October 9, 2016 “Within Or. . .?” – Luke 17:20-21
October 9, 2016 – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
“Look inside yourself.” As we watch a television show or movie, Beth and I have gotten pretty good at predicting when that line or something like it is about to be spoken. Mufasa said it to Simba in The Lion King in 1994 and Judy said it in Zootopia this year. Variations include “Look within,” and “Believe in yourself,” and “Trust your heart.” and it’s pretty much standard advice to anyone who is struggling through difficulties.
You might think Jesus offered the same kind of advice to those who asked Him about the kingdom of God. They should quit looking for any visible or tangible manifestation of what God is doing and look within themselves to find Him at work. You’d think that because the King James Version and others translated the end of Luke 17:22, “the kingdom of God is within you.” But it’s a bad translation and bad theology.
I’m talking about these two brief verses today because what Jesus really said about the kingdom here is a great summary and entry into the whole message of Luke’s Gospel. Many of you just read Luke’s story of Jesus’ life from conception to ascension during our first week of Community Bible Experience. I found selecting a preaching focus from all of that pretty daunting and changed my mind a couple times before settling here.
One reason for my choice is that these two verses are unique to Luke. Mark’s Gospel is more focused on the topic of the kingdom of God, but only Luke has Jesus saying that “the kingdom is in your midst.” Overall, God’s kingdom is a huge part of what Jesus talked about and in Luke Jesus mentions it at least a dozen times. In Luke 4:43, on page 13 in The Books of the Bible, He says that the subject of His preaching, the Good News, the Gospel, is “the kingdom of God.” So let’s get clear about it.
Verse 20 shows us one aspect of the subject of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ time. People were expecting it. After centuries of being under foreign rule, starting with Babylon, then Persia, then the Greeks, and finally Rome, Jewish people constantly thought about and looked forward to a day when God would give them back their own kingdom. That’s what the Pharisees meant when they asked “when the kingdom of God would come.”
Jesus’ reply shows us there was a major disconnect between what people generally expected about God’s kingdom and what He taught about that kingdom. He said the kingdom of God does not come visibly. It’s not something you just observe arriving.
Think of what will happen in January after our presidential election. Someone new will move into the White House and start redecorating and moving the furniture around. A whole different set of people will be selected to form the president’s cabinet and administration. New policies will be issued, balances of power will shift, the stock market may go up or down. Everyone will be able to observe the fact that a new government is in place. Jesus said that the kingdom is not like that. It will often go unnoticed and you won’t be able to locate it, “here it is” or “there it is,” in some government building.
It was not easy to understand what Jesus meant. The Pharisees didn’t get it and it’s clear the disciples didn’t get it. When you read the beginning of Acts tomorrow, you will find them asking the same sort of question the Pharisees did here, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
It’s still not easy to understand what the kingdom of God is. That’s why verse 21 has often been so poorly translated and interpreted. The words which mean “among you” or “in your midst” can mean “within you.” Some Christians thought that made sense. They thought that’s why the kingdom is not observable. It’s inside us, a hidden, spiritual kind of thing. That idea has influenced modern Christianity a lot. But notice what it means.
If the kingdom of God is within us, within you, then it’s a matter of the heart. God comes and lives inside you and reigns over your heart and mind. His primary purpose is to change how you think and feel. Your faith is not really about how things are going in the world around you. It’s about experiencing things like love and peace and joy and hope in your own heart and mind, regardless of what is happening around you.
My guess is that you might think all that sounds O.K. You might even be nodding your head and mentally saying “Yes, that’s what trusting Jesus is all about for me. I want a faith that gives me an inner anchor and calm that holds steady regardless of what literal or metaphorical hurricanes blow up around me. I want God to reign over my thoughts and my feelings and make me good and peaceful on the inside. I want His kingdom to come in me.” Some of our praise songs and hymns express sentiments like that, “Reign in me…,” “now rule in every heart,” and so on.
