You know those old adages, “nothing worth having comes easy or free” or “anything worth having is worth working for?” I have a very distinct memory of the first time I actually came face to face with the reality of those sayings. It was third grade and I was sitting at the dining room table doing my homework—math to be specific. And I was struggling. Struggling was a new concept for me – things just came to me, English, social studies, science, even math – just made sense and so it didn’t take any work at all to get what I wanted – As. And then I met long division.
If it had been left completely up to me, I would have thrown my hands up in the air and left it at “I just can’t do math; it’s too hard” – which I believe were the words I exclaimed to my father. But my father, knowing me, knowing what would inspire me to actually work hard for something for the first time, said “that’s okay, Amy. Girls just can’t do math.”
You better believe I figured out that homework and brought home As in math throughout my academic career.
Facing off with long division was the first time I had to really work for something I wanted – but it certainly wasn’t the last. Talk about a good life lesson. You can’t just luck your way into things – if they really matter, then yup, you really have to work at them. I learned that with something relatively trivial – a math grade but that lesson has proved true from grades to relationships to things the heart is passionate about. You can’t have a long lasting friendship or marriage without working at it. There are going to be ups and downs and sometimes you’re going to have to fight for the relationship even though you it may seem like you just fight.
You can’t just have a healthy, functioning child - you have to spend days and nights taking care of your child, making sure he or she knows they’re loved, provided for safe. You even have to be the bad guy on occasion or know just how to push your kid’s buttons to get her to apply herself at math.
Family, friends, marriages, careers, kids – all of these require hard work and they are worth it.
And then there’s the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God—where God’s will is done, where peace reigns, where love is the law and all obey, where the greatest commandment and the one like it are followed—this is what we, the church, the body of Christ, are called to work for.
If anyone told couples who are getting married “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven…” I have to wonder how many couples might rethink making the commitment. It might feel from time to time like there are earthquakes, famines, plagues, but there usually aren’t.
And that’s not even the hardest part.
The hardest part, I believe, in being a part of the kingdom of God, in working for it, toward it, is the part about persecution. Betrayal. As Jesus is in his final days and sees his own betrayal on the horizon, he warns us that in following him, the ones we love – even our parents, our friends, our nearest and dearest. That’s got to be the hardest part.
Working for the kingdom - it's harder than anything else. We participate in moments where we see God at work here and now, we’re looking for that day when God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven. But before God's reign is total, before we know an image like the one of new Jerusalem from Isaiah, we aren't promised easy street. We're told of famines and plagues and earthquakes and wars and utter destruction. We're told of friends and family and loved ones turning us in. We’re told of death.
No wonder at certain times in our history people have looked around and said "the end is near" as friends turned against friend, brother against brother.
It’s all rather depressing. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather start humming the classic Joy to the World a bit early than sing to myself “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, but the earth didn't receive her king. Before he comes in glory, there will plagues and earthquakes, and some famine and some death, and you will be persecuted for your faith.”
While I love knowing the Jesus loves me as much as the next person, the hard truth of our faith is that Jesus may love us but the world does not. Not if we’re truly pursuing the kingdom, not if we’re challenging the status quo when it sustains injustice and oppression on micro and macro levels, not if we’re standing up for what’s right and not what’s popular.
While we have in our news tragic stories of Iraqi Christians being targeted because of their faith, you don’t have to go across the world to know that when you follow Christ, suffering will ensue. Maybe not physical death, but suffering, yes. Ask anyone of our youth – how popular does it make you when you have the guts to tell your friends to stop gossiping or to stop teasing another kid?
Jesus does not hide that truth from us. If you were hoping being a follower of Christ meant prosperity and abundance and success as the world defines it – sorry, you’re out of luck.
Because what we are promised is something else. We may be persecuted, we may suffer, we may go through incredibly hard times – but in those moments, God will be with us and we will have a chance to witness to God’s glory in word and in deed. We’ll have a chance to take those moments that are meant to crush us and use them to spread the good news.
We are also told that some of us will die – we might die too young or too forgotten or too poor because of our faith but we will not perish. We will die, yes, but even death – that great tool of intimidation – cannot silence us. We will not perish, not be utterly destroyed. Because in the end of his time in Jerusalem, Jesus died, and showed us that wasn't the end after all.
We may die but we will not perish and so we are encouraged to work for the kingdom, fight for the kingdom, take up pens and petitions for the kingdom, to sacrifice for the kingdom.
As I was thinking about this text, thinking about how, well, again how depressing this can come across, I asked one of the young adults I know through my coffee shop time what he thought. This young man looks around our world, sees the injustices and does want to find a way to take part in the birthing of the kingdom even here, even now. I wanted to know what gives him hope, what inspired him and encouraged him as he worked for God.
He looked at me a little funny – usually we chat about the latest band or something – and then took a moment before his thoughtful reply. When he answered he spoke to me about endurance – how in enduring and making through the hard times we can come to know God even better and come to our better selves. Words that echoed nicely Jesus’ own. He also spoke of those who had gone before, the disciples, the apostles, those who had known just how hard working for God’s kingdom can be but they did it anyway. Those who saw what happened to Jesus and knew that death would come but that it wasn’t the end. It wasn’t easy, but they persevered. They endured. And their stories inspired him to be a part of that greater story.
In his response, I hear the good news. Yes, the kingdom of God is a wonderful vision and no it’s not here yet. Yes working for the kingdom is hard work, it can mean not just a little inconvenience but genuine suffering. But it’s worth it. Being part of what God is doing, bringing in the kingdom, is worth it. Even if we suffer. Even if we, like the disciples, won’t get to see the new heavens and new earth before we die.
Being part of the kingdom is hard. But it’s worth it and it’s worthy of our efforts, our energy, our endurance. God is doing a new thing, here and now, and we are called to participate in it. So let’s keep our eyes, our ears, our hearts open to what God is doing and may we never tell ourselves “it’s just too hard.” Amen.