January 2, 2011
Now, But Not Yet
The Kingdom Is On the Way
Charles Dickens begins his novel A Tale of Two Cities with some of the most immortal lines in literary history – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...it was a season of light, a season of darkness…the spring of hope, the winter of despair. One of the truths those words reflect is how there are different layers to life. Dickens recognized that for some it was the best of times. There were some who were prospering and enjoying the best the world had to offer but for others it was the absolute worst of times as they struggled to survive.
The same layers are present today – it is the best of times to some, but the worst of times to others. We live in the best of times when it comes to the quality of medical care. The advancements in medical care in the last generation alone are mind-boggling; they are also very expensive, so if you can afford it, it is the best of times. If not, well, it’s the worst of times.
This morning, I am beginning a new series of messages that will take us through Easter, and I have titled it Now, But Not Yet. That title reflects this layered time in which we live, this combination of the best and the worst.
This is one of the most prevalent themes in the gospels – Now, But Not Yet. It tells us that God’s kingdom has broken into the world with the coming of Jesus, but the kingdom is not yet fully realized. The kingdom has entered the world but the kingdom has yet to penetrate into every area of life. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus reflects this as he prayers thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
This morning we begin with The Kingdom Is On the Way – the promise that God’s kingdom has taken root in this world and is growing and one day will be fully realized. And with that arrival is the promise of a new day and a new age.
For our Scripture text this morning we read from the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel, where Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah – The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (verses 18-19). And then he rolled up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down. And as everyone waits for his teaching about the passage he says Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing (verse 21).
That’s a good way to get people’s attention – tell them one of the greatest prophecies in the history of the nation of Israel, one of the greatest hopes, one of the greatest dreams – was suddenly fulfilled. The crowd is abuzz with talk about the wonderful words Jesus had spoken and a sense of excitement begins to build.
But Jesus speaks again and this time his words offend the people so much they take him out to the edge of a cliff with the intent of throwing him over. How do you preach a sermon where in the space of a few moments you have people speaking well of you and then wanting to kill you? I’ve said some things over the years that people haven’t liked, but thankfully they never took me out and tried to throw me off a cliff! What Jesus said that so upset people was that one of the reasons why the kingdom had yet to fully arrive is because people get in the way of the kingdom.
The kingdoms of this world don’t give up easily. Though the kingdom of God has entered this world, the kingdoms of the world aren’t packing up and saying, okay, we’re done! There are too many people who benefit from the structures of the world and who have vested interests in things staying the way they are for them to want any change to come about, even if that means that some people suffer because of the way things are.
Why did people fight against equal rights for all citizens? Because the very structure that denied equality to some people benefited others, so why would they want anything to change?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That’s beautiful. That’s poetic. That’s powerful. And most importantly, it’s true, and it is a direct challenge to the kingdoms and structures of this world who benefit from allowing things to stay the way they are.
So Jesus is speaking a word of challenge to those who stand in the way of God’s kingdom and a word of comfort to those what are so anxious for the coming of the kingdom. To the kingdoms of the world he is saying your time is coming to an end. You may have power now, but that power is going to end. You will not always have the power to oppress and deny.
Tyrants eventually fall. We have seen it in our own lifetimes, and we’ll see it again. The temporal powers that resist the coming kingdom continue to fight to hold onto their power but they are fighting a losing battle. One of the great Advent passages is Isaiah 2:4-5 – He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
And to those who wonder if God’s kingdom will ever come he is saying it may seem that the promises of God’s kingdom are slow in coming, but they are coming. War may continue to tear at our world, but peace is coming. Poverty may continue to define the lives of millions, but provision is coming. Illness and disease may plague us, but healing is coming. Grief and sadness may permeate our hearts, but comfort is coming. Brokenness may define many lives, but wholeness is coming. Creation itself may be groaning for relief, but restoration is coming.
As long as there are poor, the kingdom has work to do. As long as there are those who are prisoners, the kingdom has work to do. As long as there are people who are blind and afflicted with other ailments, the kingdom has work to do. As long as people are oppressed, the kingdom has work to do. And if the kingdom has work to do, it means we have work to do as well. We are heralds of the kingdom; we are the hands and feet of the kingdom.
Tanya gave me this great DVD for Christmas – it’s a DVD of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Does anyone know how many times they were on the Ed Sullivan Show? Four times? Do you know how many songs they performed on those four shows? Twenty songs. I didn’t remember how many times they were on or how many songs they performed; I only remember watching and being totally captivated by their music; it was the moment I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar. What’s fascinating about these DVDs is they contain not only the performances of the Beatles, but the entire Ed Sullivan Show segments – even the commercials. As I watched them what struck me was how you could see on these shows the passing from one era to another. The Beatles represented a completely new era in music that was sweeping away another era. It didn’t happen overnight; the two eras continued together for a time, but as time passed one did pass away.
Think back one year. As we stood at the cusp of a new year, and thought about our hopes and dreams for a new year, how many surprises were there? How many of us experienced struggles that were not at all on our radar screens? How many of us experienced struggles that were so difficult that it shook even our faith to the core? Who knows what is ahead for this year. Who knows what challenges and struggles may be ahead. We will continue to live in this layered time, the Now, But Not Yet. But whatever happens, know the kingdom of God is already here and at work in our lives. The kingdom of God is here and at work and the world is changing. There are still many struggles and many problems, but the promise of the kingdom is that all this will pass.