Sunday, 22 November 2009

The kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Luke 1.39-55, Matt 4:1-11, Phil 2:5-11

So here we are at the last in our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. Our phrase for today is “The kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” which actually doesn’t come from the gospel texts themselves. It’s a doxology, which means a prayer that acknowledges the glory (or doxa) of God. Jews were used to using a doxology at various points in their liturgies. In fact this phrase “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is very reminiscent both of parts of the Jewish Kaddish and of David’s words in 1 Chron 29:10-11: “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.”

An early Christian document, the Didache, includes this phrase in its version of the Lord’s Prayer, probably because the early Christians would naturally expect to end a prayer with a doxology and were probably doing so spontaneously before this document captured it in writing and shaped the practice of many denominations since then.

Now at first sight I think this phrase looks like a very Anabaptist kind of prayer. To say that the kingdom, the power and the glory are God’s is a big claim, and it’s a claim with political force. It may look to us as though power is in the hands of the G20 or the companies which span every continent. (According to a recent book on Latin American economies, Wal-Mart is bigger than the GDP of Argentina and Nestles sales are bigger than the GDP of Peru) . But to pray “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is to assert, against appearances to the contrary, that the ultimate power is God’s.

That’s why Mary in the Magnificat can anticipate a reversal of fortunes in which the poor are lifted up and the rich and powerful catapulted to obscurity and emptiness. She knows that in the end God will make things right. So this last line of the Lord’s prayer is an expression of hope and confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s justice.

But, when I think about this line some more, I find it puzzling as well, on two counts. Firstly that our world doesn’t look as though God is in power right now and secondly that in some ways “power” doesn’t necessarily sound very Christ-like.

Let’s start with the first of my puzzles, that the world doesn’t always look as though God has the power. I guess this is another way of stating the problem of evil and suffering which warrants a complete sermon in its own right (and indeed I preached one around 18 months ago and Lesley preached wisely and movingly on Job in May this year). In previous sermons in our current series I have already touched on one aspect of this. We live, in a way, between times. God has already brought in the kingdom and delivered us from evil - but the kingdom is not yet fully come and we do not yet experience always being rescued from evil.

For now I will add only two points. The first looks back to our reading of last week - Romans 8:18-39 - which told us that, whatever happens God has the power to ensure that nothing can separate us from the love of God. God will always be with us in love even when it feels as though everything is out of God’s control. And the second is that I think God often exercises power differently from how we expect. God’s initiative to deal with the mess and pain of humanity and indeed all of creation was to come into the world as Jesus, to get in harm’s way (to quote the motto of Christian Peacemaker Teams - So God’s solution to the suffering of the world was God’s own risk and suffering not a “shock and awe” display of might.

And in saying that I’ve kind of answered my second puzzle. It’s easy for me, when I use the word power, to think of economic or political or military power, or just the power that comes from being in the majority or part of an “in crowd”. And that doesn’t look very like Jesus. But one of the lessons we can learn from Jesus is that power doesn’t have to be that way. Our reading from Philippians reminds us that Jesus, despite being God, was willing to come humbly not insisting on a red carpet and a bodyguard (or even on stopping the traffic, for those of you who have been following the election of the EU president) but, rather, being willing to suffer and die.

In our reading from Matthew we were reminded of the ways Jesus was tempted - at the very beginning of his ministry - to misuse power in order to gain control of many kingdoms. And if Jesus had gone ahead with commanding the stones to become bread, that too could have been a route to easy political power. But Jesus pursues his mission in very different ways, ultimately through a willingness to suffer and die at the hands of the establishment powers. So actually Jesus has a lot to teach us about power and about what we mean when we pray “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever”. As Anabaptists we read the bible through the lens of Jesus. So too I think we need to pray this prayer through the lens of Jesus.

Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that these words challenge us to let God have the power and the glory in our own lives. Christian martyrs, they say, trust to God for the significance of their lives. As I reflect on this, I think I can see what they are saying. Some martyrs die young, before they have “achieved” very much and in consenting to die for their faith they give up the chance of future landmarks and publicly recognised significance. So they agree to let the power and the glory be God’s and not to worry about their own power and glory and their own significance.

Now I have to admit, rather sheepishly, that I like lots of affirmation even for something as trivial as folding the laundry, I hate the feeling of failure and find it hard to look back contentedly on a day if I don’t feel I’ve “achieved” something. So the idea of just trying to do what is right and leaving everything else in God’s hands and not seeking some sense of whether I’ve “done well” comes hard to me. And yet I think it would bring real freedom if I could do that.

My first paid job was secure and well paid and for a while I felt it would be too risky to leave, so that I might be trapped there forever even once it ceased to feel meaningful or fun. To use a phrase that Peter coined when we were talking about this, I was trapped by my own security. I remember a real feeling of freedom when I finally did leave (and for a one-year contract on less pay at that). And in a radio programme I heard last week about the former Yugoslavia under communism, the journalist talked about the drabness and oppressiveness of that time and commented that the only people who seemed to be having any fun were those who had already “come out” as dissidents and were no longer looking over their shoulders all the time. By deciding to relinquish control of their own security, to embrace risk and truth as they tried to unmask and resist the lies of the state, they had gained an unexpected freedom.

And that’s how I think it is supposed to be for us too, that we can learn to relinquish control and a need for acknowledgment and achievement and success and to trust instead to God. That’s a very tough one for me. I’m sure my inability to do that makes me excessively cautious, as well as devastated out of all proportion each time I make a mistake. But I think it would be healing for me to learn to really pray this prayer. Because I think that praying “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is supposed to be the gateway to a joyful freedom of trust in God, of leaving things to God, of Gelassenheit indeed.

That thought forms a link for me with many of the other phrases of the Lord’s prayer and our sermons in this series. As we’ve seen before, praying this prayer helps us to know what to ask God for, but it’s not just about asking God for things, whether those be exalted things like the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of the kingdom or down to earth stuff like daily bread. It is also, if we pray it earnestly, about being changed by its words.

Stanley Hauerwas talks about this in an essay called “The Politics of the Church: How We Lay Bricks and Make Disciples” where he says that learning to be a disciple is a bit like being apprenticed in a craft. You are initiated into a practice by a master craftsman. You learn the practices of the community of that craft - the community of bricklayers in Hauerwas’ analogy - and it’s not till you yourself are a master that you have freedom to go beyond the tradition and start being creative and spontaneous. (As an aside, I wonder whether that helps explain Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish law and prophets. As a master craftsman he had the understanding and the authority to rework them creatively while still remaining so firmly in the tradition that he could say he had come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them.)

Hauerwas goes on to say that the way we learn about God, the way we learn to be people who can pray is by praying. He defines Christians as those who “have been taught to pray, 'Our father, who art in heaven…’"

A good place to begin to understand what Christians are about, he says, is to join in that prayer.

For to learn to pray is no easy matter but requires much training, not unlike learning to lay brick. It does no one any good to believe in God, at least the God we find in Jesus of Nazareth, if they have not learned to pray. To learn to pray means we must acquire humility not as something we try to do, but as commensurate with the practice of prayer. In short, we do not believe in God, become humble and then learn to pray, but in learning to pray we humbly discover we cannot do other than believe in God.

For me this sermon series has helped me think more about what we mean when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. I have come to think of praying the Lord’s Prayer as an important Christian discipline, which I think can increase our sensitivity to God and to others, challenge us to follow Jesus more closely and train us in good habits of thought.

As Arthur Paul Boers puts it, “[p]raying the Lord’s prayer is to spirituality what playing the scales is to music”.

So I hope the sermon series has inspired you and me to keep praying that prayer attentively, not mechanically, so that we can learn and be changed by it as we pray it together.

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