The kingdom today, the kingdom tomorrow

Mt. Lebanon UMC
Dec. 2, 2018

Luke 21:25–36 (CEB)
“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”

Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

“Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the season in which we anticipate the coming of the Christ child. And yet, this lectionary passage looks forward, not to the Christ child’s arrival at Christmas, but to Jesus’ second coming. 
The people of Israel had been expecting a Messiah. But they didn’t know when that Messiah would come. And when the Messiah did come in the form of a simple craftsman from Nazareth, he was quite different from the expectations.

In the same way, a lot of people have preconceptions about Jesus’ second coming that may turn out to be quite a bit different from reality.
In 1970, a popular book on end-times prophecy was published, strongly implying that Jesus would return within a generation of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. This particular teacher also said that in the Bible, a generation referred to about 40 years, which means that the second coming would have had to have taken place by 1988. Even as late as 1980, the author of this book predicted that the 80s could be the last decade of history as we know it.

The book discussed what the author believed was the role of the Soviet Union in end-times prophecy. It sold millions of copies. It was discussed in churches throughout the land.

Well, it’s now 2018. Jesus still hasn’t come, and the Soviet Union has long since broken up. It’s still possible that Russia could play a part in the end times, but Russia is a very different kind of force than the Soviet Union used to be, just as much of the geopolitics of 1970 have changed dramatically.
What happened to the fellow who wrote that book back in 1970? He’s still around. He has a web site, and a TV show, and he sells all sorts of books and DVDs stating his latest ideas about how the world is going to end. 
He must be making good money off his predictions, even though — in my humble opinion — his track record so far hasn’t been too good.

There have been many like him over the past two millennia. Almost every generation has had people predicting it would be the last generation.
The passages in the Bible that refer to the end times come from a variety of places — the Old Testament prophets, and Revelation, and the Gospels. Some of them are highly symbolic. Some of them may be confusing simply because they describe sights or situations about which people from ancient Palestine who wrote and read these manuscripts would have known nothing and which they would have had a great deal of trouble describing.

If you were from ancient Israel, and God gave you a vision of a 21st Century war, how would you even know what it was or how to describe it? You might look at a helicopter and describe it as a metal scorpion, or a wheel within a wheel, or some terrifying demon. You might hear the sound of artillery, or rockets, or bombs exploding and describe it as an earthquake, or the ground opening up and swallowing people.

There are many, many ways to interpret some of the colorful symbolism in Daniel and Ezekiel and in Revelation.

Some interpretations of the book of Revelation that say it wasn’t meant as future prophecy at all. John was living in exile on the isle of Patmos, and some people think he was actually criticizing of the existing Roman government and describing things that were occurring or that he hoped would occur during his lifetime, to end the dominance of the Roman Empire. Since he was a prisoner, according to this theory, he had to write those things in code, symbolically, in order for anyone to be allowed to take his words with them off the island.

There may be many levels and many types of meaning in the book of Revelation — some of which were directed at the seven churches to which John addressed the book, and some of which are for all Christians in all ages looking forward to the Second Coming.

In any case, there’s room for different interpretations and many different theories. Anyone who says, or acts like, they have the answer all wrapped up in a neat little package is being a little arrogant.

So when is Jesus coming again?

Jesus clearly told us that no one but the Father knows the exact day or hour. But that wasn’t meant as reassurance. It wasn’t meant to tell us that we can sit back and relax, because the end isn’t coming for many years to come. Quite the opposite; it’s possible that the end could be today, or tomorrow, or the day after that. It’s also possible that the end could be thousands of years in the future.

One of the most prominent secular philosophies of the Greek and Roman empires was stoicism. As the Bible commentator William Barclay explains it, the stoics tended to think that the universe was cyclical. Every 3,000 years or so, there would be some great upheaval which would destroy the world as we knew it, and then it would start all over again and repeat itself.

But, as Barclay points out, Christians believe that history is going somehwere. We believe there is a definite end to the story, and that end is the triumphant return of Jesus Christ.

Everything we do as Christians must be done with the knowledge that we are part of a story, that our attitudes and actions make a difference in the advance of God’s kingdom.

The timing, of course, is the problem. Jesus, in today’s passage, says that “this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened.” At the time Jesus was speaking, his disciples didn’t fully understand that he was going away, much less that he was coming back. But as they remembered his words later, they must have thought that Jesus was promising to return within their lifetimes.

But that can’t have been the meaning, because many human generations have come and gone since the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

That Bible teacher I talked about earlier thought that Jesus would come within a generation of the founding of the State of Israel, but that generation is fast disappearing as well — it’s already gone, if you take a generation to mean 40 years.

Some of the signs that we’re told to look for — wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters, and what have you — are things that we can clearly see around us today. But there were also wars and natural disasters five hundred years ago, and if God chooses not to come back in the meantime there will still be wars and natural disasters five hundred years from now.
Jesus tells us that we don’t know for sure, so we have to live as if every day could be the day.

There was an old Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown and Linus are talking, and one of them quotes something the preacher said. The preacher said each person should live each day as if it were his or her last. Lucy, who has been listening, starts running around, in a panic, yelling “Augggh! It’s the last day of my life! Auggh!”

