When I was in seventh grade, I used to get picked on a lot. And I mean a lot. It was a really hard time for me. In fact, things eventually got so bad that the Vice Principal of my school recommended that I take Karate lessons for self-defense. So I did just that. And it went really well. It was fun, I was active, and I really liked my teacher: Shihan Jessie Bowen. Shihan Bowen was a 5th degree black belt and the founder of our school. There was even a picture on the wall of him next to the kung-fu movie star Chuck Norris.
I, on the other hand, was an awkward twelve-year-old who was barely good enough for a beginner-level sparring class. So, you can imagine how much trepidation I felt that night at the end of class when Shihan Bowen ordered me to stand up and fight him one-on-one in front of the rest of the class.
It was an epic five-point sparring match. Shihan Bowen and I matched each other blow for blow with everyone watching. In the end, I managed to land the final blow for my fifth point. I couldn’t believe it: I had beaten Shihan Bowen, the Grand Master and the founder of the school, by one point. For the first time in my life, I felt powerful. That’s an amazing feeling for a lanky seventh grader who was used to getting beat up and pushed around. I discovered pride and strength within myself.
Now, I can’t say that this one event solved all my problems at school or in my neighborhood, but I do believe that something of that experienced must have stayed with me because it wasn’t until almost fifteen years after the fact that I did the math in my head: Shihan Bowen was a 35-year-old Grand Master; I was a 12-year-old beginner. It took me that long to realize one obvious fact: he let me win.
By the time I realized it, of course, I was a grown man. I had long since grown out of my awkward middle school phase, but I’m grateful for what he did that night because he let me taste empowerment for the first time in my life. For once, I was a victor, not a victim. Something I did made an impact on the world around me.
This theme of empowerment is an important one, so we’re going to spend some time with it today. It factors rather highly in our reading this morning from the gospel according to Luke.
The story begins with Jesus sending a group of his followers out on a mission to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God. It’s not the first time he’s done something like this. In fact, it’s the second. Just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus sent another group of disciples out with an identical mission: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God. The first time he did it, Jesus sent 12 disciples out. The second time, he sent 70.
Why do you think that is? Is it just a random number? Was that just the number of people who happened to be hanging around that day? Well, no. It’s not random. Numbers had great symbolic significance for people in the ancient world. Whenever two things or events have the same number in the Bible, you can bet that they’re connected somehow.
Let’s take the number 12, for example. 12 is the number of disciples Jesus had. 12 is also the number of tribes in the original nation of Israel. Are these ideas connected? You bet they are. By sending out 12 disciples, Jesus was saying that his mission was not just for himself alone, but for the whole nation of Israel. All of God’s chosen people had a part to play in what was happening through Jesus.
What about 70? This one’s a little bit trickier. It’s not so obvious to us modern American readers, so I’ll help you out by unpacking it a little. 70 is the number of the nations of the world named in the first part of the book of Genesis. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells the story of the creation of the world and the beginning of all peoples, cultures, and nations. And the final number of nations listed in Genesis 10 is 70. So, when Jesus sends out 70 of his followers to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God, he’s taking his mission even one step further as if to say, “Hey y’all, what you see going on here isn’t just about me, it’s about our whole nation; in fact, it’s not even just about our whole nation, it’s about every nation. The amazing things you see God doing in me and through me is meant to be shared with the whole world… everybody.” That’s the symbolic significance of Jesus sending out the 70 disciples on a mission.
Now, let’s take a look at what that mission was. What is it that God is doing in and through Jesus, the nation of Israel, and ultimately the whole world? Well, we’ve heard about it already: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus and his followers are all about. But what does that mean for us? Should we all become faith healers, exorcists, or televangelists? Well, probably not. In fact, I would advise against it.
When modern Christians talk about “proclaiming the kingdom of God,” they usually mean “preaching the gospel,” and it usually sounds something like this:
“You’re a real bad sinner but God loves you anyway. So, you should accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, become a Christian, and go to church so that your soul can go to heaven when you die.”
That’s what modern, American Christians usually mean when they talk about preaching the gospel or proclaiming the kingdom of God. But is that what Jesus was talking about in this passage? Is there any talk in this passage about becoming a Christian or going to heaven when you die? No, there isn’t.
Let me say something that might surprise you: Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God has nothing to do with religion or the afterlife. What is it then? Well, let’s look at it.
What is a kingdom on the most basic, fundamental level? It’s the place where a king or queen has authority and is in charge. A kingdom is a king’s territory.
Based on that definition then, what is the kingdom of God? It’s the place where God is in charge.
What does this mean? Whenever we allow peace, justice, and love to reign in our hearts, that’s the kingdom of God. Wherever groups of people organize themselves into communities to care for those who suffer, seek justice for the oppressed, and embody Christ-like compassion in their lives, that’s the kingdom of God.
When Jesus told his followers to go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, he was telling them to plant a flag in the ground. He was declaring war on the way things are. He was saying, in effect, “Hey y’all, there’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.” It’s not a battle we can fight with death-dealing weaponry, but with tools that build life. That’s why healing the sick and casting out demons were so important to Jesus: he was announcing a reversal of the cosmic powers that kept the children of God under the yoke of oppression. The forces of sin and evil were doomed to failure. That’s why he said, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” I’ll say it again: There’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.
There are all kinds of examples of the kingdom of God breaking through into this world. I could talk about the falling of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid in South Africa. But the example that stands out most in my mind this week is that of a middle-aged seamstress and a young pastor (age 26) who organized an entire group of people to right a wrong in their community through the power of nonviolent direct action. The seamstress (Rosa Parks) and the pastor (Martin Luther King, Jr.) organized the Montgomery bus Boycott of 1955. For entire year, the African American population of Montgomery, Alabama walked to work instead of riding the bus. Their voices were heard and they paved the way for the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Their movement was one moment among many that marks the breaking through of the kingdom of God into this world. Toward the end of the protest, someone asked one elderly woman whether she was tired out from a year of walking at her age. She famously replied, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”
That, my friends, is the proclamation of the kingdom of God through the empowerment of (all) the people of God. It is the dethroning of the powers of sin in this world, the casting out of demons, and the healing of our sick society. It is the eternal revolution of Jesus and we (all of us) are the insurgents.
The end-result of this revolution is not mere political reform but spiritual transformation as the kingdom of God is established “on earth as it is in heaven.” After describing the revolution to his followers, Jesus told them, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Through this empowerment, we the followers of Jesus wake up to who we really are. All of us are invited recover our dignity as beloved children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit. Each of us bears the image and likeness of God. As Jesus said, our names are written in heaven.
Brothers and sisters, this is the truth I invite you to discover and recover as you go out into the world this week. You may not be called upon to march in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or tear down the Berlin Wall, but there is still plenty of sin and injustice left in this old world. Go out with your mind’s eye and the ears of your heart open to where it is that the Spirit of Jesus is calling you and empowering you to plant a flag as an insurgent in heaven’s revolution. Heal the sick, cast out demons, proclaim the kingdom of God, and rejoice that your name is written in heaven.
Be blessed and be a blessing.