If the King Has Come, Where is the Kingdom?
Scriptures: Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 11:8-16, 39-40
One summer while I was the pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, I
volunteered one afternoon a week as a kind of chaplain for the Boy Scouts at Camp Grizzly, the Boy Scout camp east of Potlatch. I did an afternoon vesper service and just talked to the boys about how they were doing. One day during lunch a Jewish scout sat across from me asking all kinds of question about what Christians believe and why there are so many different Christian denominations. Then he said to me, "There's still one thing I don't understand." "What's that?" I asked. He said, "How can you Christians say that the Messiah has come when there is still so much suffering in the world?"
Good question. Every week in our church service we pray, "Thy kingdom
come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." If Jesus is the Messiah, the promised King, why are we still waiting for God's kingdom to come?
That's what the disciples want to know. After Jesus'
resurrection they say to him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" In essence they are saying, "Isn't it about time our prayers were finally answered?"
Jesus replies, "It is not for you to know the times or
periods that the Father has set by his own authority." As a retired military officer once told me, "That's above your pay grade." "Your job," Jesus says, "is not to worry about when the kingdom of God will come. Your job is to be a witness to it. You will receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Jesus is less concerned about the end of the world and more
concerned about the ends of the earth. Jesus is less concerned about when the kingdom of God will come and more concerned that people all over the world should understand it and believe in it.
Did you notice the assumption in the disciples' question? They say to
Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" The disciples are thinking primarily of themselves and their own people. But Jesus came for more than that. Jesus came that God's kingdom might come to the whole world.
In our first scripture lesson Hebrews chapter 11 talks about people of
faith who did not see God's promises fulfilled in their own lifetime. It talks about Abraham to whom God promised many descendants that he never saw. It talks about Moses to whom God promised a land flowing with milk and honey that he never got to enter. It talks about Samson whom God promised to use in delivering Israel from the Philistines but who died as one of their captives. It talks about all these people of faith in the Bible, and then it says, "Yet all these, though, they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect"-or the word also means "made complete."
Do you see what this is saying? The promises of God are not only for
those alive at the time God makes them; they are for future generations. They are for people not yet here. In the same way the kingdom of God is intended not only for those of us who pray for it each week; it is intended for people who may not have even heard of it or understood why they need it.
There is a sense in which our church exists for the people
who are not here. I don't know if you have thought about it that way, but that's what both of our scripture readings are saying. Our church exists in part for the people who are not here, the people who do not yet know or believe how deeply they are loved and who have not yet experienced what it is like to share that love with others.
That was my answer to the Jewish boy. We don't know why there is
still so much suffering in the world. We don't know when the kingdom of God will come, but we know who will bring it, and we prepare for it by being witnesses to Jesus, and by helping people glimpse the kind of world he came to bring.
I have seen our church do this in many ways. I saw it when
our men's group put on a dinner at Plymouth Housing, an apartment building in Seattle for the chronically homeless. It's an amazingly place. Each resident has an individual room with his or her own bed, dresser, table, and a small kitchen. When I saw it I thought of Jesus' words "In my Father's house are many rooms," and here it is, right in downtown Seattle, a glimpse of the kingdom.
I see us being witnesses when people hand out food at the food bank or
bring meals to the women's shelter in Burien. I think of Jesus' words, "The Kingdom of God is like a great banquet," here it is, happening right before our eyes. I think of Sunday School teachers who come every week wanting a new generation of children to know who Jesus is and what he means to us. They are witnesses.
One last story. This is from Corrie ten Boom's book The Hiding Place,
which you can get from our church library as soon as I return it. Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie were Dutch Christians imprisoned by the Nazis for hiding Jews in their home during the Nazi occupation of Holland. When their safe house was discovered, they were arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Corrie describes their arrival at the camp in these words:
Through another fence we arrived in a yard surrounded on three sides by low concrete buildings. A young woman in a military cape was waiting for us. "Prisoners halt!" barked the red-faced officer. "Explain to the newcomers, Fraulein, the function of the bunkers."
"The bunkers," the girl began in the bored voice of a museum guide, "are for the accommodation of those who fail to cooperate with camp rules. The rooms are cozy, if a bit small: about the size of a gym locker. To hasten the educational process the hands are tied above the head...." Even as the horrid recital continued, two guards came out of the bunkers, carrying between them the form of a man. He was alive, for his legs were moving, but he seemed to have no conscious control over them. His eyes were sunken and rolled back in his head. "Not everyone," the girl observed in the same detached drawl, "seems to appreciate the accommodations at the bunkers."
I seized Betsie's arm as the command to march came again, more to steady myself than her. ... We followed the officer down a wide street lined with barracks on either side and halted at one of the gray, featureless sheds. It was the end of the long day of standing, waiting, hoping. ... And still we were not allowed to sit: there was a last wait while the matron with maddening deliberateness checked off our documents against a list. "Betsie!" I wailed, "how long will it take?"
"Perhaps a long, long time." Betsie replied. "Perhaps many years. But what better way could there be to spend our lives?" I turned to stare at her. "Whatever are you talking about?" "These young women," Betsie replied. "That girl back at the bunkers. Corrie, if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love! We must find the way, you and I, no matter how long it takes" (pp. 178-179).
If you are wondering why the Kingdom of God has not yet
come, it's because we still have a job to do. If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love, and we must find the way, you and I, no matter how long it takes.