Project Canterbury

Advent Sermons, 1885

By R. W. Church
Sometime Dean of St. Paul's

London: Macmillan and Co., 1901.

Sermon II. The Kingdom of God--I

"Now, after John was cast into prison, Jesus came into
Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God."--
ST. MARK i. 14.

"THE kingdom of God," "the kingdom of heaven," are among the most familiar of religious expressions. In the Bible they have applications more of less limited and special, according to the context; just as our phrase "the Crown" carries with it distinct associations, and stands for powers and functions, differing in sphere and attributes, though through them all runs a connecting thread--according as the Crown is spoken of in its legal, or administrative, or political, [30] or personal relations. The kingdom of God brings with it sometimes God's rule over the universe, sometimes His rule in souls and consciences and wills; sometimes we see it revealed in the Church on earth, sometimes we look forward to it in the triumph of its Lord at the end of all things. But "the kingdom of God" is one of the great themes of the Bible; indeed it may be said to comprehend them all. For in its fullest and most complete meaning is embraced all that God is to the things which He has made; all that God is to men, who alone of creatures here are capable of knowing Him and loving Him--all that He has done for them, and is doing for them now. When we grasp all that is implied in our words, "the kingdom of God" is as great a subject to our thoughts as it is natural and common in the language of religion.

The belief in God, the Lord and Ruler of [31] the world and men, meets us, of course, in the first words of the Bible as much as in the last, and this involves the idea of "the kingdom of God." But the idea of the kingdom of God as one vast system, though always implicitly present to the minds of those who knew and served Him, has not been always equally full and equally clear. Like other great truths of religion it has unfolded its significance gradually. Often obscured, even to good men, by the pressure of things visible and sensible, by trouble, by the struggle and business of life, by the customs and prejudices of men, it only step by step disengaged itself from all that clouded it, and gathered more and more its light and its power over the souls of men. The history of the Bible is the record, among other things, of the growth in definiteness--in full consciousness, in its supremacy over all counterinfluences of sight and nature and habit--of [32] the idea of the kingdom of the invisible God. We see in that long and varied history of religion how this great idea presented itself with more and more precision to the mind and imaginations of the servants of God, how it wrought upon their souls, how it gained for itself the distinct and recognised name by which it was henceforth to be known. We may trace, from the early days to the later, how this idea, "the kingdom of God," received, under the inspired discipline of successive generations, increasing illumination, increasing substance and reality, till at length it came to mean all that Jesus Christ meant for us when He came preaching "the kingdom of God," the Gospel of the kingdom.

The outlines of this great object of religious faith and thought, "the kingdom of God," were distinct and prominent in patriarchal religion. When Abraham believed the call and promise of God, when he "lifted up his [33] not named it, "the kingdom of God." It was the foundation of his absolute and ungrudging faith--that faith, that recognition of God's claim upon him, by which he is said to have been in a special sense "justified;" that faith by which he became the type and exemplar of generous and heroic obedience--obedience to One Who was worthy of his boundless loyalty, Who was more to him than all the world, more to him than his only son. And this faith of Abraham in the Most High God, "the possessor," as He is called in the story of Melchizedek, "the possessor of heaven and earth," was the heritage left by Abraham to his-children and his race. What it was to Abraham in his outward acts we know; what it was to him [34] in the inner thoughts and feelings of his soul is hidden to us. Only we know that he is called by inspired lips "the friend of God." Only we know that One Who knows everything from end to end said of him, "Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad."

