Updated: Apr 5, 2019
We’ve been exploring the Lord’s Prayer in depth this season of Lent, and today we arrive at what I believe is the heart and soul of the prayer. “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s a long phrase, and one option would be to break it up into shorter phrases, separating “Thy kingdom come,” from “thy will be done.” I’m keeping it together, because they go together.
The kingdom of God was Jesus’ primary metaphor for what God wants for God’s world – for what we mean when we say, “God’s will.” “The kingdom of God” is easily misunderstood, so it’s worth a review. First, why “kingdom”? It’s an old-fashioned-sounding word – isn’t it? – especially to people in the Western Hemisphere. But Jesus’ audience knew about kingdoms, and what they knew wasn’t good. The people of Israel had a long history of bad experiences with kingdoms, from the pharaoh in Egypt through their own corrupt monarchs to the imperial powers of Babylon and, during Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire. These human kingdoms had three primary features. First, they were oppressive. Ordinary people had no voice in structuring the society. Second, they were structured so that a half to two thirds of the annual production of wealth ended up in the hands of the wealthiest one to five percent of the population. This beginning to sound a little more contemporary, right? This arrangement left the peasants, about ninety percent of the population, living in extreme poverty. And third, these ancient kingdoms were religiously legitimated. The king claimed that he ruled by divine right, and that the social order, however unjust, reflected God’s will.
When the people heard Jesus talk about the kingdom of God, it would have exploded in their imaginations! It would have been one of those, “Oh my gosh; you mean it could be like that?" moments. "You mean there’s an alternative to the kingdoms of Herod and Caesar?” Those were the kingdoms they knew. But they also knew Scripture, and they would have remembered that throughout their Scriptures, Micah and elsewhere, God is passionate about justice; God desires peace and freedom; God created the world of abundance. They would have known that the ruling style of God, the way God would reign, would be utterly and completely different from what they’d seen. “Reign” – “God’s reign” – is a perfectly good non-gendered substitute for “kingdom” because it gets this across. Just imagine those first century people, taking in the possibility of God’s reign, a reign of justice and righteousness, mercy and love for all.
Brian McLaren tells a story about how his life, faith, and career were forever changed during a 1994 conference of Christian leaders in Africa. People from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and eastern Congo shared how their homelands were a random sample of the most violent, poverty-stricken, and dangerous countries in the world. A Burundi pastor named Claude said he realized his whole life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption. So much death; so much hatred. Claude realized he’d never heard a sermon address these realities. He wondered, “Did God only care about our souls going to heaven after we died? Were hungry bellies unimportant to God? Was God unconcerned about our crying sons and our frightened daughters, our mothers hiding under beds, our fathers crouching by windows, unable to sleep because of gunfire? Or – did God send Jesus to teach us how to avoid genocide by learning to love each other, how to overcome tribalism and poverty by following his path, how to deal with injustice and corruption, how to make a better life here on earth?”
Claude said he’d come to realize, “Something was missing in the version of Christianity we received from the missionaries. The missionaries told us how to go to heaven. But they left out an important detail. They didn’t tell us how the will of God could be done on earth.”
Brian McLaren recognized immediately that this is not just an African problem. Over the course of the conference, the leaders talked about the kingdom of God, and how the message of the kingdom – contrary to popular belief even among many Christians still today – was not focused on how to escape this world and its problems by going to heaven after death, but instead, was focused on how God’s will could be done on earth, during this life. During a break in the conference, McLaren saw a woman from Burundi sitting at a table, her head down and her face hidden in her arms. He and another woman checked to see if she was okay. “I’m okay,” she said, “but I’m shaken up. … Today, for the first time, I see what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. I see that it’s about changing this world, not just escaping it and retreating into our churches. If Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change. Everything must change.”
That is, indeed, what Jesus had in mind with his metaphor of the kingdom of God. Everything must change. At every point, Jesus’ kingdom of God subverts business as usual in the Roman Empire, and all empires. Jesus taught …
Don’t get revenge when you’re wronged, but seek reconciliation.
Don’t repay violence with violence, but seek creative nonviolent alternatives.
Don’t focus on conforming to moral rules, but on how love changes us from the inside out.
Don’t love insiders and hate or fear outsiders, but welcome outsiders into a new “us,” a new humanity.
Don’t have anxiety about money or security, but trust yourself to the care of God.
Don’t live for wealth, but for the living God who loves all people, including your enemies.
Don’t hate your enemies or competitors, but love them and do to them not as they have done to you, but as you wish they would do for you.
In these teachings, Jesus not only describes the kingdom of God, he describes how God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s will is a tough subject for lots of folks. Some people think of God’s will as something like fate or destiny. In this school of thought, God is in charge, so everything that happens must be God’s will. That makes human beings sort of like marionettes, or maybe pawns in a chess game. It also makes God responsible for some pretty awful stuff, and, conveniently, it means people don’t have to take responsibility for their own choices.
