black gate panel with black metal gate latch

Stuck at the Gate

I preached this sermon July 3, 2016 at The Fountain UMC  in Suwanee, Georgia. It sets out just about everything I know to be true about the Kingdom of God. For faithful readers of my sermons you will recognize my story at the end. All though it is one with which you may be familiar, I think you will see why I have told it again.

I love the song the band just presented, “Feel the Nails.” It really speaks to where most of us have been at one time or another. We accept that we are sinners in need of God’s grace and claim salvation in Christ. We work hard to be a good Christian, but we fail, feel guilty, repent, work hard to be a good Christian, fail, feel guilty, repent…wash…rinse…repeat. Seemingly stuck in an endless cycle.

Even though I love “Feel the Nails” as a song and relate to the emotion, I’m really not fond of the message. I can see the person in this song sometime earlier standing on a river bank and then wading into the water to be saved by Jesus. Jesus baptized him and said to him, as he does to all of us, follow me to life in the Kingdom of God. The new Christian comes up from the water smiling and praising Jesus. He follows Jesus as far as the riverbank, but stops as Jesus passes through the gate into the Kingdom. Christian says “I’m not a good enough yet to enter the Kingdom so I’ll follow you there when I’ve done more and become the Christian you want me to be.” Jesus just gets a sad look, shakes his head, and moves on into the Kingdom without him.

Now the cycle begins and Christian begins to sing his song. He is constantly confessing and repenting, but never living in the Kingdom of God. He grieves his sin and heads to the altar rail to repent, but never claims the power to break the cycle. For some reason even though he accepted that he needed to be saved by grace, he feels that he will be sanctified for life in the Kingdom by what he does. Seeing his goal as Heaven after he dies, he spends a lifetime of wash, rinse, and repeat. He is stuck at the gate of the Kingdom but never crosses over to living his new life with God.

Today we are going to spend some time exploring what is the Kingdom of God and how you can live in the Kingdom of God now.  I ask that you hang with me because I’m going to be discussing God’s Kingdom in ways you may never have thought about before and will be broadly touring the Bible from beginning to end.

So what is the Kingdom? It has become popular to think of the Kingdom of God as the same as Heaven; that is, the place we will go if we live a good life on earth. It’s paved with streets of gold, with a crystal sea, angels singing, etc, etc. We tend to think of it as the time after our time here. But the Kingdom of God stands outside of time. It is eternal, but as it is eternal it is also in the present for us in the here and now. The Kingdom is God’s order for life, present and eternal. Simply stated, the Kingdom of God is living in perfect relationship to God and one another. Perfect in the eternal, but possible in the present.

The eternal is the perfect consummation of all life ordered as God intends. Wherever there is life there is the potential of the Kingdom, and wherever life is being lived as God intends the Kingdom is there. The present is how we experience the Kingdom now. It is the same Kingdom. The only difference is how we experience it. It is perfect, but we experience it imperfectly because humans have moved so much of life outside the Kingdom by the choices we make that are not God’s choices for us. We just make it so difficult to discern the difference. But we can live in it now. We don’t have to wait until we become perfect. Dallas Willard, one of my favorite Christians, called it getting to heaven before you die. I like that because that is exactly what Jesus intends when he saves us…for us to follow him into the Kingdom now rather than stopping at the gate until we have become the perfect Christian.

So why do we stop? Well let’s start with Adam and Eve. We all know that story of creation. Whether historical fact as some believe or, as others maintain, an instructive allegory, the great truth of the story is the same. God created us in his image to be in union with him. You can think of the Garden of Eden as the Kingdom of God perfected. All life in perfect relationship with God and ordered as God intended. But God also created us with the ability to reason and choose, because real relationships must be a matter of choice and God wants us to choose life with him. He will not force it upon us. We are intended to live in harmony with God and others, in which we find an overwhelming peace. But humans unfortunately have chosen self instead of God. Humans have chosen to live life in ways God does not intend and in so doing live outside the Kingdom.

The entirety of human history can be reduced to humans choosing the Kingdom of Self while struggling to return to the Kingdom of God. The Great Deception of humans is that through our reason and skills we can control the world and our lives, in essence that we can be like God. Choosing to follow our way instead of God’s also is the essence of sin because we separate ourselves from God. As we follow our way, however, there still is that craving for God that is missing from our lives. We have been left with a deep yearning, but are confused as to how to satisfy it.

