As we enter a new year today, beware the lure of people who promise that mankind can deliver a New Jerusalem.
Only God can do that.
Mainline Christian churches who follow the Revised Common Lectionary enjoy an anomalous surfeit of possible readings this Sunday – one set as the first Sunday after Christmas, one set as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, and one as a recognition of the secular new year. The latter set gives us the most interesting and controversial themes, the ones that probably resonate best with most Americans who have a habit of using New Year’s Day as a way not just to ponder the passage of time but also to reflect on its meaning.
Of course for popular culture The Byrds made famous this week’s reading from Ecclesiastes – a time to be born and one to die; a time to plant and one to reap, etcetera – but there is more to those passages than a mere sort of New Age let-it-be-ness. The essential message comes in later, less familiar lines: God “has put a sense of past and future into [our] minds, yet [we] cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
The point is not that we should just “chill out” and let God take care of things, but that we are incapable of God’s full conception of things and thus we should keep working (toiling) faithfully in the knowledge that we are expected to cheerfully do our best.
This attitude, combining energy and cheerfulness with humility and trust, becomes tremendously important when considering the accompanying readings from Revelation and Matthew.
In the 20th century, a school of Christian thought known as “Kingdom Theology” gained prominence, arguing that our job as believers is to do all we can to pave the way for the Kingdom of God to be made manifest here on Earth. The more aggressive of these Kingdom theologians argued, in effect, that the church(es) should provide the “organization” and openly support the civil authorities (read: those chosen politicians and policies) who will most energetically use governmental power to help bring about that “kingdom.”
The indices of that kingdom are rather incontrovertible: The kingdom is one that most effectively implements the combined ideals of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” and of today’s reading from Matthew about the virtues of feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned and caring for the sick.
Likewise, the shining vision of that kingdom is laid out in today’s reading from Revelation: “a new heaven and a new earth… the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…. [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
So far, so good. Almost no Christian would argue with those basic goals.
The problem is not with the goals, but the means. Actually, problems, plural. The first problem enters when the more aggressive/radical Kingdom adherents insist that government is the preferred vehicle for achieving the kingdom on Earth, which also logically includes the assumption that government’s compulsory powers are perfectly legitimate to use toward that end. (More on why that is a problem, momentarily.) The second problem is with the idea that mankind not only should prepare for the coming kingdom and welcome it, but actually create it on our own (or create all but a few, final flourishes from God).
Entire treatises have been written on this subject, and many more probably should be written. But for our purposes in this short essay, a few short assertions must suffice. To wit:
First, nothing in the Gospels indicates support for God’s kingdom to be achieved through one man’s (or group’s) compulsion over another. Indeed, most indications are the opposite: Jesus rejected political involvement, saying that Caesar’s realm and God’s are separate; and He also repeatedly stressed free will and choice, not compulsion, as the way both to charity and to salvation.
Second, the readings from Ecclesiastes and Revelation point not to a man-created “kingdom” but rather to a kingdom that only God can bring – because mankind, though able to be helpers in the project, absolutely cannot understand God’s full perspective and wisdom and cannot, in our fallen nature, create a world perfect in God’s eyes.
As Ecclesiastes says, we definitely should toil for God’s sake – but only with humility and trust that God alone can fully make things right, because even with a “New Year’s” ability to reflect on both “past and future,” of course “we cannot find out what God has done” or will do, much less why.
Note, in Revelation, the New Jerusalem isn’t built on the old earth, and not built by man. Instead, it is part of a new heaven and a new earth, “coming down out of heaven from God” (my emphasis added).
There is nothing wrong with wanting to prepare the conditions on earth so that whatever is of the old earth will be spiritually welcoming for the New Jerusalem. But for one set of people to assume they can create the new kingdom themselves, that they are wise enough to know exactly how it should be, and that they are right to use compulsory government to force everybody else to comply … well, that’s a presumptuousness that isn’t just wrong, but potentially dangerous.
If for everything there is a season, it remains true that only God knows when the season will be for His new kingdom. If we try to force it before the right season has come, we fail the entire lesson of Ecclesiastes, which is a lesson of patience and earnest work while trusting, in the end, not in ourselves but in God.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.