With all the political changes in the world at the moment, some people are acting like it is the end of the world. Maybe we are in an epoch change, about to step off the edge into the unknown mist covered waters. At the very least we are seeing a major shift in the ebb and flow of the culture wars in westerns society, between the progressive and conservative.
So it is opportune that we’ve come to a point in working through Luke’s account of Jesus Journey to Jerusalem where he is asked about When will the Kingdom of God come? Because it is helpful for us as we face our uncertain times to hear Jesus correct the thinking of both the Pharisees and his disciples on this matter.
What isn’t helpful however is that this passage and passages like it have been the subject of much speculation and interpretation. People speculating about what will happen in the future. People taking the events of their time and squeezing them into the apocalyptic passages and images in the bible. I was a mature student at Otago University in 2001. On September 12th , for us in New Zealand, as everyone round the world watched two planes crash into the twin towers in New York, a friend of mine at university, an animal rights activist actually, came looking for me. He wasn’t a Christian but he wanted to Know if the Bible talked about such a sign happening? Was this unprecedented event the sign of a coming apocalypse? Id the Bible like that?
It’s also not helpful that a whole industry has grown up around various interpretations of these kinds of passages. Tim LeHaye’s very lucrative ‘left behind’ series of novels and films is the best known example. Evangelists have used these kinds of things to scare people into faith.
It’s not helpful that how these passages are to be interpreted, how we think about eschatology, the study of the last days, has split the church at various times in its history. You can’ t talk about these things without coming up against someones pet theory.
What is helpful is a comment from bible scholar Daryll Bock that the passages in scripture about the coming of the kingdom of God are designed not so we can prepare charts, about what is going to happen, but to prepare our hearts to face whatever is going to happen. It is not about knowing when the last day will be but faithfully following Jesus in these last days, no matter how long they last. The time between the Kingdoms inauguration in the coming of Jesus and its consummation with the Coming of Jesus again.
The Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come? The Pharisees had a very definite idea of what they meant when they talked of the Kingdom of God. They had studied the scriptures of the Old Testament and their desires and aspirations where shaped by what they read of God restoring Israel as an independent nation, a world power. It meant the overthrowing of the Roman empire that occupied Israel. They were one of several political religious groups in Jesus day. The zealots were another group, they believed in direct action against the Romans, But the Pharisees believed if they differentiated themselves as God’s people by keeping the law, being pure, that God would send them a messiah to establish this kingdom.
Jesus reply was that the kingdom of God was not quantifiable like that. It wasn’t a place or a time that you could say here it is or there is it. It wasn’t going to be a definable political physical entity.
Jesus turns and speak to his own disciples as well, there was the same expectation amongst them, that Jesus journey to Jerusalem was going to end in him being recognised as the messiah and made king. You can see that sort of thinking in places like Matthew’s gospel where John and James Mother asks Jesus if her boys can be in the cabinet when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Not only that but in the early church that Luke was writing to there was an expectation that with Jesus death and his resurrection that Christ would return very soon and people were becoming disheartened because it was not happening. Jesus corrects this thinking.
He talks of a longing to see the “the days of the Son of Man” but not seeing them. As the Pharisees had missed seeing Jesus as the messiah in their midst, the disciples also might miss the days of the son of man because they didn’t recognise what God was doing in Jesus Christ. Jesus would have to suffer and be rejected by this generation. The kingdom of God was not going to be established by political will or military might, but by the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for the world. The Kingdom of God was not going to be this political military victory rather it would come into being through the sacrificial love of God’s chosen king, Jesus, and his disciples following his example. Because of that there is temptation to be lead astray to false messiahs. Maybe like the Pharisees it would be this political expression or hopes or that specific time and place, and we are very good at doing that aren’t we, “those were the days” or this religious figure or strong leader. The reality is that they would not miss the coming day of the son of man, because it would be like lightening in the sky, they will know it when they see it. It will be universal and unmissable.
Jesus goes on to talk of his coming being like in the day of Noah and Lot in the book of Genesis, both examples of God’s judgment. The flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jesus is preparing his disciples to face difficulties in their future epoch changing events, many scholars point to Jesus talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD by the Romans, the Pharisees thought they were going to defeat the Romans but the reality was the opposite and the followers of Jesus had to be ready for this. They were unexpected events that happened suddenly…And like those times things will carry on as normal right up until the end. Eating and drinking, births and marriages, business as usual, and they needed to have a ready steady faith now and that would see them through.
