by Pastor Cherie Dearth
This week we are beginning our new sermon series, The Kingdom. We will be looking at what Jesus means when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses those phrases over 80 times in the Gospels, so it is a good idea for us to understand what he means by them. We will also be looking at how we should be living out the principles of the Kingdom today.
This week we are in the Gospel of Luke, and the Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom will come. It seems like a simple enough question, but Jesus explains that it may not be quite as simple as they think. Next week, we will be looking at the phrase we say every week in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We will finish up in late July with a look in Revelation when the Kingdom will be fully realized on earth. It promises to be an exciting ride.
Now, this week, we look at the question of when. It can be a very important question.
Luke 17:20-37 NIV
20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.
30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”
37 “Where, Lord?” they asked.
He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”
You may have seen this a movie or on TV when a psychologist asks their patient to say the first thing that pops in their mind when they say a particular word or phrase. Maybe you’ve done it yourself, or you played it as a game at a party. I’m going to do something like that… What are the first images that come to mind when you hear the phrase “Kingdom of God?” Really, tell me. What are the first images that come to mind when you hear the phrase Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven?
The exact way that it looks is very individual and personalized with each person’s imagination, but there are some general themes that many share. It could be paradise (whatever that means for the person). Peace on earth. No more war. Perfect justice where the people who have be trodden on and kicked all their lives are lifted up, and the people responsible for the abuse are punished. It could be cataclysmic. Or, it could be a world where we all love and care for each other, enjoying God’s creation.
It reminds me of a picture of heaven and hell. I may have shared this with you before. The picture of hell is a group of emaciated people sitting around a pot of delicious stew. The aroma is so wonderful that it sets your mouth to watering, but they can’t eat it. The pot is deep, and the spoons are long. They are so long that they can’t extend their arms long enough to get the spoons in their mouths, so they are left there staring longingly at the stew that they can never eat.
The picture of heaven has a group of people sitting around the same pot of the same delicious stew with the same long spoons, but there is a difference. The people are using to spoons to feed each other.
The Pharisees equated the Kingdom with the End Times, what Jesus refers to here as the Day of the Son of Man. We might think of is as the day of Christ’s return. One of the things that Jesus is saying is that the Kingdom and the Day of the Son of Man are different. The Kingdom is here now. It is within your grasp. For one thing, Jesus is physically in their presence. For another, by following Jesus we become citizens of the Kingdom. It has begun, but it is not fully realized yet.
We live here as people in a foreign country, as we get to invite people to be a part of the Kingdom. We get to share our way of living, our customs to support justice, and the love of God with everyone. We get to encourage each other when we get discouraged.
The Kingdom is within our grasp.
Jesus actually acknowledges that the Pharisees are not completely wrong. The End Times have begun with him. Jesus’ arrival is the signal of that, but it is just the beginning. He must suffer and be rejected (Luke 17:25). We know that he must die, be resurrected, and ascend. Through these actions, the people that trust in him will be saved, but it is just the beginning.
Jesus goes on to answer the Pharisees’ real question. When will God establish justice and his final rule on earth? What has been referred to as “The great and terrible day of the Lord” (cf. Zeph 1:14, Malachi 4:5, Joel 2:31). This is the day when God will make everything right and fair. The wicked will be punished and the righteous will live in peace. The Pharisees think that they will make out fairly well in this deal. After all, they think that they are following the rules better than anyone else. However, Jesus doesn’t directly address his comment to them but to his disciples.
By now, the disciples are building the Kingdom and helping people to see the Kingdom, and they will continue to do so to even greater effect once they receive the Holy Spirit. As Jesus well knows, there will be resistance. They will encounter difficulties and challenges. Only one of these disciples will die of old age. Tradition tells us that it was John the Evangelist. Almost all of the rest will be killed due to their kingdom building work.
There are currently disciples in parts of the world today dying due to their kingdom building. In North Korea, in places in Africa, and in many areas of the Middle East, disciples put themselves in physical risk on a daily basis. That is not likely to be our risk. We are more at risk of complacency, apathy, being comfortable, or even being disappointed in the direction we are seeing the world move. If we truly believe, we should be anxiously anticipating the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, the coming of the Son of Man. It would be a dream come true, all injustices wiped away. Whether the times are good or bad, the idea of that should fill us with joy.
The disciples would long for the day when they could be with their best friend again even though their work isn’t finished. That’s why Jesus tells them in verse 22, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. People will tell you, ‘There his is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them.”
