Whose Kingdom?

If you want to drive a New Testament scholar crazy, start talking about how we bring about the kingdom of God. Such talk is both unbiblical and bad theology. It is God’s kingdom to bring when and how God sees fit. Our task (and privilege) is to bear witness to and cooperate in God’s work as best we can. The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent provide an occasion to consider whose kingdom it is and who will bring it about.

The Book of Isaiah has been aptly called the Fifth Gospel, because it has so strongly shaped the language and theology of the New Testament. The part known as Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-55) reflects the hopes of the Jewish community in exile in Babylon around 537 B.C. They had received permission from King Cyrus of Persia to return home, and the prophet’s task was to persuade his fellow Jews to go back to Jerusalem.

Today’s text from Isaiah 40 proclaims that Israel has been more than sufficiently punished for whatever sins that may have led to its exile in 587 B.C. Now God himself will bring his people home by making easy what would normally be an arduous journey through the desert. Jerusalem herself is told to look eastward and see God leading his people home like a shepherd leading his flock. God is the one who brings the exiles home, and he does so with kindness and compassion.

The beginning of Mark’s Gospel identifies John the Baptist in terms of Isa 40:3, and describes his activities and prophetic lifestyle, as well as his subordination to Jesus as the “mightier” one. In his person and baptism, John is great. But Jesus is still greater. While John looks forward to God’s coming in power, he recognizes that the task of inaugurating the presence of God’s kingdom on earth belongs to Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John’s task is to bear witness to and cooperate in Jesus’ divine mission.

The one New Testament text that might suggest that we bring about God’s kingdom is 2 Pet 3:11-12: “conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” This statement is part of a response to skeptics who were goading early Christians about the nonappearance of God’s kingdom. The writer cites Ps 90:4 to the effect that God’s reckoning of time is not the same as ours, proposes that the delay is due to God’s patience and mercy, and affirms that while the day of the Lord will come “like a thief” (suddenly and without warning), its presence will be unmistakable.

The thrust of the argument is that at most our good deeds may influence God in deciding when is the right time to bring about the day of the Lord, and whether to defer (2 Pet 3:9) or hasten its arrival (2 Pet 3:12; Mark 13:20). But 2 Peter and the other New Testament writers insist that it is God’s kingdom, and that God will bring about its full manifestation when and how God sees fit.

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