Linus turns to Charlie Brown and says, “Some philosophies aren’t for everyone.”

What does it mean to live as if Jesus were about to return?
Jesus, in the 24th chapter of Matthew, tells us to stay awake, and uses the parable of the owner of a house who falls prey to a thief. If the owner had stayed awake, he would have seen the thief and would not have let his house be broken into.

So Jesus tells us to be ready, to be alert.

Here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say about the subject:

Romans 13:11–14 (CEB)
“As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.”

We are told to dress ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. We are to identify ourselves so closely with Jesus that it’s as if we were covering ourselves, cloaking ourselves, with Jesus.

A lot of people like to wear the jersey of their favorite football player or their favorite football team. That can be a fun thing, a way of identifying with your favorite team. But it’s a very shallow kind of identification. You can put on a Marcus Mariota jersey, but that doesn’t mean you’re anything like Marcus Mariota. I could put on a Marcus Mariota jersey, and I would still be fat and out of shape.

To put on the Lord Jesus Christ means to live our lives in such a way that we remind people of Jesus, that we bring people closer to Jesus, that Jesus shines through us. I’ve known people like that, or at least people who seemed like that to me. I don’t think of myself as one of them. I can be selfish, and petty, and hateful. I have problems with self-control, with anxiety, with self-pity.
But Jesus challenges me to do better, and Paul does the same. We have to stay alert. We have to be on guard for the thieves that will sneak into our lives and take away our faith, take away the qualities that the Holy Spirit is trying to instill in us.

There are a lot of much-argued details of end times theology that don’t really matter, in the sense that they don’t have a thing to do with the here and now. Lucy, in that Peanuts cartoon, misunderstood what it meant to live each day as if it were her last. She thought that meant living in fear, being preoccupied with the end. But that’s not what it means at all. Being ready for the Second Coming means being be ready for Jesus in the present as well as the future.

The signs have long since been changed, but at one time, if you were driving into Columbia on Highway 412, you would come to a sign just this side of I-65 that said “Welcome to Columbia,” and then, right after you passed under the interstate, you would see a sign that said “Columbia, 8 miles.”

The Bible refers to the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, in several different ways. In some passages, the Kingdom of God is referred to in the future tense, as something yet to come. In other passages, the Kingdom of God is referred to as something in the here and now, something that we have a responsibility to try to protect and advance. In one sense it’s “Welcome to the Kingdom of God,” and in another sense it’s “Kingdom of God, 8 miles.”
It sounds like a contradiction, but I think both of those ideas are true. The Kingdom of God is here, and now, but it’s also something that we look forward to, that we anticipate. That paradox is yet another factor that sometimes gets in the way of our understanding exactly what some of those Bible passages mean.

Jesus is coming, and yet Jesus is already here, in our hearts. When we live as if we’re ready for Jesus to come, it also means living with the constant awareness that Jesus is already here.

In either case, our responsibility is to live lives pleasing to Jesus and in harmony with God’s kingdom. That doesn’t mean agonizing or arguing over pre-tribulation or post-tribulation, or what heaven will be like. Instead, it means putting on what Paul calls the armor of light. Let us lay aside the works of darkness, he says. We are to live lives that are less about pleasing ourselves and more about pleasing God.

That’s a pretty simple instruction to understand — and yet it’s a very difficult instruction to follow. We are — I am — so self-centered, so concerned with our own comfort and convenience. I fall so short of Jesus’ example, and I am so very, very far from God’s kingdom. And I’m not alone.

We are a society devoted to instant self-gratification. We want what we want, when we want it, and we think we’re entitled to it. And instant gratification is the exact opposite of how Jesus lived or how Jesus wanted us to live. Jesus wanted us to look for the signs of his coming, and then respond to them by living each individual moment in line with God’s kingdom.

But rather than admit our sin, and be forced to change the way we’re living, we try to distract ourselves by making God’s kingdom about other things — about politics, or about some arcane point of theology, or about what color the carpet in the sanctuary should be. We sell each other books about the Second Coming rather than preparing our hearts for it. Like Lucy, we’re preoccupied with the end of things rather than liberated by the hope of a reunion with Jesus and a new beginning.

Don’t misunderstand me: There’s nothing wrong with trying to understand prophecy, or what the Bible is saying to us. On the contrary; God commands us to read and learn from scripture. But there are times when our obsession with the end times is something unhealthy, something that takes us away from what Jesus wants us to be doing, and thinking about, in the here and now.

Living in anticipation of Jesus’ return means living our lives with a positive outlook. It means being geneous, and patient, and self-sacrificing, and in peace, and in self-control, and in contentment. And all of those things are hard for us in the United States of America in the 21st Century.

But if we are truly focused on Jesus’ kingdom, we can prepare ourselves for a satisfaction that the world cannot offer.

The prophet Jeremiah describes God’s kingdom this way:

Jeremiah 33:14–16 (CEB)
“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.”

What a beautiful promise God gave the children of Israel. The fact that God is a God of rescue and redemption helps to give us the peace and confidence we need to live our lives in faith and contentment.

Living our lives in anticipation of Jesus’ return is a challenge, but it should be a priority, not only in this season of Advent and expectation but all year long.