Jesus is warning them that the day when the son of man is revealed will be like that. That when it comes there will be no time to go down and get your possessions it will be swift and sudden. He warns them about Lots wife who when fleeing from Sodom and Gomorrah stops and looks back longing for the things she has left behind and finds herself get caught up in God’s judgment. He tells them if they want to hold on to their lives they will lose it. This is the central warning and teaching for Jesus disciples, that they are not to be caught up in the things of this world, when the day of the son of man comes they will be caught looking backwards. They will be torn between the things of this world and the things of the Kingdom of God. The time to make a choice about what you will do is
Jesus goes on to talk of a series of people going about everyday life and one will be taken and one left behind. Know this has often been a passage that is referenced by people when they talk about what is called the rapture. The idea that there will come a time when Jesus followers will be taken up to be with him. This is the left behind bit… right… Different understanding of eschatology argue over when this would be… some say it is before there is a time of tribulation others say after. But I actually think they’ve missed what is being said here when they do that.
Firstly Jesus is speaking in a very Jewish way. The important bit is in the middle of Jesus paragraph here the warning about holding on to life and losing it and on either side of that are two passages which are saying the same thing in a different way. Before the warning it is that there will be not time to go back to get anything. This week in Christchurch and Australia this has been made very real for us with people being told to flee as wild fire had drawn close to their houses, and we’ve seen the distress of not being able to go and grab anything if they were to get to safety. The second section says that it will come so suddenly that people will be going about their business and one will be taken and the other will be spread. I understand it because of the way a school acquaintance of mine was killed. He was in a motor vehicle which was hit by a bolder that came down the mountainside. He was in the passenger seat and was killed instantly while his mate right next to him survived without a scratch.
The warning from Jesus is to live ready, in the long haul in the midst of the mundaness of life to have a ready and steady faith, to live faithfully in light of our future hope.
How does that work out in our lives.
We are always tempted to see the kingdom of God associated with the victory of our way of thinking and living in the world, but the Kingdom of God is in our midst, in the form of Jesus, present physically like he was with his first disciples, or with us by his spirit, the Kingdom of God looks like Jesus, God’s son. Sadly we can think the kingdom of God is like the empire, or the Pharisees, we can equate it with a way of thinking or a political expression or political structure and get lead astray. Christian Europe is a good example of that, what we call Christendom, when people thought Christianity had conquered the known world, but there was need for reform and renewal and even revolution. Like with Francis of Assisi, whose renewed knowing of Jesus lead him away from the power structures of his day to live with and serve the poor. To look like Jesus…The reformation, Martin Luther’s reiteration of the grace of God in light of the churches excesses of selling indulgences to build a cathedral. To look like Jesus. Today when Christians identify with the political agendas of either the conservative right and the progressive left, and equate hem with the Kingdom of God there is a need to be reminded that the Kingdom of God is neither but looks like Jesus and we need the renewal and reform that goes with that.
Secondly, Jesus teaching here points us to the fact that God’s purposes and plans are being worked out in human history. History is not just moving inevitably on ad infinitum, but God is working out his plans and that will come to fulfillment. We are called to live in these days in the light of that day. How we live our priorities, our vision are to be shaped by the Kingdom of God established in Jesus Christ and awaiting its consummation.
The times when the church has lost the understanding of Eschatology in its true sense; not an idol curiosity about the future, but a trust that God is working out his purposes in the world, has been the time when the church has simply fallen asleep. When it has become an institution, simply holding on to past gains. It has lost its life because it has been afraid to lose that. When it has been aware of the presence of God with it and the call of God to be about its master’s purpose and plan for salvation, personal and on a societal level it has been a movement with the vitality and vision that allow it to face both suffering and tragedy, and the mind numbing sameness and challenges of everyday life.
The civil rights movement in America in the 1960’s is a great illustration. One of it’s catch cries was “keep your eyes on the prize”. Keep your eyes on the prize”. For them it was a very Kingdom of God vision of equality and justice and receiving the rights they were promised under the constitution of the United States, that kept them going, kept them persevering under opposition and oppression, that meant when they were met with violence they could take it and not be put off. But it was a saying that came from an old gospel spiritual, keep your eyes on the prize and keep your hand to the plough. It summarised the words of Hebrews 12 let us throw off everything that would hold us back, every sin that would bind and let us run the race set before us, with our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Lastly, How do we face the uncertain times, the times when it feel likes it the end of the world … It is with a ready steady faith that seek to put the presence of the Kingdom of God with us a priority in our life…I’m drawn back to the image on the screen, because when I see it I can’t help but thing of the Irish monks in the navigato of St Brendan, one of the most ancient European pieces of literature. Who knelt to pray on the shore of their beloved land and then were willing to venture out onto the wild waves and uncertainty of time and seemingly at the mercy of tides and currents, storms and lulls the in search of the Kingdom of God. The image behind me is not some far off Irish coastal scene by the way it was taken at Ambury farm Park, it’s the moody Manukau, its right in the middle of suburban Auckland, I had to frame the shot to not get all those houses up in Hillsborough in frame, if you turn round from here you can see One tree Hill and the High Rises of the City. That is where we are called to set sail, with a ready steady faith, on the adventure of seeking the kingdom of God, trusting Jesus is in the boat with us.