Think, though. If the kingdom of God is just inside us, that’s a bit worrisome. Where is the kingdom of God when we’re not feeling like that inside? Where is the kingdom of God when you’re having a really bad day and you’re just ticked off at everything and everybody? Where is the kingdom of God when your kids are sick and you wake up with a sore throat too and your spouse is not being much help? Where is the kingdom of God when you don’t feel at all loving or peaceful or hopeful or any of that? Where is the kingdom of God when you are at your worst, when you’re being a total jerk?
Let us thank God that Jesus did not really tell us that the kingdom is inside us. Back to our text, notice to whom He was talking. It wasn’t the disciples. It was the Pharisees. Now if you’ve noticed anything in your reading over the last few days, you’ve probably noticed that in Luke Jesus is pretty angry with the religious establishment, as Jon observed in our discussion Friday morning. On page 29, in chapter 11, you find Jesus condemning them for being lousy on the inside, for putting on a great external show like ceremonially cleaning their dishes and giving tithes but being full of filth and greed and pride within. It’s kind of a stretch to imagine Jesus then turning around and saying the kingdom was inside those guys.
What’s more, nowhere else in the Bible do we read anything about the kingdom being inside us. Instead, the focus is on us being inside the kingdom. The kingdom does not enter us. We need to enter it. On page 33, chapter 13, Jesus said that not everyone was going to get in. Turn over to page 40, just past our text and Jesus says you need to become like little children in order to enter God’s kingdom. The kingdom is something we want to be a part of. It’s not meant to be part of us.
Next, notice what question Jesus was answering. “When is the kingdom of God coming?” If Jesus said that it is inside you, that’s an answer about where the kingdom of God will show up, not when it will arrive. But Jesus was not playing politician here, evading a question He didn’t want to answer. No, He answered their question. When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is in your midst,” He told them when it would arrive by saying that it was already there. It’s right here among you and you are not seeing it.
A correct translation, “the kingdom of God is in your midst,” “the kingdom of God is among you,” puts God’s kingdom exactly when and where Luke has been showing it to be all through His Gospel story. The kingdom arrived when the angel told Mary that her baby would reign over the people of Israel forever and His kingdom will never end. The kingdom was showing up when Jesus gave poor people good news and healed the sick and cast out demon by divine authority. The kingdom was at work when tax collectors and sinners accepted what Jesus said, but Pharisees and experts of the law rejected it. God’s kingdom was in evidence when Jesus forgave sins and people wondered where He got the authority to do it.
When is a king a king? When people do what he says. That’s the essence of having a kingdom: being able to express your will and have it done. It’s what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” It’s not two different requests. It’s the same one, that God rule over this world by the fact that His will is being done.
So as Jesus stood there talking to those Pharisees, surrounded by His disciples and probably a crowd of other people, where was God’s will being done? Or, to give you a hint, who was doing God’s will? Exactly, Jesus was the One, more than anyone ever had or ever will, doing what God wanted with perfect intention and obedience. So where was the kingdom of God, where was God totally and completely reigning over human life? Yes, in Jesus Himself. Jesus is where the kingdom was. At that moment, you could say Jesus was the kingdom.
A long time ago I fell in love with the fancy theological Greek word, the autobasileia. Basileia is Greek for “kingdom.” So the auto-basileia is a “self-kingdom,” just like something “automatic” is something that runs by itself. Jesus is the kingdom of God in Himself, the kingdom of God appearing in person. And He was in their midst! And that is Good News for anyone who will accept it.
Jesus brought the kingdom to us, invited us into it and made it possible for us to enter. He was like a foreign ambassador for that kingdom. An ambassador carries the sovereign authority of the nation being represented. That’s a plot point in several cop shows I’ve watched. A foreign diplomat commits a crime on American soil, but is protected by diplomatic immunity, which essentially says that person is subject only the laws of the country he or she came from. As ambassador of the kingdom of God, Jesus carried with Him the law and sovereignty of that kingdom. And He came to grant a visa to anyone who wants to enter and join Him in God’s country.
