"Hurricane Harvey and Tasting the Kingdom" - Matthew 16:21-28
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 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."
I heard a new thing this week as I stewed about this pretty familiar bit of Matthew’s Gospel – a passage I’ve read and considered and preached on a handful of times before. A lot of this is old, good news, really. All that stuff about denying yourself and taking up your cross; about losing your life in order to find it; and of course all of that stuff about Jesus suffering and dying and being raised on the third day. We need to be reminded of it all over and over again, so we do and we are.
But the new thing hit me when I read that last little bit from Jesus this time around, where he says, “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.” “…some standing here…will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Since he prefaces that statement with talk of “angels” and “repayment for what has been done,” I always and only considered those words as some sort of cosmic prophecy about the end of time; that Jesus was predicting his end-times return to redeem the world; like we read about in Revelation, and that hope-filled and sometimes crazy people have been longing for and making preparations about ever since. And maybe that is what Jesus meant. So frankly, I always and only heard that promise or prediction from Jesus as something he got wrong. After all, every one of those who was listening to him that day – Peter and the other disciples – are dead and long gone, right? Which means they presumably, in fact, “tasted death” before seeing the Son of Man come into his kingdom, as Jesus predicted.
But I wonder if, just like Peter, I’ve missed the point all these years. I’ve looked at those words and that promise and Jesus’ prediction with the wrong set of eyes; from the wrong kind of perspective.
Because what if it wasn’t that end-times, apocalyptic, second-coming Jesus was talking about? What if every one of those disciples really did see the Son of Man “coming into his kingdom” when they witnessed and participated in all the things Jesus had JUST predicted and JUST promised them would happen, in the verses just beforehand – namely, that great suffering, that dying and that resurrection on the third day?
What I mean is, the Son of Man “came into his kingdom” when he made his way to Jerusalem. The Son of Man “came into his kingdom” when he was handed over to the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes. The Son of Man “came into his kingdom” while he was crucified, as he suffered, and the moment he took his last breath on the cross. And of course, the Son of Man “came into his kingdom” when he was raised on the third day.
And every one of them saw it. We’ve all heard about it. They and we just can’t seem to wrap our heads – still – around a kingdom that’s humble; a kingdom that hurts sometimes; a kingdom that’s hard more often than we’d like; and a kingdom that is hopeful in spite of so many reasons not to be.
In other words, we are so much like Simon Peter who has so much to teach us through his relationship with Jesus, about our own relationship with Jesus. Whether he’s walking on water and then sinking; whether he’s refusing to wash Jesus’ feet, before submitting to the role of that kind of servanthood; or whether he’s trying to keep Jesus from being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter is us – and we are Peter: struggling with faith, neglecting opportunities to serve humbly, placing roadblocks in the way of God’s grace. We think too often with our heads about what God is calling us toward, rather than seeing with the eyes of our hearts – as that song sings – sensing what God is already up to in our midst.
But God is already and always up to something in our midst. And haven’t we seen some measure of that in Houston over the course of the last week – heavenly things, I mean, in the face of so many earthly obstacles and limitations? As horrible as Hurricane Harvey was; as much loss as we can count there, in terms of lives and real estate and things; and as much devastation as has befallen that part of our country – the kingdom has come among us in that place.
Every story about the “Cajun Navy” – and every example of average Joe’s and trained professionals – showing up to rescue those in need, is a story of the kingdom coming among us.
Every church that opens its doors or sends its people or collects supplies, is a story of the kingdom alive and well in our midst.
Every penny that gets sent for the good of the cause, with no strings attached, is the kingdom of God coming for the sake of the world.
Every black man carrying a white child, every white man carrying a brown child, every boat weighed down – like so many miniature arks, if you will – weighed down with men, women, children and animals of every size, shape, age and color is a picture of God’s kingdom, come.
I especially liked the video I saw of three or four African-American teenage boys – wearing black hoodies, even – who helped steer the floating car of a little old white lady to safety.
All of it is the kingdom of God breaking into the world as we know it. And it’s kind of amusing to me that it comes as a surprise to people, still.
People have a habit of behaving differently in the face of tragedy like we’ve seen in Houston this week; or in Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina; or in New York, on September 11th; or when a loved-one gets sick; or when a neighbor loses his job; or whatever. When the you-know-what hits the fan, the grace of God moves in and for and through people who are created in the image of that same God, remember.
Walls come down, and they should. Politics cease to matter, and they shouldn’t. Help is asked for, help offered, help is received without question, without boundary, without limit – and it all happens from those who can, and for those who need it most. In the midst of great tragedy and suffering and struggle, the kingdom comes among us more fully and more often than not, it seems to me, by the grace of God.
And what must be so frustrating to our creator – like it must have been for Jesus – is that it takes some measure of tragedy and suffering and struggle for us to get it; to do it; to receive it; to celebrate it; to see it, even, this kingdom in our midst. And that we struggle or neglect to allow that kind of kingdom living to thrive among us even when life is good and things are well.
What I think Jesus is trying to show his disciples – and what we’re supposed to have caught onto by now – what we’re still learning as followers of Christ – is that we shouldn’t wait for tragedy to strike – or to strike close to home – before we allow ourselves to live in all the ways God invites us to live in this world. (You all realize that in addition to Houston, over 1,200 people have died thanks to a monsoon in India over the course of the last week, too, right?)
What I think living with faith is about is learning to listen and to see and to live with our hearts, more than with our heads – where we see a bigger picture. When we get our heads out of the way – our scope is broadened. When we set our minds, daily, on divine things like resurrection and forgiveness and new life and the power of grace – the stuff of the world falls away and we live differently because of it.
And the kingdom comes among us… And the kingdom comes because of us… And the kingdom comes through us… The kingdom comes – here and now – and for the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus who was, who is, and who is to come.