I’m the oldest of four children. Being the oldest came with a great many responsibilities growing up. I had to babysit from about the time I was nine years-old. I was usually the one who had to cut the grass. You know, not split the atom, but still.
My younger brother and I were responsible for shoveling snow—which, living in Michigan, 20 miles from Lake Michigan and its copious amounts of lake-effect snow—was a serious commitment. As I got older, snow-blowers got to be a thing. But my dad—reasoning (I suspect) that he had two boys—couldn’t see wisdom in paying for a machine that could do what we were already required to do for free. (For what it’s worth, I’m glad he didn’t have the same attitude about grass cutting, because my scythe game is not on point.)
You know when my dad finally felt the need to sink money into a “useless” snowblower?
As soon as my brother and I left home. So, yeah.
The other thing about being the oldest is that the rules are much stricter than they are for the younger ones. The first kid has a curfew, has to be responsible when it comes to safety, has to set an example for the younger siblings. But by the time the youngest gets through the gauntlet, they’re out all night, eating ice cream for breakfast, and juggling chainsaws to entertain themselves.
But as much as those things are a hassle, there’s one thing about being the oldest that I considered a perk: I could make my brothers and sister bend to my will. I mean, generally speaking, I was a pretty good human being, but when it came to my kid brothers and sister, I could muster up some evil.
If they wanted something, I’d make them say, “O, Great Derek.” Isn’t that horrible? I guess I thought it was funny.
But, let’s be honest, it feels pretty satisfying to have enough power to make other people do what you want. It boosts your ego to have people bowing down to you, kissing your feet, throwing military parades for you, telling you how unparalleled is your genius, how matchless your intellect, to have the peons call you “O, Great Derek.”
It is the height of some people’s aspirations to have the adoring crowds faint when you enter the room, climbing over the top of everybody else to do your bidding, sucking up to you whenever they’re in your presence.
Power, when you’re a kid, can feel like always getting your way, like bossing people around, like being able to make your siblings say, “O, Great Derek.”
When you’re a grownup, power can feel like getting your way, like bossing people around, like being able to make your inferiors genuflect.
It amounts to pretty much the same thing, doesn’t it? Whether you’re young or old, power is being able to impose your will on others.
But power’s not just an individual aspiration, is it? Corporations seek it. Politicians chase after it. Countries bleed all over themselves to claw back a little bit more of it.
Power in the hands of governments can be used for good, right? It can be used to protect those who are vulnerable. It can be used to advance the cause of justice for the beleaguered and unseen. It can be used to set standards of behavior that call on each of us to treat others with dignity and respect.
On the other hand, when governments project power, they often do so with the same kinds of selfish justifications as nine year-old bullies. Governments are just as prone to a public flexing of their muscles as bad bosses. The difference is, governments arrogate unto themselves the right to determine the extent to which they want to legally use violence to achieve their goals.
“I mean, there’s no defending the North Korean regime, which is a monstrous regime. It’s the last really Stalinist regime in the world. It’s a disgusting place, obviously, so there’s no defending it. On the other hand, you’ve got to be honest about what it means to lead a country. It means killing people, not on the scale the North Koreans do, but a lot of countries commit atrocities, including a number we’re closely allied with.”
That was Tucker Carlson’s penetrating insight into government power … I mean, leadership.
And as wrong as I think Tucker Carlson is on almost every subject, I think he raises an important point about how kingdoms typically work: If you’re going to lead, if your kingdom is going to prevail, then you’re going to have to get comfortable with killing people.
Kingdom power almost always reserves the right use coercion to achieve its objectives. Kingdom power can look like a fighter jets and tank in the Capitol, or a gun, or a nightstick.
But kingdom power can also look like voter suppression, or red-lining, or institutionalized misogyny.
And for the most part, we’ve resigned ourselves to to the exercise of kingdom power, haven’t we? Kingdom power feels inevitable and irresistible. Think about how we talk about it: “The only sure thing in life is death and taxes.”
Who has the power to regulate both?
That’s right, kingdoms. Regardless of whether or not we elect our rulers, or they inherit their positions, or they seize the throne by force, the powers and principalities get to tell us who has value and who doesn’t, who gets the advantages and who has to run the race with a hundred pound pack on their backs, who lives and who dies.
It is the power of the kingdom that gets to decide what’s worth going to war for, and what peace looks like. It’s the same today as it was two centuries or two millennia ago.
So, when Jesus sends out his disciples in our text for this morning, all that kingdom stuff is already deeply rooted in the way Luke’s readers and we understand how the world operates.