"The kingdom of God"--the phrase had not yet been uttered; the depths and compass of the thought had not been fathomed and explored; but the whole history of the patriarchs first, and of Israel afterwards, revealed the presence and activity of the belief. In his dealings and relations with the people of His purpose and choice, God, though He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel, was yet remembered as, beyond all that, the King and Ruler of all things: the King and Lord of all men, the "Judge of all the earth." "The kingdom of God" was indeed in a very [35] definite sense the Church of the old dispensation, the Church which was in the tents of Jacob, the Church "which was in the wilderness," the Church whose holy places were at Shiloh and on Zion. There God was recognised, "My King of old." So it was that the memory of the kingdom of God was preserved among men; so it was that the hope was kept alive of that Church universal which was to be, and which was to be at last the visible witness of God's kingdom before the eyes of men. The Jews, we know, misunderstood the meaning of their calling. As is so natural to our narrow and limited thought, to our selfishness and readiness to believe in exclusiveness and favouritism, they were even tempted to confine the kingdom of God to what was but a portion of it. But they might have known better; they might, if they had not chosen to be blind, have read a very different meaning in their great privileges [36] and the wonders which had been done for them. Their own belief, their own professions, witnessed, if they would have heeded, that their Lord was the Lord of all things, of all the families of the earth, of all souls which He had made. St. Paul's question might have been asked and answered at any moment of the history of Israel--"Is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also."

Israel believed that the "Lord is King;" they believed, that is, in a " kingdom of God." But words and beliefs may be familiar to us without our always recognising what they mean, and all that is contained in them. A phrase, a doctrine, a discovery, a theory, a deep-reaching principle, the watchword and key-note of a whole philosophy, may be in our mouths, may be in our minds, in a neutralised and inactive state, without life, without influence. The dry seed lies on the [37] ground as dead, and "abideth alone;" it may lie there and perish. But nursed by kindly suns and showers it may wake up and slowly rise and spread into the mighty tree, the glory and delight of the landscape, ringed with its hundred years of growth. So it is with our ideas and convictions. They may go on, the greatest of them, dead, inert, powerless, fruitless, till they have found their interpreter; till they have found that answering sympathy and intelligence of the soul which sees all that is in them with the inner eye of the mind, which illuminates, unfolds, applies them, and animates with them the realities of things. Till this time comes, the highest, the richest of ideas may fall unmeaning on an uncongenial age or an alien temper of society; we may listen to its expression with barren respect, utterly failing to measure its reach or discern its wealth. And so continually, even after it has been [38] living, it may pass under new conditions into the empty formula; and the faith which once had felt and imagined and loved, sink into the languid habit of acquiescence. The history of religion in all times is full of such instances. Thousands have rehearsed the Creed, its stupendous confession of the mystery of the Incarnation and the Holy Ghost, its articles of the Holy Catholic Church and the communion of saints, with but the faintest sense of all that such words carried with them.

And thus Israel acknowledged that the Lord was their King, that He was Lord of heaven and earth; acknowledged it, rebelling, sinning, repenting, relapsing, in His chastisements, in His forgiveness and redemption acknowledged it with barren homage, with the feeling that God's election was the charter of their security and pride. But the time of enlargement came. One of those [39] great instruments, chosen and raised up by God to be His interpreter and prophet, to say the things not said before, to open the eyes of men to sights not seen before--David the shepherd, David the king, David the Psalmist--rose, under God's teaching, to understand and to tell forth what is really meant by "the kingdom of God." And the thoughts of David, multiplied, diversified, verified, expanded, by the experience and inspiration of a series of devout and holy singers in the Book of Psalms, have taught all generations how to think and to feel about the nature and character of that everlasting kingdom.

Two things appear at once on the surface in this great interpretation of the idea of "the kingdom of God."

