The tension in the car was palpable. I was more than just a little irritated, and I had made it known LOUD and clear – both before we left, and as we were preparing to pull out. We left three hours late (don’t ask me, I was packed, and I thought the kids were too – an hour early – talk to my wife, a lovely woman … really) for the 7 hour drive (actual road time) to meet grandma & grandpa in the mountains for our summer vacation and we’ve been driving for just over two. Four young children, strapped so tightly to their car seats that they can’t even squirm. One screams out that she’s too hot (she always is) but the A/C in the back is as cold as it can go. Her older sister and my wife, complain that they’re too cold – blankets and jackets are packed in the trunk, can’t win. Someone doesn’t like my taste in music (always had a thing for Genesis – be it Collins or Gabriel) and insists on what must be the 50th play of some mindless, overly cheery, children’s sing-along worship CD that someone had ‘blessed’ us with. Meanwhile, our son (the oldest) has taken it upon himself to help his baby sister enjoy the trip by making her laugh (or rather scream) with his onslaught of funny faces, noises, pokes, and tickles. Someone cries out that they’re hungry. Another that she needs to use the bathroom (we just passed a rest area 2 minutes ago, I had asked 3 times over the preceding 10 minutes and was assured…). Finally I hear it, Are we almost there? …. “Not nearly close enough,” I think to myself.
The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ question would have been similarly frustrating for any semi-observant, first century Jew who was weary of what felt like an eternal exile within their own land. And it just so happens that our good friend Matthew reports that Jesus has a rather charged answer to the question – the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! But, what does he mean by at hand? Is it close enough to touch? Is it almost with us? Is it present, like now? How much longer must we wait? Are there secret armies massing to drive Rome back into the sea? Well, lets take a look and see…
With the arrest of John (ch 4), Jesus steps to the fore and launches into his life’s work. Perhaps if the religious leaders had embraced John and advised Herod differently, things might not have played out quite this way. But as it stood, the wilderness voice was rejected and Jesus begins with the radical proclamation – Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. His message gripped the imagination – so compelling that two pairs of brothers leave their livelihood and family obligations to follow this man. Not later, after careful consideration – this was the Kingdom after all – they needed to go NOW. I suspect there was something quite gripping about Jesus’ message concerning Israel’s long-awaited hope. The power and signs that accompanied and bore witness to the Kingdom’s proclamation must have been amazing to behold! And when Jesus stood like Moses before the people – the things that came out of his mouth were more than could be hoped for, mostly.
The section that follows, chs 5-7, or the Sermon on the Mount, are likely a compilation of the kinds of things Jesus said in the synagogues and across the hillsides as he began to introduce the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew introduces this block of teaching with the passages known as the Beatitudes (phrases beginning with Blessed are/is…). In Sunday School growing up, these were the attitudes to be for all Christians. The kind of things you might hear off the set of Mr. Rogers (I actually enjoyed the show as a young child). But a closer look shows that they are something far more. The subjects and concluding clauses of most of these statements are drawn from places like Is 55 & 61, Ps 24, 37, 42. Some are places that declare the comfort and joy found in the arrival of God’s promised Kingdom. Others are Psalms that encourage a particular posture toward the God who would indeed deliver. For those able to hear it, Jesus seems to be saying that the long-awaited Kingdom of Heaven is now beginning – complete with the arrival of Yahweh Himself (or, as likely understood when first declared on the hillsides of Galilee, with the arrival of God’s servant, Jesus, son of David).
Some of my friends might get a little nervous with the joining of the terms ‘Kingdom’ and ‘now’ at this point. However, note that while all of the opening beatitudes deal with the vindication of those who have been living as if they were waiting for the coming Kingdom and God’s deliverance (as we might expect with an announcement of this sort), the final one is rather unexpected. If God is now announcing the arrival of His Kingdom (which seems to be the case), why are we concerned about being reviled, persecuted, and slandered on Jesus’ account? After all, if the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (present), aren’t we there, already? And therein lies the rub. I believe Matthew has arranged these announcements (the Beatitudes) in such a way as to hint at what will be unraveled more fully in the coming chapters. The Kingdom of Heaven has indeed arrived, but it is NOT what many are anticipating (i.e., it isn’t the establishment of a global Jewish rule emanating from Jerusalem). NOR has it taken its ultimate form (like the certainty of a transformed Europe after the Allied landing in Normandy, despite the ongoing reality of Axis strongholds still intact). This reality shapes the concern of the final beatitude and serves as part of the lens through which to view both the present reality of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the brief passage on ‘salt and light’ – which we will look at next time.
– Pastor Jim Kushner