The future, here and now
OPINION: Perspectives from readersby Jacob Elias
When surfing stations on the car radio, I occasionally stumble across a preacher eager to persuade me to accept a "Bible prophecy" view of what God will yet do there and then. In our congregation, our worship reaches a climax when we sing, "Your will be done on earth, O Lord," and we pray the Lord's Prayer. In these ways we express our longing for the future here and now: that God might reign on earth as in heaven and that as God's kingdom citizens we might participate faithfully in God's mission to the world.
These two scenarios of God’s work are profoundly different. When Myron Augsburger's article "A Paracosmic Millennium" appeared in The Mennonite (March), I welcomed this contribution but was also troubled by it. I affirm his call to recognize God’s dynamic reign as both already present and yet still future. The teachings of Jesus and the apostles consistently urge followers during this interim between "already" and "not yet" to live in accord with the values of God’s still in-breaking reign.
What I find problematic is that Augsburger invites his readers to anticipate a paracosmic millennium. Drawing on the definitions included in a glossary of terms, this means that believers can look forward to a "1,000-year reign of Christ over and beyond the world."
This kind of postponement of the reign of Christ runs counter to Jesus' own appeal to his contemporaries to recognize the presence of the kingdom on the earth here and now. And this beckoning of the faithful to anticipate Christ’s reign over and beyond the world feels like an abandonment of the world.
Self-described "Bible prophecy preachers" typically encourage such postponement and abandonment. I am content to let past arguments among millennialists be an urgent reminder not to repeat them in our time. We need rather to recover the urgency of the call of the risen Christ for his disciples to make disciples of all nations, teaching them, baptizing them and reassuring them, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age." In the meantime, in the time interval between the incarnation and the triumphant coming of Christ, we participate with God as stewards of the earth. We are not invited to abandon the creation to inevitable destruction but to tend it, working with God, who continues to long for a renewed earth and heaven. We do not anticipate a postponement of such renewal. Through ongoing striving and praying for its greater realization, we anticipate its consummation in the fullness of time.
God's involvement in history has typically been understood as moving in a linear progression toward an "end" (understood as cessation). The ominous possibility of the destruction of the cosmos has been voiced by prophets and apostles who realized the frightening prospect of annihilation, if people continue their violent and abusive ways. However, much more prevalent has been the hopeful envisioning by prophets and apostles of a different "end": the goal of God's restorative justice.
God's justice is revealed climactically in Jesus. It is lived out, albeit incompletely, by a people gripped by the vision of a new creation. This vision is given its social embodiment within diverse communities of Jesus' disciples empowered by God's Spirit. This Spirit moves these communities toward the consummation that our sovereign God continues to long to bring to reality. The other kind of "end" (annihilation) is still a risk, but it is not what God wants.
Millennial portrayals of the future find articulation in the symbolic world of John's apocalyptic vision. A thousand years is but one of many evocative images whereby he proclaims the ongoing sovereignty of God and the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ on earth as in heaven. As to the timetable for the future, we defer to our sovereign God. We need to remember the future that has already been opened up for all those who confess Christ as Lord. This future is still to be consummated by God. This is the present and future kingdom in which we as individuals and faith communities are summoned to participate.
Jacob Elias is co-pastor at Parkview Mennonite Church, Kokomo, Ind., and author of Remember the Future (Herald Press, 2006).
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