I. One is its moral purpose. The kingdom of God is indeed exhibited in the Psalms in all its magnificence, in all its [40] breadth, over nature and man, over the stars of the sky and the cattle on a thousand hills, and the young ravens that cry unto Him; over the storms of the desert and the water floods; over the march of history and the destinies of nations and the secrets of the heart of man; over all that vast inconceivable universe beyond the most distant star. Almost the first utterance of the Psalter is the tremendous warning against the rebellion of the mightiest powers on earth against the "Lord and His Anointed"--"He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision." And the Book closes with those exulting songs of joy and triumph at the splendours of God's kingdom, in the heights above and in the depths below, which seem more and more filled, every time we repeat them, with the strength and the "new wine" [1] of the [41] Spirit of God. "I will magnify Thee, O God, my King; and I will praise Thy name for ever and ever. All Thy works praise Thee, O Lord; and Thy saints give thanks unto Thee. They show the glory of Thy kingdom, and talk of Thy power; that Thy power, Thy glory, and the mightiness of Thy kingdom might be known unto men." "O praise the Lord of heaven; praise Him in the height. Praise Him, all ye angels of His: praise Him, all His host. Praise Him, sun and moon: praise Him, all ye stars and light. . . . Praise the Lord upon the earth, ye dragons and all deeps: fire and hail; snow and vapour; wind and storm fulfilling His word: mountains and all hills; fruitful trees and all cedars: beasts and all cattle; worms and feathered fowls. Young men and maidens; old men and children: praise the name of the Lord; for His Name only is excellent, and His praise above heaven and [42] earth." "Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord." Certainly the imagination of these inspired singers grasped, in all its fulness and glory, the outward and visible grandeur of the kingdom of God in heaven and earth. "O Lord our Governor, how excellent is Thy Name in all the world. Thou that hast set Thy glory above the heavens. . . . For I will consider Thy heavens, even the works of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained." And not less wonderful did He seem to them in His doings towards the children of men, in the tokens of His power and judgement in the world, in the strange retrospect over the mysterious history of Israel. "Thy way is in the sea, and Thy paths in the great waters, and Thy footsteps are not known; Thou leddest Thy people like sheep by the hand of Moses and Aaron." "Thou are of more honour and might than the hills of the [43] robbers; at Thy rebuke, O God of Jacob, both the chariot and horses are fallen." We know how such thoughts as these, about His kingdom in creation, in nature, in history, fill the souls of the Psalmists. But the impressiveness of the awe and wonder with which they dwelt on what was outward and tangible makes all the more striking the clearness, the strength with which they discerned, amid all the might and majesty of God's everlasting dominion, amid all its beauty and all its terrors, the supreme and governing power of a moral purpose, of the law of righteousness and holiness and truth. That is the great and determining feature of the Psalmists' varied portraiture of the kingdom of God. It is not merely the kingdom of God the maker, and God the Ruler of all things; it is even more the kingdom of God in the closest and deepest relations with that moral world which He has called into [44] being in the wills and consciences of men. It is God the righteous Judge, God the Consoler, God the Guide, God the Teacher, God the fountain of joy and gladness, God the strength and song of the true of heart, God the Forgiver, God the Healer, God the Helper and the Redeemer, God the compassionate, God the tender and the merciful--"yea, like as a father pitieth his children, even so is the Lord merciful to them that fear Him'; this is He whom the Psalmists recognise and celebrate in the kingdom of God. Theirs is a conviction about that kingdom which, from the first Psalm to the last, knows no blessedness but the blessedness of righteousness, of innocence, of pardon. It is a kingdom far above man's power to influence, far above man's capacity to comprehend or measure; which is revealed to man only that he may understand that its [45] law, "which never can be broken," more firm than the "round world which cannot be moved," than the heavens so far above us, is the law which no change can touch, no might can alter--the eternal law of right and wrong. "The earth is the Lord's and all that therein is; the compass of the world and all that dwell therein. . . . Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall rise up in His holy place? Even he that hath clean hands and a pure heart, and that hath not lift up his mind unto vanity, nor sworn to deceive his neighbour." It is a kingdom in which, amid all its serenities of peace and glory, there is room and care for suffering, sinning, sorrowing man. Its King, "strong and patient," watches with strictest scrutiny, without respect of persons, all that men do and all that men suffer. "His eyes consider the poor; and His eyelids try the children of men." He is a "Father of the fatherless, [46] and defendeth the cause of the widows; even God in His holy habitation." He listens in terrible silence to the wrongs that are done on earth; and the Psalmists feel with certainty that He listens not in vain; that sooner or later His judgements will be manifest. He listens with pity and tender mercy to the humiliation of the sinner; the mysterious power of forgiveness and restoration is in His hands: "there is mercy with Thee, therefore shalt Thou be feared." Such is the way in the which the Psalmists develop the idea of "the kingdom of God." [1] They unite in one breath its awful wonder and surpassing glory, and with these its dominant, never absent moral aspects; its correspondence with man's conscience, his troubles and [47] wants and fears and hopes. Thus, time after time, the two are joined together. "Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and Thy dominion endureth throughout all ages. The Lord upholdeth all such as fall, and lifteth up all those that are down." Again, "Who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all things therein; Who keepeth His promise for ever; Who helpeth them to right that suffer wrong; Who feedeth the hungry. The Lord looseth men out of prison; the Lord giveth sight to the blind. . . . The Lord careth for the strangers; He defeneth the fatherless and widow." And once more, His merciful kindness is put side by side with the worlds which He has made. "He healeth those that are broken in heart, and giveth medicine to heal their sickness. He telleth the number of the stars, and calleth them all by their names." This is the characteristic of that Messianic dispensation [48] which is to realise God's kingdom among men. "He shall keep the simple folk by their right, defend the children of the poor, and punish the wrong-doer. . . . He shall be favourable to the simple and needy, and shall preserve the souls of the poor. He shall deliver their souls from falsehood and wrong; and dear shall their blood be in His sight."

