Scripture: Matthew 16:24–28
Last year, a television series came out on Netflix, titled Kaleidoscope. It is a rather traditional plot about a heist, about a ring leader who gathers a team and tries to pull off this big heist. There is an episode that takes place several years before the heist, and then a few months, and then episodes the week before, and then the night after, and then several months later. But here is the non-traditional twist. Using magical Netflix technology, every account-holder sees the episodes of the show…in a different order. So your account might start several years before the heist, while mine starts six months after it, while someone else’s starts the day before. The one constant is that the heist itself is the last episode everyone sees. Everything else is somewhat random. Their point seems to be that it’s all the same story, and it doesn’t matter when you step into and out of it.
When the show came out, some folks loved the idea. And others freaked out! They couldn’t handle the back and forth chronology of the episodes. In some of the reviews of the show, there were some recommendations for self-care: “Remember, you can change the order from what Netflix sends you, and watch it in chronological order, if that’s what you need to do.”
I laugh, but for a lot of us, there is something disconcerting about something so dis-ordered. We like to understand our chronology. Just this week, my family and I have been talking about the order of the Star Wars shows and movies and how the chronology works. There are a bunch of websites out there that explain what the right order is to watch Marvel Cinematic Universe titles. There is something in us that wants to keep things chronological and orderly, as if it helps us have a measure of control in a chaotic world.
We do the same thing with our religious chronology. Back in the mid-1800s there was this guy named John Nelson Darby. And in the era in which we were institutionalizing and modernizing and structuring everything in our culture, he did the same thing with the Bible. He took bits and pieces of Scripture, and came up with this incredibly detailed and tightly-structured view of Jesus’ return to earth. And, of course, all it did was create 200 years of arguments. There are your pre-tribulation premillennialists, which are different from your pre-wrath premillennialists, then there are post-trib and mid-trib premillennialsts, postmillennialists, and even amillennialists. And for 200 years, each of them have predicted, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly when Jesus was going to return in glory. And for 200 years, each of them have been proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, wrong. Ever since Jesus said “you will not know the day or the hour,” people have been doing their best to prove him wrong!
But Darby and his disciples have exposed for us how deeply we as humans yearn for a clear, structured, predictable chronology. Scientists remind us that time itself is a human construct. The more we understand about relativity and quantum physics, the more we understand that our conception of time is a structure that we place on reality. I mean, every other Star Trek episode, someone is messing with the space time continuum, right? Something is out of phase, and it causes chaos throughout the Enterprise. There is something about our need for structure and chronology and control, and Darby reminds us that it even impacts the way that we read Scripture.
I think this is important to name today, because today’s passage messes with our chronology. In Matthew, chapter 6, verse 28, Jesus tells his disciples:
Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
So what is that supposed to mean? Each of those pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib ideologies has an answer to that question, but if you are looking through this highly structured lens, you kind of have to admit that Jesus is…wrong. I mean, here we are 2,000 years later, and the Son of Man hasn’t come in his kingdom yet, right? And everyone standing there is long gone! Don’t we have to scratch our heads about what Jesus is talking about, especially if we want to keep a Darby-style structure to the coming of the kingdom?
But maybe there is something else going on…
I am once again beholden to the wisdom of the Two-Way Bible study. Last week, they helped me see what is going on with this verse. Again, if you are looking in a tightly controlled chronological view of heaven and eternity, then Jesus comes off looking rather silly, or at least incorrect. But if you understand that the Kingdom of Heaven, and eternity, are not only beyond our time and space, but also constantly breaking into them, then Jesus is not wrong: three of them experienced that coming of the Kingdom of Heaven within a week! Hear now this familiar passage in that context:
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Now, all of a sudden, we can see the story of the Transfiguration as a vivid reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven come to earth, breaking forward and backward and into our reality. On that mountain, Peter and James and John saw Jesus in his future reality. And they saw Elijah and Moses in their past realities. They saw heaven on earth.
And to be honest, they shouldn’t have been surprised. If you look back at what Jesus has been saying from the beginning of his ministry, he has proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven is this thing that transcends chronology, reaching both forward and backward in time. On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reached back into history: “I have not come to take away the Torah or the prophets, but to fulfill them.” He reached beyond geography: “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s all the same story! The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew is this thing that transcends our structures, reaching forward and backward in time, with no apparent need to keep things orderly and structured and separated. It is about the here and the now, as well as a future eternity with Christ. Matthew doesn’t separate the two. The way you live in this world demonstrates your participation in the next. If you follow the principles of the kingdom of Jesus now, the Sermon on the Mount ethic of Jesus in this life, you are on the way to participating in the kingdom. In a way, you are already living in it! Meanwhile, if you deny those principles now, you are proclaiming you have no interest in that kingdom eternally. Time and space, and history and future, and Torah and prophecy, and heaven and earth all collapse on one point of perfect kingdom!
