In choosing our scripture reading for today I’ve jumped back a bit in Matthew’s gospel, to the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry: right after he was baptized, right after he spent those forty days in the wilderness. Coming out of the wilderness, he heard that John who had baptized him had been arrested. He went to Galilee, and began his own ministry by proclaiming the message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Two weeks ago I preached about the kingdom of heaven; I attempted to answer the question: “Where is the kingdom of heaven?” And I talked about how the kingdom of heaven is not somewhere far off, but right where we are.
Well, today, instead of asking “where?” I’m going to ask “when?” When is the kingdom of heaven going to arrive?
A lot of people in Jesus’s time were waiting for the kingdom of heaven to arrive. They expected the kingdom to come right where they were, but they didn’t know when it would come. Their present kingdom - the kingdom of Rome - was oppressive and corrupt and dominating, and the people wanted something better - they wanted a kingdom more in line with God’s vision for all of creation.
The people were hoping for a Savior who would come to establish this new kingdom. When Jesus arrived, they believed he was the one. When Jesus began teaching about the kingdom of heaven, people asked him: when will this kingdom happen? When will the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, become a reality? How long will we have to wait for the world to change, to be more in line with God’s vision? How long?
Two weeks ago, the question was, “Where is the kingdom of heaven,” and the answer was “right here.” Today the question is “How long will we have to wait for the kingdom of heaven.”
And the answer Jesus gives is, “You don’t have to wait.” He said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is in your reach - all you need to do is grab hold of it.”
Pretty deep, isn’t it?
Think about it:
We dream of a far-off paradise. The grass is always greener somewhere else.
We dream of a far-off future in which we finally get our life together, when things finally come together.
We dream of heaven - the most far-off place, the most far-away-in-the-future realm of existence we can imagine.
We can’t imagine heaven being anything like this world in which we currently live.
The distance between here and the kingdom of heaven seems so great. It’s too far away. It’s too far in the future. And it never seems to be getting any closer.
Heaven seems to be waiting:
Waiting for God to act
Waiting for us to get our act together
Waiting for the right job to come along, or the right lover
Waiting for world events to straighten out
Waiting for people to stop being so mean to each other
Waiting for an end to poverty and hunger and war
Waiting for an end to racism and white supremacist rallies
Waiting for the right president to come along
Waiting for everything to become perfect
And for as long as we have to wait, heaven feels very far away.
But Jesus says you don’t have to wait to live in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says heaven is within you! Heaven is within you and among you. And when Jesus announces God’s kingdom, he says that it is at hand, that it is present, that it has now begun. You can live in the kingdom of heaven right now, if you so choose.
In the gospel of Mark - I’m jumping around now, but I’ll get back to Matthew in a moment - we read that “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God - (that’s what Mark calls the kingdom of heaven) - the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)
Or, as the Common English Bible puts it, Jesus says: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Change your hearts and lives, because God’s kingdom is arriving right now!
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s words are like the announcement you hear at Disneyland as the train is pulling into the station: “You’re attention please! The kingdom of heaven is now arriving. A-a-a-l-l-l-l aboard!”
And right away, you can see the kingdom of heaven arriving down the track. It’s already here! All you need to do is climb aboard.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah when he says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
These things -- good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed -- are signs of the kingdom of heaven. When these things happen, the kingdom of heaven has arrived.
Well, immediately after Jesus reads these words, he announces that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4: 18-21) Today is the day that the poor will have someone preach good news to them. Today is the day that someone will proclaim release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. Today is the day that the kingdom of heaven has arrived. All aboard!
Back in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus lists those who are blessed in the kingdom of heaven: In the kingdom of heaven, blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers…
We know those statements. We call them the beatitudes.
In the kingdoms of this world - in Caesar’s kingdom - such people are not blessed, but in the kingdom of heaven, the blessings are theirs.
Then Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for the kingdom of heaven. More specifically, he teaches them to pray that the kingdom of heaven will come on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s kind of a weird phrase, because “the kingdom” and “heaven” are interchangeable terms. We’re praying for heaven to come to earth as it is in heaven. It kind of plays with our idea that heaven is far away: heaven is on earth, as it is in heaven.
