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A friend of mine was traveling recently in England. Thanks to the wonders of social networks on the internet, I got to see the pictures and read his observations on everything he saw. His family was with him and one of the things on their sightseeing agenda was a visit to Windsor castle. There are a number of parts of the castle that are open to the public for tours- except when the royal family is in residence, which unfortunately happened to be the case when they tried to visit. It’s an odd thing, this notion of royalty. Our primary notion of nations and governance is shaped by the principles of democratic republics, which means that monarchy has largely become something of a roadside attraction. Even in nations like United Kingdom, where kings or queens still exist, they are more beloved ceremonial anachronism that figures of any real power or authority. When the people we call ‘King’ can just as easily come from Tupelo, Mississippi as they can the House of Winsor, it’s hard to know what to do with the idea of kingdom.
That wasn’t always the case. For millennia, world power was wielded by kings and empires. One of my favorite bits in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail comes toward the beginning, when Arthur, King of the Britons, asks a peasant named Dennis about the resident of a nearby castle. Only he doesn’t know the peasant’s name is Dennis, he simply calls him, ‘old woman,’ and then quickly apologizes when he realizes that he’s talking to a man. Dennis chastises him for not asking his name, to which Arthur replies, “Well, I am king.” “Oh, and how’d you get that,” Dennis asks, “By exploiting the workers, by hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.” Arthur then introduces himself to Dennis’ mother as King of the Britons. “King of the who,” she asks. “King of the Britons,” he replies. “Who are the Britons?” “We all are Britons,” he explains, “and I am your king.” “Well, I didn’t vote for you,” she says. That’s just it, isn’t it? Call Elvis the king of rock and roll if you want to, but at least we’re the ones who voted for him, in a sense, by buying his records and watching his movies. But who wants to live in a kingdom with a king you don’t even get to vote for? Who want to be party to a kingdom where you don’t even have a say in the matter?
When Jesus lays out for his disciple the way to pray, it’s no surprise that one of the first things that he would include in the model prayer he gives them is a petition for God’s kingdom to come. You don’t have to spend that much time listening to Jesus teach in the gospels before you conclude that this idea of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, is pretty central to what he’s about. It’s the first thing that he talks about when he begins his earthly ministry, one of the first things that he announces: the kingdom of God has come near, it’s at hand, within reach, right in front of you. And then he spends story after story trying to describe just what it is that he’s talking about. It would be easy enough to say what this kingdom isn’t.
In Jesus’ day, unlike our own, people had a pretty good idea of what kingdom was all about. At the heart of their own story was the kingdom of Egypt to whom they were captive slaves, and from whom they had been saved by the hand of God, who set them free and led them into a land of promise and blessing; land that had originally been promised to their ancestor Abraham. They became a kingdom of their own, until they split and were conquered, first by the Assyrian empire to the north and then by the Babylonians to the east, who sacked the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple of God, and carried the people of Judah into exile far from home. Babylon gave way to mighty Persia, which in turn fell ultimately to the war machine of Alexander the Great and the Macedonian empire of the Greeks. By the time Jesus and his friends were walking the hills of Galilee, there was yet another kingdom, another empire, occupying the land: Rome.
But the kingdom of God, the kingdom Jesus talks about, is nothing like these others. In fact at the core of Jesus’ message is an invitation to ally ourselves, our lives and loyalties not with the rulers and nations of any particular age, but with the one whose reign is over all that is and for all time. To invoke God’s kingdom and to bid it come is to pledge our ultimate allegiance to something more than any earthly political reality.
Deep beneath the surface of the earth are the enormous tectonic plates that form the continents. They continually grind against each other producing the seismic activity that gives rise to earthquakes, volcanos, and in some cases entire mountain ranges. In a similar fashion, writes John Dominic Crossan, deep below the surface of history are the tectonic plates of empire and eschaton.
Empire is easy enough to recognize. It’s what you studied in history class. As human society gained great technological control over its food source, civilizations began to form. As those civilizations grew it became necessary to organize and rule them. The larger they became, the more they pushed out and expanded into the world, seeking more and more. Empire is the rule of many for the sake of the few. Empire is achieved and secured through coercion and might.
Eschaton is less familiar to us. It comes from the Greek word for the end. In the popular imagination, and in the minds of quite a few fantasy storytellers, it has come to mean the end of the world. It’s a common theme in comic books- the hero has to save the world from some enemy who would bring about its end. And while that makes for some entertaining fiction, it isn’t quite what is promised to us in the words of scripture. When Jesus talks about the end, he doesn’t talk about the end of the world, he talks about the end of the age; the end of this time in our history that is filled with its endless cycles of violence, injustice, and oppression. Eschaton isn’t about the destruction of the world as we know it. Eschaton is about its transformation. It isn’t about earth’s annihilation, but a vision of God’s great divine cleanup of the world- making it a place of justice, freedom, and peace.
We know all too well what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the forces of empire, even as we sometimes reap its benefits. We sense that the machinations in the realms of economics, politics and technology are well beyond our influence, or limited agency. And when we try to fight against that, we often do so on empire’s terms. We arm ourselves in whatever way we can, determined to resist and make our stand. And when the fight feels bigger than anything we can win, we sink down in despair- hiding under the covers, distracting ourselves with games and gadgets, numbing ourselves with the anesthetic of our choice.
But to fight or despair aren’t our only two options. The other option is this prayer Jesus has taught us; thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Rather than putting our faith solely in ourselves and whatever fire power we can muster (a choice that played out with tragic consequences this week), or normalizing the despair of our utter inability to fight the power of foreign hackers and central banks, Jesus teaches us to pray.
Well, what the good of that? What good does some prayer do? That just a bunch of words. They can’t really do anything, can they?
In the final installment of the Harry Potter movies, the wizard Dumbledore sits on a train platform with Harry, somewhere between life and death. Words, he tells Harry, are our most inexhaustible source of magic. Now, prayer is not some mystical incantation. But it is the way we connect with the power of God at work in the world. To pray is plug ourselves in to a power source that charges us for a different way of living in the world. It is a way of joining our spirit to the Holy Spirit of God. And in that connection the words we say are no longer our own, they become God’s own Spirit praying with us and through us. And just in case we were prone to hedge our bets, just in case we were to think of God’s kingdom as some far away reality, some pie in the sky promise for us when we die, Jesus doubles down.
This isn’t a prayer for some day, this is a prayer for today, for the kingdom to come now, for the transformation of this world to start now. It’s a theme the apostle Paul picks up in one of his letters to the church, “Now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation.” If we are to push back against the forces of empire, then our only hope is in the eschaton of God, the end of an age where might makes right, where the privilege of the few comes at the expense of the many, where war is fed by hunger and those who would profit from it, and the coming instead of God’s kingdom. As above, so below.
It’s the coming of a reign of power in which God make things right by making sure that everyone has what they need. It’s the coming of an age in which we are saved from having to exalt ourselves, or needing to have everyone else in the room exalt us at the expense of the most vulnerable among us who get forgotten in all the adulation. To pray for God’s kingdom to come is to pray for God’s will to be done here and now, where we live- not someday, somewhere else, up in the clouds- but right here on earth, just as God would have it be. Something powerful happens when we take those words to heart, when the words of this prayer start to go to work in us. We begin to look for it. We begin to seek the answer to our prayer. We anticipate and ally ourselves with the only kingdom that really matters in the end; a reign of power that isn’t, as the peasant Dennis puts it, about outdated imperialist dogma, but one that God has invited us to take part in through Jesus Christ. To align our priorities here on earth, with the priorities of God in heaven. The end that God ultimately has in mind.