Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is drawing near. He doesn’t say this the way the airlines tell us about arrival times. “Flight 7715 is delayed. We can’t tell you why no matter how much you complain. We’ll tell you when it gets here. In the meantime, you’ll just have to wait.”
Neither does Jesus announce the Kingdom’s approach the way a timekeeper for a standardized test tells you that you have five minutes left. You know, hurry up and improve your score while you still can. College (or heavenly) admission hinges on it.
Instead, he says that we’ll see signs all around us that something big is already arriving. In fact, if we’ll just open our eyes we’ll see those signs right now. This doesn’t call for sitting on our hands. Neither does it call for frantic activity. Jesus says, “Stand up and raise your heads… Be alert… Be on guard at all times.” (Luke 21:28, 34, 36)
In other words, for followers of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom is not some faraway place or some distant future time. It is what God is accomplishing right now and it is the event that definitively shapes our whole life.
That’s a big and bold claim, and it assumes a number of things I haven’t explained yet. So, let’s back up just a bit and take things one at a time.
Let’s consider three questions that will help us understand what it means to live as if the kingdom of God is near.
First, what signs in our life point to the kingdom?
Second, what kind of kingdom does God promise?
Finally, how do we announce the kingdom in our practices?
Yearning for Completion and Redemption
Jesus tells us that we will see signs that announce the coming kingdom. Some people watch the news looking for a divine message in political events and natural disasters. They seem to expect something like the Wicked Witch of the West skywriting with her broom, “Surrender Dorothy.”
In other words, plain old, everyday life does not suffice for many of us as a sign of anything. But that is exactly where we miss Jesus’ point. The very structure of our daily lives points again and again to the Kingdom of God.
Whether we realize it or not, we yearn for the kingdom. To show us how this is so, Jesus invites us to reflect on the deeper meaning of two fundamentally human responses to the world we inhabit: anticipation and compassion.
In anticipation, we see something in front of us as unfinished and wait expectantly for its completion. Think of looking at a rosebud. We may appreciate it just as it is, and yet we want to see it in full bloom. We don’t want things to remain unfinished. We yearn for completion and closure.
Compassion triggers our desire for redemption. Maybe it’s the sight of a starving child, a wounded veteran, a grieving widow, or even a tortured animal. We want to relieve the suffering we see and to set things right.
In other words, living in the present points us to the future. And not just any future. A future that brings things to completion and redeems what is broken. Our yearning for completion and redemption is not satisfied by the blooming of one specific rose and insuring that just one hungry child finally gets a regular, healthy diet.
Eventually we see that all of life is, as Richard Rohr put it, an unfinished symphony. And we are unable to bring it to completion. What will become of our legacy, our children, our grandchildren and their grandchildren, what will become of our name and our accomplishments and our intimate moments and our great passion? We cannot say. Their significance is always open to what might happen next.
We do seem able to redeem some things. We repair broken friendships and repay even large debts. But some things have not only been broken but apparently shattered beyond repair. We stare helplessly at the Holocaust, at Stalin’s Gulags, at every child robbed of life by murder, disease, or starvation. There is so much broken life, and no matter what we achieve in the future, we cannot compensate for this brokenness.
And yet, we still yearn for a completion that is final and definitive. We hunger for a redemption that heals the most grievous wound and restores the most hideous scars to something breathtakingly beautiful.
Our very yearning for the Kingdom of God is the sign of the Kingdom’s approach. Our lives are already shaped by a promise that we may have heard only subliminally. And yet that promise has set our whole way of being in this world into motion. We hope. Despite the world’s contrary evidence, despite ourselves, we hope. And hope is the persistent sign of the Kingdom of God.
The Future that Shapes the Past
The hope within us turns our hearts toward the future, toward the Kingdom of God. And that brings us to our second question. What kind of Kingdom does God promise?
