Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Kingdom of God Is Among You

“In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:9-10).

“And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 22:5).

Most of us have thought of heaven at one time or another. Maybe we’ve thought about it because we’ve seen pretty pictures of God’s Kingdom in the sky, and have wondered what it would be like to live there. Maybe we’ve thought about it in remembering loved ones who have died, curious about what they might be experiencing. Maybe we’ve thought about it because we’re desperately afraid of hell. Maybe we’ve thought about it as something we long for, and hope for, and dream of.

Heaven, or how we imagine heaven, is one of the ways we think about God’s Kingdom. Revelation 21:1-27 shows us John’s vision of the Kingdom as a heavenly city coming down out of heaven from God after the first heaven and first earth have passed away. This city “made of pure gold, clear as glass” (21:18) has no temple because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). Chapter 22 shows us the river of life “flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1), echoing Ezekiel’s vision of a life-giving river flowing from the threshold of the new temple (Ezek 47:1-12). The river of the water of life flows through the city, nourishing the tree of life whose leaves heal the nations.

In this heavenly Jerusalem, there is no more night, no more darkness, no more sadness, and no more pain, “for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). Christ Himself is the light. More than just dispelling the darkness – a transformative promise in itself – in Christ’s reign we shall see His face and know Him fully, and live; His Name will be written on our foreheads as we go into the holy of holies and see Him face to face. We will know Him in all His blinding glory. Christ’s rule invites us in, as we share in His reign and in His light forever.

The vision of God’s Kingdom as a place where Christ’s light has dispelled all darkness is powerful. I find myself longing after it, longing after that Kingdom, yearning for an end to the gathering darkness, an end to the separation between God and myself. John’s vision is the answer to the most desperate longing of our hearts: to be with God and know Him.

But John’s vision is also a bit alienating and otherworldly. It’s so far away. It’s so long in coming. It’s so different from the first heaven and the first earth, the lives we’re living, the race we’re running and must not give up running. A Kingdom to be longed and hoped for, to be dreamed of, but not grasped. It’s the Kingdom of the ascended Christ, Who sits at the right hand of God.

Jesus didn’t just leave the Kingdom behind like something He forgot to pack in His knapsack when He came down for a visit. Though Jesus emptied Himself, He brought the Kingdom with Him. We encounter it every time we meet Jesus, in His deeds of power, in His transforming love, and in His death on the cross. Small and infinite, growing and unchanging, here and not-yet-here, God’s Kingdom defies the logic of the human mind and speaks in the language of our heart.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us about the Kingdom in parables. Impenetrable, obscure, clear, earthly, and comforting: the Kingdom is at once baffling and simple, incomprehensible and the most obvious thing in the world. More to be felt than understood, the Kingdom of God gives itself to us in the humble language of the world and hides itself in the everyday fabric of our lives.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us that Jesus descended and ascended so that He “might fill all things” (Eph 4:10). We know Jesus descended into hell, and that He ascended into heaven. He is victorious over death and the devil, and sits at the right hand of God. He did spectacular things that only God can do. He also came here, and lived a life. Jesus was ecstatically happy. Jesus wept. Jesus laughed, and ate, and drank. Sometimes He was angry. He was tempted. He was afraid. He got sick, he laughed, he had friends. He was probably bored sometimes. Jesus lived a fully human life so that God could fill all things.

Jesus is with us in our daily lives. He’s with us in the boring bits, He’s with us in the exciting bits, the happy bits, and the sorrowful bits. All our lives are filled with Jesus, even if He’s not doing anything other than being here with us. Jesus’ life fills all things, and we know that even if He didn’t live an experience exactly like ours, He understands us, and we are not alone.

Sometimes Christians, like all people, try and push the difficult bits of life to the side and hide them away, especially if they don’t make sense. While we understand grief and loss and hardship and pain, sometimes the melancholy that has no reason is harder to understand, and so easier to want to cover up. Over the years, well-meaning people have told me to pull my socks up, to get over it, to look on the bright side. If I’m being honest, I’ve sometimes said those things to myself. People whom I know love me have said that it’s wrong to be ungrateful for the life that God has given me, that God would never give anyone a burden they couldn’t carry, and that we are all living the fate we are meant to. I’ve heard it said that it’s wrong to ask God to take our burdens from us, and we should just trust that He knows what He’s doing. Whoever said that has forgotten that Jesus spent a night in the garden of Gethsemane praying for His fate to be taken from Him. The Kingdom of God is there in our despair, and in our questioning, and in the outer darkness, because Jesus is all and in all.

The Kingdom of God is here amidst our brokenness. When we read Revelation, it’s easy to think of the Kingdom as being far off, far away somewhere other than here, a Kingdom of the future. That is both true and not true. We haven’t seen the end of days, so the Kingdom is still coming and not-yet. But Christ is already ascended to the Father and sits at His right hand. Jesus is in the Kingdom that John saw, in the city of gold as clear as glass, with the river of the water of life flowing through the middle of its street. That is the Kingdom that Jesus brought with Him, and the Kingdom is now.

The water of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb, bringing healing to the nations, as fully as water flowed from Jesus’ pierced side. It is healing, it is life-giving, and it surrounds us always. The difference is that here, in this fallen world, the water is always mixed with the blood, and through them both God offers us the gift of abundant life. In the Kingdom, God’s light shines without any need for light of sun or lamp, because darkness has passed away. The Kingdom is brining eternal life in the midst of our sorrow and our woundedness, and light in the darkness. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men” (Rev 21:3); The Kingdom of God is among us.

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