This past week was the anniversary of Martin Luther’s death. A day we remember mostly for his last words: “We are beggars. This is true.” Words meant to emphasize our absolute need for Christ. His next-to-last words were to his friend, Justus Jonas, and were an assertion that he wished to die believing in and confessing in the proclamation of the gospel that he himself had preached, something done at least in part so that the Catholic Church could not after his death spread rumors that he had recanted from his heresy on his deathbed, something that might be done to slow the growth of his teaching.
It is a good thing that he added those last two things to his final words because the third-to-the-last thing he said was in writing to his evangelical followers saying, “Farewell, dear reader in the Lord! Pray that the Word may be spread further abroad, and may be strong against the miserable Devil and the kingdom of his vicar, the Antichrist in Rome. May the God of all grace and mercy—strengthen and complete in us the work He has begun!” Which are not the best final words one could think of, at least from a modern ecumenical perspective.
Our brothers and sisters in the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church, who long ago broke fellowship with the Missouri Synod because the Missouri Synod is far too liberal for them, believe that everything Luther wrote is part of the evangelical confession, part of the official belief of the Church and so believe that whoever is the current pope is the Antichrist. For myself, I am quite content in believing that Luther got mean and weird in his old age as so many Lutherans do, but that while he was in his productive years, he had many, many good ideas.
One of those good ideas, which kind of gets lost among the others, was quite revolutionary for its time. It was called the two kingdoms doctrine and is summed up by the scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou when Delmar and Pete are baptized. Delmar says he has been forgiven even of that Piggly Wiggly® he knocked over in Yazoo.
To which Everett says, “I thought you said you were innocent of those charges.”
“Well, I was lying,” says Delmar, “and the preacher said I’ve been forgiven for that too.”
In the car they argue to Everett that since the preacher said that baptism washes away all their sins, they need not be on the run from the law anymore since they had been absolved. Everett responds, “Maybe it put you square with the Lord, but the state of Mississippi is a little more hard-nosed.”
If Luther watched from glory when that film came out he probably said, “That’s exactly what I was talking about.”
There are two kingdoms. The prince and the bishop, the church and the government, and they do different things. To confuse them is to make a confusion of authority. There is God’s law and there is the law of the land and they are not the same. The priest shouldn’t be able to throw you in jail for something immoral but not illegal; the sheriff shouldn’t be able to have you punished in the afterlife for a moving violation.
There are two kingdoms. The law and the gospel. It was not a popular idea among the powerful because folks with power tend to like to apply it everywhere. But for the non-noble, for the common people, to believe that there was a higher law, a higher authority than that of man, a higher law than that which came from those born noble, that was quite an empowering idea.
Luther did not go as far as he could have with the thought. He still believed that God ruled the world through the princes, a sort of divine-right-of-kings belief, but you can’t hold that against him too much as this was 500 years ago, and still his politics are more developed than some folks who are running for office today.
In today’s gospel is another story highlighting the reality that there are two kingdoms, and what happens when they sit next to each other and interact. What happens when they clash? What it looks like to participate in both of them, and a calling for us modern disciples concerning which kingdom to locate ourselves in. Which kingdom to inhabit. Which kingdom to celebrate and further, to find ourselves as passionate citizens of.
Today’s gospel is about two different animals, and two different kingdoms that are very different animals from one another. A fox and a hen are perhaps unlikely metaphors for Herod and Jesus, but they help for us to place the events following the temptation in the wilderness into the grand scope of Jesus’ ministry. And not only that, but Jesus seems to speak for God in that his desire to gather Jerusalem under his wings is symbolic of the whole long history of God’s care for and presence with the people of Israel.
The Pharisees come to Jesus saying Herod wants to kill you, so get away from here. This is the only time in the gospels the Pharisees want to help Jesus, though perhaps they are telling him about Herod because they want him to get away from there and leave them in their comfortable places. And Jesus is very specific in his response to let the messengers know exactly what he is doing there. He is casting out demons and performing cures. Casting out demons and performing cures. What he is doing is getting at the heart of who he is, and how he envisions his project as the Messiah.
The word basileus in Greek was one often used among the people to whom Jesus ministered. Basileus means kingdom, and if you just said the kingdom, you meant the Roman Empire. Jesus changes things when he begins announcing at the beginning of his ministry the basileou to theo, the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is breaking into the world through his ministry and the ministry of his disciples and so many of the stories in the gospels are about the interaction between the kingdom of God and earthly authority.
Jesus is not in town taking a poll on popular topics; he is not waging a propaganda campaign. Jesus is not raising a rebel army. He is not lobbying. He is casting doubt upon the ultimate rule of Herod and Rome, but only because, by what he is doing, he is demonstrating that there are things much more important than the rule of Herod. He is casting out demons and performing cures, he is battling the forces of evil and death itself. He is not concerned as much with the rule of Rome over Israel as he is concerned with the rule of God over everything. And that is where his morning over Jerusalem comes into play.
Jesus wants Jerusalem to be a part of this kingdom of God, a sign and a symbol and a beacon of God’s rule and God’s justice, but instead, drawing from the long history of people refusing the righteousness of God, Jesus describes them as the city that kills the prophets. And lest we fall into another trap that old Luther fell into, this is not an indictment against the people of Israel alone as much as they symbolically stand in for us. For all of God’s people. We too are the people that have a tendency to kill our prophets, stone those who are sent to us, and refuse the word of God.
The cross was the end of hope for those who wanted the Messiah to conquer the government, and it was the beginning of hope for those who see that Jesus came with bigger fish to fry on that Friday in Lent. That the kingdom of God is about the human heart and, once touched by it, all of the other things about our lives are transformed. Which is not to say that Jesus has nothing to do with our public lives, our politics, and life out in the world, but rather that all true change begins with us, with our souls.
A while back it was popular to ask the question, “what would Jesus do?” which although helpful was somewhat difficult to always accomplish, what with the whole miraculous son of God thing. So I prefer the question, “what would Jesus have me do?” When you ask yourself that question, and then you do it, you are operating in the kingdom of God. You are operating in the freedom of this Messiah who comes casting out all kinds of demons and healing all kinds of woes; so that thus freed, you might be an agent of the Kingdom of God in a broken world.
Luther, after many mistakes, chose to remind us with his last words that in the end it is all about the goodness of God. And so it is that we celebrate that goodness not quietly and passively, but by living the life he has won for us in his cross, a life freed up for him and for our brothers and sisters in need. Amen.