This morning as I read through the words of Jesus – “the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe” I have the distinctive memory of hearing a preacher in the church in which I was raised. It was a part of the Adventist movement called “the Church of God” which believed that Jesus’ second coming was right around the corner. Their hope of Christ’s coming was probably best presented by their hymn writer, Ross Jutsum, in his song “It Won’t Be Long Now”:
The preacher, whose congregation met in a simple rented hall, said that Jesus’ words were like someone announcing at a train station, “The train’s just around the bend. Get ready!” He said, as that group of Adventists believed, the Kingdom was this brave new world God was bringing from the sky where the problems of human existence are no more, where people learn no war no more, end poverty, and live in material health and prosperity. Jesus was saying to his audience – it’s coming soon, so get ready.
To that preacher it meant leaving “worldly ways”, following the straight and narrow, getting committed to church. It meant following a list of rules that would create “clean living” so you were ready.
There, of course, was a huge hole in the preacher’s message, one that at that young age of 12 or 13 I could see clearly. If Jesus’ message “The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe” was saying the train of a new world at his return was just a-coming round the bend, well it would mean at best Jesus has some difficulty reading a watch or a train schedule. Because it would mean this new world was over 2,000 years late. That’s some pretty big bend to turn, Jesus!
What’s more I could see no real connection between the kind of world we were preparing for – a world without divisions of class and money, where the earth was pure and unpolluted, where all were healthy without sickness, where none went hungry – and how we were told to repent. To pull away from the world? But it is in this world, the one we are being told to pull away in order to acquire this holiness found in being living apart by rules that the very things we are waiting for God to wipe out exist. Wouldn’t getting ready for a world where these horrors are done away instead mean plunging into this world, attacking the causes of poverty and pollution, working to tear down barriers built up by race and religion? I could see where a call to prepare for a better world would make sense, but not by pulling away from the world; instead, through plunging into the world to make it better.
Later, I found my child-like instincts to be right. When I began to read the Bible for myself, I found Christ proclaiming in texts like Luke 4 that the Spirit had come upon him not for some time in the distant future but to right here and now proclaim the year of God’s favor, by healing the sick, opening blind eyes, fighting oppression. I saw texts like the Gospel of Mark showing Jesus not just proclaiming a new day would dawn, but initiating it in the here and now by modeling a life of seeking out what is broken in this world and seeking to mend it. I saw him teaching a way to mend the world we live in: by choosing to embrace peace-making rather than violence, by choosing to tear down barriers of division, by seeing in each person the presence of Christ, by feeding the poor and hungry, clothing the naked.
I found there was a reality to what that preacher was getting at. As I would later read Anglican theologian N. T. Wright say in his book Surprised by Hope it was right to realize that when Jesus speaks of the “kingdom” it was not just about heaven when we die which Jesus spoke. Instead Jesus really is talking about a healing of our world. That is what the Biblical prophets spoke of – of a day in which people would have access to healing to disease so that those who died at 100 were considered young, of areas no desert and wasteland from pollution & war becoming vibrant oases green with life, of war and violence being done away with so that life might thrive.
But far from saying as my Adventist church of my childhood said we must wait for this to come some day, let alone the message we must wait to abandon this dying world in a rapture folks in the Left Behind crowd taught, Jesus was saying that in his life, example, and world we are invited to become partners in bringing forth this new world on the earth.
By joining Jesus in the work of living out a different set of values than the dog-eat-dog, heartless, dehumanizing message of our world we become partners with Christ in healing our world. We can partner with Jesus through the Spirit to help confront and overturn the causes of poverty and disease, violence both in people’s homes and in the world at large. We can work to tear down walls of prejudice, discrimination, and heartache. We can stand against the systems of oppression all around us, working like Christ to set the oppressed free through programs of reform.
When I look at the history of Christianity, it is those engaged in such work who stand out as shining lights.
I think of Hildegard of Bingen in Medieval Europe who spoke of visions of a new world Christ was bringing and who therefore spoke out against the men in power who crushed the poor underfoot. Repent, she said, you who eat up the poor like bread. For Christ is bringing a new day where none need hunger any longer.
I think of Sojourner Truth in America who spoke up against the dehumanizing practices of slavery and oppression of women. Her message “Ain’t I a woman?” echoed throughout the land and world, a clarion call for freedom from slavery for all people of every race and of recognizing women as equally in the image of God and deserving of rights.
We still have those engaged in such work today. When I lived in Fayetteville, NC, as a pastor I was impressed to know Chuck Fager and his work at the Quaker House. Situated in a military town, Chuck worked tirelessly to raise awareness about alternatives to violence, both in terms of domestic violence and also warfare. The Quaker House spoke out against violence against people of color and LGBT people done in the community and within the military. It continues to be a voice speaking up for peace, teaching people a path of beating swords into plowshares.
Today as I read these words I am not hearing a call to wait for someone else to come and set the world right. I hear God calling me to imagine with God what a world where violence, oppression, illness, and heartache fall aside looks like and to join Christ in the work of helping in my own small way make that a reality.
I think you can hear that voice too.
And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie here, folks.
Your progressive redneck preacher,