So Near and Yet So Far
July 7, 2013
When you see flashing blue lights, what is the first thing that you think of?
I remember a Sunday evening when I was in about the second or third grade. It was shortly after Christmas, so it was dark. I was riding in the back seat of the car with my best friend—I had spent the afternoon with Keith and his family, and now we were returning to church for the Sunday evening service. Keith had received a flashlight as one of his Christmas presents that year. This was a special flashlight—a solid white beam on the one end, and a flashing red light on the other end. This was in the days in which police cars still used flashing red lights. At some point along the way, Keith started the red light flashing to see if he could make his dad think that he was being pulled over by the police. We were so proud when Keith’s grandmother, also sitting in the front seat, gave her son that cold sounding rebuke, saying that she kept telling him to slow down.
It is an odd thing to me how the presence of police can be threatening to some and assuring to others.
I often have heard about how a child who grew up in peaceful surroundings will look upon a police officer as a friend. Take a child who has grown up in an atmosphere in which the police are “out to get them,” and they will respond to the same police officer in fear. I saw this first hand when I visited South Africa. To this day, some people see the police as instruments of apartheid—of terrible segregation. Others see the police as care givers, helpers. You don’t have to go too far back in the history of the United States to see the same thing.
I see signs of this in our Gospel Lesson this morning. Two times, Jesus reminds his listeners that “the Kingdom of God has come near.” This takes place at a time when Jesus is sending out a large group of followers to preach the Good News (some translations say 70; others say 72, depending on which manuscripts they used for their sources). This lesson takes place soon after Jesus and his disciples were rejected by a village in Samaria; the villagers knew that Jesus was on his way towards Jerusalem, and the old prejudices were deep rooted. Jesus is commissioning the group of 70 or 72 to go out in advance to the communities through which he will be passing. Jesus tells them that if they are received well in a community, they should spend some time there, gratefully receive the hospitality of the people, heal the sick, and tell the people that “the Kingdom of God has come near to you” (v. 9).
But if they are not received well in a community, they should leave town, and on their way out, they should shake the dust off of their feet in protest, and tell the people that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (v. 11). Two messages with almost identical words, yet with two very different meanings. The first time, it is a promise, a sign of hope and healing. In the second, the message is a warning. The context makes all the difference.
But there is something else that jumps out at me from those words. The Kingdom of God has come near now—in the present tense. The Kingdom has come here to stay. It didn’t just pop up for a while 2,000 years ago and then disappear. It isn’t just a promise for some time in the future that we can’t pinpoint. The Kingdom of God is here today, if we can simply open our eyes to see it. That may be good news to us. That may be threatening news to us. But just the same, it is here, all around us.
I keep coming back to the words of Psalm 139. Do you remember these words? We just read them a few weeks ago:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,"
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139:7-12, NIV).
This is not only a description of things present. It is a reminder of things to come. There is a word of judgment here; it can feel threatening to those who have not experienced the Kingdom. However, instead of feeling threatened, we can take this as a promise—a promise that:
If we are lonely, God is here.
If we are frightened, God is here.
If we are sad, God is here.
If we are happy, God is here.
If we are feeling great, God is here.
If we are suffering, God is here.
And when the day comes for us to end our earthly journey, God will be with us too, for he promised, “I will be with you always—even to the end of the age.
So if this is good news, why would people reject this news? For some, it may have something to do with past experiences. A lot of damage has been done to people in the name of faith. For others, it has something to do with their overall world-view. They just aren’t capable of seeing what we see. They are like the fish swimming around, looking for the ocean, without being able to see that the ocean is all around them.
Naaman almost missed the Kingdom. In our Old Testament Lesson, the healing work of God was offered to him in a way that was outside his frame of reference. At first, Naaman rejected it. He hadn’t traveled all the way from Damascus simply to take a bath in the muddy Jordan River. There were plenty of much nice spas much closer to the comforts of home. And to think that Elisha the prophet didn’t even have the courtesy to come out of his house to seen him. Naaman was able to receive God’s healing only when he humbled himself and put aside his preconceived notions about how healing should take place. And to think, he almost missed it.
Missing the Kingdom. Think of it as lost opportunities. To be so close to the Kingdom of God and not even recognize it.
This is part of the reason that I think Vacation Bible School is so important. It’s not as though I think we will connect fully with every child. Sadly, the law of averages tells us probably not. It’s not as though every child will come here willingly, without a fuss. It’s not likely that every child will encounter a spiritual mountaintop experience. Some may be focused more on the music, the crafts, the science journeys, what’s next for snacks. But in between all of those activities, they will hear the Good News.
It’s a start in the journey—their faith journey. Every time we can expose our children to the love of God shown in Jesus Christ, that’s a good thing.
At the close of our Hymn of Response, I am going to ask all who are participating in Vacation Bible School to come forward so that we as a church can offer you a blessing. Just as when Jesus sent out the seventy (or seventy-two) people, you have been sent by God to this place to share God’s love with the children of Fluvanna County. Some may accept you; some may reject you (although I truly hope we won’t see our teachers shaking the dust off of their feet, even though they may feel like it at times!). I hope that as you enter this week, you won’t feel as though we are sending you as “lambs in the midst of wolves” (v. 3). I hope you won’t do it with the feeling of “it’s another VBS. I can’t wait until this week is over.” Rather, I hope that you will be able to recognize the mission field and the Kingdom.
Have you experienced the Kingdom this morning? It has come very near to you. Right here in Cunningham. May God open our eyes to see it this day!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.
All rights reserved.