Month: March 2017

The Surprising Nature of the Kingdom

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I’ve been reading through Richard Hays’ new book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. This is a wonderful book about how the gospel writers were so formed by the Old Testament texts that they continually “echo” them in their writings. With that, Hays points out the parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God is like a small mustard seed that sprouts into a large shrub in which the birds of the air come to rest. This appears to be an allusion to Ezekiel 17:23

On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.

Sounds similar to the mustard shrub from Mark 4 when Jesus says, “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Except, there is one striking difference. The mustard shrub isn’t a noble cedar by any stretch. In fact, my understanding is that the ancient Jews would never plant a mustard seed in their garden because while it was a useful plant, it would take over and you couldn’t get rid of it. So it grew in the wild. Kind of like the Kingdom of God I guess.

I’ve been preaching through Luke with my church, and it is fascinating how surprising the kingdom of God is. God comes into the world in the man Jesus, and he’s born to an insignificant poor family in an insignificant town called Bethlehem. The only reason we know that town is because Jesus was born there. When the Messiah is born, he’s placed in a feeding trough and shepherds come to worship him. Along with shepherds come outsiders, magi. The Jewish elite (their “theologians” if you will) don’t recognize God’s Messiah, tax collectors and sinners become his friends and followers, and he goes to the broken and marginalized to heal them and bring good news. He’s not wiping out Rome with an army, he’s healing crippled women on the Sabbath in the synagogue.

The gospel stories say many things, and one of those is that the kingdom of God is surprising. It’s not found in the places you often expect. It’s not in the palaces of Rome, or in the seminaries of Jerusalem. It’s among the hurting, the small, the broken, the unlikely, the sinners, tax collectors, the Roman centurions. It’s not in the expected noble, towering cedar. It’s found in tiny unlikely mustard seeds.

We go about our daily lives, whether we realize it or not, searching for God. We are looking for meaning, purpose, value, etc. The problem is, we often look in places that you would think to find a kingdom and a god, like money, power, nobility, and the like. But do we ever go about our days attentive to the surprising places we may find God? When we think of joining God in his mission of restoring and setting all things right, do we only think of the “big” scenarios? Or do we pay attention to the often overlooked “small” moments.

In the interaction with a cashier at a routine checkout line at the grocery store. In the face of the poor man outside the gas station. In the eyes of our children. Among the awkward kid in class no one else will talk to. With that obnoxious person that interrupted us. With the difficult student in our class that drives us nuts.

The kingdom of God is often in surprising places. And if we want to join Jesus in his mission of restoring sight to the blind and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, then maybe we need to start paying attention to those small and seemingly insignificant moments throughout our day.

Maybe we need to quit looking at giant cedars and start noticing tiny mustard seeds.

 

 

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The Gift of Lamentations

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When I look around at the pain and suffering in the world, trite Christian one liners just won’t cut it. “All in God’s timing.” “Pray harder.” “Just have faith.” “God has a plan for your life.” Etc.

These are well meaning statements, and I appreciate them. But there is a time to wail, weep, and mourn to God. In those moments, I turn to Scripture’s gift of Lamentations. And perhaps on the other side of lamenting there is joy and praise, but always a deeper sense of faith and trust in God, and his steadfast love and faithfulness.

May this bless any of you today walking through suffering, grief, pain, sin, or anything that life brings your way. Even in the midst of darkness and God-forsakenness, God is there. Grace and peace, brothers and sisters.

He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “Gone is my glory,
    and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,[b]
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone.

-Lamentations 3:16-33

Beyond Correct Worship & Understanding

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I grew up in a faith tradition that spent a lot of time talking about and participating in Sunday assemblies. In fact, much of how I was taught to read the Bible was in regards to how we structure and order assemblies. How else could we argue with others if we couldn’t quote certain sections from Paul, right? I have great appreciation for my faith tradition because these are the people that passed the faith on to me, and they taught me a love of Scripture. However, it seems that the Christian faith is about so much more than a Sunday worship service and how we conduct those, and about so much more than correct understandings of doctrine.

I’ve been reading a couple of texts from Luke lately in preparation for preaching. It is astounding to me how much Jesus keeps pushing the Pharisees to think beyond being keepers of the law and to become people who are shaped by the implication of the law. For example, in Luke 13 Jesus heals a woman on the sabbath and the leader of the synagogue goes nuts. “You’ve got 6 days for working, come and be healed then”, he says. In other words, they’re more concerned with the legalities of keeping the sabbath than they are with the implications of keeping sabbath. People in need aren’t as important as right practice, they seem to say. However, someone who keeps sabbath hopefully learns to see the world the way God does, where all things are set to right. Where people who have been bound for 18 years like this woman are set free. The sabbath ought to propel us toward those people and their healing, not away from them. What good are they if they keep the sabbath but have not love for their neighbors?

And then I think of my faith tradition that seemed to spend more time and sermons on worship assemblies and how they were conducted than on how the gospel gets inside of us and drives us out into the world proclaiming the reign of God.

Or think about texts like Luke 16 and Matthew 25. In Luke 16, we often preach this text to speak of the realities of judgement and warn people. Yet, do we ever pause and ask what put the rich man on the other side of this chasm from Lazarus? It was because the rich man put a chasm up in his own life against someone who was hurting and broken. Or Matthew 25, another text for arguing judgement. But you know what puts people in with the goats? They didn’t clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick, etc.

In other words, I’ve yet to read Jesus say “Depart me you evildoers. For I wanted this particular worship style and you didn’t do it. I wanted you to understand this doctrine correctly but you didn’t.” Nor do I see the rich man where he is because he had the wrong worship style, or didn’t have the correct understandings and knowledge about certain doctrine. I think you get the point.

The older I get and the more I learn, the more I understand how little I actually know. I have less and less confidence in my own understandings of faith and God and more and more trust in Christ as a Savior. If Christianity is about what we know and understand, then we’re all in a heap of trouble. I mean think about it, there were faithful communities of Christ followers early on who may have never read a letter from Paul. But wait, how did they know how to order their worship services? How did they know correct doctrine? They didn’t, as far as we’re concerned. They knew the story of Jesus and trusted him, and were propelled to love their neighbors because of it.

Is doctrine good? Absolutely. Should we put some thought and effort into Sunday assemblies? Of course. Does the Bible give some pictures of Sunday assemblies and even some instruction? Yes, but far less than we may realize. Does what we know matter? Sure.

But, let’s not think God is out to get us on some technicalities or things we misunderstood. The story of Jesus seems to say it’s more about how the gospel gets inside of us and shapes our orientation to the world than it is about our correct doctrine.

And let’s not think that being a follower of Jesus is mostly about what we know. I’m mindful that Jesus had 12 guys following him for 3 years who had very little idea what was going on.

And let’s think about Christianity beyond assemblies, and think more about what it means to truly love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. After all, the entire law and prophets hinge upon these 2 commands. Maybe it’s less about how our assemblies are conducted, but more about what they do to us. Like the Luke 13 passage, it’s probably more about the implications of participating in Christian assemblies. As we continually learn, re-learn, and rehearse the story of Jesus each Sunday, it sends us out into the world being people who long to see the world restored the way God does, and do something about that longing.

Maybe Paul would write us today and say, “If I have worship assemblies that look doctrinally sound, but have not love, I am nothing. If I have worship assemblies that are moving and emotional, but have not love for others that propels me to action, I have nothing. If I have what I believe to be sound doctrine but have not love for the broken and hurting, I am nothing.”

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Jesus Christ