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One of the boys who lived directly across the street from my childhood home yearned to find God.
So where did he go to undertake such a life-changing search? He went where all the other Midwestern Baby Boomers went to pursue their spiritual quests: Colorado. If something big was going to happen, it would surely happen in the Rockies.
It may have taken a while, but our generation ultimately seemed to learn two things. The first is that God is not somehow more available in the mountains, more accessible along a rocky coastline, or more visible in the colors of a beautiful sunset. If God is really there, then surely he can be found anywhere. Even in Muncie.
The second is that spiritual transformation isn’t dependent on “something big” happening to us. God is not an elusive deity who can be captured only by those with sufficient discretionary time and money. He, in fact, is the Hunter. He is the Lover who is seeking us.
That right-here-right-now availability of God’s kingdom happens to be one of the most revolutionary aspects of Jesus’ Good News.
It jumps off the page in the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is given the opportunity to read Scripture at his hometown synagogue during a typical Saturday service. He reads something from the prophet Isaiah and makes a couple of editorial comments. All of a sudden, as if out of the blue, the very people he grew up with have formed a lynch mob and are prepared to throw him over the edge of a cliff. What’s going on here?
Examining the life of Jesus can be a hard task for us. We have to think ourselves back into someone else’s world. Physically, the synagogue would have been a comparatively small rectangular space. Only men could be present for worship. Women could listen, as long as they remained out of sight behind a screen at the back of the worship area. The men with the highest reputation for spiritual maturity and understanding sat up front, so everyone could see them.
A first century synagogue, in other words, was the polar opposite of a twenty-first century American church: In Jesus’ time, everybody wanted a front row seat.
Luke isn’t entirely clear why Jesus reads from what we have come to know as Isaiah 61. Is this the assigned reading for the morning, and he just happens to be invited to speak? Or does Jesus unroll the scroll until he finds the very words he wants to share?
He finishes reading and hands the scroll back to the attendant, or chazzan – this is the layperson who is charged with overseeing the life of the synagogue – and then sits down. Rabbis always taught while seated. We retain a memory of this when we speak of “chairs” of philosophy or science at a university. The outrageous thing is that Jesus has just read from a text that virtually everyone associates with the coming of the Messiah, and then says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Today? Can he be serious?
This would be like saying, “Today, on November 1, spring at last has arrived. The bulbs are coming up and fruit trees are beginning to blossom. Get your swimsuits and sunscreen ready!”
The scandal here is that Jesus is announcing that the kingdom of God – the long-awaited golden age of God’s rule on earth – has already come. But nobody sees it. To the Jews of the first century, the kingdom of God was a religious and political arrangement that would come in the future. But to Jesus, the kingdom is a present reality that has already broken into the context of the now.
Jesus’ contemporaries expected dramatic intervention from God, and they expected it soon. God was surely on the verge of bringing justice and peace to the world. Something big had to happen. The rabbis disagreed as to exactly what that “something big” was going to be. But now Jesus sits down and says, “What you’ve been waiting for all your lives is happening right in front of you. The kingdom is here!”
This is consistent with the first words that Jesus speaks in his public ministry. Matthew 4:17 tells us, “Jesus began to preach, ‘Turn your lives around, for the kingdom of heaven is near.'” In the original language the word “near” is literally “at hand.” It is close enough to be grasped. You can reach out and take it. What makes Jesus’ listeners so angry with him? It’s the fact that a local kid has the sheer chutzpah to announce, “And all this is happening because of me.”
What are the consequences if we overlook this aspect of Jesus’ teaching?
We’ll conclude that the purpose of our lives is to go out and find God’s kingdom – to move to Colorado or to make sure we attend the Mother of All Retreats or to keep reading until we discover the book that finally opens our eyes.
Jesus, however, insists that God’s transforming reign in our lives is available now.
He says that the Age to Come has broken into the Present Age. Everywhere we look we can see signs and hints that this is so. The people who first heard Jesus say that must have thought he was crazy. “What do you mean, the kingdom of God is here? This is hardly the way we’ve always imagined God’s rule on earth.”
Yes, it’s true that God’s kingdom in its fullness is still ahead of us. Wars, rape, abuse, and injustice have not yet been banished.
But those who entrust themselves to Jesus can experience foretastes of the kingdom. Prayers will be answered. Miracles will happen. People who seem hopelessly stuck in senseless addictions and life-draining relationships can experience restoration. And as the kingdom grows like tiny seeds in more and more places, the world itself can become a place where God’s will increasingly happens “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Author Lee Strobel writes about a woman named Eileen who lives on the perimeter of Chicago.
Eileen became furious when she discovered that somebody was talking to her daughter about God. It’s not that Eileen was happy with her own life. She felt as if she were dying on her own suburban island. But she wanted nothing to do with God.
That same night, however, she couldn’t sleep. At midnight Eileen came downstairs, turned on the light, and picked up a Bible. She couldn’t remember the last time she had gone to church. She had never before opened the Bible on her own. This night as she paged through it, she noticed for the first time that it was divided into two parts – one was “old” and the other was “new.” She decided she would check out the new part, figuring it was the most recent upgrade.
In the quietness of that night, Eileen began to read. Sitting on her living room floor, she started with Matthew. Hours later she was in the middle of the gospel of John when she discovered, as she put it, that she was in love with the character of Jesus.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said to God, “but I know you are what I want.”
That’s how it happens. In quiet, unexpected, unplanned moments, our deepest wants come up against the God who is really there.
That’s how his kingdom comes. Right here and right now.