Others think of God’s will as a secret and detailed plan for our lives that we have to try to figure out. Maybe we’ll guess right, but maybe we’ll guess wrong. But in the New Testament, God’s will isn’t either a secret plan or destiny. It’s good news. God’s will is the kingdom of God. It’s God’s saving work to create a kingdom, a reign, a unity of harmony and shalom for all of God’s creation that’s good beyond our imagining.
That is what we pray for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We say the Lord’s Prayer so often, so routinely, that we might miss how revolutionary and challenging these particular words are. That’s why the petition about God’s will and about God’s kingdom go together. Thy kingdom come ON EARTH. Thy will be done ON EARTH. When we say the prayer, we usually put a pause in between “thy will be done” and “on earth.” In fact our pew Bibles put a comma there. When we pause like that, it’s easier to imagine, as many folks do, that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in heaven once we’re dead.” No. I checked with our resident Greek scholar. There is no comma in the Greek text between “done” and “on earth.” This is what we should be saying, what Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.”
Thy will be done on earth. You might notice that Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray, “May your will be done just among us disciples.” We pray for God’s will to be done “on earth.” It’s a universal vision: it’s for everyone everywhere, not just for a few. Jesus’ contemporaries often forgot this global understanding of God’s concern, just as many religious people today forget it.
A 2004 Swedish film entitled, “As It Is in Heaven” tells the story of a world-famous conductor, coincidentally named Daniel, who has always dreamed of opening people’s hearts with music. Daniel has a heart attack in the middle of a concert, and he retires to his hometown, a village in the far north of Sweden, where he’d been bullied as a child. The town has a church choir, and when they learn Daniel’s back in town, they invite him just to listen to them, and maybe offer some helpful advice. It’s soon obvious that the choir wants a bit more from him – they’d like him to be their director. Daniel accepts the challenge and he encourages the group to create music that speaks to the heart. It’s all about finding your own voice, he tells them. In the process, Daniel rediscovers the joy of music that he’s lost, and opens his own heart to the people in the choir.
Daniel’s journey towards healing is full of pain, mistakes, difficult relationships, and emotional hurt. The same is true of every one of the motley crew of folks in the choir – they’re struggling with hurt, abuse from those they love, and oppressive religious “righteousness.” Through the course of the movie, they hear each other’s stories and see – truly see – each other’s hurt, and it heals them. The grace of unconditional love and acceptance grips them. This, and the transcendence they experience in singing together, transforms them – not from the outside in, but from the inside out.
The choir is the metaphor for what it looks like when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a group of flawed people who accept one another for who they are, and who commit themselves to loving and serving each other. And then, as they perform and interact with the town, they transform the lives of others – not by imposing a rigid religiosity, not by demanding that certain rules be kept, but by allowing the grace they have experienced to flow through their lives, and wrap around those who hear them. They’ve experienced their full humanity; they’ve known the grace of others who accept them as they are, and they can’t help but pass this on to others. So they stand up to bullies. They stand up to a false religion of judgment and condemnation, represented by the town’s arrogant, self-righteous, puritanical minister – a sad depiction of contemporary religious leadership but unfortunately, not unjustified.
That’s what it looks like when God’s kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven. It’s not about some pure, perfect, idyllic realm where nothing bad happens and where we all behave perfectly. In fact, Jesus said, God’s kingdom is already here; it is at hand, it has arrived. It’s here – and real – wherever real people who struggle with what it means to be truly human find their own voices and know the gracious, unconditional acceptance of the God who loves all people whoever we are, whatever we are. And then pass that along.
We are called to participate in the kingdom: to be transformed by love, and to transform others with love. That’s why we gather here, and that’s why we pray. We gather to remind each other that the kingdom of God is here; it has begun; this love and transformation are possible now. We gather to remind each other that we are called to live in this kingdom now, to live toward it or into it. We gather here not to be perfectly religious, church-y people, but to find our own voices, and help others find theirs. We gather and we pray that we might align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire, which is that God so loves the world, so that the whole earth might become the kind of place where God’s dreams come true, where God’s justice and compassion reign, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 Or in Matthew's gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven. “Matthew respectfully avoids the name of God by using, as it were, the dwelling for the dweller, just as, mutatis mutandis, we do by announcing, ‘The White House says …,” when we mean “The President says.’ For Matthew, “kingdom of heaven” means exactly the same as “kingdom of God.” John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 118 .
 Crossan, 77.
 Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 18-19.
 McLaren, 21.
 McLaren, 23.
 McLaren, 99-100.
 “As It Is in Heaven” (Sweden, 2004); directed by Kay Pollak; screenplay by Anders Nyberg, Ola Olsson, Carin Pollak, Kay Pollak, and Margaretha Pollak.