“The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
Easter Sunday at Varsity was amazing! The sanctuary was packed as all three congregations celebrated the resurrection together. Standing room only. With words and music, Word and Table (communion), we were reminded again that the resurrection redefines the story. Our story. There is the promise of new life, new hope, and an invitation to a new way to be human. The kingdom of God had come near. It was a celebration.
Except for those for whom it wasn’t. I came home from that wonderful Easter morning worship gathering to read the horrific news from Sri Lanka. Churches bombed. Hotels attacked. Over 250 people dead. Hundreds more injured. What kind of world is this? Who imagines this being a good outcome? Do we even live on the same planet? Does the resurrection—despite what I preached—make any difference at all? I found myself drawn back to a prayer I read on Good Friday, a prayer that seemed far more fitting for the occasion:
We come tentatively to prayer on this Good Friday
holding the pieces of our broken world.
So much is ruined and spoiled,
so much hatred and anger,
so many acts of violence.
Our eyes turn to the cross
as evidence of our sinfulness…
And I prayed that the kingdom of God would come. Soon.
As near as I can tell, Jesus lived in the same world we do. Okay… so he didn’t use a smartphone or post pictures on his Instagram feed. But the 1st century world was full of joy and sorrow, full of babies being born and criminals being punished. It was a world of powerful men ruling by powerful (often corrupt) means, and average folks struggling to make ends meet. Into this world Jesus came proclaiming good news! The kingdom of God had come near. “Time after time Jesus tries to drum into our head what he means by it. He heaps parable upon parable like a madman. He tries shouting it. He tries whispering it…. What he seems to be saying is that the Kingdom of God is the time, or a time beyond time, when it will no longer be humans in their lunacy who are in charge of the world but God in his mercy who will be in charge of the world. It’s the time above all else for wild rejoicing—like getting out of jail, like being cured of cancer, like finally, at long last, coming home” (Frederick Buechner). Wouldn’t that be wonderful—a time when it will no longer be humans in their lunacy who are in charge of the world, but God in his mercy. A time when people no longer blow up churches or hotels, but rather treat each other with kindness and something that resembles respect.
Is this wishful thinking? Is the kingdom of God simply another version of utopia that remains as elusive as becoming a paperless society or ending world poverty? If—as Jesus claims (and the resurrection declares)—the reign of God has come near, why don’t we see more evidence of it? These are fair questions for which I don’t have full answers. But perhaps I could offer a few observations.
The kingdom of God comes in small ways
Not unlike our American cousins, we can be tricked into thinking that what matters most is big and loud. Think George W’s “shock and awe” and you get the general idea. While not explicitly stated, small things are therefore considered unimportant (if they’re considered at all). In contrast, Jesus taught that “the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour.” (Mat. 13:33). Yeast is small, hardly noticeable. But fail to add yeast to the flour and your bread will be a disaster. The parable reminds us that the kingdom of God breaks into the world in small ways that make a profound difference. Even when it seems (to me) that the world is a wasteland, God is present. The kingdom is at hand.
The kingdom of God comes in the mess
In another parable Jesus likened the kingdom of God to wheat growing among the weeds. When asked if the weeds should be removed, his answer was curious: “No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat. Let both grow together until harvest.” (Mat. 13:29-30). I tend to look for polished versions of God’s work, with things looking neat and tidy. Jesus seems to be saying that the kingdom of God emerges amidst the mess—wheat and weeds together. It turns out that the mess is sometimes my life. Which is precisely where God hopes to establish his kingdom. Allow me to quote from my journal from August 29, 2006: “Thomas Merton writes that monks—and by extension, Christians—should be in the world as a sign of hope for the most authentic values to which their time aspires. But how can I be a sign of hope if hope has not captured and completely transformed me? How can I invite people into a kingdom which has not yet gained access to my heart? So, come Lord Jesus. May your kingdom come in this world but also in my life. May your Holy Spirit shape me by your Word to the praise of God the Father. May my life be a witness of your resurrection.”
The kingdom of God comes in mysterious ways
Look again at the parables of yeast and weeds. Notice that the woman mixed yeast into the flour, but she did not make the bread rise. A man sowed good seed, but he did not cause it to grow. There is mystery. Without trying to quantify our roles, it seems to me that the largest parts belong to God. Notice that when Jesus taught his followers to pray, he invited them to pray “may your kingdom come…” (Mat. 6:10) not “may we have strength to build the kingdom.” God’s rule on earth is and will be God’s doing. We participate but our role is always secondary. As Eugene Peterson pointed out: “What God has done and is doing is far more significant than anything you or anyone else will ever do. What God has spoken and is speaking is for a more important than anything you or anyone else will ever say.”
Where does this leave us? The kingdom comes in small, unnoticed ways. It often looks messier than we expect. But the kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus made this clear. As did Sam in the Lord of the Rings: “It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.”
May we join Jesus in praying that his kingdom would come “on earth as it [already] is in heaven.” (Mat. 6:10). May we trust in the mysterious ways of God.
Note: Intrigued by the many parables Jesus uses to talk about the kingdom and what that might mean for us? Our summer series this year is on those parables, so stay tuned and make sure to be there!