“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2). That was John the Baptist’s sermon, Jesus’ too (4:17). Were they crazy or what? If the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign, had come near, where is it now? It’s been 2,000 years. Is the world any less conflicted? Are lives any less broken? Were they just wrong?
I guess that depends on what they meant by “has come near.” John seemed to think it meant that everybody was about to get their comeuppance. Somebody more powerful than John was supposed to show up any day to gather in the deserving, the “wheat,” and burn the undeserving, the “chaff,” with unquenchable fire: a crowd-pleasing conclusion for just about any blockbuster action movie.
When Jesus came along John thought he’d found that more powerful somebody. But Jesus turned everything around. Jesus started gathering in the undeserving. He had sharp words and warnings for those expecting privileged treatment, but he wielded no “unquenchable fire.” In fact you could say that, if anybody got “burned,” it was Jesus himself, eventually.
What Jesus made of John’s message was so unexpected that John began to wonder if he’d made a mistake. Jesus answered that the nearness of God’s reign was about bringing wholeness to broken lives, and that’s that (11:2-6). Maybe John was mollified with that answer. We’re never told.
So what about today? Has God’s reign come near? If we’ve been waiting for a crowd-pleasing conclusion, the answer is “No.” But God is still here, nearer than we can imagine, bringing wholeness to broken lives, gathering in the undeserving, warning us not to expect privileged treatment. More importantly, God is calling us to repent, that is, to turn—to turn away from waiting for God’s reign so that together we might start to beGod’s reign. The kingdom of heaven has come near. Turn now.