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Questions About the Kingdom

October 10, 2016

“Questions About the Kingdom” Luke 17:20-37 © 10.9.16 Ordinary 28C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When you and I are trying to make a decision, plan a project or analyze a situation, we probably ask several or all of the classic questions: who, what, when, why, where, and how. The Pharisees and other ancient people were no different in their inquiries. Today they were interested in “when,” specifically, when the kingdom of God would come.

The text, of course, doesn’t capture their tone or inflection. There are no Emojis in the manuscripts, not even italics or bold type. But I would guess that the Pharisees were a bit impatient, maybe a little strident. And who can blame them? If you and I had waited 500 years for a divine promise to be fulfilled, we would be ready for God to make good.

And that’s what we find here. The kingdom of Judah fell in 587 BC to the Babylonians, and ever since, the Jews had been under the thumb of one empire or another, except for a brief period of about 70 years when the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty had been in control. But even that time had not been without terrible conflict and violence. The plus side for the Pharisees had been the formation of their party, which gained power under queen Salome Alexandra.

It’s an error to say that the Pharisees wanted an earthly kingdom while Jesus favored a spiritual one. Both in fact desired very this-worldly outcomes. The dream of the prophets the Pharisees cherished had been universal peace, the ingathering of exiles, and in the end, a general resurrection. Jesus pointed to the disabled walking, the deaf hearing, the poor receiving good news. I suspect it was the popular imagination that saw the Messiah as a military conqueror, a leader of armed insurrection.

But Jesus deflects the question about when the kingdom will come or reframes it. The Pharisees should not be asking “when” but “where” or better, “who.” As Eugene Peterson paraphrases, “The kingdom of God doesn’t come by counting the days on the calendar.” He can state the matter that way because the single Greek word translated “things that can be observed” meant particularly the task of the ancient astronomer, as he noticed the movement of the stars and found signs in the heavens. Looking here and there for clues was a useless and unnecessary endeavor. Why? Because the kingdom was already among them, in their midst. Where the king is, there is the kingdom. As King Jesus spoke with them in that moment, the kingdom was present.

The old KJV and a couple of modern translations get the difficult, rare Greek all wrong here, though they speak to modern preferences. Jesus did not say “the kingdom is within you,” as if it were an individualized, highly spiritualized, private reality. I suspect that’s what many would like to hear, however. Just me and Jesus, my personal Savior, in our own little world, alone together. No. The better rendering is “the kingdom is in your midst,” right before your eyes, a concrete reality, in fact present in the flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. And as is abundantly clear in Luke, his focus was on welcoming the outcast and the marginalized, including the neglected, forgiving the sinful, finding the lost, afflicting the comfortable, challenging the powerful, and freeing those oppressed by stringent religious laws. Our Lord’s message was not what it’s been made into, namely, about how you and I can get our ticket to heaven, escaping this world and eternal torment. Instead, he called people to be part of a kingdom community that sought to do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven.

Having dealt with the Pharisees, our Lord turns to his disciples, who apparently had been standing with him and overheard the exchange. For the rest of the passage, he talks with them about life in the kingdom. They have their own questions and worries about the future, both stated and unspoken.

Jesus begins the discussion with a warning. Believe it or not, he says, these will shortly seem like the good old days. There’s distress and trouble coming that will make his friends long for what he calls “just one of the days of the Son of Man.” (See note 1 below.)

The author of Luke, as well as his readers, had the benefit or the burden of hindsight by the time the gospel was written in the 80s of the first century. In living memory of some of them was the Jewish revolt of 66-70 led by the Zealots, a radicalized religious party to which two of Jesus’ own disciples had belonged. Rome crushed the rebellion, beginning in Galilee, killing some 1,000,000 Jews and destroying Jerusalem and the Temple. Bad times indeed. It’s in light of such events, remembered by those in Luke’s day, that the conversation in the text has to read.

When the hard times arrive, our Lord doesn’t want his disciples to let longing for relief from distress, confusion, and disorder make them the victims of charlatans who say that the end, and with it deliverance, is near. For them, no less than for Jesus, suffering, rejection of the message, and rough treatment by authorities would be part of their lives. They would need to focus on being true to their mission, not running hither and yon in pursuit of a pipe dream that the longed-for day of judgment had finally come.

As in that day, so it has been in every one since, including our own. Scam artists and false Messiahs promise big things and deliver nothing. And gleeful would-be prophets interpret current events as signs of the apocalypse. As for the scam artists, they play on the fears of people as well as the need of folks to be in the know about what’s going on. They paint a picture of a world in turmoil, with enemies everywhere ready to threaten you and your family and your way of life, and then say “Look here! I have a solution!” and “Look there! Those are the signs of the crumbling of culture.” And the fearful, even those claiming to be faithful, go running after them, distracted from the tasks right in front of them, the kingdom work right in their midst, the presence of God before their eyes in needy neighbors and hurting friends.

The “prophets” play the same game, and they have been for centuries. The garden variety threats like hurricanes and earthquakes and floods become signals that God is judging the sins of a nation or a world. Then they add in specific current events. Over the ages, those have been things like invasions by barbarian hordes or the eruption of a volcano. These days, of course, we’re told the end of the age will be ushered in by whatever social changes and ills and groups of people the preacher or the author disapproves of personally and laments as a threat. Here’s an excerpt from a blurb for a new book along those lines: “According to the headlines, the world is falling apart! Where’s God in all of the change, chaos, and confusion? Mining Scripture, [the author] offers culturally relevant and biblically accurate insights on terrorism, radicalized Islam, the new Russia, the debt crisis, and more to reveal how God is at work in his unfolding plan for humanity” (from Christianbook Distributors catalog, Christmas 2016). Apparently, the author is a huge favorite in certain circles, since he has a featured entry in the catalog I just quoted from and his books go so fast they’re in limited supply.

