“God’s Kingdom is Here” or “Already and Not Yet” – Jennifer Hosler
Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
This week the world is celebrating the remarkable life and work of Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday. In South Africa, he led the way for forgiveness to triumph over revenge, for choosing the path of reconciliation over one of continued hate. Reconciliation was not inevitable. Imprisoned for 27 years by a regime that viciously subjugated millions of people because of the color of their skin, Mandela easily could have led a revenge movement after his release, led the country toward civil war to kick out the white oppressors.
At the time when Mandela’s upcoming release was announced, no one quite knew what would happen. An NPR article describes the emotion: “It would be impossible to overstate the electric sense of anticipation that coursed through South Africa as Mandela’s release grew imminent. Apartheid was still the law of the land, but de Klerk had declared sweeping changes that were rapidly dismantling the system of racial segregation. South Africans, black and white, knew their country was about to undergo seismic change, yet no one knew where it would lead” (Myre, 2013).
Today we celebrate his life because the direction Mandela set was not one towards civil war, revenge, or violence but towards truth and reconciliation. He described his decision this way: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison” (cited by Anderson, 2013).
In people like him, in situations like the emergence out of apartheid, we get glimpses that another world is possible. As Christians, we see God’s reign in the powerful voice of forgiveness from Mandela and the movement’s spiritual advisor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
At the same time, alongside these glimpses of hope, we see our regular reality. South Africa no longer has apartheid, but it struggles with poverty, inequality, and corruption. It faces a legacy of inequality, underdevelopment, and injustice that is difficult from which to recover.
We rejoice in Mandela’s life this week. At the same time, scrolling down the news page, we also see violence in the Central African Republic, continued war in Syria, protests in Ukraine.
As Christians, we have this curious paradox: already, not yet. We know that Jesus came into the world. In our gospel text today, John the Baptizer proclaims that God’s Kingdom is here! At times we feel this, we see God’s power doing more than we could ask or imagine: empowering us to forgive our neighbor, breaking down Jim Crow, dismantling apartheid. But at other times, we look around us and don’t see signs that God is in charge. Scripture says that God’s Kingdom is here already… but also, not fully, not yet. How do we understand this? What is God’s Kingdom? What does it mean for our lives that God’s Kingdom is here, already but not yet? How do we find hope in God’s Kingdom when faced with violence, struggles, injustice, and wrongs?
In scripture, we see that God promised a Messiah to usher in his Kingdom. During his ministry, Jesus manifested God’s rule and has begun to open up the Kingdom of God on earth through his death and resurrection. We await his 2nd coming to fully install his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In this period of already and not yet, we take hope in the “already” and God’s Spirit gives us courage and strength to press on during the “not yet”.
In understanding God’s Kingdom, we need to think about hope and promise. Promises. We accept or don’t accept promises from people for different reasons. We trust some people because they haven’t given us reason not to trust them. We might not bank a lot on someone unproven but most of us are usually willing to take a person at their word at first. If there’s a lot riding on it, trust is usually given to people who have proven themselves worthy of trust. They’ve come through before and we know they are reliable. Hope in a desired outcome and trust that it will happen is usually connected to a person’s character and past faithfulness.
When you look through the Old Testament, the hope of the Israelites was always rooted in the character of the LORD God, of YHWH. YHWH was the God who kept his promises. He fulfilled his promises: he made a wanderer into the patriarch of a great nation; he delivered the slaves from bondage and took down the army that would re-enslave them; he turned a lowly shepherd boy into a king. Hope for the Israelites was rooted in what God had done in the past (been faithful to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, delivered Israel from Egypt) and it also rested on what He promised to do in the future.
If you wade through the OT historical books, 1st and 2nd Chronicles, 1st and 2nd Kings, you see that Israel went through some rough periods. While David was a righteous king and Solomon built the temple, things went downhill soon after their reigns. Later kings proved unfaithful and generally led the country on a disastrous course, away from YHWH and into destruction. God had promised that David’s throne would last forever and, as Israel was pillaged and taken into exile, this promise took on a Messianic connection.