The kingdom of God is not within you. That would be bad news. As the hymn we sang a few minutes ago said, “I look not inward; for that would make me wretched… nothing I see save failures and shortcomings, and weak endeavors, crumbling into dust.” That’s where we’re going to be if we try to find God’s kingdom in our hearts, in our minds, in our own lives. Like our text, though, the hymn points us in the right direction, “But I look up into the face of Jesus, for there my heart can rest, my fears are stilled…”
Lots of modern Christians are Pharisees turned inside out. They thought the kingdom of God was some sort of external arrangement, a matter of obeying rules and performing rituals, or a matter of who was governing their country. They were looking all around them for God’s kingdom. Too many Christians now have inverted that mistake and are looking inside themselves, trying to find the kingdom of God in their hearts. As long as they’ve got that internal, personal, private relationship with Jesus going, they can be anything they want, do anything they please on the outside. Both directions are wrong. The kingdom is not out there in the distance and it’s not in there in some hidden corner of our souls.
Just like then, Jesus is in our midst and He is the living presence of the kingdom. We have to quit looking inside for something else or looking around for someone else. Look straight into Jesus’ face, enter into His life, and you will find yourself in the kingdom of God. You will discover it in your midst, among you, right now.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien tells how the Fellowship of men, elves, dwarves and hobbits needed to pass through the ancient underground dwarf kingdom of Moria. It was a guarded by a stone door set in the side of a mountain. By Gandalf’s wizardry they read the entry directions, “Speak, friend, and enter.” It seemed clear that all they needed was to say the password and the stone gate would open.
Gandalf thought it would be easy so he started rattling off all the Elvish magic words for opening doors that he knew. Nothing worked. After hours of frustration he shouted “open” and beat on the door with his staff. Still nothing. Only as wolves began to howl behind them, did it finally come to him and he shouted the Elvish word, Mellon, which means “friend.” It was not a secret at all, the directions were completely accurate, “Speak ‘friend’ and enter.”
It’s the same for entering the kingdom of God. We try all sorts of wrong ways in, looking to politics or education or entertainment to make our world right. We delve into our hearts and minds, thinking that with just the right mental exercise or the proper attitude we can become what we want to be. But Jesus in the Gospel of Luke teaches us that the way into His kingdom is to come like a little child and call Jesus your friend. Look at Him to see where the kingdom is and how to enter it.
That’s why we are reading the New Testament together this fall. An old Covenant Church document says that when we read the Bible properly together “we find it an altar” where we meet the Lord. That’s the point of Bible reading and discussion. It’s not first and foremost about improving our understanding or figuring out God’s plan or anything like that. That’s the sort of thing the Pharisees were interested in. Instead, we want to meet and get to know Jesus, to enter more deeply into the sphere of His activity, into His kingdom.
There is much more to say about the kingdom of God. As Luke starts his next book, the book of Acts which we will read this coming week, he tells us that after rising from the dead, for His last forty days on earth, Jesus taught his disciples about the kingdom of God. We have much to learn. How do the governments of this world relate to God’s government? What does it mean to live with God as king, to do His will in various specific circumstances? How are we in His kingdom at work or at home or at school? How do you follow your king when changing a diaper or writing a report or filling out a ballot? How do we live lives as citizens of the kingdom of God in priority over whatever other citizenship we have?
Some of our questions will not have complete answers. When will the kingdom of God be finished? When, as the last book of the Bible says, will the kingdom of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ? When will we enter totally and absolutely into God’s kingdom and reign with Jesus forever? Over and over Jesus says what He says in the verses that follow right after today’s text. No one but God knows.
What we do know is that we approach and enter the kingdom through Jesus Christ. His life is the perfect example of a life lived fully in the will of God. When we share the Good News and welcome little children and feed the hungry and heal the sick and sacrifice ourselves for others like He did, then we too are living in that kingdom. It’s not just something inside us. It’s in our midst and all around us right now even as we offer praise to our King. Let’s learn what it means to be kingdom people.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj