The kingdom of God is already here, but not yet here fully.
By no means is this concept new. You have heard it mentioned in a sermon, a Bible study, or in a classroom somewhere. One of the mysteries of the kingdom is the fact that it is both here and now and not yet fully established. It is inaugurated but not yet consummated. In other words, we already see the effects of this kingdom come to earth in the life of the church, but the total rule and reign of the kingdom is clearly not fulfilled. Evil still lurks around every corner, even the dark corners of our own hearts. The kingdom awaits its final consummation, that moment when Christ himself comes back to fully establish his reign. Then and only then will all wrongs be made right.
That the kingdom is not yet fully established is painfully obvious in the weeks after a disaster like the one here on the Gulf Coast.
We see glimpses of the kingdom already at work in the church. This disaster has demonstrated that firsthand here in Houston, as it will in the path of Irma. Very often, the first to the scene in disaster response are our churches. USA Today noted that faith-based and religious organizations provide the lion’s share of relief in moments of disaster, even more than FEMA. The FEMA website displays a video detailing how 90 percent of the food served in disaster relief efforts is actually prepared by Southern Baptists. I have personally watched local churches put aside their own comfort, their own work, to gladly help people they do not know. I have witnessed what the gospel does to someone’s heart. Lots of people are pitching in to volunteer out here in Houston, but the motivations are different, and the church does so from a different place. The church shows up in times of disaster and gives the world a glimpse of the coming kingdom, a world in which we care more about others than ourselves, a place where the gospel of Jesus Christ sets our ethic.
But these fascinating glimpses of the kingdom are just that, glimpses. Disasters like this are proof positive that the kingdom is not fully here and will not come in totality until Christ himself brings this present age to its conclusion.
Last night at our small group gathering for church, I was chatting with some of the other men in our group. Of course, conversation does not go very far here in Houston nowadays without it turning toward disaster relief efforts. We discussed the slew of articles being produced right now about how Harvey could have been avoided if only the city had better zoning laws, or if the lead up to the hurricane was handled different by government, or if people were just more prepared, or if we had picked the city up and moved it 50 miles to the west. Truth be told, the city’s infrastructure handled more water than I would have ever thought possible. In two days, we received our average annual rainfall. There was enough water before it was over to cover the entire United States, the weight of which sank our entire region by 2 centimeters. We now have a (slightly) lower elevation thanks to Harvey.
People can pontificate all they want, but at the end of the day we were hit by a hurricane. Natural disasters happen, and they cannot be stopped. Any talk of preventing the devastation is mere talk of minimizing the disaster. Hurricanes cannot be removed. Nature itself stands under the curse of sin. Earthquakes, droughts, and storms are our evidence that the world groans from the pains of the fall just like we do (Rom. 8:22). No matter how hard we try, societies and cultures will bend toward corruption. No matter how hard we push ourselves as individuals, the sickness of sin will still rear its head in our own hearts. And no matter the technological strides of humanity, we cannot control nature in its pains. The earth was not supposed to be this way, but our lands suffer under the weight of sin just as we do.
Our conversation turned to a friend of one of the guys in the group. This family had just purchased a nice home in a flood-affected area. They had not even finished unpacking their boxes and water flooded into the house four feet up the wall. Now, the gentleman was distraught. If they rebuild, he wondered, what was to keep this from just happening again? Ultimately, he felt powerless. No amount of effort from him could stop the forces of nature if they returned in like fashion. And that is the grim reality of our present age.
The kingdom, available to mankind in glimpses through the church, is not consummated. We await the coming of our king for that to finally happen. We are helpless to defeat sin’s grip on the cosmos. Instead, we must fix our eyes on the hope of a promise that this age is only temporary and will give way to the weight of glory.
Of course our waiting is active. We fight against sin in our hearts, in our communities, in its effects on nature. The Spirit of God empowers the church to sometimes stay the effects of sin, to push back the darkness. We rip out moldy walls when we must for the sake of our neighbor. We feed those left without kitchens and shelter those without roofs. Ultimately the church must remember that all our striving amounts to band-aids on a wound we cannot heal. Another disaster is on its way, and we must wait hopefully on the promise that there is one who will put an end to all of this. We endure; we labor; we cry out to God, though, for our salvation. We demonstrate what this promise entails in the way we live now, and we realize that our true gift in disaster response must be the hope of a day when all wrongs are made right. As Leander Keck so eloquently stated, “the gospel is the only thing we have to offer the world that it does not already have.”