Lord’s Prayer:
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
My friends, the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now…and we are God’s mustard seeds.