All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
(William Shakespeare, As You Like It)
We love and respect William Shakespeare, or whatever her name was, for a majestic use of the English language and fecund imagination, yet we do not suppose that the world really is a stage. We call this use of words to paint a picture, a metaphor. A parable is one type of metaphor.
Jesus said heaven is a kingdom. This is a metaphor. John 10:10 quotes Jesus as saying he came to bring us ‘abundant life’. This is another metaphor for heaven. Other metaphors are walking ‘in the spirit’ and living ‘in Christ’.
When Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine, his talk about a new kingdom inspired thousands to a frenzy, and generated opposition so fierce that he was killed for his words.
When we use the same metaphor with the people of our culture, we get blank looks, shrugs of ‘so what?’ and a mixture of pity, sympathy and bafflement. People shrug, yawn and move away.
We don’t excite people and we don’t make them want to kill us when we talk like this.
We get ignored! Why?
Could it be that Jesus’ message is just as dramatic today as it ever was, but a 2,000 year old metaphor doesn’t work.
We have a major problem. Jesus words about the kingdom were high voltage, charged with urgent political, religious and cultural electricity. Our words lack that energy. They are tired and boring. We have caught some of the energy and understood enough to want to share the Good News of salvation with the entire world, but we are failing in our efforts to fulfil Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’.
Part of the problem is that kingdoms are mostly a thing of the past, even if you come from the United Kingdom. Elizabeth, our queen, is a quaint old lady with woolly white hair and a nice smile who earns millions for the country by being a living tourist attraction. She is not remotely exciting or electric.
Nowadays there are democracies and republics and democratic republics everywhere. Kings and queens are anachronisms, and if they do exist they have to do what they are told by parliaments. Not a very good image of heaven.
In Jesus’ day kingdom language was contemporary and relevant, in our day it is distant and dated. It evokes images of shining armour, knights on white horses, damsels being rescued from distress, imperialism, chauvinism, patriarchy, and lack of freedom.
This is not about changing Jesus’ story, but asking ourselves how he would tell it today. What words and metaphors would Jesus use if he were here right now?
We are insiders in a sense, and so we need always to go back to Jesus’ own words and seek to deepen our understanding of his message. We have to engage with it and make it real to ourselves, and then we need to find the words to make it real to others in language that carries the power and urgency and electricity of the original.
We have to teach what Jesus taught how he taught it, which means using parables.
We have to understand the culture into which we are speaking, and connect with the flows and ebbs of thought and feeling that swirl around us. And we will have to stay on our toes, ready to change as our hearers change, so that the message of Jesus remains told faithfully in ways that excite our listeners.
What then are the things that excite people these days? What are the issues and causes that they engage with? I should like you to make your own metaphors, ones that are appropriate for your situation and the people you are talking to.
Kingdoms were a big deal in Jesus day. Everybody in Israel wanted the kingdom of David restored, and the latest in a long line of occupying armies evicted.
What things are a big deal these days. What are the things that excite people in the 21st century and get their blood boiling? How does Jesus’ eternal message relate to these issues?
Why don’t I kick off your thinking with a suggestion for one possible metaphor.
‘The Global Economy of God’ has potential as a metaphor, but in these days of global economic collapse it is possibly too tainted by images of corporate greed, consumerism and materialism.
Instead how about ‘The Dream of God’?
In Matthew chapter six Jesus teaches us how to pray with an example that we now call the Lord’s Prayer.
He says: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
If we apply our new metaphor it becomes something like this: “May your dream come true.”
And then instead of saying ‘your will be done’, which to modern thinking can sound a bit dictatorial, we need another expression. ‘May your wishes come true’ is close, but it has some unfortunate connotations. This isn’t wishful thinking.
We have talked in our cell group meetings about God’s will. We discussed what it means to know God’s will, and we discovered that it means to know God’s heart. This taught us that walking in God’s will, or living and breathing according to his will, means spending our efforts to please God. When we know God’s will, then we know what makes him pleased.
So in our new prayer using our new metaphor it means we could say ‘May we please you with all we do’. Or perhaps, it is better as ‘May you find pleasure in all of your creation.’
So now ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ becomes ‘We pray your dream comes true, and that you find pleasure in all of your creation.’
What we have now is language that suggests a more personal and less mechanistic relationship between God in heaven and us down here on earth. We have language that will resonate with all mothers who have dreams for their children. Teachers who have great dreams for their pupils can relate to this expression, as can an artist who has great dreams for a painting, a writer who has great dreams for a novel, a politician who has high hopes for building a better world.
We have language to talk about sin and evil in the world, because we know that when he created God wasn’t thinking of poverty, wars, child abuse, starvation, racism, greed, or exploitation. God’s dream is of freedom, creativity, kindness, justice, love, and peace.
Our new metaphor allows us a creative role and gives us responsibility.
When we rape the environment and ignore the poor and are lazy or selfish, we are ruining God’s dream. We are opposed to God. We are his enemy.
Repentance is a realisation that our dreams are incompatible with God’s dreams, or are incomplete or destructive.
Faith is trusting God that his dreams are better than ours, and placing our dreams under and within his dreams.
Receptivity is to continually accept and receive God’s dreams for his creation, a process that seems to have no end.
The call to baptism is a call to publicly stand up and proclaim God’s hopes and dreams for this world, and to denounce and reject all the ~isms and ideologies of this world.
Any other claim to provide the ultimate dream is wrong. All of the product ads of the world are wrong. Hedonism, liberalism, conservatism, consumerism are all wrong.
We devote our lives to making God’s dream a reality, bringing it down to earth and living it out day by day.
The call to practise is the call to live the way God dreams for us to live.
May you start today living as God dreams you would live.