Coming to the Kingdom
In our Advent passage today from Luke, Jesus alerts the people of the signs that will precede the return of Christ … the Second Coming. The signs are not good signs, or comfortable signs, or signs to hope for. If we back up a few verses, Jesus warns of the fall of Jerusalem to the Gentiles and how destructive and murderous that would be. Indeed, in 68 CE the Jews rose up against their Roman occupiers and drove them out of Judea. In 70 CE the Romans returned and indeed, reduced Jerusalem, slaughtered the inhabitants, destroyed the Temple, and drove the Jews into an exile.
Our passage, though, is much more vague, but just as horrendous. Nature itself rises up and casts the nations into confusion. People succumb to overwhelming anxiety as the cosmos unravels. Then after all of these destructive and traumatic events, Jesus returns to rule the world.
But the signs listed in our passage are hard to relate to … they sound almost like a theme of some apocalyptic science fiction movie. Nature at its worse is a big part of these signs. I am unaware of the weather typical in Jesus’ time and place. But I doubt they had hurricanes or tornadoes. I doubt they worried about the loss of electricity or even floods (the last noted in the Bible was Noah’s flood).
But we here in New Jersey in the 21st Century can give names to the vague signs in our passage today and the preceding passage. The problem with naming them is where to begin. How far back in our modern history should we go? I’ll go as far as my parents’ generation. WWII begot horrors the Bible doesn’t even consider: Concentration Camps and Atomic Bombs. If there ever is a sign that world is out of kilter, it was that war. But we ignored that sign and fought more wars. The one I most remember is Viet Nam, that long drawn out mess. It was a sign, but a misinterpreted sign.
We can continue naming the signs: their names alone are enough to frighten we who survived them: 9/11; Katrina, Irene, and Sandy. The first sign we also misinterpreted and turned to vengeance and yet more war. The last, Nature herself rose against our abuse of her.
And there is no end in sight for the signs to end.
If what Jesus said is a prophecy, why hasn’t Jesus already returned? I’ve sited almost 75 years of signs and there were many more before that. Where is Jesus? Why isn’t ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’?
Interestingly, our Advent passage is a passage of hope. Even though the biblical people probably didn’t face the horrendous events we have lived through the past 75 or more years, they still lived in many ways a miserable life: hunger and greed were rampant; the Romans were harsh and heartless masters; rebellions were common; slavery was the destination of the impoverished and the captive.
So Jesus ramps up the fear with predictions of a national and even cosmic assault on the people. Then he says hope is coming. He calls the people to have their eyes and ears and souls open for that advent. Out of the fear and destruction would come a New Jerusalem of justice and righteousness.
Christians call this the Second Coming.
But in the Advent season we more often see it as an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mother Mary. Advent becomes a remembrance of the coming of baby Jesus. Not the Second Coming.
Something we should be aware of is that the Bible never uses the term “Second Coming”. It refers to the coming of the Son of Man and the New Jerusalem and so forth, but never refers to these events as the Second Coming.
But I do think Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Son of Man was a promise that all the terrible and destructive events described by him and experience by us are not the end of the world. Rather a better, brighter, hopeful world can arise even after the devastation. Jesus is saying that even in the most extreme circumstances we must not give up hope. God is not constrained by the extremism of an event. God cannot be defeated. God promises hope and a better world and that world is here for the taking.
Jesus preached and lived in that better world offered by the Kingdom of God, and people throughout the ages have lived it too. The failure has been that only a few people have taken the Kingdom of God seriously and lived it. The powers and principalities with their agendas of greed and dominance and violence have for the ages overwhelmed the Kingdom of love and mutuality and peace. Indeed they have dismissed it as utopian and claimed incorrectly that it is a metaphor for the afterlife.
Ignoring the Kingdom of God is definitely true in our age. But it was also true in Jesus’ time. So Jesus reached for a frightening extreme case to emphasize that the hope of God is available to us.
We Christians have envisioned this passage and passages similar to it, particularly in the Book of Revelation of Jesus coming suddenly and systematically transforming the world into the Kingdom of God. We just have to wait and be as pious as we can.
I suggest that there is another way to look at this. I believe that the Kingdom of God is already among us. Jesus taught it and practiced it and made it real here in the ages at the Resurrection. But the Kingdom is what is sometimes referred as “here but not yet.” By this we mean that the Kingdom is available to us in our ordinary lives in this day and age, but we must join it intentionally. But this has been rarely done and then usually only momentarily in unexpected traumas such as Hurricane Sandy. But most importantly, we have not sustained our life in the Kingdom.
