Sunday, October 14, 2012

Caught Between Two Kingdoms

One of the most frequent phrases used in Christian circles is "kingdom of God." And yet it is not always clear what is meant by this idea. The concept of the kingdom of God can seems slippery.
In basic terms, the Christian church has historically taught that the kingdom of God has come in one sense, and that it is still to come in another sense. We are living in the in-between, caught between two kingdoms. The kingdom of this world, ruled by the enemy, is still here, but his power is fading. The kingdom of God is growing in power and when Jesus returns it will come in its fullness.
There is an obscure story at the beginning of 2 Samuel that powerfully illustrates how we are faced with powerful decisions as we live between these two kingdoms. It is the story of a man named Abner.
Abner was the commander of Saul's army. As 2 Samuel begins, Saul has died. David's power is growing, but he has not yet fully come into his kingdom. It has been promised, but it has not been realized. The power of Saul's kingdom is fading and it has a certain expiration date.
After Saul's death, Abner responds by desperately holding onto Saul's kingdom. Second Samuel 2:8-9 says, "But Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul's army, took Ish-bosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim, and he made him king over Gilead and the Ashurites and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel." Clutching to the fading kingdom of Saul, Abner scrambles, grabs Saul's son, and declares him to be the king. He does what he can to keep Saul's kingdom going.
Abner's allegiance to Saul's kingdom, though, wanes in the next chapter. Ish-bosheth makes a spurious accusation against Abner, and this sets Abner off on an angry tirade. In 3:8-10 Abner says, "To this day I keep showing steadfast love to the house of Saul your father, to his brothers, and to his friends, and have not given you into the hand of David. And yet you charge me today with a fault concerning a woman. God do so to Abner and more also, if I do not accomplish for David what the LORD has sworn to him, to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan to Beersheba."
Now, there are several astonishing things about what Abner says in this passage. But two stand out.
1. He makes clear that he has done all that he could do for the house of Saul.
2. He makes clear that he knew all along that God had promised the kingdom to David.
It is important to pause in order to take in this reality. Abner reveals that he knew that God himself had promised the kingdom to David, and yet Abner did everything he could to fight David's ascendancy. In reality, Abner knowingly opposed what he knew that God had ordained.
What would possess a person to do this? What would cause someone to knowingly choose a side opposite God?
The answer is simple. Abner was an important person in Saul's fading kingdom. He had influence and prominence. This might not be true in David's approaching kingdom. He might have to settle for obscurity in that kingdom.
In Milton's Paradise Lost Satan says, "Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven." While Abner's actions may not have been quite as dramatic as Satan's reasoning, the two are in the same vein.
Here is the point. Abner was caught between a fading kingdom and a coming one. He chose the fading kingdom not out of ignorance, but because he had more prominence in the fading kingdom.
Like Abner, we are all caught between two kingdoms. The kingdom of the enemy is passing away. There is an expiration date on his reign. Still, there is the potential to be important in his kingdom. We can grab hold of his way of power or pleasure or fame. We can do things his way and we can scrape all that we can from his fading kingdom. But all the while, we will be fighting against the inevitable. We will be fighting against God.
Embracing Jesus' coming kingdom can put us on the outs right now. The fading kingdom still holds some sway. But when we choose self-serving power over self-giving power, when we choose self-indulgence over delayed gratification, when we choose petty revenge over forgiveness, we choose to stand opposed to God and his coming kingdom. And not only this, but we choose to align ourselves with what is certain to fade, rather than showing loyalty to what is certain to win out.
Abner chose prominence in a small and temporary kingdom over a place in the kingdom of God. Everyday we are faced with the same decision that Abner faced. What will we choose?

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