Saturday, October 8, 2016

Here? Really?

Luke 17:20-21
October 9, 2016
Rev. William Carter

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

A number of years ago, my wife and I discovered the exact location of the kingdom of God. Since you are religious people, I figure you would like to know where it is.

It’s on a lake in western Canada, 14.9 kilometers from the Bow River Parkway. It’s called Moraine Lake. You can get there by flying into Calgary and driving a rental car about two hours west. First you pass through Canmore, and then through the gates at Banff National Park. You take the exit for Lake Louise, curve around and go up the hill, but before you get to Lake Louise, you take a left. There is a small sign, easy to miss. Go down that winding two-lane road about nine miles and there it is, Moraine Lake.

It is difficult to explain how beautiful it is, but if you have a Canadian twenty dollar bill, turn it over and there is the scene. It’s a beautiful, pristine lake, untouched by chemicals or motor boats. Around the lake are ten mountain peaks, all of them over ten thousand feet high.

You can climb a large rock pile at the base of the lake. It will take about forty-five minutes, but the scene is spectacular. The lake is a surreal aquamarine color, created by the granite dust of glaciers which refract the light. My wife calls it the most peaceful spot on earth. From the top of the rock pile, with only an eagle soaring overhead, I felt extremely close to God.

We’ve been there twice. Three years ago, we stood in silence, held hands, and took in the extraordinary beauty. One of our dreams is to rent a log cabin someday on the shore of that lake and spend a few weeks there. I tell you, it is ground zero for the kingdom of God.

Well, you would think so. Then a bus load of tourists arrived and I began to wonder.

Not far from there is Lake Louise, the most photographed lake in the world. It’s another pretty one, but it’s overrun by tourists. Last time we were there, we couldn’t get within two miles of the parking lot. The Mounties on their horses were turning everybody away. So we escaped nine miles away to Moraine Lake. It’s harder to find and my wife likes it a whole lot more.

So we climbed to the top of the rock pile and took in the uncrowded view. It was beautiful. Pretty soon a ranger came by to say, “Watch out for the grizzly bear and her cubs.” Whoops, didn’t know about them. His warning made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. We thought about cutting the trip short.

But since we were there, I thought I’d check into the cost of one of those log cabin lodges. The cabin was beautiful, but the smallest one was $524 a night, plus taxes. Fourteen days would equal about four mortgage payments back home.

So we got into the rental car and drove away. As we were winding down the narrow road, she looked up from the travel guide and said, “This road is only open four months a year. They get hundreds of inches of snow, and the lake doesn’t thaw until the middle of June.” I can hear what some of the snow birds would say: “That lake is certainly not the kingdom of God.”

So where is the exact location of the kingdom of God? It’s not 14.9 kilometers from the Bow River Parkway. But a lot of us would like to find a place of complete beauty, a place of perfect peace, a place that lifts our souls and spirits, a place where we feel close to God.

Even if we don’t use religious language to name it, a lot of people look for rent a place in the mountains or at the shore. Sometimes they make a space of their own, like my friend in New Jersey. He built a shack in his backyard. “It’s my man cave,” he said. It has a flat-screen TV, a humidor full of expensive cigars, and soundproof walls. “All of that is intentional,” he said.

When people talk like this, perhaps they are confusing the kingdom of God with the Garden of Eden. What they want is to return to Eden, the beautiful garden where everything is perfect. However, even if we could find the place, we couldn’t go back. The book of Genesis says Eden now has a “No Trespassing” sign and is guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. We don’t live in paradise. It’s not the world we’re called to live in.

But we can live in the kingdom of God.

Now what is the exact location of the kingdom of God? Where is it? It’s not owning a condo on the side of a ski slope or beside the sea. It’s not all the other places people are looking for.

In the day of Jesus, some people wanted to know, “Where is it?” Some of them were the religious experts who asked Jesus. “Where is this kingdom going to be? How will we know it?”

His answer is curious. He says you won’t be able to see it or say ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ And then Luke reports an even more curious answer. Jesus says the kingdom of God is ... and I’ll use the Greek preposition ... “The kingdom of God is entos you.”[1] Entos is an unusual preposition. If you try to translate it into English, it could go three different ways. Each one is grammatically correct. There is a divine ambiguity in this text.

The way I first heard it was from the King James Bible: “The kingdom of God is within you.” That is, it’s not “out there,” but “in here.” You can translate the verse that way, and many, many people will agree. To have a kingdom is to recognize a King, to give your allegiance in your heart. There’s a lot of truth to that. People can go looking all over creation for it, and it’s already inside us.

And if this is true, it means we can never afford to neglect the discipline of prayer, the reflection of study, or the work of worship. We must take responsibility to keep faith alive. If we don’t do this, we will fizzle out, especially when the tough times come.

