If you know that something special is going to happen, you don’t want to miss it. You make sure you know the time and the place, or what route number to follow. The Pharisees were somewhat similar regarding the kingdom of God. First century Israel was full of anticipation of the Day of the Lord, when God would usher in his kingdom and the glory of the time of King David would be restored. Is there any wonder they went to Jesus to see if he could help them out? But Jesus told the Pharisees they were on the wrong track; there was no sign to watch out for to know the ‘when’ of the kingdom. In fact there wasn’t even a ‘where’ of the kingdom.
The readings were Psalm 146, Philemon 7-20, Luke 17:20-25. The reflection from the 2pm SLT service on Thursday follows.
The lone figure walking in the high street wearing a sandwich board which says: ‘Repent, for the end of the world is nigh’ is usually an object of pity or of ridicule. Of course, he may simply be doing his best to alert people to the fact that the Gospel requires a response, and in this he might be thought of as a successor to John the Baptist who arrived on the scene of first century Israel saying: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
Alternatively the ‘prophet of doom’ might be one of those who consider that they know the day and the time when the world will end. Despite Jesus’ warnings that no one but the Father knows when that will happen, people down the centuries have been convinced that they have known the day. Even when such predictions have proved false, as the day has passed and nothing has happened, it doesn’t seem to have prevented others making their own predictions.
The Pharisees were keen to know when the kingdom of God would come. At that time the Jews were watching in great anticipation for the Messiah to come. There was an expectation that the ‘Day of the Lord’ would be a time when God would establish his kingdom and use his power so that all the enemies of Israel would be defeated. Amos had stated that it would be a time of judgement for every nation, including Israel. All who repented, according to Joel, would be saved but the enemies of God would be punished. This hope of rescue by a Messiah made Israel a difficult place for the Romans to rule over in the first century, not least because of the activities of the Zealots. The Pharisees and others were looking for a political ruler to come and restore the kingdom of David.
The Pharisees may have asked their question in part to trick Jesus, maybe to get him to claim to be the Messiah, as that seemed to be a common way they interacted with him. As usual, Jesus was too much in command to be taken in that way. He told them that they were on the wrong track. There would be no particular signs which could be monitored with care to help them know the answer to the ‘when’ of the kingdom. The star may have risen in the east for the wise men to note and follow but that was not going to be the case in the future. Not only that, there was no ‘where’ of the kingdom either. No one could point and say it was ‘here’ or ‘there’. It was without geographical boundaries, a bit like SL.
As Jesus was speaking, the kingdom of God was actually within the grasp of his hearers in the person of Jesus himself. The kingdom had begun with Jesus’ teaching and gathering his group of followers and performing signs and wonders by the authority given to him by God. The kingdom was not just a future event but also a present reality: both/and; now/not yet.
Of course it would be completely understandable for the disciples to want the ‘not yet’ part of the kingdom to hurry up and become a reality. In tough times, times of persecution and difficulty, the disciples (and us) would long for the Day of the Lord, the Day of the Son of Man, to come and usher in a new era. Each day in the current season we remember in Morning Prayer the words of Isaiah: ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’
That longing for the new thing of God could be dangerous for the disciples. Eagerly longing for Jesus’ return could leave them open to being misled by those suggesting that the Messiah had now arrived back on earth. Jesus doesn’t want his disciples, either those listening to him then or us now, to go running off after every possible Messiah. Think of the tragedies which have resulted from that in our own times, such as the siege at Waco when 76 men, women and children lost their lives, at least indirectly as a result of following David Koresh, a self-styled messiah.
Perhaps the Pharisees were worried that they would miss noticing the signs of the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus says that when he comes it will be like lightning flashing across the sky. Lightning happens high up and can be seen for miles and miles around. It is so bright that it’s possible to see it even with your eyes closed. Lightning is accompanied by a great noise of thunder and can terrify those who witness it. Huge power is released as it splits the sky. It announces itself very well without any signs ahead of it. There will be no need for anyone else to tell us about Jesus’ return because, though it will come without warning, it will be unmistakable to those who believe in him and those who don’t.
As it says in the Book of Revelation:
“Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.”
What does all this mean for us now? We live between the time when Jesus was physically present in a human body and the time when he will return again to fully reveal the kingdom. Despite that, the kingdom is still present as Jesus is present with us through the power of his Spirit who lives in all believers. That Spirit helps us to live each of our days as though it were the one on which the sky is split by a huge flash of lightning and Jesus returns. We know to be careful not to run off after false messiahs but to wait for the unmistakable true one who will come at a time when we do not expect him.
Meanwhile we can look for signs of the kingdom in the lives of his followers. We can see hearts changed by the work of the Spirit, becoming like God’s heart full of love, mercy and forgiveness, and we can rejoice. Each person who comes to faith and is transformed gives us evidence of the kingdom of God around us. It was this sort of change that allowed Paul to write to Philemon, the owner of the slave Onesimus, and expect him to alter his way of behaving towards his slave.
Slavery existed in New Testament times and is part of the backdrop against which the spread of the Gospel is played out. There is no support for slavery specifically given in the New Testament but neither is there any support for some kind of revolutionary overturning of the way society operated. Philemon was a Christian and a slave owner. Onesimus became a Christian and was still a slave. The emphasis instead is on changed relationships as a result of a new faith in which both have the same Lord. Philemon was urged to treat Onesimus as a brother. Elsewhere Paul states that there is now neither slave nor free. The kingdom is not one of distinctions but of unity, equality and mutual respect.
Each of us, whatever our position in life, has been offered the hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrection through his suffering. One day we will see God face to face as we realise fully what it means to be citizens in the kingdom of God.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor