Jesus was a Dream Awakener. He startled his contemporaries from their self-imposed deep sleep by standing up tall and in front of everyone and announcing the following three lines:
The time has come.
The kingdom of God has come near.
Repent and believe the good news!
Unfortunately, these words about the kingdom have become dog-eared for many of us. They’re about as catchy as the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” or New Kids on the Block’s “You Got It (the Right Stuff).” I’m sorry to connect what Jesus means by kingdom to boy bands that no longer matter, but hear me out: Jesus’ word kingdom has been used so many times by so many preachers and teachers and writers for so many ideas, we forget how revolutionary that word was for the Galileans of his day. Jesus’ words brought waves of ordinary folks to their feet and awakened in them a reverie of hope. It’s too bad for us that “kingdom” sounds so nineties.
For Jesus the word kingdom meant “God’s dream for this world come true.” But we need to get our minds and hearts and bodies around one very important element of this word kingdom: Kingdom wasn’t just Jesus’ dream, but the dream of everyone in Israel. Pick up any of Israel’s Prophets in the Old Testament, like the long and winding Isaiah or the short and abrupt Haggai, and you will catch snippets of a bold and robust hope for what God would do someday. Jesus was capturing those dreams when he announced the time had now come. Jesus is the Dream Awakener when he uses this term….
When they heard the word “kingdom” what do you think the contemporaries of Jesus imagined?
Every Jew in Galilee and everywhere else, and I mean every one of them, when they heard Jesus say “the kingdom,” looked for three things: king, land, citizens. This might surprise you, but that is only because so many Christians have turned kingdom into either a “personal experience with Jesus” (the evangelical meaning of kingdom) or into “cultural redemption” (the liberal, progressive meaning of kingdom). When Jesus said “kingdom,” the first thing his hearers looked for was a king, and then they were thinking of the land (or a sacred place or sacred space) and themselves as participants (citizens). This needs to be fleshed out for one reason: Kingdom is not about an experience with God but about the society of God, and this society is Jewish (and biblical) to the core….If you grew up in a church, you might be surprised that I say Jesus uses the word kingdom to refer to God’s Dream Society on earth. Along about the nineteenth century the more progressive side of the Church (now called “liberalism”) converted Jesus’ message about the kingdom into the inner experience of God’s personal rule in one’s life and they urged their culture to adopt the big ideas of Jesus in order to transform culture. The oddest thing then happened. Evangelical Christians, who have always pushed hard against the liberals, picked up what the liberals were teaching; but they connected Jesus’ message of kingdom with the experience of personal conversion, to that single-moment acceptance of Christ. This led to a widespread conviction, held both by liberals and conservatives, that kingdom means “God’s personal rule in the heart of the individual.” Kingdom became an inner experience of God; some people have reduced it to the nearly meaningless word spirituality.
This unfortunate agreement of the traditionalist and the progressive gets things exactly backwards. Jesus surely did call folks to personal religious faith, but that word kingdom meant something else for him. It was about God’s society on earth. Transforming Jesus’ powerful, full-orbed God’s-Dream-Society vision into a personal-religion vision sucks the life out of the word kingdom.
The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ most important prayer for expressing his mission, says this: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That line is preceded by this one: “May your kingdom come.” These two requests are to be read together: God’s kingdom coming means God’s will being done on earth—in a society, and this kingdom society is what the Church is called to embody….