Sunday, January 09, 2011

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Thirty-five years ago, when I read this morning’s excerpt from Matthew [4:12-17] for the very first time, I distinctly remember feeling a bit let down by it. In the previous chapter, I had encountered the exciting character of John the Baptist, who dressed like a wild caveman and went about exhorting and rebuking the people and preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Now, as I read about the Lord Jesus Christ poised to begin His public ministry, I knew things were really going to ramp up. Here was the greatest preacher in history about to take the world stage, and His very first message to that waiting world was going to be: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”


I expected Him to open with something a little more original than that. But my major disappointment with His preaching debut was that He didn’t say so much as a single word about our need to accept Him as personal Lord and Savior and to start reading the bible. I couldn’t see any value in His talking about heaven if He wasn’t going to tell people what it would take to get there! In short, I felt that He had stumbled out of the gate and muffed His first opportunity to make a clear presentation of the message of salvation.

It took a few more years for me to comprehend that Jesus preached the gospel just fine, thank you very much. It was yours truly who had a few wires loose.

First off, I had failed to notice in this passage that Jesus wasn’t talking about heaven, He was talking about the kingdom of heaven. In fact, Jesus never really spoke of heaven in an abstract way as people often do today. He most often referred to heaven as a kingdom, implying that it was a realm where the rule and order and life of God was experienced, rather than the rebellion, confusion, and death common to this fallen world. I did know that one day Jesus would reign as king from heaven, but quite honestly, I never gave it that much thought. To me, heaven was the pleasant if somewhat airy-fairy promise of eternal bliss awaiting all true believers in the life to come. Beyond that, heaven didn’t seem to have much to do with this life except to serve as an incentive to get people to accept Christ, and frankly, the fear of hell worked better in that regard. For some reason, more people seem attuned to the idea of receiving eternal punishment from God than eternal reward.

But when it came to this idea of the kingdom of heaven being truly at hand, as if it were just moments away from being established upon the earth, I could not grasp this at all. Where was this kingdom of heaven if that were true? Some people taught that the reign of Christ was to be experienced in the here-and-now by the application of biblical principles to our lives. This sounded good but I was always painfully aware that we all read and interpreted our bibles differently. I couldn’t see how Jesus could be an effectual king if we were the ones making all the rules. Later I also realized that if the bible was to represent the reign of Christ in this world, He would have to wait an additional 1400 years for the printing press to be invented to really kickstart His kingdom. This was stretching the meaning of the words “at hand” pretty thin!

One final thought that occurred to me--the most disturbing one of all--was that whenever Christ was to be enthroned as absolute monarch of His kingdom, what if we didn’t like it? Even as an Evangelical Christian myself, I was ashamed of all the pride and egotism prevalent in our movement. We claimed to be a people obedient to the bible, but in practice we made the bible obedient to ourselves. While staunchly defending the inerrancy and supremacy of the bible, we twisted and abused the scriptures to support our pet doctrines and beliefs. I began to suspect that our strident insistence on the authority of the bible was nothing more than a thinly-disguised defense of our own authority and independence. Clearly, we were a people who liked to be in charge.

How would we fare in the kingdom of heaven where our opinions no longer mattered and the rules were not ours to make up? How would we handle it when we were no longer calling the shots, because a King was made to rule over us with absolute authority? We all imagined that we would enjoy it of course, but how could we possibly know that when there was nothing in the evangelical Christian experience to help prepare us for this? We were learning how to be rulers, not the ruled. We thought our souls were prepared for heaven, but there was no way to know if they were being properly prepared for the kingdom of heaven.

When Christ said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” He was speaking the literal truth. Ten days after His ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, He sent the Holy Spirit to establish His Church, the outpost of the kingdom of heaven on earth, and the beginning of His eternal reign over the new creation.

As an Evangelical, “church” was one more thing that meant very little to me, because here again was something we had reinvented to support our independence. To an Evangelical, church is not the intersection of heaven and earth, the place where a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven is experienced that men might wrestle with the rule and authority of Christ, hopefully to submit. No, church is portrayed as “the great, invisible body of all true believers, regardless of denomination,” a most unbiblical definition, to say the least. We had stripped “church” of all authority and tradition, because these posed a threat to our own authority and traditions. Like the bible, like heaven, and perhaps even like God Himself, we had reinvented church to support our experiences and preferences.

It may seem that I have painted a fairly bleak picture of my Evangelical past, but in truth I am speaking of humanity itself. Mankind is fallen and broken and spiritually darkened and rebellious. For this reason no one accepts the reign of Christ easily. It is the same for Orthodox Christians as everyone else. This is why Jesus graciously established His Church upon the earth. The Church is man’s first encounter with the kingdom of heaven, the place where we can wrestle with God’s claim of absolute authority over us and learn to put to death our rebellious traits. Besides introducing me to Christ, which was a very good thing, the other benefit I derived from my Evangelical years was the lesson that we simply can’t be trusted to make our own rules. When we are in charge of deciding what is truth, we inevitably reduce it to fit what we want.

This is a lesson we must not forget as Orthodox Christian believers. The Holy Tradition of faith and life we have inherited in the Church is not ours to lay aside as we please. It is not up to us to make the rules, if we want to prepare ourselves for the kingdom of heaven. We do like to have our own way and do tend to feel that Orthodoxy is awfully demanding. I think we should see that the very thing we are struggling with is our acceptance of the reign of Christ in our lives. This is normal for a fallen and broken people, but Christ must win this struggle if His Church is to be of any eternal value to us. Now is the time for us to bring ourselves under the reign of Jesus Christ, lest we discover too late that we want nothing to do with it.

Our gracious Lord told us what to do and why we should do it when He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The Church is revealed as the beginning of the kingdom of heaven on earth, mankind’s introduction to the reign of Christ, given that we might find peace with God and eternal life when His kingdom comes in fullness at Christ’s second appearing. What a great gift His Church is to our fallen race! Let us not excuse ourselves from the struggle or make things too easy on ourselves in a time that is meant for us to submit to our King, Jesus Christ.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 7/07/2012 10:24 AM , Blogger Rebecca Jean Downey said...

This is an exceptionally beautiful explanation of God's grace. He doesn't expect us to grasp an understanding of His Kingdom all at once, but in baby steps.

Thank you for this. I am teaching the lesson on the Kingdom is at-hand this Sunday in my Sunday School lesson and am thankful to finally understand what this means.


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