"Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand," Jesus said. Returning from spiritual and physical fasting, having just encountered and conquered the temptations we face daily, Jesus wasted no time picking up the urgent message of his cousin, John.
Explaining the concept of the kingdom of God was no easy task, even to a culture steeped in centuries of prophecy. Jesus put considerable effort into dispelling myths and correcting misunderstanding. In parables and sermons, miracles and deeds, Jesus painstakingly spelled out the nature of the kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount can be seen as a reflection on what it means to be a child of the kingdom. We cannot do justice to the subject in the space allowed for this article. We can, however, consider what it means to be at hand. What did Jesus mean by that? As it turns out, at hand is just as relevant today as it was those many years ago.
It would be a mistake to suppose that Jesus meant some current event that was about to transpire, beyond which the urgency would pass. "The train is coming!" I might say, and we would all scramble to embark. Afterwards (or 2,000 years later), who would care?
If it were as simple as that, we could say the event happened and is behind us, or we are living in its afterglow. Or those more cynical might say the event Jesus anticipated never came to pass, and he was wrong. Either way, the urgency is gone. But the message of Jesus has a timeless quality that defies dismissal. His urgent message of repentance is fresh, because the kingdom of God is still at hand. Like bridesmaids waiting for the groom, we must keep our lamps trimmed and burning. God’s kingdom is at hand in three distinct ways.
The kingdom of God is soon. One of our great shortcomings is that we tend to view time from our limited perspective. As children, adulthood seems impossibly far away. When I was younger, I did the math and calculated that I would be 45 in the year 2000. "No way I’ll ever live to see that," I thought to myself. I could not imagine the day would come. But it came and went, and it all seems like an eye blink now. Jesus, living in the human condition but beyond it, understood our need for urgency, because without it, life passes us by. The kingdom of God is not something we should let pass by.
The kingdom of God is near. We do not need to travel great distances or change friends to experience the kingdom of God. The kingdom can be as close as our next breath, if we train our spiritual eyes and ears to grasp it. Whenever I plant a seed and watch it become a giant plant, yielding fruit in its season, I know God reigns there. Every noble, selfless deed we have ever witnessed was committed by someone who started out broken and corrupted, and is now responding to their own particular experience of grace. Every act of forgiveness, every moment of healing, is an unfolding of the kingdom of God in our midst.
The kingdom of God is within our grasp. It would not be enough if God’s kingdom was simply any moment now, or potentially in any flash of consciousness. It must also be within our grasp, because citizenship in the kingdom is not a spectator sport. It is not something we simply observe and relish, or prepare for and passively let happen to us. God’s kingdom is something we invite into our lives as a gift. It is something we live into, prepare for and live out. The doorway into that kingdom may seem like a needle’s eye to us camels, but God’s grace makes it all possible. It is here. It is now. It is within our reach.
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.