In 1972, Dr. James Cone, the top African-American theologian in the United States, wrote a fascinating book titled, The Spirituals and the Blues. In this book, he looks at the history and importance of music in the African-American culture. The blues, he wrote, are “secular spirituals,” while the spirituals were code language, dealing with the meaning of daily existence and the hope of a better future “over Jordan.” For example, the metaphor, “over Jordan” (and “crossing into Canaan”), not only meant going to heaven after death, but also referred to the underground railroad and crossing the Ohio River, into Ohio, where they would be free. The spirituals had both a now and not yet theology built into them. Consider the spiritual, “Children, We All Shall be Free.”
Children, we all shall be free
When the Lord shall appear
We want no cowards in our band
That will their colors fly
We call for valiant-hearted men
That are not afraid to die
We see the pilgrim as he lies
With glory in his soul
To heav’n he lifts his longing eyes
And bids this world adieu
Give ease to the sick, give sight to the blind
Enable the cripple to walk
He’ll raise the dead from under the earth
And give them permission to walk
A continual theme, in both the spirituals and the blues, is freedom from oppression, and the hope of a better day coming. But until that day comes (future), these songs teach, and affirm human dignity in the here and now. A now and not yet theology.
The Kingdom of God
In a lot of ways, the theology behind the spirituals (and to some extent, the blues) is the theology of the kingdom of God. There is a better day coming, but there is also a better way right now! The central theme in Luke’s gospel, as in all the gospels, is the present reality, and future hope, of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God IS the radical reversal of all things that Luke alludes to time and time again.
Luke 17:20 begins a new cycle in Jesus’ teaching. Luke records, “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come…” (Luke 17:20a). The Pharisees had a deep interest in the kingdom of God. Their belief was that one day, God would “intervene in human affairs to deliver the righteous, judge the wicked, and bring in an era of peace, justice, and righteousness.” This led to the belief of a militant messiah who would overthrow the empire and re-establish the throne of David. To the Pharisees, and most of the Jews, the arrival of God’s kingdom would be dramatic and cataclysmic. For them, this day was still in the future. In essence, what they are asking Jesus would be like us asking someone today, “When will Jesus return?” Several times, already, Jesus has mentioned the kingdom of God:
- Luke 4:43 – “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”
- Luke 7:22-23; in response to John the Baptist asking if Jesus was the Messiah – “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news (of the kingdom of God) is preached to the poor”
- Luke 10:9-11 – “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you.’ Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.”
- Luke 11:20 – “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”
- Luke 21:5-33 – The Olivet Discourse (signs of the end of times and the fulfillment of the coming kingdom).
Like many people today, the Pharisees were interested in end time prophecies and calculating the time of the coming Messiah. Interestingly enough, while they ask Jesus this question, they missed the Messiah standing right in front of them. They were so concerned with what God was going to do in the future that they missed what He was doing in the here and now. If we are not careful, we will fall into the same trap. Here is today’s first lesson: Don’t miss what God is doing now, because you are looking for what you think He is going to do in the future. Don’t let prophecy blind you from the present!
“Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation…” (Luke 17:20b). In other words, don’t waste your time trying to figure out when the Messiah will come (or return); “…nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,” (Luke 17:21a). In other words, don’t waste your time listening to people who think they know when the Messiah will come (or return). Why? Because “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21b). Jesus was not teaching that we become God ourselves. The translation, “within you” is unfortunate. A better translation is “among you,” and that is how the New Revised Standard Version translates it: “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21b, NRSV). God’s kingdom is present right now!
This is the now of God’s kingdom. When Jesus came the first time, He brought with Him the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “The time has come…The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). God’s kingdom is His sovereign rule. It is where what He wants done is done, and His sovereign rule begins the moment you “repent and believe the good news.” There is no need to look for His coming kingdom because it is already here! And, in the words of Jesus, you see His kingdom, in the here and now, whenever “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22-23). Furthermore, people experience the present reality of God’s kingdom when they are given hope for a secured future, justice, healing, and deliverance (Luke 4:18-19).