2. The Psalmists insist on the moral purpose of the "kingdom of God." What is equally noticeable is the breadth with which they assume and announce its universal character. For they were not insensible to the privileged position of the chosen people. They had all an Isaelite's feelings that God dwelt and ruled in Israel as He did nowhere else; their hearts swelled at the remembrance of the greatness of their fortunes, at the pathetic vicissitudes of their most wonderful of histories. "The hill of Sion is a fair place, and the joy of the whole earth; on [49] the north side lieth the city of the great King; God is well known in her palaces as a sure refuge." "In Jewry is God known; His name is great in Israel; at Salem is His tabernacle, and His swelling in Sion." "He showeth His word unto Jacob, His statutes and ordinances unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation, neither have the heathen knowledge of His laws." But though they were conscious of their own wonderful election, the heathen were nor in their thoughts excluded from the kingdom and care of God. He, their "living Dread, Who dwelt in Silo" or in Jerusalem, was yet the God of all the families of the earth, and for the blessing of all the families of the earth was the blessing given to Abraham and his seed. All that vast sea of nations that surged around the narrow bounds of Israel, so utterly unlike it in language, in worship, in history, separated from it apparently [50] as wide as if they were the inhabitants of another world, was yet swayed and ruled by the All-Holy Whom they worshipped. "It was He that nurtured or chastiseth the heathen,' as He nurtured or chastised them; "it was He that teacheth man knowledge," whether among the chosen of Judah or the strangers who had not learned to call on His name. They, the first-fruits, the first-born of mankind, were but the leaders in the song of praise. "O sing praises, sing praises unto our God; sing praises, sing praises unto our King. For God is the King of all the earth; sing ye praises with understanding. God reigneth over the heathen, God sitteth upon His holy seat. The princes of the people are joined unto the people of the God of Abraham; for God which is very high exalted doth defend the earth, as it were with a shield." We, in our age of the world, can hardly take [51] in the real difficulty of this thought in those old days of local religions and national gods. It was as strange to the Egyptian or the Greek as to the Jew. Nowhere was it realised, except in the Psalmists' high-raised thought; nothing looked like it to human experience or human judgment. But they never doubted. Surely it is as wonderful as it is certain, that in this obscure corner of the world this little people, who but for after-events would be almost lost to history, dared to look forward through the darkness and announce with unwavering faith, in the songs of their worship, the recognition by the Gentiles of "the kingdom of God." "Desire of Me, and I shall give the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for Thy possession." "Sing unto God, O ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the Lord, Who sitteth in the heavens from the beginning; Lo, He doth send out [52] His voice; yea, and that a mighty voice." "All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship Thee, O Lord; and shall glorify Thy name." "The heathen shall fear Thy name, O Lord, and the kings of the earth Thy majesty." "God be merciful to us, and bless us; and show the light of His countenance, and be merciful unto us. That Thy way may be known upon earth, Thy saving health among all nations. Oh let the nations rejoice and be glad: for Thou shalt judge the folk righteously and govern the nations upon earth." And so in the great Messianic prophecy of Him in Whom was to be gathered up "the kingdom of God"--"His dominion shall be also from the one sea to the other, and from the flood unto the world's end. . . . All kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall do Him service. . . . His name shall endure for ever: His name shall remain under the sun [53] among the posterities which shall be blessed through Him, and all the heathen shall praise Him."

