Seeing the Kingdom (3/18/2018)

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How would you respond if someone came up to you and said, “I know you’re a Christian. What is the kingdom of God and what does it look like?

Jesus gives us a glimpse of it in Luke 17:20-37. This passage tells us, “ 20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.

30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”

37 “Where, Lord?” they asked.

He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”

Many scholars believe this passage foretells the second coming of Jesus Christ. He will come so suddenly that is will be a surprise to everyone. Those who are ready to go will be taken with him into heaven and those who aren’t will be left behind to face destruction. While the end times may unfold like this, that most likely wasn’t the meaning Jesus intended for his listeners at the time.

Jesus is responding to a question the Pharisees asked him. They wanted to know when the kingdom of God would come. That was a reasonable question. First century Jews were longing for a Messiah who would restore Israel to power and glory. They also believed he would help them keep the teachings of the Old Testament law and prophets. This would be pleasing to God. Since their center of worship was the temple in Jerusalem, the Messiah would reign from there.

Through his response, Jesus is trying to tell them the temple won’t be the center of worship much longer. He mentions the devastation of Noah’s flood and the annihilation of Sodom. The people of Noah’s day and the people living in Sodom woke up thinking they were going to have a normal day. They didn’t. Judgment and destruction came upon them and wrecked everything they believed to be true. Jesus is trying to tell the Pharisees this is what’s going to happen to them.

In Verse 37, they ask, “Where, Lord? This is another good question. Jesus replies, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather” (Vs. 38). Ancient writers thought vultures were a type of eagle so they used the same word to describe both birds. Jesus statement could also be translated, “Where there is a dead body, there the eagles will gather.” Why does this matter? During Jesus’ day, the eagle was the symbol of the Roman Empire.

Jesus teaching in this passage came true in 70 A.D. when Roman troops destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. This also destroyed the dreams of the Pharisees.  There would be no way the kingdom of God could unfold the way they wanted it to unfold.

So, how would it unfold? Jesus told them in Verse 20. He said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

He’s trying to teach the Pharisees that the kingdom of God isn’t going to come in the distant future nor according to their theology. The kingdom is found in him. All the Pharisees have to do to is accept it. They didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them so they rejected him as their Messiah.

Scholar N.T. Wright says Jesus is telling the Pharisees, “It is confronting you with a decision, the decision to believe, trust and follow Jesus. It isn’t the sort of thing that’s just going to happen, so you can just sit back and watch.”

The kingdom of God is found in the work and person of Jesus Christ. Once we accept him as our Savior, the kingdom becomes part of us and we become part of the kingdom.

What does it look like in real life? The best way to explain it is through the testimony of Della Watters, a member of our congregation.

Della shared her story about working for the family company with her husband and looking forward to a very comfortable retirement. Six years ago, there was a shift in the voting power on the board of directors which led to a series of events. It caused them to be kicked out of their own company where they had worked for all their adult lives. Six months after they left the company, it was forced into bankruptcy due to greed, arrogance, and mismanagement. The loss of their jobs was coupled with the loss of social interactions as many avoided conversations with them not knowing what to say.

” It was a double serving of life’s lemons. I felt alone, defeated and depressed,” Della shared.

She explained how Jeremiah 29:11 brought comfort during the early years. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  However, as she read more of the backstory to the verse, she learned that Jeremiah was talking to the Israelites who were exiled from their home and were now captive in a foreign land of Babylon during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar.  The false prophet, Hannaniah encouraged the people their strife was temporary and they would be going home in two years. Jeremiah, on the other hand, told them they would remain captive for generations–70 years to be exact.  In spite of their misfortune, Jeremiah encouraged the Jews to make the best of their new life–to start squeezing the lemons life had given them, and to make lemonade. They were to build houses, plant gardens, and make babies. He was explaining that life goes on despite the circumstances, but God is always near and is ready to hear our prayers and offer comfort.

“I was stuck in the anger stage of grief as I dealt with the impact of financial ruin.” Della continued.  “I wanted to hurt those who had destroyed our life and stolen our retirement and financial security.”

She shared that the time spent being angry about the past also fueled her anxiety about the future. “When I am living in either the past or the future, I can’t be living in the present and focused on God.”

One image that became comforting to her was that of God’s rocking chair placed at the foot of the empty cross.  Della visualizes herself sitting in God’s lap with Jesus at her side, and the Holy Spirit as a blanket which protects her and provides comfort and warmth.  There, she can be alone with the Trinity and pour out her heart. It is a place of safety, love and healing. “When I am in God’s arms, nothing else in the universe matters,” she explained.  And, as she spends more time there, Della can begin to let go of the past, forgive others, and not stress about the unknown circumstances of the future.

Did you notice Della’s last statement? She said, “When I am in God’s arms, nothing else in the universe matters.” The kingdom of God can’t be found by looking at how many possessions we have or what title goes with our name. It isn’t found in looking at church attendance numbers or in how much money was collected during the offering. The kingdom of God is found  and seen in the way God is working in our lives through the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross. When we come into his presence through prayer, worship and Bible study, we can experience God the same way Della does.