(just got back from our Men's Retreat this weekend. It was great. Here's the continuing posting of what I talked about, this is a long one)
5. The Kingdom is at once past, present, and future
The Kingdom of God extends back throughout history, is present among us today, and goes on towards eternity. I want to show how we must hold these three together otherwise our faith and participation in the Kingdom of God becomes distorted at best and worthless at worst.
In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is talking about who will be a part of the Kingdom of God in response to a question. He names those who have come before as part of the Kingdom:
Luke 13: 28: "There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.
Jesus also said that he did not come to destroy what had gone before, but rather to complete it:
Matthew 5: 17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
Indeed we can trace the Kingdom of God all the way back to the Garden of Eden, where God’s will was perfectly done on Earth. The Old Testament is comprised of laws, wisdom writings, and prophets trying to restore Israel back to following God’s will. In my reading of the Bible, I find sort of a weird comfort in the fact that people really haven’t changed- so the past provides a guide for us. We can read the story of Israel and still see the truth meant for us today. We can see God calling his people through Abraham who was “blessed to be a blessing” and know that we are the heirs of God’s promise to faithful Abraham fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But there is a fine line between letting the past be a faithful guide and being stuck in the past. Tim Keel is Pastor of a church in Kansas City, in his book he says this:
“God’s activity in the past can be a stumbling block in the present, especially when life is hard and confusing and filled with the pain of transition and loss. We get in trouble when we say, ‘This is what God did, and God will do it again.” (Tim Keel, Intuitive Leadership, chapter 4)
We can be paralyzed by wishing for the “good ol’ days” or just expecting God to keep doing what he’s done before. We can get a little too cozy with the past and lift it up to a place where it doesn’t belong. One of the things that cracks me up is when people talk about not liking all this new fangled worship music, and that the old time hymns are the “real” music of the church. Well, guess what? Those “old time hymns” were once new too. Think about the way we classify our worship services: “traditional” and “contemporary”. Using labels fixed to time is actually kind of silly because time is relative. Let’s try this, how many of you guys remember what you were doing in 1984? Does that seem like a long time ago? Well, it does to me because that’s the year I was born. Time is relative, and as the church we ignore that. What we mean by a “traditional service” is really worship the way it was done around the 1950’s, and the elements of our contemporary worship really aren’t that contemporary as our style took its form in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If we REALLY wanted to be “traditional” we might greet each other with a “holy kiss” instead of shaking hands (2 Corinthians 13: 12), or maybe women could cover their heads (1 Corinthians 11: 16), or maybe we shouldn’t use electricity since for “traditions” sake we could be like the church for the majority of its 2,000 year history. As far as “contemporary” worship goes, if we sing songs at the GAP service that are 8 years old, how contemporary are we? If our instrumentation isn’t using the most current modern technology (think computer powered synthesizers and laptops onstage to make all kinds of cool noise) then is it really contemporary? Ironically, a lot of the new “contemporary” worship focuses on re-discovering ancient “traditional” practices, so does that blow your mind?
Please, don’t hear me bagging on our church worship or think that I believe one is more valid than the other. I grew up worshiping in very traditional environments and play in our contemporary band, and really would prefer a blend of both sort of like our recent Ash Wednesday service. But worship wars aren’t the point. I only employ the example of referring to our services as “traditional” or “contemporary” to show that using the past to define your identity will always lead to irrelevance. I could go on and on and on about this topic, but must move forward; in closing we must look backwards and treasure our past as a guide, but friends, “the way we’ve always done it” is stifling to the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is also present among us here today. Biblical scholar William Barclay offers the following definition: “The Kingdom of God is a society upon Earth where God’s will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven.” Clearly in praying the Lord’s prayer we are asking for God’s will to be done in the here and now, not just in some other undisclosed time and place. One of the strengths of the Christian tradition is it is rooted in time and space- stuff actually happens in history and in our midst today; we don’t just follow some vague collection of ancient stories but rather follow the living God who created the universe and continues to sustain his good creation.