Walter Bruggemann, an Old Testament theologian, writes that, “even amidst its deepest defeats, Israelites trusted that in due course YHWH would restore kingship and raise up a newly anointed king, a ‘messiah’ who would effectively enact YHWH’s will in the world. The prophetic materials of the Old Testament teem with promises and expectations that, in the face of present-tense failed Davidic kings, a future anointed king, a coming ‘messiah,’ will rule rightly (Isa. 9:2-7; 11:1-9; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:14-16; Ezek. 34:23-24; Amos 9:11-12; Zech. 9:9-10)” (Brueggemann, 2002, pp. 117-118).
Isaiah and the other prophets spoke of God’s King to come, a future ruler. Throughout the prophets, an image of God’s future reign is announced, that God’s King will rule again, that the LORD, YHWH, will be in charge, and the world will be in harmony. In today’s Isaiah passage we see a righteous ruler, the “root of Jesse”, implying a descendent of David’s, son of Jesse. Isaiah foretells that God’s King will be led by God’s Spirit and will reign in justice and righteousness. In that day, when the King reigns, the world will be characterized by unbelievable harmony and goodness.
Isaiah uses this animal imagery that seems somewhat preposterous. Wolves and lambs? Leopards and goats? Babies and cobras? God through Isaiah promises that safety and peace will define the transformed world when God’s King is reigning. This brings us to the coming of God’s King, of the Messiah, to our gospel passage in Matthew.
We meet John the Baptizer, a shaggy and unkempt man in camel-hair clothing (at least how I picture camel-hair, it is unkempt. Perhaps you can be clean cut in camel). John fits the Israelite picture of prophet, though to us he sounds a bit crazed. He preaches God’s message saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” This promised Kingdom, with the promised King, is finally at hand in the gospels and a new reign is visible in the person and ministry of Jesus.
As I considered the Kingdom of God and the emergence of God’s reign in the world, my mind went to the mythical world written by C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia. On a day where snow and freezing rain and ice are forecast, it seems apt to consider the story’s Snow Queen and her rule.
To refresh our memories, the world of Narnia remains under the spell of the White Witch and the world is frozen. It is always winter, never Christmas. There is rumor and hope amongst the animals, long oppressed by the White Witch, that the King of the animals, Aslan the Lion, would come and rescue them and reign. The word is spread that Aslan is on the move and then, the world begins to slowly show signs of his presence. The snow begins to finally melt.
In the gospels, we see a new reality beginning in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus heals the sick and casts out the demons plaguing people. He calms a storm and walks on water and feeds 5000 from a few loaves and fishes. Jesus forgives sins, welcomes the outcast, and raises the dead back to life. Jesus begins to usher in a new order.
This isn’t the order that the zealots hoped for, a political reign that kicked out the Romans or a reign that favored only the nation of Israel. Rather, it is “a universal, spiritual order in which humankind… [can find] righteousness, justice, peace, happiness, freedom from sin and guilt, and a restored relationship to God—an order in which God [is] king” (Caragounis, 1992, p. 430). Through Jesus’ ministry, through his death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God begins to break into a world of sin and brokenness and hate. God’s Kingdom is here already… but at the same time, not quite yet.
For some reason, Jesus doesn’t complete the inauguration of his kingdom at the time of the resurrection or his ascension. The apostle Peter writes in the New Testament that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Yet I also think that God chose this path so that humanity might be a part of God’s plan in ushering in the Kingdom. Jesus instructed his followers to make disciples, to love, to be unified so that the world might believe, might know His love and power through their actions. God, it seems, has a penchant for taking the long way home. But he didn’t leave us alone in the meantime.