Well, no. The fact is that only the sovereign God will say when the end comes. It blows my mind how those who tout their great faith just don’t get that. And when the final day dawns, when the Son of Man returns, Jesus claims, we won’t need to guess what’s going on or speculate or write books wondering about clues from world news. It will be something everyone can and will see. It won’t be just for the elite or those with special theological training or people of a certain religion. The coming of the King will be as clear as lightning flashing across the sky. Or as obvious as the location of a rotting corpse, signaled by circling vultures. (See note 2.)

Jesus tells us that rather than running here and there looking for signs that the sky is falling, we do better to pay attention to the here and now in light of the yet to come. There are four pieces of advice he gives his followers in every age.

First, be ready for surprises. and look ahead. We shouldn’t assume that the world will go on and on, our routine unshaken, our day to day life uneventful. That young woman standing on the platform in New Jersey did not expect a train to come barreling in, sending deadly debris flying. She was just minding her business. Back to the stories Jesus tells, the world went on and on, while Noah was building his boat; nobody apparently wondered why he was building a ship in a desert. And the residents of Sodom kept acting as if they were doing nothing wrong. They thought theirs was the way a society should be ordered, even though they were guilty because, as Ezekiel catalogued, “[they] had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it” (16:49,50). But flood and firestorm came, and a photo would have caught a surprised look on every face.

The old funeral prayer contains great wisdom for us and for all: “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.” Or how about the Coast Guard motto: semper paratus, “always ready.” That applies to everything from having papers in order to making our wishes known to living a life of service and goodness, so that we have no regrets and unfinished business.

Second, look ahead. As Jesus put it: “Remember Lot’s wife. She looked back with longing on the life she had and became a fixture on the landscape. Grief, regret, and guilt can immobilize us and keep us from doing the work we need to do to change our lives. “Yesterday’s gone,” as the classic song put it, for good or ill. God calls us to a hopeful tomorrow, sustained by his Spirit.

Third, sort out what’s really important. “Let the one on the housetop not come down” to get belongings, Jesus says. The context for Luke’s readers was, again, the Roman invasion of Judah that killed so many, an event that was the worst for the Jews until the Holocaust. But the situation could be any disaster. And truly, whatever moments of decision we encounter. We ask questions; we make choices. What truly matters? What actions are consistent with my best values? What must I do to preserve my life and those of my loved ones? Decide what’s valuable, Jesus says, and tend to that. Everything else, no matter how cherished, can go. Are we tending to what’s most important in life or are we focusing on things that may be of short-term value, but of no long-term consequence? As Stephen Covey taught us, our attention needs to be given to the urgent and the important, and the not urgent but important, like relationship building, preparation, and activities that re-create our spirits. He advised us to keep away from wasteful pursuits and those that deceive us with their claims of urgency.

So, be ready. Look ahead. Decide what’s valuable. And, finally, realize, even expect and accept, that life is unfair. The lesson here is the randomness of tragedy, as if we had to be reminded of something we see every day on the news. “One will be taken, the other left.” This text is not about some “rapture” at a secret coming of Jesus. Rather, it teaches us that similar or same circumstances don’t guarantee identical outcomes. We see this in tornadoes all the time. A home or business will be utterly destroyed, while the one next to it is spared, completely intact. And there was a very sad case just the other day, when a little girl got off a school bus in Pontotoc County and was hit and fatally injured in her own driveway by a careless, speeding driver passing the stopped bus on the right. Her brother was pulled back from the door by the bus driver at the last minute and was saved (http://www.wcbi.com/parents-child-killed-suv-getting-off-bus-speak). Both were just getting off the bus and going home. Or consider two people who grow up in similar circumstances of poverty and abandonment by parents. One becomes angry, bitter, controlling, and mean, while the other responds to hardship with openness, graciousness, cheerfulness, and hope. Another example: Two siblings born a few years apart are exposed to their father’s and their grandmother’s second-hand cigarette smoke for years as children. One eventually develops cancer from being in that environment and dies; the other has no sign of the disease. The sad reality is that usually we don’t and can’t know where or when or how we will meet our demise or encounter circumstances that challenge us to our core. And a situation may have a positive or negative outcome for us, whatever our efforts to change it or whether we do anything at all. Not an uplifting message, but true, and something we all have to face.

Ultimately, the important questions about the kingdom are not quantitative, like what and where and when, but qualitative, like who and why and how. How shall we live? What is the meaning of my life, our life? How are we being accountable for our actions and decisions now, and are we making them in light of the claim of God’s kingdom on my life? What do I value? To whom do I, do we, give allegiance and loyalty? Who is sovereign?

King Jesus has come, and with him, the kingdom. He is coming, and with him, the fulfillment of God’s dream for all humanity. We know not when; but as we wait, we can survive in frantic fear or we can truly live in hopeful faith.

+++++

Note 1: If “Son of Man” is not a familiar term for you, it was our Lord’s favorite title for himself. It can mean simply “human being” and is used that way in Psalms and Ezekiel. Here and elsewhere, though, Jesus refers to a single passage in the book of Daniel, which pictures a figure the author says “looked like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven to God, the Ancient of Days, and being given “dominion and glory and kingship” (Daniel 7:13-14).

Note 2: By the way, the world “vulture” also can be translated as “eagle,” a symbol inscribed on the standards and shields of the Roman army. Luke’s readers would have understood the coded reference to the constant threat of violence, trouble, and oppression from the powerful.

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