Clearly Jesus tells us that life, right now, today, matters. In speaking about his future coming, Jesus uses very tangible criteria for who will be saved:
Matthew 25: 31-40: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?" "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Jesus tells us to pray for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. I don’t think I can put it more clearly than that! We have a responsibility to take an active role in God’s will right now, today, in human time/space/history. Theologian and Pastor Leonard Sweet says the following:
“Far to many of us are trying to keep our hands clean when the question at Judgment Day is going to be “Show me your hands. How dirty and wet are they?” (Leonard Sweet, Out of the Question- Into the Mystery, chapter 8)
Christianity is not a religion of intangible moral principals. Our goal as Christians is not just “not sinning”. Christianity is about making visible the will of an invisible God, and we as Christians must always lift up this beautiful part of the Lord’s prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven”. Paul writes to the church in Corinth: “We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5: 20) Jesus tells us that we "are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5: 14) We are called to make a difference by taking part in doing God’s will here on Earth, life matters. Making the Kingdom of God a reality here on Earth, in the present is our goal.
At the same time, if we’re too focused on our deeds, we can think that we can work our way up the ladder into heaven! We can’t be fooled into thinking that we are “carrying our weight” in the Kingdom of God! Let us listen again to Paul’s famous words:
Ephesians 2: 8 & 9: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
Just like we can become over-dependant on the past we too can be sort of self-centered in thinking that it is us doing the work, and not God- as if it were by our own merits that we were saved! This tunnel vision of works based righteousness and focus on the present can make us myopic in continuing to search for and follow God’s will. Sometimes this can be a struggle for me as I immerse myself in ministry, wanting to work hard but also enjoying the comforts of my routine. Jesus warns us not to get too comfortable, not to get lazy or complacent, and his words are very stern:
Matthew 24: 42-51: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
So clearly the work of the Kingdom is here on Earth, but also is not complete, there is still an element of anticipation, a certain lack of resolve to The Kingdom of God. We can, indeed, live in that Kingdom in the Here and Now, but the total, utter fulfillment of the Kingdom is Yet to Come. As Paul says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13: 12)
The future is our hope. We do not see this world as doomed, but as the Psalmist says “Wait on the Lord more than the watchman wait for the dawn” (Psalm 130: 6). Our hope does not come merely from Presidential elections or the bankrupt humanist concept of progress, or better living through chemistry or technology. We do not deny God working in those things, but our hope for the future comes in the return of Christ, to “put the world to rights” as N. T. Wright says. Look at Paul’s words from Acts:
Acts 3: 19-21 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
Now, it is at this point I believe that modern Christianity suffers from it’s greatest fault: an unhealthy addiction to the future. I believe I’ve heard Pastor Michael say that “Christians can be so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.” My take on that is, “If all you’re worried about is heaven, what the hell are you gonna do now?” Remember, Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. But much of today’s preaching, programming, teaching, and publications focus on just heaven and the end of the world as we know it. You would not believe how much the Left Behind series has influenced Christian thought, especially among our students. Friends hear me, THE LEFT BEHIND BOOKS ARE A WORK OF FICTION. They do not contain any Biblical revelation, and frankly, I think they were done in poor taste. One of the main criticisms of the series was there were entirely too many books- hey, you gotta milk the cash cow right!?!?! Guys, this is not a “new” issue at all. The disciples and others asked Jesus about the end of the world over 2,000 years ago, recorded in Matthew chapter 24. In the interest of time I’m going to not use the entire text, but please, see for yourself!
Matthew 24: 3-8, 36-39: As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. 5For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ, and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains...
..."No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, or the Son, but only the Father.” I don’t know how to explain that any more. It is so funny to me that people try to use the Bible to forge some false, fear-inducing forecast of the end times when really that whole practice is un-Biblical! There is this stream of Christianity obsessed with the end of the world, and it’s wrong. Just as the past can paralyze us, the future is even more dangerous as it can not only paralyze us but also derail us from our mission and prayer to help build God’s Kingdom. If Christianity is merely about an escape from Earth into heaven then we become like rats from a sinking ship, and the worse things get the better news that is. There was an album by a band named Modest Mouse a couple years ago called “Good News for People Who Love Bad News”. Christians are not those people. We are the people who pray for God’s redemptive work on Earth to be done through us. We are people of Good News, the good news that the Kingdom of God is real.
The Kingdom of God, past, present, and future. The past is our guide, the present is our goal, and the future is our hope.