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Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Kingdom of Heaven

I'm not quite sure that I believe in heaven. That is a totally ludicrous statement for a Christian to make and I know it. But it is true quite a lot of the time. The reality of heaven seems weird and detached and I find it hard for the motivation of a future reward, the future grace that Peter talks about ("Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming." 1 Pet 1:13), to be the reason for living today. I find it difficult to explain why that is. I think because I squirm at the idea of following Jesus being about rewards. Another weird statement. I don't like to think that I am only living the way I live today for the not yet rather than for the now. I find it hard to get excited about an eternity with God. I find it hard to summon up joy at the prospect of 24/7 worship. I wonder if I am alone in that?

And yet, I know that my doubts about heaven, my nervousness (almost) about what it will be like and whether it's there at all come from my misunderstanding, and not God's bad planning. In my head - though not yet my heart - I know that heaven will be a wonderful and beautiful thing; that we will truely be able to appreciate the glory and awesomeness of God without being held back by our sin and our unbelief. That the deepest longing of the human soul is simply to hang out with God and be in his presence. I know this because I've tasted it. I know this because I hunger for a greater wanting of God. (A confusing sentence: put more simply, I want to want) I want him, but only in part. But that part is enough to know that I want him more. You cannot be hungry for something you have never tasted. I have tasted a morsel and I know the full reality would blow my mind. I just can't quite seem to translate that into my view of heaven. I can't get my head (and my heart) around the longing and aching and waiting for heaven that the bible speaks of. 

I raised this with a friend yesterday and - as well as being quite relieved that she felt similarly! - was reminded of a question I have had scribbled in my bible for the past few weeks. On a scrap of paper, in green biro, I have simply written The Kingdom of Heaven? I have been meaning to think and blog about the answer to that question for weeks. Not that it's even a question really. It's an idea. An idea that's too vast to really digest or think about. I have thought about it though and it was only yesterday that my thoughts clarified themselves. My friend suggested that - although it might be difficult to get excited about being with God because, in the brokenness of our sin, we struggle so much to really taste and see what that is like - it is easy to get excited about the coming of a kingdom. It is easy to get excited about a broken world made right again, about no more mourning or death or tears, about a place where joy and gladness will overtake us and sorrow and sighing will flee away (Isaiah 35). And a kingdom can't really be a kingdom, the kingdom cannot come, unless there is a king to rule it and people to live in it under the rule of that good and perfect king and (incredibly) we get to be those people, the people living out what it is to be in the kingdom. But (and this replaces my unease about heaven with a profound surge of joy for the present) we get to live out that reality now. And (there's more) it is our living out of that reality that brings heaven (the place where that reality is in its realest, fullest form) to earth. We are the children of glory, born into a new inheritance through the death and resurrection of Christ, who all of creation is groaning for; we get to participate in the act of making new, of redeeming. We are co-labourers in recreation. 

As Jo and I talked and prayed together, I got a picture of a little kid whose toy is snatched and broken by someone else. He takes it to his father but, rather than repair it and simply hand it back, the dad invites the son to work alongside him to put the toy back together again. I think the Kingdom of Heaven looks a little like this: we have been bashed about and bruised by our own sin, the sins of others, and the pain of living in a sinful world and God wants to come alongside us not only that we might be fixed but that we might be those who fix others. Perhaps that is what is meant when Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed: a tiny seed of faith is dropped into our souls that we might believe and as we grow in our maturity alongside a community of others doing the same we - together as believers, as the church, as his body - become this huge safe space, this refuge, in which all the birds can find safety.

In the bible the Kingdom of Heaven in compared to a myriad of seemingly contradictory things: It is a man sowing seed; a mustard seed; hidden treasure in a field; a pearl of great price worth selling everything else for; a king who wishes to settle account with his servants, who demonstrates supreme mercy and punishes the failure to show mercy in return; a man hiring labourers for his vineyard who flips worldy justice on its head by paying each one the same regardless of the hour they started work; a king who throws a wedding banquet for his son; ten virgins with lamps…

Scripture is at once incredibly specific and frustratingly vague about this kingdom. When Jesus first starts his ministry he announces that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). This same kingdom is proclaimed by the apostles in Acts time and time again as they call for people to repent and believe in the resurrection of Christ. The kingdom of heaven cannot be entered unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and yet you must be willing to receive it as a gift, like a child. It is to be sought above all else and before all else. It is nearly impossible for the rich to enter it, and yet prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors are getting in before the religious. Some are near the kingdom; some are preventing others from entering. Some shut the door of the kingdom in the face of others whilst they themselves miss the opportunity to enter in. The kingdom is only for the totally pure and righteous; it is for the meek and the poor; it is worth losing eye and limb to get inside it. The kingdom is what Joseph of Arimathea is looking for before he asks for Jesus’ body to be taken down from the cross. The kingdom cannot be entered by flesh and blood, not by what is perishable but only by what is imperishable. To enter the kingdom you cannot look back nor can you stop to bury the dead. Your way is blocked unless you are born again of water and of spirit.  It isn’t a matter of eating and drinking; it is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the spirit. It isn’t about talking; it’s about power. It is entered by those who are called by God to enter in to it. It is a kingdom that endures forever. It cannot be shaken.

And yet, amongst all this, it is hard to see what the Kingdom actually is. Perhaps because it isn't a thing as of such; it is the living out of life under the King. All of the comparisons Jesus makes are a way of trying to explain what this King is like (he loves mercy and punishes the unmerciful (Matt 18:21-25); he welcomes the downcast and extends an open invitation to all who will accept it (Matt 22:1-14); he refuses to differentiate between the different subjects of his kingdom regardless of when they first met him as king and started to obey him (Matt 20:1-16)) and what it is to live underneath his Kingship. That is the very reason that Israel were chosen in the first place: not because they were greater than other nations or had anything particularly good going for them (Deut 7:7), but so that God might use them as a demonstration to the other nations of what it looked like to be his subjects:

"See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?" Deuteronomy 4:5-8

Israel were chosen to be a blessing to the nations: 

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you.
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
And all peoples of the earth
will be blessed through you.” (Gen 12:2-4)

The first subjects of the kingdom that we gentiles have only recently been permitted entrance into were given the incredible promise that it is through them that the entire world would be blessed. I don't pretend to understand how God is working out that plan (Romans 11 boggles my mind) but He makes it pretty clear that we are only receiving a blessing because Israel failed to be obedient; we are being blessed through Israel now as the dogs snaffling the scraps under a banquet that both was and wasn't intended for us (Matt 15:17): "Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!" (Romans 11:11-12) It is not the end of the story however: greater blessing is yet to come through the restoration of Israel to the Kingdom. All Israel will be saved (!) (Rom 11:26) Like Paul I am in awe and bafflement at this statement: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Rom 11:33) I do not pretend to be able to understand it.

This seems to have come very far from my original train of thought. I guess I wanted to return to the notion of blessing: that God's plan was always to use his people to bless others. Through Jesus Christ that blessing potential is now infinitely greater: we have become ministers of reconciliation called to bless and transform the world around us. This feels like deja vu as I know I have written similar things before but this, for me, is the most unbelievable and beautiful and exciting thing about the kingdom: it is all about the now, the imminence of heaven breaking into earth, being dragged in by those who will dare to live in the way of the king, those who dare to live lives that beg the question: Who the heck are you worshipping and how can I meet him? What is it that you have and why do I feel like I want it to? Who dare to lives lives of such extravagant hope that people cannot help but ask them about where it comes from ("Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" 1 Peter 3:15)

I write with conviction and yet I know that I fail to live up to my own exhortation to hope. I fail to be hopeful. And this, perhaps, is why we need to look forward to heaven. I would like to be full of such a confident hope in God's promises for my eternity that it influences every second of how I live now, that I would become a continual outpouring of "the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for [me] in heaven" (Col 1:5) on earth. What is the Kingdom of Heaven like? The Kingdom of Heaven is like someone who knows that they will one day be absolutely and totally satisfied by being in the goodness and glory of God and so throws away everything now - themselves, their time, their status, their ambition, their pride, their desire to be perceived as worthy in the world's eyes - that they might gain everything then. And they do it that the world might see, and be amazed by the actions of this subject of the kingdom, and so, one day, long also to meet with their King.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
   “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matt 13:44-45)

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