Throughout time humans have invented many religions to fill that hole. They have all been flawed though as they create a god in the image of man rather than allow God to restore man to God’s image. They are all dependent upon humans doing something to please God and win his approval because we believe that we can be like God. We just need to be good enough. If we were God we would expect people to earn their way to the Kingdom, so the religions of humans all define what we can do to connect with God. But those are not gates to God’s Kingdom. They are all still in the Kingdom of the Self.

Even when we don’t turn to religion, our lives still are discordant and we find ourselves yearning for and searching for another thing, another person, another job, another experience, another drug, or another anything that will satisfy us and bring us the peace and harmony we seek. But it isn’t there because it is not a path into God’s Kingdom. And humans stand outside as long as they think they can do things well enough to impress God so that he will allow us to return.

You can also look at all of human history as God loving us so much and trying to show us that we cannot return to life in the Kingdom on our own. He has been reaching to us to try to show us that if we surrender to him then he will immediately welcome us into Kingdom life. This book…the Bible…is the road map of God’s love lighting our way back. The first half of human history with God can probably be summarized as God trying to convince us that we simply cannot earn our way back to Him. Because we think we can, however, he met us where we are by defining what we needed to do to connect with him by our will. The Old Testament has an extensive list of rules, including the Ten Commandments, for humans to follow if we want to earn our way back to God. God gave them, however, not because he expects us to follow every minute technicality, but indeed because he knows we cannot. Nevertheless, humans thought they could and needed to come to the understanding that they could not. So God set forth an elaborate set of laws that could only be satisfied by the divine to show us that we are not divine and never can be. Following the laws was not the answer, including within the structure of human-invented religions that created a god in man’s idea of what God should be.

God was successful in convincing some to reconnect with him, but they were not those who followed the rules and earned their way. There are very few examples, actually no examples, of people doing that. The Old Testament really celebrates story after story of people who returned to God, but they are not the rule-followers. They are the rule-breakers who became so broken that they understood that only by surrendering to God…throwing themselves on his mercy…and then finding they were accepted by God, could they return to him. Abraham. Jacob. Moses. David. And so many more. All found their way to God not by following the rules, but by allowing God to lead their lives. But so many more continued to miss the point.

Finally, when enough of humanity was ready to accept that no matter how hard we tried we could not reach God on our own, God showed us the Greatest Love and came to us through Jesus. Through Jesus he showed us how to return to life in the Kingdom through his grace, not just his saving grace but also his transforming grace that changes us for life with Him. We refer to Jesus as preaching the Gospel, or proclaiming the Good News, but we so often stop there leaving the truth dangling behind. The Gospel that Jesus preached was the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. The Good News that Jesus brought was the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The news is the good news that God offers us to restore us to Him through his complete grace that saves and transforms.

Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God more than anything else. Just pay attention when you read the Gospels and see how many times he mentions the Kingdom. Indeed, he defined bringing the Kingdom to us as his very purpose. In Luke 4:43, he said “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he brought the Kingdom to their life in the present, not just after their death or at the Second Coming. In Luke 17:20-21: ”Once having been asked by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation; nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ because the kingdom of God is inside you.’” Or in Luke 10:9: “The Kingdom of God is near to you.” Perhaps most clearly, in Matthew 6:10, he taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus expected us to seek the Kingdom on earth  during our lives through the actions of the will of God, not after we have leave the earth.

Jesus frequently taught by parables, stories that could help people understand his teachings by relating them to their daily lives. He invariably characterized his parables as illustrations of life in the Kingdom of God. Matthew 13 is comprised entirely of parables that Jesus characterizes in verse 11 as holding the “knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” One I particularly like is the Parable of the Yeast in verse 33: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” The message is that the Kingdom is available to work all through our lives and transform us now. We cannot become bread without it.

God showed us what life in the Kingdom is like for the character of Jesus is the very character of God and God’s Kingdom. In John 14:6 Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  When Jesus says he is the Way, he is saying he is the path to the Kingdom, that when you see Him, you see the Kingdom. That he restores humans back to the very place we were in the Garden of Eden/Kingdom of God when we were created. All we have to do is choose Christ, but not just by claiming his salvation but also by allowing him to transform each of us into the person that God intended and live our life now in the Kingdom of God. He forgives all of those choices of self over God and frees us to grow in the relationship that was intended by filling us with the Spirit of God and transforming us to be who we were intended to be. He does not require us to do anything other than choose him instead of ourselves. To be sure, when we finally surrender we will do the work of the Kingdom, but not because we have decided what that is but because he replaces our desires for the self with his desires for the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is an offer that touches all aspects of our lives, down to the tiniest detail. It is not a demand that we follow Christ into the Kingdom or else. Jesus redeems to the Kingdom eternal but if we don’t accept the offer to be transformed into the Kingdom present we certainly miss the richness of life that God intends for us now.  If we are stuck at the gate that doesn’t mean that we will not encounter Christ in our lives through study, prayer, and service, but when we are doing it by our plan for what a Christian should be and do we do so more by stumbling into him than walking with him.

Jesus ushers us into the Kingdom as apprentices to grow into perfection personally, and to extend the Kingdom on earth in the here and now in our community.  But he knows we are apprentices and not perfect here. That is what salvation is all about. Freedom from worrying about sin. Yes he wants us to confess sin, but not to seek redemption over and over because he has already done that for us. He wants us to confess sin so that we can be aware of things in our lives that we need to surrender to his grace and be transformed by it. The more we submit, the more we see, the more we understand, and the more times we experience life in the Kingdom. And we certainly do not have to and should not try to become the best Christians we can be before we enter the Kingdom, BECAUSE WE CAN’T DO IT ON OUR OWN! Trying to will yourself to be a good Christian is holding onto the Great Deception with one hand, still thinking we can please God by our actions, while grabbing onto Jesus with the other. Life pulled in opposite directions is a hard thing to sustain.

How do we get out of the mud and through the gate? Surrender to Jesus. That’s easy enough, isn’t it? NO! Surrender is absolutely contrary to our nature, which drives us to try to be seemingly in control. Complete and total surrender would be ideal, but tough to do. So start with not just the big issues of your life. I call it learning to pull weeds in the Kingdom. There is a Kingdom way for doing everything in life and a way outside the Kingdom, from the greatest to the smallest. Submit whatever you are doing to God and ask him to reveal himself to you in that thing. You will begin to be amazed at just how God will become involved in everything in your life.

I speak of pulling weeds because a friend of mine has given me a story about pulling weeds that shows how there is a Kingdom way for everything, including pulling weeds. He is a man of great faith with a great passion for God’s Kingdom. One day he went out to pull weeds, but stopped to ask God to reveal the Kingdom in the weeds. God revealed that he was doing exactly what God created humans to do…maintain order in God’s Kingdom. God created all of the plants, but created humans to put them to their best use and order. So he realized that in pulling the weeds he was not doing unpleasant work, but rather restoring order to a small part of God’s Kingdom. Isn’t that a much better way to see that job?

Prayer is the most important key to God’s Kingdom, but not what I call Santa Claus prayers. That type of prayer is giving God a list of things we want and expecting them under the tree the next day.  God knows what we need. He doesn’t need us to tell him! The purpose of prayer is to align our heart and will with God’s. The purpose of everything we submit to God in prayer, even pulling weeds, is for God to reveal himself to us in the thing we submit, or to reveal himself to others through us and through what we submit. But we need to talk with God about our concerns so that we will be attentive to when and how he reveals himself to us regarding that concern. And that revelation may not be what we expect or at the time we expect, but if we pay attention God will reveal himself not only through our needs, where life around us may change to meet those needs, but also through our deeds, where he changes us to do the work of the Kingdom. But he rarely acts on our wants unless our want is also his will, because even when we have a plan to do what we think a Christian should do that is still our plan and lives in our kingdom not God’s. We want Jesus to lead us into his Kingdom, not us to lead Jesus into ours.

So as surrender to Christ to be changed is not necessarily easy for us, I have struggled for an example to give you to make it clearer.  In discussing today’s sermon with Pastor Andy he thought it would be useful if I told you my story. So here it is. I call it the Parable of Stubborn Thomas.

I was stuck at the gate to the Kingdom for a very long time. Anyone who knows me can tell you I have no difficulty in deciding what I think is right for me and others and can be extremely stubborn about changing my position. I claimed my salvation as a teen. Got to the gate and turned away to pursue the Christian life as I thought it should be rather than just following Jesus. I wandered away from spiritual discipline in college, a not uncommon event, but found my way back to church after we had children. I was very serious about God. I really wanted God in my life and I worked at getting him there. I prayed. I read. I studied. I served on church activities and missions. I sung in the choir. I punched most of the tickets a good Christian should. But I was living in the Kingdom I created, not God’s.