May the kingdom of heaven come on earth as in heaven.
In other words, the disciples are told to pray for heaven to come to earth right now.
In other words, without delay. Pray that the kingdom of heaven will always be arriving, always be present, always be here, ready for you to climb aboard.
So many look at the world today and say, “this is not heaven. This world is not heaven. This world is hell! If the kingdom of heaven is on earth or is coming to earth, it must be waiting…waiting for all those things I already mentioned… waiting for an end to war, an end to violence in the streets, an end to racism and white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan...
How can heaven possibly be present in the midst of all this? How can Jesus talk about the kingdom being present when all this is going on?
But Jesus knows very well what it’s like to live in a tumultuous time, a time when evil is present and is destroying people’s lives.
As I said, Jesus lived in a society that was under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Jews had once been their own nation with their own king, but now they were under the rule and control of a foreign emperor. And this foreign emperor was ruthless. He was violent. Yet he insisted that he alone was the giver of peace, the king of all kings and the lord of all lords, that he was the Father of all the people of the Empire, the one who provided them bread, the one who provided him life. And in return, he demanded their loyalty. He insisted that they obey and comply and even worship him.
Those who resisted: they were silenced. They were made into scapegoats. They were crucified. Their cities were destroyed.
Some of those in Jesus’s time believed it was best to comply. They collaborated with Rome. They followed the official party line, and said that faith was a matter of personal piety, not social justice and reform. They taught that one day, God would restore Israel and free the Jews from Roman rule, but until that day came, people just had to wait. And maybe, if they behaved themselves and followed all the religious laws, God would move up that day and they wouldn’t have to wait as long for the kingdom of heaven.
Others couldn’t wait for God to act. Rome needed to be resisted. They openly advocated for revolution, despite the risks. They were determined to restore God’s kingdom by any means necessary.
The one thing both groups had in common is that they believed the kingdom of heaven depended on Caesar being removed from power, that the kingdom of heaven could not be established as long as Rome was in charge.
In the same way, there are those today who believe that the kingdom of heaven has come closer than ever before because Donald Trump is president, while there are others who believe that the kingdom of heaven is now farther away than ever because of Donald Trump.
But the truth is: the kingdom of heaven does not depend at all on Donald Trump, just as the kingdom did not depend on Caesar. That was Jesus’ message: the kingdom is at hand, and nothing Caesar does can hinder it or delay it. God’s will will be done.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, is already present, right now. It is within you. It is among you. You have the power to make the kingdom of heaven a reality right now, if you so choose.
When YOU go out of your way to show kindness to a stranger, the kingdom of heaven is made real and present.
When YOU go out of your way to lift up someone who is down, the kingdom of heaven is made real and present.
When YOU go out of your way to welcome someone who is far from home, refugees and immigrants, and show them great hospitality, the kingdom of heaven is made real and present.
When YOU feed someone who is hungry or care for someone who is sick, the kingdom of heaven is made real and present.
When YOU go out of your way to demand justice for those who are oppressed and those who have had their rights taken away from them, the kingdom of heaven is made real and present.
When YOU confront your own racism, your own privilege, and work to build a world where authority and privilege and rights are shared equally among all people of all races, a world that does not tolerate the fearful, hateful demonstrations of white privilege we’ve seen in Charlottesville, then the kingdom of heaven is made real and present.
When YOU orient your life toward God - repenting of your own desires and using all your life energy and all your resources to help create a world of wholeness - the kingdom of heaven is made real and present.
And what about that life after death, what we usually think about when we think about heaven? Jesus doesn’t really say much about that. We read in the Bible that his resurrection will be our resurrection, that love has conquered death… but we also hear Jesus say: don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself.
Worry about today. Focus on heaven in the present. The train is in the station! Climb on board! The kingdom of heaven is in your reach. You can decide today whether you will to live in the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of Rome. Every day, you have that choice and that decision to make. Will you choose to live in the kingdom of heaven? Will you choose to live in the kingdom of love? Will you choose to live in the kingdom of God?