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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If the kingdom of heaven were to appear on earth, what would you expect it to look like? Maybe you’ve never thought of it before, but when you hear the words “kingdom of heaven,” what comes to mind? What do you see or imagine? What would it look like? What sorts of things would happen?
Would the kingdom of heaven look like John the Baptist being arrested and thrown into prison, and beheaded by Herod? John, the one who first preached, “Repent; the kingdom of heaven has come near”? Would it look like Jesus being led into the wilderness to hunger and thirst for 40 days and to be tempted by the devil? Some of the things here we might expect. Like when Jesus tells the messengers from John, “Go and tell John what you’ve seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.” And here, many people, suffering from all sorts of afflictions and pain and sickness, are brought to Jesus and He heals them all.
That sort of thing is more like what we would expect from light shining in a dark place on those who live in the shadow of death. But He only heals a few people, relatively. He doesn’t heal everyone around the whole world. And what about today? That was a long time ago and we still have sickness, death, oppression, and suffering. What about that? Is this what we would have expected? And what about the fact that the one who brings the kingdom of heaven comes to His end on the cross.
This isn’t the glorious revelation of the kingdom of heaven. John himself seems to wonder what’s going on because he’s still in prison. Where is the victory and triumph? Where are the angel armies bringing an end to all earthly powers, throwing down the oppressors, giving justice to the oppressed? Where is the end of human suffering and the beginning of righteousness?
What is clear is that the kingdom of heaven does not come in the way that we expect it to come. It doesn’t appear in the form we imagine it would appear. It doesn’t come the way we would have it come and we don’t see the things happening that would happen if we were in charge. In this creation, the way that it is, the kingdom of heaven comes in a way that no person expects. Here there is healing and large crowds, but by the end there is only abandonment and death. Jesus is dead, the Roman Empire is still in charge. Where’s the kingdom of heaven that John and Jesus say has come near?
When Jesus goes out of the Jordan river and into the wilderness, He overcomes those temptations and then angels minister to Him. Then He goes immediately to Galilee of the Gentiles, a light shining on those in darkness and in the shadow of death. So it is when Jesus finishes the work of the kingdom of heaven. He is tempted one last time to be a different kind of Son of God. The mockers tell Him to come down from the cross if He really is the Son. That’s the sort of God we’d like. If He comes down triumphant and destroys His enemies, then we’ll believe Him. But He will not give into that temptation. His victory is not in avoiding suffering and death, but in submitting to it. The kingdom of heaven comes in this world in suffering and death.
And when He has overcome that last temptation and finished His course in death, angels appear again, this time not to minister to Him, but to minister to the women who come to the empty tomb. He is not in the grave; He is risen, just as He said. Go tell His brothers that He will go ahead of them to Galilee, and there they will see Him. Back to Galilee, and the light shines, and the kingdom spreads. He tells His disciples to go no longer only to the lost sheep of Israel, but to all the Gentiles, all the nations. Make them learners of Jesus—disciples—and do that by baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe and keep everything Jesus said to them.
The kingdom of heaven doesn’t come in this world in power and glory and victorious spectacle. It comes in the midst of suffering and sickness and death and affliction. And it comes in words. Just words. It comes to those with eyes to see it—that is, those with ears to hear. Words like: the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Words like: I forgive you all your sins. Words like: this is My Body and this is My Blood—the very resurrection life. And these are words He speaks to you here and now; the kingdom of heaven has come among you.
Repent of expecting the kingdom of heaven to come in the way that you think it should come. Repent of thinking that the kingdom of heaven should come in ways that make sense to human reason. The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. In whatever you’re suffering, whatever pain, whatever oppression or difficulty, with whatever you’re struggling against, Jesus has come to heal it. He has come to heal it all. But it appears in weakness in this creation, as long as this creation lasts. As long as people are born, get sick, suffer, and die, Jesus continues to bring His kingdom under those signs, creating it wherever He speaks. In your weakness, cling to Jesus. In your sickness, cling to Jesus. In your suffering, cling to Jesus. Because He will bring you to the glorious appearance of His kingdom and the transformation of this creation. As long as you’re alive in this creation, sin and death will continue to cause suffering. But He will keep you until the day when sin and death will see their eternal defeat.
The kingdom of heaven has come near to you—it’s right here in the midst of you, wherever Jesus is, speaking and baptizing and feeding. He builds His Church, and neither sickness, suffering, affliction, pain, grief—not even the gates of Hell—can have the victory over Him and His Kingdom. He has given the keys to open the doors of His kingdom to His Church. And here are the doors of forgiveness and life, open to you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/25/20