Once again Jesus sends out his disciples. Unlike in chapter nine, though, this time he sends not the twelve who are his inner circle, but appoints seventy disciples to go out on his behalf.
Unfortunately for the seventy disciples, Jesus understands that the world into which they’re heading is saturated with kingdom power. Notice what he tells them before they head out: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
But why—apart from the everyday problems that everyone runs into in a world run under the shadow of coercive power—does Jesus view them as lambs among wolves?
I mean, yeah, they need to keep their nose clean like everybody else, stay underneath the radar of the folks in charge. But, with the exception of the bigwigs who control the machine, pretty much everybody has to do that, don’t they? So, why does Jesus take the extra opportunity to remind the seventy that they have an especially big target on their backs?
Because they’re not going on just any string of garden variety house visits. For one thing, Jesus commands his disciples to make themselves even more vulnerable than they already are: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. Don’t pack your toothbrush and a change of underwear. Unlike the world into which you’re heading, you’re going to trust completely in the hospitality of strangers—that when you go to someone’s home they’re going to welcome you and feed you. That is to say, you’re going to show the possibility of a different kind of world—one where true community and hospitality to the stranger can exist.”
In other words, Jesus’ disciples are going to places where people don’t know them and trusting that the folks they meet there won’t turn them out, won’t refuse them kindness just because the disciples aren’t from around there, won’t lock them up in cages and tell them to drink out of the toilet just because they were born someplace different. Jesus is telling them to offer a vision of a new world, a different kind of kingdom.
One of the primary ways in which the kingdom Jesus’ disciples announces is different from the coercive kingdoms of this world is that the first thing they’re supposed to say when they go to a stranger’s house is, “Peace to this house!”
Now, as I’ve mentioned before, in Roman occupied Palestine, everybody already knew what peace looked like in the hands of the powerful. The Pax Romana was a peace imposed on the weak by the dominant, a peace that benefitted the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and dispossessed. But the peace that these disciples offer doesn’t rely on the ability to impose its will on others; it’s a peace from a kingdom that relies on a commitment to vulnerability and the trust that there is enough for all of us, if we share what we have.
Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick who are there, and say to them ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’”
The thing is, this kingdom the disciples announce doesn’t depend on others to embrace it. Regardless of whether people accept it or not, this kingdom is a present reality.
It’s a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom that is secure enough in itself not to have to coerce people. It says, “This is the world embodied by the kingdom God is busy unleashing, a world in which there is enough to eat for everyone, where the divisions that keep people separated from each other—because some are considered ‘healthy’ while others are deemed a ‘disease,’ where some are viewed as ‘pure’ while others are treated as a ‘pollutant’ to be swept aside—have been healed.”
So, the seventy go. And what happens?
The text says that they “returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening.’”
That sounds pretty dramatic, doesn’t it? Demons bowing and Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightning.
This passage has vexed many interpreters. So, what are we to make of all this supernatural language, this celestial light show?
I mean, it sounds like a supernova.
According to NASA:
One type of supernova is caused by the “last hurrah” of a dying massive star. This happens when a star at least five times the mass of our sun goes out with a fantastic bang!
Massive stars burn huge amounts of nuclear fuel at their cores, or centers. This produces tons of energy, so the center gets very hot. Heat generates pressure, and the pressure created by a star’s nuclear burning also keeps that star from collapsing.
A star is in balance between two opposite forces. The star’s gravity tries to squeeze the star into the smallest, tightest ball possible. But the nuclear fuel burning in the star’s core creates strong outward pressure. This outward push resists the inward squeeze of gravity.
When a massive star runs out of fuel, it cools off. This causes the pressure to drop. Gravity wins out, and the star suddenly collapses. Imagine something one million times the mass of Earth collapsing in 15 seconds! The collapse happens so quickly that it creates enormous shock waves that cause the outer part of the star to explode!
But you see, that’s what happens when the old kingdoms of coercive power meet with a new kind of kingdom. The mounting pressure of justice and compassion, of peace and community are too great for the old kingdoms to withstand—and something’s gotta give. The collapse is epic, blowing a giant hole in the fabric of reality as we’ve come to know it.
You get a small group of people willing to live as if everyone is a neighbor, as if there’s plenty enough to go around, as if the maladies that make us ill unto despair are capable of being healed—and all the sudden demons bow down and Satan falls from the sky like a flash of lightning.
And the thing of it is, we’re not talking about the Justice League here. It’s just a bunch of ordinary people willing to head out into the world, carrying only their trust in Jesus and a different kind of kingdom.
“The kingdom of God has come near to you” isn’t a nice parting gesture; it’s an announcement of the end of this world.