God's Earthly Kingdom

Sunday 15th November 2009
Year B, The Second Sunday before Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Daniel 12:1-3
Mark 13:1-8

What's your idea of heaven? Mine is something like this:

So what's your idea of hell? Well, mine is something like this:

You could do any number of variations on this, but you get the point.

We tend to make jokes about heaven and hell because the ideas make us feel insecure. We are all far too grown up to believe in angels playing harps, sitting on clouds or in a devil with horns and a tail stoking up a celestial fire; but, as usual, we are better at knowing what we don't believe than what we do believe.

Part of our problem is that we are not very good at living in the present. We are so busy looking backwards to a supposed golden age or looking forward to a supposed disaster that we have very little time for savouring the present moment. Have you noticed, for instance, how much of our news actually isn't telling us what has happened, it is telling us what might happen in the future. It isn't reporting, in the literal sense of the word, it is speculating. And this in part explains why the Disciples were so interested in hearing from Jesus what was going to happen at the 'end time'; and I will come back to that in a moment.

But, in the meantime, we need to note that Mark was using hindsight to put words into the mouth of Jesus talking in 30-something AD about what would happen in the future. To the Jews of the generation after Jesus, when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, it must have seemed as if time itself had come to an end. A tradition which began with Abraham and which was institutionalised in the reign of Solomon was shattered. The destruction of the Temple was an extremely alluring justification for the Christian assertion that those who failed to recognise the Lordship of Jesus would ultimately come to a sticky end. In 50 or even 60 AD it was still possible for somebody to be both a Jew and a Christian but the fissures were beginning to appear and the writing of Mark and Matthew's gospels was in part a response to religious disputes between Christians and Jews.

But whatever the literary device which introduced the dialogue about the destruction of the Temple into a conversation between the Disciples and Jesus around 30 AD, the central truth holds that the chief concern was how things would turn out. Part of the question was about how the Messiah-ship of Jesus would turn out; would there be an overthrow of the wicked? Would Jesus proclaim his kingdom on earth? Or would he bring the whole human project to an end and carry his followers off to heaven? It is important to say that the Jews only had a rather foggy idea about the twin ideas of the Messiah and the Resurrection of the body, and because they were primarily concerned with minute interpretation of what had gone before, principally in their books of the law, they never put the Messiah and the after-life together into a; coherent theology; but you can see it happening in Mark. The death and Resurrection of Jesus are understood by Mark and, perhaps more significantly, by Paul before him, as precursors to the end of time. Paul and the first three evangelists thought that time would end any day now. By the time of John the time scale was more leisurely. Nothing had happened in more than 60 years. Christians were in for a long haul; and that explains the difference in tone between the first three gospels, the Synoptics, and that of John. The first three were interested in getting people ready for eternal life; John was interested in supplying material for a long journey.

So we are really inheritors of the long rather than the short perspective. Perhaps for the first time since the birth of scientific knowledge, we have some idea that life as we know it might be brought to an end; before science it was a sacred phenomenon, this time it is our own folly. Yet in spite of that, we still tend to take the long view, to think of our children and grandchildren stretching on ahead of us in time.

To get to the bottom of our predicament, we need to think for a moment about hope. We are all pretty clear on faith and charity but hope often puzzles us. Hope is the Christian virtue which enables us to put ourselves totally into the hands of God without asking questions about what the after-life will be like. We just have to trust that God will do what Jesus said he would do. We have to worship God and imitate Jesus in the power of the Spirit and then leave it to the three-in-one to sort us out.


At first sight this is directly counter to our experience of the earth. We think that we were born to control our own destinies. Each of us takes thousands of decisions every week; but when we think more objectively, we can see how helpless we are; there's the old joke that women let men take all the big decisions in the family:

When we think about it clearly, we see the reality of our own individual helplessness. We quake when the banks totter and fall; an event on the other side of the world raises the price of our mortgage or lowers the price of oil; a mad dictator pulls us into war; the death of a child changes the whole course of many lives. If we are helpless in the sight of other people, how helpless are we in the sight of God. We can do nothing without the Grace of God; anything good that we do is done in Grace, not of our own merit.

We understand the theory but the practice is more difficult. For me, the virtue of hope involves the renunciation of power, not in the fatalist way that we stop doing anything, but in a way which recognises our personal limitations and the limitations of being a creature of the creator; the whole point of being human beings is that we are not gods.

And so, when we think about the future and what will happen at the end of our lives on earth, we must trust in the promise of God lived out in Jesus that, as we were created in love, we will be enfolded back into the eternal love. We may get a frisson from imagining what this will be like; but we are simply satisfying the linked human needs to imagine and control; and this does little harm as long as we recognise the limits of what we do.

Much better to love for God and each other now, rather than worrying about the future. We will all go to God in God's own good time; so let us be good in the time we have left in his Kingdom on earth.