This is Part II of my 4-part blog series on The Kingdom of God, to go along with the lessons I’m giving for my class at church on the same topic. You can find Part I here.
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Off the banks of the murky Jordan River, on an equally murky day, a man stood casting a wishful eye upon the horizon. Cloaked in camel’s hide and stuffed with locust and honey, the only thing that distinguished this man more than his quirks were perhaps his words.
This man, now commonly known as John the Baptist, spoke with the tongue of the Prophets from a world before him, declaring with his life the coming of the “Day of the Lord.” Echoing profusely the prophet Isaiah, he said to anyone who’d listen:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”*
What had first been talked about as a far-off fantasy in the Hebrew Scriptures is now beginning to come into fruition here with the arrival of Jesus. More than a prophet and a rabbi, Jesus is the bodily incarnation of the God that the Jews had come to be so familiarly complacent with these past few thousand years.
But like his cousin and counterpart, John, Jesus also had a way with words. And his words also focused on the Day of the Lord. Except that now, it was referred to as the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.
We see a glimpse of this early on when reading about Jesus, as his most famous sermon (read: Matthew 5-7) spends a lot of time both distinguishing earth from heaven, and bringing heaven down to earth. He states,
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).
However, this same Jesus, in Luke 17, muddies the water a bit with this statement,
The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you (Luke 20b-21, emphasis mine).
So here we encounter a sort of theological paradox of sorts. Is this place some sort of far-off utopia, or is it a place that can be built and developed and sought after here on earth?
The short answer: Yes.
In his book Surprised by Hope, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright attempts to dismiss the common notion that heaven is some sort of distant realm that has no immediate connection to earth. Rather, the Kingdom of God/Heaven is something that has been in development since the beginning of time. It is here, but its presence and impact are still continually being realized with each passing day.
He uses Philippians 3:20 as an example, in which the apostle Paul states that the Christian’s citizenship is in heaven, rather than on earth. If our citizenship is in heaven, then, and if heaven is something that is being brought down to earth through Jesus, then that means it is our goal as Christians to work toward advancing the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven (see pages 100-101, 207-232 for more specific descriptions on what I’m referring to here).
What does that look like, then?
Dr. Wright writes,
God builds God’s kingdom. But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image…. God intends his wise, creative, loving presence and power to be reflected–imagined, if you like–into his world through his human creatures. He has enlisted us to act as his stewards in the project of creation (page 207).
Simply put: Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection served as a call to action for all Christians. Not just a call to worship and evangelism, as most Christians seem to focus on, but a call also to pursue justice and seek the beauty and value of all that which God has given us, to value God’s creatures and creation over and beyond the things produced and perpetuated by this world that is rooted in Sin and Self.
Jesus himself was the ultimate Example off which his followers are called to live. Jesus, as we see time and time again, was an emulation of love. Of compassion toward the vulnerable. Of anger towards the oppressors and the self-centered, many of whom were religious leaders, themselves. Of humility. Of peace and turning the other cheek.
Therefore, my friends, so, then, should we be.
Just as God had pursued true communion with Israel throughout the Old Testament through the harmony of the four core relationships (Individual with God, Individual with Self, Individual with others, Individual with earth–see last week’s blog), so, here, does Jesus seek that same communion with us. As in, all of us. This is what the Quaker theologian James Bryan Smith describes as the “grand invitation” in his book The Good and Beautiful Life, which, along with Wright’s book, was probably my greatest tangible influence in discussing this this concept.
There is plenty more that can be said here, and I would love to discuss this stuff more with you. But I also want to save some room for these next two weeks, as well. And really, anything else I might want to write here would likely end up exceeding even my standards for how long a blog post should be (if anyone is wondering, most of my blog posts average out to being about as long as a four-page college paper, or 1200 words. But who’s counting?).
Until then, my friends, I want to close with a quote from one of my favorite writers and theologians, Henri Nouwen, because 1) why not? and 2) he was the only author who got an explicit shout out from a Facebook friend (a rabbi, no less) when I posted a picture of the books I was hoping to use for research on this post. Nouwen, who was a Catholic priest, professor, and all-around stellar human being, writes in his book In the Name of Jesus,
Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life…. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.
May we seek to love with the love of God and Jesus, may we seek to be instruments of peace and justice, and may we surrender to grace when we realize that we will always fall short of perfection. But may that realization never, ever, stop us from persisting onward, anyway.
Thank you for reading. Until next week.
(By the way, this post was 1304 words long, counting also this paragraph and the footnote below this.)
*This quote is actually a conglomeration of what’s said in Mark, Luke, and John’s books, formed as though it was one large quote rather than three, as well as formed as though it was John alone who said it and not John and a random Isaiah quote.