The Bible represents the Kingdom to us in an array of strange images. The Son of Man descending on clouds. A sea of glass. The New Jerusalem whose walls and streets are constructed from precious stones and gold. The New Jerusalem descending to earth from heaven. And these are the more comprehensible images.
The point of such imagery is, at least in part, that only God can bring in the Kingdom of God. In our finitude we are unable to conceive adequately of the Kingdom, much less make it a reality by our own doing.
In other words, we should not confuse the Kingdom of God with a Utopia achievable through human means. Since the Enlightenment, we in the West have put our trust in reason, education, and our technological mastery of nature to make progress. And we have made progress in communication, medicine, and a host of other areas.
But even a human Utopia cannot guard itself from the transitoriness of life. The significance of today is always open to the unexpected and often unwelcome twists and turns of tomorrow. And even if we were able some day to secure ourselves against all future contingencies, we would still be powerless to redeem the shattered lives that populate human history.
God’s future is God’s to give. The Kingdom is not a future that arises in continuity with the present. It could never be predicted on the basis of a careful examination of the past. God’s future is a radically new creation.
And yet, God does not waste anything. He does not obliterate this creation in order to make another one that is more in keeping with his taste and temperament. God renews this creation. He fulfills, restores, and glorifies this creation, raising it above and beyond transience, suffering, evil, and death.
Consider the scars in Jesus’ hands and feet, on his back and upon his brow. Lying dead in his mother’s arms, Jesus must have seemed at once pitiable and hideously disfigured. And yet, the risen Jesus now bears what once were scars as breathtakingly beautiful features of his body. Any who see them respond to them in the way that we do to someone’s eyes or hair, face or figure, only infinitely more so.
Charles Wesley captures what I mean more adequately than I can in that marvelous Advent hymn, “Lo! He comes with clouds descending”:
Those dear tokens of his Passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshipers.
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
This foreshadows your life, my life, and the life of the whole world. In Christ there is neither failure nor shame, neither enduring disfigurement nor final tragedy.
In his Kingdom, God completes and redeems all things, imbuing them with a goodness and a beauty beyond our finite capacities to achieve or even adequately to conceive. Our broken hearts and shattered dreams and fractured lives are being renewed even now, renewed in a way never to be broken or shattered or fractured again.
Up until now, you may have been thinking of the Kingdom as something entirely in the future. But this is not true. God inaugurated the Kingdom with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Kingdom has already begun.
It is not only our inner experience of hope that announces the Kingdom. There are outward signs even now that the Kingdom, though incomplete, is already on the way. God has begun to fulfill his promise.
Announcing the Kingdom
And this brings us to our final question. How do we announce the Kingdom of God in our practices?
The practices of the Christian community do not bring in the Kingdom. However, our practices are signs to the broken and suffering world that God is always already at work completing and redeeming our lives as individuals, our lives as communities, and our lives as part of the entire cosmos.
I will briefly outline just three examples.
Christian communities welcome the stranger. Rich or poor, black or white, well groomed or shopworn, we seek and embrace Christ in everyone. This is far from automatic. It take work and often means being stretched more than we had bargained for. And yet by doing so we announce to the world a new way of being, being in Christ. There are no outsiders or insiders, first or last. There is one family of God.
Forgiveness marks the Christian community. By letting go of our grievances and readmitting into our lives those who have done us harm, we announce to the world that nothing stays broken. In Christ, everything shattered is made whole again.
Finally, Christian communities are known for our works of mercy. We feed the poor, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick, release the captive, and protect the weak. Works of mercy announce to the world that God is already at work relieving suffering. Moreover, God is eradicating suffering altogether.
Speaking precisely, we do not advance the Kingdom. God does that. And yet, God sends us into the world to announce the Kingdom through our practices.
The Kingdom of God is not some faraway place or some distant future time. It is happening here, now, among us and around us. God is not finished. Things are still jagged and messy, damaged and incomplete. But the love that we give provides the sign that he is already at work.