Luke continues, “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. Men will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lighting which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (Luke 17:22-25). I imagine Jesus turning to His disciples in frustration over the Pharisees willful ignorance of all He had been doing and teaching. In spite of all He had done, they still did not believe He was the Messiah in whom they were waiting. Maybe He was saying something like this: “I know you want to see God’s judgment come on these people, but you are not going to see it. I know there have been many false prophets who have come before me, and you have been wise to not follow them. When I return, you will know it. It will be obvious to everyone. But before that happens, I have to die and be rejected by these guys.” This brings up another lesson: If the here and now doesn’t convince you Jesus is the Messiah, nothing that happens in the future will either. Many people keep looking for a sign from God when the signs are all around them. Open your eyes before it is too late.
The kingdom of God is now and not yet. God’s kingdom commenced with the incarnation of Jesus, that’s the now. God’s kingdom will culminate when Jesus returns. When will that be? The only thing Jesus told us about the when, was the attitude of people. After all, the kingdom of God is about people, not dates and times.
Jesus says, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.”
“It was the same way in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:26-29).
The sign of Noah and Lot (the attitude of the people) was the sign of apathy toward the things of God. In both cases, people were living their lives without any concern for God or the things of God. They were living their lives only for themselves, seeking to satisfy their own pleasures and refusing to help those in need. In both cases, things were going well. People were successful. Life was good. In both the story of Noah and Lot, destruction came suddenly, but not without warning. For in both incidences, people were warned that God’s judgment was soon coming. God’s judgment doesn’t come by falling off a cliff. It comes through a slow decline down a soft slope, when you think everything is alright, and you are only living for yourself. Yet, in spite of warnings after warnings after warnings, God’s judgment always catches you off guard.
Jesus continues, “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with goods inside, should go down and get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything” (Luke 17:30). Homes in Jesus’ day had flat roofs that were used as a patio or outside living area. When Jesus returns, if you are outside grilling, don’t take time to go back inside and get a spatula. It’s too late! Also, if you are at work when Jesus returns, you will not have the opportunity to go home and pack. It’s too late!
Jesus says, “Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:32). Her story is found in Genesis 19:6. While fleeing the destruction of Sodom, “she looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” Looking back was an act of unfaithfulness and disobedience. “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). Another radical reversal. If you try to keep your life, and do things your own way, you will lose in the end. However, if you give up your life in complete surrender and obedience to God, you will actually save your life and win in the end.
The urgency of making a decision to follow Jesus, right now, before Jesus returns, cannot be overstated. Jesus says, “I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:35). Some bible translations add, “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:36). The lesson is this: If you are not ready when Jesus returns you will be left behind.
The Pharisees asked “When the kingdom of God would come” (Luke 17:20). Jesus’ disciples asked, “Where, Lord?” (Luke 17:37a). Where will these things happen? With that question, I believe they thought it was going to happen soon. Jesus replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37b).
What does Jesus mean by that last statement? The simplest answer is that the judgment Jesus is describing will be as evident, and gruesome, as a dead body around which vultures gather. The final lesson is this: God’s judgment, though delayed, is definite. Jesus is returning. Are you ready?
Jesus returns to the topic of His return and coming judgement in Luke 21:5-36. His teaching there is known as the Olivet Discourse because it was delivered from the Mount of Olives. In addition to Luke 21:5-36, the Olivet Discourse is found in Matthew 24:1-25:46, and Mark 13:1-37. I think it would be good to end this sermon by reading Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse, especially in light of current events. Luke 21:5-36:
“Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give youwords and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
There’s a better day coming, but there is also a better way right now!
To heav’n he lifts his longing eyes
And bids this world adieu
Give ease to the sick, give sight to the blind
Enable the cripple to walk.
The kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future hope. It is now and not yet. The kingdom of God IS the radical reversal of all things. Jesus is returning soon! Are you ready?
 Clinton E. Arnold, General Editor. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Volume 1, Matthew, Mark, Luke. 2002. Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI., p. 367.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.