The opening of the book of Luke is filled with hope and lofty speeches and songs. Underlying it all is the promise of God's kingdom where the rich and powerful are put in their place, the poor and weak are lifted up and all is made right. It is pretty heady stuff.
As John the Baptist comes on the scene Luke uses words not from one passage in Isaiah, but multiple passages that all ring with future hope for God's people, "As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Isaiah 40.3-5) Every valley shall be filled,(Isaiah 57.14) and every mountain and hill shall be made low, (Isa. 49.11) and the crooked shall become straight, (Isa. 42.16 & 45.2) and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.(Isa. 52.10) ’” (Luke 3:4–6 ESV. All of these passage connect with the return of Israel to the promised land, of a life where, in biblical language, every person lives under his/her vine and fig tree. Which is a way of saying that you live in great community enjoying the multiple gifts of God and in particular, God himself.
The future is filled with hope. The people are streaming out to be baptized by John to become part of this great kingdom of God movement. And then suddenly, without warning all the forward movement grinds to a halt, "So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison. (Luke 3:18–20 ESV)"
So here is the huge irony. The declarations have been of the coming kingdom, the declarations have been of the mighty being brought down--yet the man who declares the kingdom and baptizes and calls people to the new way of life, who some believe is the Messiah is put in prison by the one in power. Where can this story possibly be going….
We know the answer to that...it is heading toward the coming of Jesus, but even with his coming we find those in power hang him from a cross like a lamb in butcher's shop on a darkened Friday afternoon (in the colorful picture of Neil Plantinga). Those in power are not beaten down, they exert their power and both John and Jesus die.
It feels like a kingdom fail. Of course this is heading for the resurrection of Jesus. Still, what of all those great promises? What of the promise of this kingdom? One Jewish scholar whose name I can't recall says he actually believes in the resurrection of Jesus but doesn't believe he is Messiah because the kingdom didn't come in the way the Jewish people believed it would.
All of this to say that what must have felt like a kingdom fail to John the Baptist, to the disciples of Jesus as he hung on the cross, that feeling of kingdom fail is something we all experience regularly. And it is something that as church planters, pastor's of established churches and members of a congregation that we have to deal with when people wonder about faith, about God, and about whether he is really active in the world.
It seems to me that we have to acknowledge this sense of kingdom fail. We have to own the reality that at times it is hard to see the kingdom, that we grieve over places where it seems the kingdom has made no impact. We should not short-change how so often it looks like "kingdom fail". We need to wisely, honestly work with those who struggle with "kingdom fail." (Actually Jesus will do this with John the Baptist. As John is sitting in prison his question to Jesus is basically, "What is going on, this is a kingdom fail, get me out of this prison." Jesus' answer from Isaiah is that the time has not come for the kind of kingdom John is looking for, there must be grace first, then there will be judgment.)
At the same time when the question becomes--especially for us when we deal with "kingdom fail"--"Where can this story possibly be going?" The answer we remind ourselves of is, "Finally the kingdom will come in all of its fullness: when we and all of creation will be redeemed, liberated, and made new." And when we wonder about, when others wonder about the reality of that vision our eyes look back to a God who sent his son into the world, to an empty tomb, to a resurrected and ascended Lord, and to the words of Paul, What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8:31–32 ESV)