By all appearances I was a good Christian and I certainly thought I was. And every once in a while I prayed that God would enter my life and transform me. Now God was still pretty much an academic exercise to me at that point, but I have to tell you that is a dangerous prayer and one not to pray unless you are really ready to live life in God’s Kingdom. Because Jesus takes you seriously when you do. And the funny thing about prayer is that we look for answers immediately, but our lives are so connected with other people that there are often many events that will happen before the right circumstances occur for God to reveal himself in the concern we have submitted to him when we are finally paying attention.

For me God finally got my attention when my son faced a very serious medical emergency as a teenager. He had an aneurysm on his esophagus that was life-threatening and required immediate surgery. It was identified by a barium study and then they scheduled him for an MRI to pinpoint it for the surgery. Now if you want the reality that you are not in control to set in, when your child faces something like that it happens. So I prayed. But this time it was different. I was desperate and barely had the words. I just laid my hand on his chest and asked God to take this from him. In less than a minute he looked up at me and said “Dad my chest just got warm and the pain stopped.” I literally jumped back. I had never experienced such immediacy and reality of God. But boy there He was revealed right before me. They took my son for the MRI but could not find the aneurysm. They cancelled the surgery and repeated the barium study the next day but it also did not show the aneurysm. The head of radiology told me that once an aneurysm appears it does not resolve without surgery. The change could not be explained medically. But he then said that he had seen things over the years that can only be explained as acts of God and this was one of them and we should take our son home and be thankful.

I was thankful, but do you think that was significant enough for me to finally surrender myself to life in the Kingdom? Not a chance. God and I were definitely on different terms, but I was still trying to call the shots. Folks had been encouraging me to become a lay preacher for years but I was full of excuses why I could not do that, not the least of which was I was not a very good student of the Bible. I thought I might do it someday, but I had to become a better Christian first. By now though God was pretty relentless and to make a long story short, made it absolutely impossible for me to avoid taking the class. I went under protest and told the teachers I was just there to get God off my back. When it came time to preach my trial sermon the three pastors that heard it said they found my interpretation of scripture very unusual and not one they had heard before. I was relieved. I had proven to God that I was not qualified for this.

The next day I was on a plane and reading the rest of the course materials to finish the commitment when the woman in the seat next to me saw what I was reading and asked me if I was a pastor. I said no and did not really expect to ever preach. She then proceeded to tell me how the day before she had heard a very meaningful sermon. I asked her about it and she described in detail the same sermon that I had delivered the day before and was the reason I had convinced myself I was not qualified. God once again had pointed out to me that I was not in control.

So I finally accepted a preaching assignment begrudgingly but still was not convinced I was qualified and really did not want to do it. The focus was still on me, but I was at least finally obeying. But when I walked to the pulpit and opened my binder with my sermon notes, I experienced peace and harmony within me that I had never known before. For the first time in my life I knew that at that moment I was living in the Kingdom of God as I was intended. I knew at that moment what it meant to live life now in the Kingdom of God and realized that it was so much better than anything I had tried before. I have never been the same.

Since that day I have been preaching for about 17-18 years and God and I have had many more adventures. I have grown to trust him more and can tell you that I live my life in his Kingdom…at least some of the time. But I see him and feel his presence much more than I did before I decided he could at least have some of my life to transform. I wish I was able to give him more but I’m still just an apprentice. I still have a lot of weeds to learn how to pull in the Kingdom!

So I leave you with two thoughts. God’s Kingdom is very real and very now. Jesus not only saves you for it but wants to help you know what joy there is in life in the Kingdom. The second is that the Kingdom is eternal. That means outside of time, not after death. If you have claimed salvation in Christ you are already there. You just are not experiencing it fully here, or maybe not yet at all. But you can. You just need to tell Jesus you are ready to stop trying to do it on your own and ask him to begin to reveal life in the Kingdom to you, and through you. If you do I can assure you of two things: First, your life will change in ways you do not expect. Second, you will not be disappointed. So take Jesus’ hand and follow him through the gate!


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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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