“It’s as plain as the nose on your face,” my grandmother would say when she was trying to get me to see something she could see plainly but I seemed to miss entirely. She was usually trying to help me see not an object but a meaning, an implication, what was (to her) the obvious outcome of a decision I was about to make. If I had been able to see from her perspective, my life would usually have been better. But such wisdom almost always comes later, on the far side of experience.
Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming the kingdom of God has come near (Mark 1:15; Matt. 4:17), God’s ancient promise has been fulfilled (Luke 4:16-21), more and better life than we ever dreamed of is spread all around and people don’t see it (John 10:10; Gosp. Thomas 113). Then he spent his life trying to get people to see it. And people looked and looked and failed to see, they listened and listened and failed to understand (Mark 4:12). I can imagine his frustration when he said, “Oh, Jerusalem! How often I’ve wanted to gather you like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn’t let me” (Matt. 23:37). I can almost hear him say, “What I’m offering you is as plain as the nose on your face. Are you not able to see it?”
Maybe we’re looking for the wrong thing; maybe we have the wrong idea about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus never told us exactly what it is. He never said there would be no tears there, never promised there would be no more death and mourning and crying and pain. That was someone else’s vision (Rev. 21:4). Instead, he said it’s like the most unbelievable things: a farmer who plants wheat and finds weeds in his crop; a little yeast that spoils a lot of bread; a treasure used to manipulate a real estate transaction; a disreputable merchant looking for profit in pearls; an ordinary fishing net that requires constant mending and is very unselective about what it hauls in; the almost invisible seed of an invasive weed that farmers struggle to keep out of their fields (Matt. 13:1-50). Unbelievable things.
Maybe that’s why I’m not able to see what’s as plain as the nose on my face. My vision has been too grand, my sights set too high, my hope misplaced. I’ve been looking for a throne of precious jewels with thunder and flaming torches surrounded by a crystal sea and a choir of angels (Rev. 4:1-11). I’ve been looking for a city of light adorned with every jewel coming down from heaven on clouds of glory (Rev. 21:9-27). And Jesus tries to show me invasive weeds and frayed fishing nets and desire so strong you’ll do anything to get what you’re after. The kingdom of heaven is so ordinary, so plain (as the nose on your face), you’ll look right past it and never notice it until it sneaks up on you much later, like a thief in the night (1 Thess. 5:2).
More than four decades later, I still remember the kingdom of heaven sneaking up in a conversation with my friend Bob Young. We sat for a wet autumn afternoon before a fire in a shelter in the Shawnee National Forest and opened our hearts to each other. I recall almost nothing of what we talked about, but I remember the depth of our conversation, the unexpected, unplanned way our souls opened to one another, the way time suspended and the rest of the world faded as something of extraordinary value opened between us. Eventually we got in the car and returned to our homes.
We never returned to that shelter, never had another conversation quite like that one, and a few years later, Bob committed suicide. For all the deep things we talked about that day, we never talked about the burden he carried. But God was known to us in the experience of that day. The kingdom of heaven opened to us for a moment before the door clicked shut. Something that is with us all the time but hidden from sight showed itself to us one autumn day in the Shawnee National Forest. And if it never reveals itself again in quite that way, it’s never far below the surface of the ordinary, and once in a while, by a mysterious grace, it shows itself anew.
That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s like something so small you hardly notice it, but it turns into something so big you can’t get it out of your mind. It’s like a conversation so ordinary you don’t expect much of it, but it ends up touching the rest of your life. It’s like any moment so apparently worthless, you let it rush by without giving it a second thought, and later it makes you realize how precious each brief moment is and how once those moments are gone you can’t get them back. The kingdom of heaven is like that. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.