In my own faith journey, there have been times when I have been grateful to have a clear sense that God rules over all, that I can trust my life and my world to God’s dominion. If you trust that in your heart, the kingdom is within you.

A few years ago, I spent my birthday on the cardiac floor of a local hospital. I wasn’t there to visit one of you, I was a patient in one of the beds. At noon, I ate a big greasy cheeseburger at Five Guys and said to my friend Virginia, “I have some pain in my chest.” So I went to the doctor, he put me in the hospital, they stuck the electrodes on my chest, and a nice nurse said there would be no chocolate cake with candles that night.

Turned out it was pleurisy, inflammation from a lung infection. I would be OK, but we didn’t know that for a couple of days. Since the event happened close to the weekend, my stay in the most expensive room in town was longer that I wanted it to be.

I don’t know if you’ve spent five nights on the cardiac floor, but it’s not a very restful place in February. Every time you are ready to drift off to sleep, a buzzer may sound, a voice announces somebody is coding down the hall. If you doesn’t drive you to prayer, nothing will.

The only way I could get through it was by casting myself into God’s hands and saying, “Catch me.” Then my prayers would picture all the truly sick people on the floor being held in God’s hands too. “God, be with all the people on this floor, God be with me.” Then a peace came over me, and I knew I would get through.

You’ve had those times, too. Maybe it was in the middle of fear, or confusion, or even exuberant joy, and unexpected peace came upon you. You know the exact location of the kingdom of God, and it wasn’t 14.9 kilometers from somewhere. It was deep within your soul.

But this is not the only translation of entos. Newer translations, like the New Revised Standard, say, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” It is a communal reality, something lived out in a group of people. That is, it’s not only something inside us, but something shared with others.

It’s like the early stories of the first Christian church, where everybody shared their possessions and looked out for one another.[2] It’s what the novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote about in a book that had to be smuggled out of Russia and published in another country. “Imagine a society,” he said, “built around the red-letter teachings of Jesus: non-violence, forgiveness, resisting revenge, and refusing to allow others to demean women or take advantage of those most vulnerable.”[3] Yes, indeed, imagine that.

We don’t have to look very far to see this, or know how it looks. Just two weeks ago, so many of us experienced that marvelous Worship Through Service Day. Did you see the photos or heard the stories? We painted a day care center, we fixed up a few properties, we delivered necessary supplies to a women’s shelter, we sorted and distributed books, we made music for a rehab clinic – and the best part, for my part, is that we did it together. That is the kingdom of God as a social reality, an expression of holy grace through the hands and hearts of a group of church people. It happened among us.

I know how good this made so many of you feel. You haven’t stopped talking about it. You have a shared understanding of what “church” really can be, and what we are when we are at our best. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you.”

But there is a third way to translate the word entos. Not only is the kingdom of God within us, not only is the kingdom among us; the kingdom of God, says Jesus, is within your reach. That’s the other way to translate it. We reach for the kingdom of God. One footnote in a translation (ESV) says it’s “within your grasp,” but that means we have to stretch for it, reach for it, strive for it . . . because it takes some reaching.

Remember all the things we have reached for: in the cradle, we reach for a sunbeam; in the playground, we reach for the monkey bars; at the Thanksgiving table, we reach for the pumpkin pie. We reach for good grades, we reach for the car keys, we reach for a good school, we reach for a good job, we reach for a good mate, we reach for a sense of security. We never stop reaching. But what are we reaching for?

Maybe we keep reaching because we are never happy, never satisfied. That capacity for reaching seems to be part of the human DNA. As someone has said, “This incessant pursuit of an ever-fugitive satisfaction springs from troubled depths within the human soul.”

St. Augustine nailed it perfectly when he wrote in the first paragraph of his Confessions, “O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Of course, we are reaching, always reaching, until we trust we are always in God’s embrace.

Where is the kingdom of God? Within, among, slightly beyond our reach --- all the above. All of it.

·         The kingdom of God is within. Of course it’s within, but if it’s only within, it’s not big enough to be the kingdom of God.
·         The kingdom of God is among us. Yes, where there is justice, goodness, and peace, the kingdom is here. But to build justice, goodness, and peace is exhausting work. We need something deeper than external relationships.
·         The kingdom is within, it’s among, and it’s something we keep reaching for, because faith is never satisfied with the human status quo. Our deepest hunger is for God to rule in us, and among us, and beyond us.

So where is the kingdom? Is it beside the mountain lake, within the hospital room, among the fellowship of Christian co-workers, or is it something for which we reach, strive, and labor? Yes

And when we live within the merciful dominion of God that the Bible calls “the kingdom,” our restless human hearts will be at rest.

[1] I am grateful to Tom Troeger, who preached a sermon on this text that has guided my thinking and the structure of this sermon.
[2] See Acts 4:32-35
[3] Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You

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