“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
That’s what Jesus says. Over and over. In various ways. Here and there he develops different implications. But it all comes back to the Kingdom.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
God reigns with love, and he brings his kingdom with him wherever he goes. In Jesus, God has shown up in our neighborhood. Jesus is Emmanuel. God with us. God is taking over our neighborhood with his love, and he’s doing it through the likes of you and me.
Despite what Jesus actually says, many people hear something different. They stumble over that word “heaven” because it’s come to mean something different today from what Jesus had in mind. They hear:
“The end is near.”
In other words, heaven is the distant place where God lives, and it has extremely high entrance requirements. God is a demanding, very selective fellow with a hot temper. When your time comes, and it’s not very far off, God will decide whether or not you get in. So you had better shape up.
Lots of people who look at Christianity from the outside think that’s what we believe. We don’t win a lot of followers for Jesus that way. But even more distressing is that some of Jesus’ own followers believe in that demanding, angry God who lives in a distant gated community. It’s as if they forget that Jesus is the perfect revelation of the loving God.
Lets get clear about what Jesus actually tells us about who God is and about our relationship with God by considering three questions:
What is the Kingdom of Heaven?
How has the Kingdom come near?
What does it mean to repent?
No Place Like Heaven
Like I said, that word “heaven” ends up being a stumbling block for lots of people. They hear the word “heaven” and think about a place. Maybe it’s the place good people go or all people go or even your pets go after they die. Whoever they may think meets the entrance requirements, heaven is where they want to end up. It’s paradise. Pain free. Pleasure packed. Serenely comfortable with an excellent view.
By contrast, nobody wants to go to hell. Fewer people believe in hell today than they once did, but even those who believe that everybody goes to heaven have a concept of hell to reject. It’s that other place that contrasts with heaven. The place sinners and unbelievers and the people who irritate us go when they die.
The prevailing view of Christians among non-Christians is that we live our life scrambling to get into heaven and to avoid being sent to hell. A number of Christians assume the same thing. In other words, they assume that the end is near. We’re all going to die eventually. When we die, our fate is sealed. It’s heaven for some and hell for others.
So, when those Christians seek to share with non-Christians what it’s like to follow Jesus, they assume that they’re trying to save someone from the fires of hell.
Let’s take a moment here to consider just how condescending that must seem to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. “Hi! I don’t really know anything about you, but since you don’t believe in Jesus I know you’re going to hell. So do yourself a favor and start thinking and acting like me so you won’t be celestial toast.”
We’re not winning Jesus many friends with this approach. And no wonder. That’s not what Jesus is saying in the first place.
So here’s a tip that might at first be shocking but will eventually come as a relief. There’s no place like heaven. Oh, there’s eternal life all right. But if you’re thinking about a place where God puts people’s souls after they die, then you’re on the wrong track. Jesus has something else in mind when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven refers not to a place but to a relationship with a person. To God. The Kingdom of Heaven is wherever God’s love is accepted and shared. We can and do experience that Kingdom right here and right now.
Our experience of the Kingdom of Heaven is intermittent and diluted until we pass through the veil of death. Then we will know God face to face and share the love he lavishes upon us without reservation and without hesitation.
And that brings us to our second question. What does it mean to say that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near?
God is Near
As I said earlier, some people express the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven by saying, “The end is near.” And what they mean is that we have only so much time to get our thinking and acting right. We will be judged worthy of heaven or condemned to hell on the basis of our beliefs and our conduct.
Frederick Buechner suggests replacing, “The end is near,” with “God is near.’ And that makes all the difference. Besides, it’s true to what we read in Matthew’s Gospel.
In Jesus, God has come near. God shows up in a manger and on a cross.
God is present in moments so small and ordinary that they seem too trivial for the Creator of the universe to take notice. Washing the dishes, doing the homework, taking out the trash, driving to work, changing a diaper, having the first cup of coffee in the morning, and flossing our teeth before bed. Ordinary stuff. And yet God is there, just as he was there in a shabby stable in a crummy little town in a despised backwater of a mighty Empire.
God is near in messy places. When we do something good for someone we’re sure doesn’t deserve it and resent them with a smile pasted on our face, when we greet a friend’s good fortune with envy, when we find comfort in a bag of Oreos or a bottle of scotch or a catty remark, when we’ve said exactly the wrong thing to our spouse or our teenage son. After all, that manger was filled with dirty straw and fleas and animal droppings.
God shows up in godforsaken places. In places of agony and loss. The cross is where all the world’s grief and sorrow, betrayal and hurt, violence and oppression intersect. When the doctor says that there was nothing more he could do, God is near.
When the one you love loves drugs more than you or anyone else, God is near. When a family huddles under a bridge in the cold, God is near.
When a child goes to bed hungry, an elderly person has to choose between food and medicine, and a woman reels from another blow from her abuser, God is near.
Only, sometimes it just doesn’t feel that way. And that brings us to our final question. What does it mean to repent?
If you’re like most folks, you’ve heard repentance defined as turning around. You’ve been on the wrong road. Go back and get yourself on the right road. In other words, think right, act right, and you’ll measure up. Give up your rotten ways and be good.
Jesus defines it differently. So differently, in fact, that you probably didn’t realize that he was even talking about repentance. But that’s exactly his point when he says this, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19)
He doesn’t say stop doing a bad thing and start doing a good thing. Instead, he says, “Don’t just be about good things. Be about the ultimate thing. Look for me in every person—no matter how awkward or ordinary, no matter how mixed up or unlikable—and follow my lead.”
In other words, repenting is a response, a response to God’s initiative toward us in the lives of other people. It’s not about shaping up so that we can pass inspection when God finally comes around.
Repenting is turning from focusing on our own status and success and comfort and security toward seeking God in the heartache and the hunger, the quirkiness and the cussedness, the fragility and the loneliness of other people.
Jesus says this later in Matthew’s Gospel. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)
The Kingdom of Heaven is near. So near you’re practically stumbling over it. Just as near as the person right next to you, down the street, and in the meanest hovels of your town. Jesus simply calls us to go find him there.
This sermon was preached at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Louisiana.