Many have tried to guess the day of Jesus’ return, the day when the Kingdom of God will be fully realized. They think that they can detect a code, but in Matthew 24 Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels, only God. In Acts 1:7 that we looked at a few weeks ago Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
We don’t know when, but we have to remember that it can happen at any time. It could happen before the end of this very worship service, so we have to be prepared. There is no time to waste. There is no time to think to ourselves, I’ll work on my relationship with God when I get my life straightened out. For one, God is the best one to help you get your life straightened out. For many of us, we can’t get our lives straightened out without God. Two, if we delay too long it may be too late. We may think, I’m too busy. That can be a tool of Satan, and we can’t listen to him. Your relationship with God is the most important thing in your life. When we focus on God first, the other parts of our lives get in their proper priority. You may even think that your busyness is for God, but it is a trap, a trap that I have fallen into on more than one occasion. How can you truly build the Kingdom if you don’t know the One for whom you are building it?
We don’t know when, so we have to keep living our lives, doing all the normal things of living as we continue to build the Kingdom. When the Jewish people went into the Babylonian Exile, God told the people to keep on living. In Jeremiah 29, it says beginning at verse 4:
4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
In a way, we are in exile, and yet we are to pray for good for all those around us. We are to pray and work for their prosperity, their benefit.
And, when it is time for the Kingdom to be fully realized, the time of the Day of the Son of Man, we will not have to ask anyone if this is it. We will know. It will be easily recognizable to everyone just the way a bolt of lightning is seen across the sky.
Jesus uses another metaphor when he says that “the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:37) Some translations use the word “eagle.” In Luke’s time they thought that vultures were a kind of eagle being of a similar size and silhouette. That is another sight that is unmistakable, one that we can see around here. Have you ever seen birds of prey circling on the air currents? Sometimes they are vultures circling over something they hope they can scavenge. Sometimes they are just soaring on the air currents. You may already know that our Zumwalt Prairie has one of the highest concentrations of raptors (birds of prey) in North America. So, that is something that we have an opportunity to observe on a regular basis. Just like when we see those birds, when Christ returns we won’t wonder. We will know.
So, we live in this tension of already and not yet. The Kingdom is among us, within our grasp. It has begun. This season, this epoch, this age began with Jesus’ earthly ministry. We do live in the end times. This age has been going on for over 2000 years now. Many generations since Jesus’ time thought that they were living at the end of this age. Paul thought that, as you can see in his early writings. Saint Patrick from the 5th century thought he was living in the last days. Many groups in the 19th century though that the end was near. Do you remember Y2K? Many were sure that the world would end. More recently in 2012, we heard about how the Mayan Calendar predicted the end of the world. By the way, “they” said that there was a misinterpretation. It was not 2012, which any of us could have told them. Their new date comes in 2017. Will it happen this year? Maybe. It could be in 10,000 years from now or anything in-between. It is not for us to know. It is for us to be ready and living a godly life, trying to follow the ways of Jesus Christ … in the meantime.
We should embrace this tension. Jesus tells a parable that I loosely translate as “the ten young ladies.” There are ten young ladies that are part of a wedding party. To be a part of a wedding was an even bigger deal then than it is today. It would be a party that would involve the whole village. The young ladies would accompany the groom into the ceremony. The young ladies in this story had to wait a long time for the groom. Five of them were prepared for the wait by having extra oil for their lamps, and five did not. They all had to wait a very long time. It was so long that eventually they all fell asleep. Then, word comes that the groom is coming. The ladies wake up, and five of them realize that they are going to run out of oil and leave to get some more. While they are away the groom comes and enters the gathering with the ladies who were prepared. The others are shut out. None of them are scolded for falling asleep while they were waiting. When you are tired, you need to sleep, but the ones who were prepared, while they waited and were ready, were the ones that were rewarded. (Mt 25:1-13)
So, here’s a question that you have to ask yourself. There is this mindset that the Kingdom is here and within our grasp but won’t be fully realized until Christ returns sometime in the future. It could be five minutes from now or 5000 years from now. How does this mindset affect the way you live now? How do you prioritize your relationship with God? Your relationships with loved ones? What about the people who need evidence that God loves them? That is one of the ways we building the Kingdom or show people that the Kingdom of God is near, in the here and now. We build relationships. We love them. We love our neighbors. The Kingdom of God is within our grasp. How do we make that true and alive for ourselves, and how do we share it with others?
Praise be to God!