Such was the image of "the kingdom of God" as it presented itself to the imagination and the faith of those holy men of old. Such is the image which they impressed upon all religion; the image which rose before the mind of the Prophets; never effaced, never forgotten, amid the blinding storms of ruin, in the degradation and bitterness of captivity. "Thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall" (Isa. xxv.) "When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them" (Isa. xli.) "That they may know from the [54] rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside Me: I am the Lord, and there is none else" (Isa. xlv.) And such was that great preliminary truth which Jesus Christ came preaching when He began His ministry; the foundation of His appeal to the souls of men, the introduction to the deeper and special announcements of what He was to do and to tell us. My brethren, we too are living in "the kingdom of God:" as individuals, as a Church, as a nation, that kingdom, in its awful righteousness, in its vastness beyond our thought and ken, is over us as in the days when the songs of the Psalmists first revealed its wonders to the heart of man. Dimly, indeed, amid the darkness and troubles of the world, we trace its outlines; dimly can we follow the counsels which direct its course. But at least we can try to rise to the height of its greatness; we can catch something of its spirit from the [55] inspired lips of those who have gone before us; we can try to be somewhat worthy of it. We can remember that it is not of to-day or yesterday; it has its roots in what was before the ages, and it reaches beyond their end. Here we are shaken; here we are perplexed; here we are alarmed, perhaps for what we hold most dear and most sacred. Here we see not our path, we miss our way, and the future rises up before us dark and ominous. Have such times never been before? Have not men asked before, "Hath God forgotten to be gracious? and will He shut up His loving-kindness in displeasure?" Ah! the answer to that question was not always what men liked and hoped; but "the kingdom of God" had not been turned out of its course, and God had not forgotten to be gracious. Oh, my brethren, Christians who have known the triumph of the cross of Jesus Christ, the triumph of His [56] great defeat, let us not fail and shrink as those who do not believe God's kingdom. If troubles seem to threaten, if troubles come, do not let us bear the mind that cowards bear--be downcast and unreasonable, and fretful and violent and unscrupulous. There is no more marked lesson in the Bible than the temper it enjoins for days of disquiet--it may be of pain and fear. Those were not easy days when an Apostle warned his disciples against losing their self-possession, their evenness of mind, and in the stress and hurry of alarm forgetting that their one safety and their one business was to think of pleasing God. "Therefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, to serve God acceptedly (to well pleasing) with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire." Those were not quiet days--the storm was swelling fierce and loud--when the Psalmist faced the [57] storm--"God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble: therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof rage and swell, and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same. The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the most Highest. God is in the midst of her; therefore shall she not be removed: God shall help her and that right early."

[1] Zechariah ix. 17.

[1] Lord of the world, Almighty King,
Thy shadow resteth over all,--
Or where the Saints Thy terrors sing,
Or where the waves obey Thy call.
Froude's Remains.

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