"The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!' For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst." Luke 17:20-21
One of the most frustrating parts of being a Christian today is that there is nothing to it. By that, I do not mean to say that it is easy, but that there are - as Jesus said - no signs to be observed. This is a reflection of the doctrine of the Invisible Church. The reality of Christian faith is not something we can see. The perfectly wonderful person sitting in front of you in worship on Sunday could be a hypocrite, although they probably are not. Jesus wasn't really talking about the invisibility of the church, though. He was talking about the way the kingdom of God exists among us without announcing itself or making a show of its presence.
Earthly kingdoms announce themselves. They fly flags and have national anthems and clothe their leaders in prestige and outward trappings of glory. We guard our borders with fences and soldiers. We have rules and laws which bind citizens and foreigners alike. We often have languages distinct from one nation to another. We want people to know and recognize our nations and to be clear that they are in our nation when they enter across the border.
The kingdom of God is not a geographically identifiable kingdom. The borders cannot be traced on a map. We have no unique flags, and there is no certain evidence that the kingdom is in our midst or that we are in the midst of the kingdom. At this juncture, I am tempted to break off into a lesson about the three-fold kingdom of Power, Grace, and Glory - but I won't, not today. The kingdom without signs is both in you and around you.
Each of us has had the experience of confronting someone who simply did not accept that there is a God, or that prayer really accomplishes anything, or something of that nature. At moments like those, one earnestly desires to have some test to demonstrate the reality of God and faith and the power of prayers, and the like. We would love to have some chemical reagent that we could simply mix with water and when it turns red, it shows conclusively that God is nearby and real. Much to our discomfort, though, such a test does not exist. Elijah got to do it with those prophets of Baal way back in history, and Peter and Paul seemed to have a couple of good days when they could show God's truth and presence pretty convincingly, but we don't have that sort of test available to us today.
The Christian faith is just that, faith. 2 Corinthians 5 says that "we walk by faith and not by sight." It is that truth of our existence that causes us such discomfort and frustration at times. This is a kingdom without signs.
Some people would claim that their success is a sign - a large church, or a prosperous life or being able to accomplish tremendous things is a sign of the presence and favor of God. It would make things easier, in some ways, if that were true. We could tell who was right and who was wrong by just looking. We could identify when we were doing God-pleasing things, and when we were off-track by how well things worked. Trouble is, this is what you call a theology of glory, and it would make this kingdom of God to have a sign, which Jesus says is doesn't.
The kingdom of God is in you, in the sense that God rules a portion of creation in a special way - it is what governs the thoughts and words and actions of the citizens of the kingdom. Because we have one foot in two different kingdoms, so to speak, we never get it entirely right or live entirely consistently as members of the kingdom of God, at least not as long as we live in this world. The kingdom of God is not merely within us, though. God is at work outside of us too, on our behalf and in answer to our prayers, for example.
Prayer is a good illustration of how this kingdom works - or how things work in this kingdom. We pray. God listens, and He answers. He answers every single prayer. He doesn't answer us out loud, however. Sometimes we think we can see the answer to our prayers, and sometimes we cannot detect the answer or tell what it is. Unbelievers use this fact as a tool to deny the power of prayer. We might pray, for example, for rain. While it does not rain, it appears that our prayers have gone unanswered. When rain comes, it is not always all that we hoped for - or it is too much, in our opinions, and so it seems to the critics (and the devil whispers it in our ears at times) as if the rain was a mere coincidence and not linked to our prayer.
The truth is something we can only know by faith. Remember, this is a kingdom without signs. If you asked for two inches of rain on a Thursday, and it rained about two inches that night, that might be a sign. It would be particularly clear if you could duplicate that sort of response with regularity. Jesus could do that when He walked this earth. We called them "miracles." On special occasions, God has given that sort of authority to specific individuals, such as some of the prophets, and some of the Apostles. Nevertheless, such a dynamic and regular response to prayer is not common today.
That isn't to say that answers to prayers are not common, because God answers every single prayer spoken or thought by His beloved children. Sometimes we can see the answers, or what we assume are the answers, and sometimes (most of the time) we cannot. A little distance in time will often make seeing answers to prayer easier, but not always. Our faith, and the Word of God, tell us that God answers, not our perceptions.
The kingdom of God is present where and when we pray even though we cannot always determine what the answer was. Others, from other religions, also pray, but the kingdom of God is not present there, when they pray. It is most clearly absent from among them at that time, since they do not know what they are doing and they are talking to a god that does not really exist. The true God has made it clear that you have to be deliberately talking to Him in order to be praying to Him. If you are just talking to the sky or whomever might be listening, or you have another being of another nature in mind (and you just happen to call that being "God"), the God that exists (and that is what His name - Jahweh - means) will not be listening. He will know that you have prayed, because He knows everything, but He will not be 'listening' in the sense that you have any reason to imagine that He will answer. He has not promised to answer anything that anyone might imagine is prayer to any deity of any sort, and, in fact, He has promised not to answer such prayers. You gotta know Him and be praying to Him deliberately to have the promise that He will listen and answer apply to your prayer.
