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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Nearer Than We Can Imagine
December 8, 2011

When John the Baptist came blazing into the deserts of Judea, his message was razor-sharp: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” He challenged the conduct as well as the convictions of his hearers. Apparently they were living as though God’s kingdom is far away – perhaps in some distant future, but only remotely related to life here and now. As we read the kingdom visions of Isaiah during Advent, with wolves and lambs lying together, swords beaten into plowshares, the downtrodden exalted and the mighty brought low, God’s favor lavished extravagantly on people who have known only bad news – as we read such visions, we too think, “Nice sentiments, but a far cry from the ‘real’ world.” What is remarkable about John’s message is not the proclamation of God’s reign, but the notion that God’s reign is near. The kingdom of heaven the prophets declare is so far from the world as we know that it we dismiss such visions to the realm of wishful projection.

But what if it were true that this realm of God is close at hand?  What if this kind of world is not just a remote dream, but the way of life that God really does intend for those who follow Jesus? One of the great Advent messages is that we can live differently from our time-worn worldly ways, where everyone is set against the other, each trying to gain ascendance over the other in order to preserve, defend, or advance their domains. God’s new world is ready to break in! Can we begin living as though it is just around the corner?

To repent is to change our modus operandi, our way of living. The Good News that God’s reign is near impels us to begin living as though God’s reign is already present. What seemed sheer fantasy can indeed be reality! We can afford to drop our enmities. We can be at peace with those against whom we have been set on edge. We can quit devouring one another in our frenzied quest to assure our place in the world.

The first act of repentance toward God’s kingdom is to lay down the sword. We don’t need to establish or defend our turf anymore, because we are persuaded that the earth is the Lord’s, and all that dwells in it.

A second act of repentance toward God’s kingdom is to bless where we have cursed, or where we have been cursed. As those who know we are heirs of infinite divine mercy, we too can show mercy without measure.

The list of new behaviors called forth by the approaching reign of God is more than we can even begin to unpack in this short space. Several specific examples of such behavioral changes, as proclaimed by John, are listed in Luke 3:10-14.

Repentance toward God’s reign, in short, is a total reorientation of life. When we affirm that one of our chief ends as Christ’s church is “The exhibition of the Kingdom of heaven to the world” (Book of Order F-1.0304), we are confessing that in the church we live radically differently from the way of the world. In the world as we know it, the fittest survive; in the kingdom of heaven, “a little child shall lead them.” In the world as we know it, social space is created by drawing clear lines between “us” and “them”; in the kingdom of heaven, every tribe and nation and tongue and people joins together in the unending song of praise to the one who reconciles all things in Himself. In the world, passion for self-expression rules; in the kingdom of heaven, we lay down our lives for one another.

Does our life together indeed point toward the kingdom of Heaven, or is our way of living more like the manner of the world, with all its defining enmities and contested turf claims? Am I more likely to wield the sword, or to put my hand to the plow? I must confess that my way in the church is far more shaped by the world than I’d like to admit, and far less like the ways of the kingdom that we declare – especially in Advent – to be nearer than we can imagine. Am I ready to repent, and to live in the way of heaven, here and now?

Longing for God’s reign among us,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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