As most of you know, Nate was away for almost the whole month of November—first in Korea and then in Austria before I joined him. I grew up staying home alone sometimes, when my mom worked nights and my sister had moved out. In the past, I have always found it somewhat creepy, being alone. While I have occasional moments of being creeped out, occasional times where it is a little lonely eating supper by myself, I have some good company to keep me amused and distracted.
We have a funny little cat—one that is definitely on the needy side of the cat spectrum. He chirps and snuggles and barks at me (really) to play with him numerous times throughout the day and evening. When Nate is gone, I’m not alone. Nate doesn’t take Scruff with him. I have a furry little being to keep me company until he returns.
Now you might think that I’m calling the Holy Spirit a furry little being… but I’m not. I’m just making a very loose comparison. In John 14, Jesus promised his disciples that he wouldn’t leave them alone: he would send a comforter, the Holy Spirit. Jesus not only promises this as a comforting presence but as a power to continue his work and more.
He tells his disciples in John 14:12, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus promised the Spirit to be with us and empower us between his ascension and his return. The early church understood Jesus to be coming again and eagerly ministered to the world in hope of his return to usher in God’s full Kingdom.
So what does it mean for us today, that God’s Kingdom is here… already but not yet? In light of the Kingdom of God, we find hope, we find purpose, and we find power.
The Kingdom of God calls us to imagine life out of death, light amidst darkness. In times of hopelessness and discouragement, in view of the many problems in the world, in the face of seemingly insurmountable injustice, we are called to hope in the power of God, to imagine a reality where love and forgiveness and justice and reconciliation triumph. God brings life out of devastation and seeming hopelessness, as Isaiah describes the image of a shoot growing out of a cut-down tree.
We find hope and our kingdom imagination in the Scriptures, where we learn of God’s work in the past and promises for the future. Paul writes to the Romans in chapter 15, “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (v. 4).
We find hope, like the Israelites, based on the character of YHWH as the God who keeps his promises, as the Lord who freed the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, as the one who raised Jesus from the dead. This God has declared his Kingdom is here and that it will come fully, that one day “they will not hurt or destroy on all [his] holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9). We find hope in the “already”, which enables us to look toward the “not yet”.
In light of God’s Kingdom, we find hope and we also follow in John’s footsteps to “prepare the way”.
The Kingdom of God was present in the life and ministry of Jesus. He passed on the task of demonstrating God’s kingdom to us; he has given us the work of making God’s reality visible on earth as it is in heaven. We believe that Jesus is coming again and we are called to fulfill his mission: to make disciples, to love our neighbors, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to forgive and reconcile people to God and to each other. We are reconciled to God through Christ Jesus and given purpose. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:8-10). In light of God’s Kingdom, we have purpose and we have hope.
Last but not least, in light of God’s Kingdom, we have the power of God at work within us. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to comfort and empower his disciples. The power of God, which raised Jesus from the dead, dwells within all who believe and follow Jesus the Risen One. The Holy Spirit gives new life to us and empowers us to continue the work of Jesus in this world, peacefully, simply, together.
Paul, in a prayer for the Ephesians, said, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory”! The resurrecting power, the Holy Spirit, resides within us to empower our work of making God’s kingdom visible, in transforming the “not yet” into “yet”.
Sisters and brothers, take heart and be of great courage. God’s kingdom is here, already and not yet. Prepare the way of the Lord and work to make God’s reality visible, to make God’s kingdom present on this earth as it is in heaven. Do this through how you love one another, how you serve others, how you forgive, how you work for justice, and in how you hope. AMEN.
Anderson, E. (2013, August 21). Fifteen inspiring quotes from Nelson Mandela on leadership, change, and life. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2013/08/21/15-inspiring-quotes-from-nelson-mandela-on-leadership-change-and-life/
Brueggemann, W. (2002). Reverberations of faith: A theological handbook of Old Testament themes. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.
Caragounis, C.C. (1992). Kingdom of God/Heaven. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (417-430). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Myre, G. (2013, June 27). The day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2013/06/11/190671704/the-day-nelson-mandela-walked-out-of-prison