I suggest that what Jesus is implying and what our recent history confirms, is that there will be a tipping point at some time when the wars and violence and greed will become so overwhelming that people will at last turn to the Kingdom and make it the “normal” way of living.
The signs are not precursors to the Kingdom, but the consequences of the powers and principalities and ordinary people walking right past the Gate of God and pushing God away, and running the world as they see fit. We may sing about the Kingdom of Heaven, but how often do we walk through the Gates and live our lives they way Jesus taught us? We may hope for the Kingdom to come, but how many times do we hold our government responsible for justice, peace and equality?
Indeed, the increasing desperation of the signs is a sign itself that the time is coming when we can no longer deny that we must act intentionally for significant changes in our lives, our government, and our way of looking at the world. No economist, no politician, no general can fix the systemic sins of greed and dominance and violence. We can no longer presume that the system will eventually fix itself. We must move towards the Kingdom as illogical, impractical and risky as we may think. And I suspect that if we do begin to live in the Kingdom we are very likely to find a safer, more secure and more reliable life than we have now.
But how do we do this? By bringing God into our lives intentionally, thoroughly and deeply and by doing so living the life that God lives and offers to us as citizen of the Kingdom of God..
To start we need to nurture a sense of God’s presence with us moment by moment. And in the present moment take sometime out … just a few moments … to rejoice in God’s blessings all around us. How often do we stop and smell the flowers? Yet we are a-wash in God’s blessings: a clear blue sky, the 2 year old following after mom, a fulfilling work day, and on and on.
And God’s blessings are not limited to the lovely and sweet. Sometimes God’s blessings are in the confusions and the chaos. A blessing can be in a disagreement with a colleague that makes you think through something and come out in a better place. Indeed, looking for a blessing may be the trigger that shows you something good is here.
And to go yet further and look for where God is unexpectedly participating. Hard times come upon us. Our present may be frightening, frustrating, painful and depressing. But look deep into it. Rise above your own hardship and look at the times as something greater than yourself. Is it just a terrible, evil event, or is God extracting some good out of it?
Hurricane Sandy was a nightmare, I suspect, for all of us. And it’s hard to imagine anything good coming out of it. And I do not believe that God would create Sandy just to make a point or to do something to scold us. But given that Sandy was going to happen, God looks for ways to bring something good from it.
For example in all of the trouble with the storm, many of us found our neighbors were considerate and helpful. Our governor came through with great concern for all of the people of New Jersey. And we began a process to consider how to weather such a storm with less damage. And over the long haul, Sandy has pushed to the front our failure to care for Mother Nature and we now may turn around and find ways to restore some balance in the weather.
And in every moment the Kingdom of God is emerging among us. We can become a part of God’s life by aligning our daily lives with the teachings and acts of Jesus. Jesus tells us that God will provide for us. But God provides for our neighbors by working through us. It was in our neighbors during Sandy that God was acting for us. We are the channels and instruments of God. It is we who are the hands and hearts that will build the Kingdom of God among us. Each moment, each day we do something that is caring and supportive, that is reaching out to someone, or that is moving beyond our own immediate desire and need, builds up the Kingdom. Simply stopping what we are doing for a few minutes to listen to a co-worker who needs to talk or standing up for someone who has been offended or humiliated, builds up the Kingdom of God.
And in all of these little efforts we nurture God’s presence in our lives and find reality in the Kingdom of God. In time, our daily embracing of God will become routine and ordinary and deeply part of us. God will become real to us … more than just a thought or a picture. God will be deep within us.
And if as more and more people live this God-centered life, the closer and closer we will come to living in the Kingdom of God and find that the ‘Son of Man’ has come.
But above all else we need to have hope – hope that the Kingdom is among us and we can live in. Katherine Jenkins and Andrea Bucelli sing a beautiful hymn, “I Believe”:
One day I'll hear/The laugh of children/In a world where war has been banned.
One day I'll see [People] of all colors/Sharing words of love and devotion.
Stand up and feel/The Holy Spirit/Find the power of your faith.
Open your heart/To those who need you/In the name of love and devotion.
Yes, I believe.
I believe in the people/Of all nations /To join and to care For love.
I believe in a world/Where light will guide us/And giving our love We'll make heaven on earth.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …