Some words from our Gospel reading: “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Matthew 3.1) Turn over a few pages and you hear this: From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 4.17)
No prizes for spotting the similarity…. Both John and Jesus make it clear that something is happening….. something is on the way…. something is approaching…. something for which we need to get ready. That something is what they call, “The Kingdom of Heaven”… Or sometimes “The Kingdom of God”.
Now for the sake of short-hand it`s best to think of `Heaven` as `God`s space`…. Heaven is the sphere of God`s influence…. And what we`re being told is that in Jesus the Christ, this Kingdom…. `God`s space` is invading what we like to think of as `Our Space`. Isaiah, in our first reading describes it graphically by saying, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”. (Isaiah 11.9) It`s a picture of utter saturation!
And it`s this Kingdom (this state of affairs, this `regime change` in the world) which Jesus tells us we should set our hearts on above everything else… He says “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness…” (Matthew 6.33) And he puts this Kingdom at the heart of our daily praying: “Thy Kingdom come…. thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. So, for example, C.S. Lewis gets it absolutely right in his story, `The Lion, the Witch and, wardrobe`… where Aslan the Lion, (the Christ figure) is said to be `on the move`… bringing springtime to the frozen land of Narnia, where he says, it was “always winter but never Christmas”. In other words, praying `Thy Kingdom come` is like praying for an invasion to succeed.
And when you look at it like this you realise that you have to confront the distortion of faith which so many of us have been brought up with. You see when you listen carefully to what Jesus and John and Isaiah are saying. It becomes so difficult to imagine how we`ve managed to get into a position where we keep thinking of `Heaven` (God`s space) purely as that place we apparently go to once we have died. And it`s even more absurd when – as we often hear at Funerals… the Book of Revelation tells us:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes”. (Revelation 21.1-4)
Just think of it for a moment…. THIS, according to Scripture is the final vision… the goal of all things. And the only conclusion you can come to is that the clear direction of travel is not US escaping to some `heavenly space`…. But God coming towards us. God`s space comes to meet us. And just to underline it the writer to the Hebrews tells us that we are “Receiving a Kingdom” (Hebrews 12.28)
Again, I suspect that this will be quite hard to grasp given the generations which have passed living with this picture of `pie in the sky when you die` This notion turns upside down the deeply ingrained misapprehension that that the goal of our faith is to gain enough merit points or `fire insurance` to escape from here and maybe, if we`re persuasive enough to take a few others with us…… But we really do have to get this sorted out. The purpose of God in Christ is not the abandonment of creation but its restoration and renewal.
The words of John and of Jesus are: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ The word `Advent` literally means “The coming or arrival of something or someone that is important or worthy of note”. Simple really. And our Christian year begins with this season which tells us right from the start that the direction of travel is always from God to us…. We`re not running the show…. We`re entirely in his hands.. we have simply been caught up in it all as those called to say to the rest of the world…. “By the way, have you noticed… things aren`t as you think they are…..” And you see, once you grasp this you realise that what we call `mission` or `evangelism` is not `persuasion` … or worse, trying to get people to join our club. It`s `announcement`…. A statement that the invasion has begun… regime change has begun…… Like Jesus and John and Isaiah, Christians are given the task of `proclaiming the Kingdom`- if you like, announcing this new state of affairs… and the ultimate goal of it all.
By our obedience to Christ; letting our personal behaviour and our life together we`re called to demonstrate what the world looks like under its rightful management. And then we`re called to seek out and encourage the signs of the Kingdom`s presence wherever we find them…, these signs of regime change… these signs of `God`s space` breaking into the world. It`s when we fail to listen to this essential message of Jesus… It`s when we allow ourselves to be diverted into what often amounts to `selling` a completely different message … when we move from proclamation to persuasion… that things start to go wrong. And the Church in particular starts to look desperate rather than confident in God.
But I suspect that Our weakness, I think is that we calculate that people won`t get it…. We have little confidence in Jesus`s descriptions of the Kingdom growing like a seed; about the need for patience… to become like a child; and to take up a self-sacrificial and cross-shaped life…… Surely it`s not dynamic or attractive enough. We think we know better than Jesus.
So, at Christmas we can easily trot off the words of John, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”. And that`s fine for Jesus, we think but we don`t figure it`s much fun being like John the Baptist …. A ‘voice of one crying out in the wilderness` and nobody wants to know. It`s hard trusting that the Lord knows what he`s doing… that he is indeed working in the hearts and minds of people the world over …. but we forget that it is precisely this, “A work of God”… he is incredibly patient… and he has all the time in the world. We are simply called to be faithful. To announce in word and action…. The Advent of the Lord.
But let me put it another way….. I remember being in conversation with someone who kept saying “Well, Vicar it`s clear that we`re living in the last days”. And the `rationalist` in me always wants to stand back at this point and check out their mental health… I mean, I find it all so depressing! Perhaps like me you have visions of the man walking up and down the street shouting, “The end is Nigh” …… and people think this is what Christians are all about. But as Tom Wright helpfully points out the early Christians didn`t think they were living in the `Last Days`… On the contrary they believed themselves to be living primarily in `The First Days`… At the beginning of God`s new creation. They were living in the light of this new thing God had done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus….
And this I think captures the Advent spirit. Despite appearances to the contrary… this is now God`s space. In the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, a new world has begun. It`s time to get on board. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. That`s short-hand for saying that we need to pray for the imagination to see what our homes, our lives, our church and community would look like bluntly, with the Lord in charge….. Surrendered, as it were, to the in-breaking kingdom of God… and then act accordingly.