But even the disciples struggled with this reality. Part of what Jesus was doing was helping them to deconstruct their assumptions about these human distinctions between heaven and earth, time and space, history and eternity. Look at the example of Peter. Right before this passage, Jesus tells them that being the Messiah means that he will be killed, but Peter is thinking only in earthly terms, and is ready to take up arms to protect Jesus. Jesus has to remind him that his mission transcends those terms and brings heaven on earth in the form of peace. They cannot play by the same rules. And then when Peter sees Elijah and Moses on the mountain, he assumes that they need a place to spend the night, and helpfully offers to build some tents to house them. But he is still thinking in terms of heaven and earth, and Jesus must remind him that they aren’t playing by the same rules. The heaven-ness of Jesus’ ministry both enters into and transcends the earthiness. It’s part of why Jesus tells his disciples that they must take up their own cross: they cannot live by the rules of the Empire, with heaven breaking in all around them.
So what? Why does any of this matter? What does any of this change about the way that we live? Am I saying that we need to throw away our watches and maps and live as though human conceptions of time and space have no place in our lives? Of course not. What I think is at stake, though, is our need for control. We want to have our finger on the pulse of the heartbeat of heaven, the timeline of glory. And we want our finger on the button of who gets included and who doesn’t. Just like Darby’s day, when we were institutionalizing, serial-numbering, and production-lining everything. We want to do the same with concepts like grace and forgiveness and abundance.
But that is where the kingdom breaks in and messes up our assumptions and control-mechanisms. Scholars Jeannine Brown and Kyle Roberts explain that in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven is always “at hand,” but not “in hand.” “It is not under the command of human choice and activity.” Therefore, they explain, there is an ambiguity and an elusiveness to the kingdom. A hiddenness, like the hidden yeast from last week. So as followers of Christ, then, “…the reign of God that Jesus preaches is a concrete earthly reality that is already arriving in the ministry of Jesus. It is not interior but exterior, not ethereal but concrete. So those who live at the time of the kingdom’s arrival are called to act in tangible ways that express the reality of God’s peaceable reign in this world.”
There’s the “so what?” Instead of tightly controlled assembly lines and timelines, what if we began to open our eyes to the Kingdom of Heaven that is here and now? What if we began to see that heaven isn’t just a thing that we buy a ticket for down the road, but is this thing that is breaking into our lives and our hearts and our world and our church, in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways? And it cannot be packaged into nice, structured little tents. And it cannot be homogenized into our culture without some level of denial of our former self. And it cannot even be predicted with any complete level of certainty. For the Kingdom of Heaven is everywhere and “everywhen,” breaking onto the mountaintops and the valleys of the shadow of death. And when we choose to live according to that reality, then it becomes less about our needs, and protecting our ways of living, and more about opening ourselves to that in-breaking grace! As soon as we walk out the door, we are living in the grace that is that moment, and the moments that have come before, and the moments that will come after.
I have talked about the “what” and the “so what,” but what about the “now what?” What does it look like to live out of these ideas? To practice them? To that end, I want to end with a story and two questions.
The story comes from Joan Chittister. A Catholic nun and writer, Chittister writes, “The Sufi tell of the disciple who asked the elder, ‘Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?’ ‘As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.’ ‘Then, of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?’ ‘To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.’”
This is our invitation. As we enter into Lent this week, it is the perfect time to ask how we are sleeping through the sunrises of God’s glory. How might we open our eyes to God at work in our world? How is the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into our lives and our world, and how are we living today by the Sermon on the Mount principles that encompass that kingdom?
Two more questions.
The first from Christine Valters Paintner, who has taught me in a thousand ways how to open the eyes of my heart to God’s beauty. She asks this:
“Walk out into life with that sense of walking the ancient path and inviting the ancestors and the ancient ones to walk alongside with you, remembering that they too were seeking rest, peace, love, and life. How does it feel in your body to remember that you are walking the same path, with the same intentions, as your ancestors?”
And one more, from our Purple Team conversation from last month. Andri Snær Magnason asked his ten year old daughter how old her great-grandmother is…and how long until she would be that much older than her own great-granddaughter. He writes:
“Your time is the time of the people you know and love, the time that molds you. And your time is also the time of the people you will know and love. The time that you will shape.”
Like Peter and James and John on the mountain, we too have the ability to look backward to our ancestors and forward to our descendants and ask how we can respond to this moment. How is God breaking into our world, even as we speak?