God is also at work in His providence - the providing for us and guiding events so that all things work together for good to those who love God. We just don't see it necessarily, and what is "good" is not always what is pleasant nor what we desire. In part, this is so because we are supposed to live by faith and trust God. If we could clearly see that God was at work, and things went just as we wanted them to go, we would not be living by faith but by experience of the goodness and the presence of God. If there were such a clear demarcation between the chosen of God and the wicked in this world, the consequences would be potentially disastrous.
Some people would hate us all the more for the very favor of God which would be so clearly visible to them. Just think about the vitriolic hatred of the Islamic jihadists of our day. They hate us with such energy and so thoroughly because we are simply not Moslem. Our freedoms and our wealth and our comforts and our public pleasures (not to mention the private ones!) indicate to the rabid muslim that we are not submissive to Islam - and therefore we are infidels to be obliterated without mercy and without restraint. They hate us so deeply that suicide missions are not merely conceivable but glorious, in their fervor. Imagine if the favor of God upon Christians was abundantly visible and evident to all who were not believers. The life of every Christian everywhere would be as dangerous and despised as the lives of those Christians who live in Islamic lands.
The second danger of this hypothetical visibility of the favor of God would be that men and women would flock to the Church for the wrong reasons. They would come for the "stuff"and not by reason of faith, just as people followed Jesus for the free food and the miracles and healings, rather than because they believed Him to be the Messiah, or they trusted in Him for forgiveness and salvation. Either the phonies would profit from their hypocrisy, and the visible church would be a bigger nest of vipers than it is today, or they would stand clearly convicted of their hypocrisy, and that would drive them even deeper into insane hated and persecution of the Church.
Either situation would work aggressively against the life and work of the Church of bringing the good news of God's grace in Jesus Christ to the lost and erring. God has chosen to do things a different way. He establishes His kingdom in and among and through His chosen people. He does so by the power of the Holy Spirit who works through Word and Sacrament to create faith when and where it pleases Him. Our part is to live as His people, chosen and precious, walking by faith rather than by sight or outward experience.
Our part is to live among the unbelievers in the same conditions that they must endure, but living out the hope that is in us, and trusting God to see and hear and bless us and preserve us. This is what we would have called "The Kingdom of Grace", if I had given in to that temptation to take the lesson that way earlier. We are invited, challenged, and commanded to live out our confidence in God while we bear the same economic and social troubles that our neighbors who have no connection with God also endure. Sometimes, we are called on to serve our Lord by living with conditions that are not as favorable as those who live around us.
That we live in faith, patient, confident of the good will of God, unwilling to surrender to despair in the face of obstacles and tribulations gives glory to God and underlines our confession of Him. It works the will of our King, who desires the salvation of all men and uses our lives of patient continuing in well-doing to catch the attention, and turn the heads of men everywhere. Our living in the hope of salvation does not convert or even positively impress everyone around us. Some people never even notice. Some people think we are foolish for being faithful when there is no apparent and outward advantage to us in doing so. No matter how men around us respond, or fail to respond, we are doing the work which God has given us to do, and He makes it effective for His purposes.
I imagine that His purpose includes turning some men to faith - and our faithfulness plays a part in that work somehow - and His purpose also includes the greater condemnation of those who stubbornly reject Him and His grace and who view the evidence of faith and faithfulness with such disdain and dismissal. Some will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven, and some will see our good works and mock us and blaspheme Him because they have rejected Him and even the possibility of His love and salvation.
And some will see our good works, and will be drawn to ask us about the hope that is in us. At that moment, we are to be prepared to give that apology, the defense that Peter reminds us to be prepared to give, in 1 Peter 3:15. All of these things are part of that kingdom without signs. Because it is without signs, we sometimes have difficulty maintaining our focus on it, and on our participation in it. That is part of the reason for worship every Sunday, and Bible Studies. They help us see clearly and remember the promises and hold fast to the hope which we have been given in Jesus Christ.
You see, even though the kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, it is not entirely invisible. People witness it in you, even though they may not be certain of what it is that they are seeing. Sometimes when we think we can tell where that kingdom is, we are being deceived by a hypocritical show of piety, which is why we never dare trust the evidence of our senses. We have only two markers to help us find the kingdom of God on earth - the Word of God preached clearly and honestly, and the Sacraments being administered according to their institution by Christ. If you want to see anything, you should be conscious of looking for that!
Yours in the Lord,
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