Entries in Kingdom of God (23)
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" ~ Mark 1:14–15
Who knows God’s timing? It’s one thing to agree with God’s viewpoint intellectually; it’s quite another to express our agreement in concrete action. Jesus modeled agreement with the Father by doing God’s will in perilous times. Mark’s gospel tells us Jesus launched his ministry at the very time that the Kingdom message could get you thrown into jail.
In an atmosphere of resistance and oppression Jesus said that the time was right to proclaim good news. Herod, a puppet-king of the powerful Roman Empire, threw John the Baptist in jail because John’s preaching had threatened the status quo. Perhaps Jesus should have kept things on the down low until passions had cooled. You can almost hear the counsel of the worldly-wise in Jesus’ day: “Wait just a little while,” they whispered. “Let the rich and powerful turn their attention away from preachers in the countryside.”
In a world overrun by a pagan power, in a world rife with political scheming and considerations, in a world where caution was the order of the day, Jesus boldly declared that good news, the best news, was within reach. Jesus modeled a ministry directed by the Spirit. What kind of person tells suffering, mourning captives that freedom is within their reach? The source of his good news had nothing to do with the powers of the age and everything to do with the in breaking of God’s rule and reign into their time.
It’s only natural to look for the “best time” to engage in ministry: wait until the economy is stronger; until the political climate is warmer; until the streets are safer, until your children are older, until your savings account is fatter. Wait. Jesus had a different schedule. He said simply, “The time has come.” He took into consideration only one factor: God’s Kingdom was at hand. The Kingdom of God does not require us to wait on the future because it is breaking into the present. God’s Kingdom was (and is) beginning to invade the kingdoms of the earth. God was on the move, how could Jesus remain still? It's true for us: we are called to imitate his example. If God is on the move, how can we remain still?
Jesus is serving the best wine now because he dwells in the now. “The time has come” each day. Since Jesus inaugurated the in breaking of the Kingdom, every day with God presents opportunities to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. The only important question is whether we know what time it is.
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace . . . (Isaiah 9:6-7)
The good news of Jesus Christ is the announcement of a king and his kingdom of peace. The good news is greater than the someday-promise of heaven; it's that heaven is breaking into the earth even now, that eternal life is here and now. It offers the life of Heaven to whoever comes under the reign of Heaven’s king. The gospel of the Kingdom of God is a strange announcement, because it combines the worst images of humanity with the secret hopes of every human soul.
“The worst images of humanity, you say?”
Yes, I do. Consider the simple word government. To modern Western ears government denotes the great machinery of federal god: a faceless monolith of regulation and control backed by incomprehensible trillions of dollars, enforced by millions of people, each one incapable of working justice or peace individually, working to carry out the incomprehensible will of no one in particular. Nor were past ages any better: government meant the divine right of kings and queens who somewhere in their family history violently rose to a throne only to claim that their every opinion represented the will of a god whop was nowhere to be seen. Yes: government has nearly always represented control imposed upon those under its fictitious thumb.
But I’m not finished: peace is no better. The best we can manage of peace is the absence of war. Peace is the period in which the nations of the world re-arm and re-train while studying the conflicts of the past. To the peoples of the earth peace is a cease-fire at best. Even the great conquerors of history needed to catch their breath every now and again. Isaiah’s beautiful passage feels like nothing more than the poetry of a dreamer. Even in the age of Christianity governments have marched and ruled, promising peace without ever pausing to define the word beyond its most surface meaning. The meaning of peace has little to do with nations and states; it has everything to do with human hearts—with my heart.
Government and peace: perhaps two of the most ill used words of any language or era. Yet I believe the prophet. I believe there is a king; that he brings a kingdom. Even more foolishly, I believe he brings his kingdom here and now to me, my family, and my neighbors. I believe the very words government and peace themselves need redemption every bit as much as my soul. I sit before Isaiah’s words and listen. Will you listen with me?
A child born; a son given: in these words I hear that the benefits of heaven are delivered to us in the helpless state of a child, and we bear the responsibility of nurturing the full-grown son. We receive the Christ child: do we allow him to grow within us?
Shouldered government: in these words I see that the location of government is neither in the consent of the governed nor the power of those who seize control, but upon the shoulders of God. To whatever degree we think government originates from us we are doomed to failed government. Government flows from the head, from the child-become-son. In its truest form government is not about societies at all, but whether I will live under the management of Heaven. Government is not societal; it is personal.
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace: how do I see the Governor? If I receive him as my wonderful counselor I will flourish by his counsel; if I rest in his might I will not lean on my own strength; if a see a father I become part of the family; and if I locate peace in the child-become-son, I receive what only he can give.
Government and peace are meant to increase in me. Their source is beyond me, but their home is in me. Why look at the great wide world for government and peace? He offers it to me, personally. The promise of increase is because in him there is always more: more of his gracious rule in my life, and more peace for me to discover.
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My first workplace nickname was Doughboy. Not because I was chubby: it was because of my two-year relationship with dough balls. I worked at a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint near the racetrack in Arlington Heights, Illinois. (Think of Robin Wright using the name Farmboy for Cary Elwes, but then take away the farm and Robin Wright and replace it all with cold florescent lights above an ugly kitchen: “Doughboy, fetch me that pail.”)
Each day I arrived an hour before the others and mixed a fresh batch of dough. Two huge sacks of flour. Quarts and quarts of water. Sugar. Salt. And a tiny package of yeast. The commercial mixer groaned and whirred until the collection of powders and water gave off a sticky sweet smell. It turned and turned until the ingredients became dough—lots of it. I reached into the mixer and pulled out handfuls of pizza dough and measured them into six-ounce dough balls, four wide and six long on a stainless steel tray. The dough balls, made by the Doughboy, became the foundation for the perfect food—pizza. Nor was my work finished. I had to re-shape the dough balls twice each night because the yeast caused them to grow more than twice the size of the original six-ounce lump.
Later, as I began to read the New Testament, I discovered Jesus already knew my occupation and nickname:
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matthew 13: 33 ~ Except the woman didn’t have the advantage of a commercial mixer.)
I had seen it firsthand: the yeast was the last ingredient, the tiniest amount, but it made the dough come alive. This is the way of the kingdom. The smallest things have great effects. Leaven, a microscopic lifeless dust, comes to life in the right moment and the right environment. Resurrection performed nightly at the pizza joint.
In a rare moment of clarity I grasped his point the first time I heard it. The hidden work of God is inexorable. Whether it’s a new birth or a new idea, he finds a way in us and through us. The secret ingredient is life from another realm. It finds a way.
Jesus the storyteller reveals the workings of the kingdom. Yeast, mustard seed, wheat and weeds, even beams of light: each starts with God’s action in us, planting and placing, shining upon us until each ingredient shines forth from us. I learned something of his method. It is hidden, and it is hidden in us. We are the environment of God’s activity. He breaks off a piece of himself and hides it deep within us. We discover it, nurture it, and eventually we share it with our world. He submerses himself in us so deeply we can easily miss his presence, even though it’s the animating force behind our rising.
Night after night in a no-account pizza joint the work of God was played out before me. I learned to trust the yeast even if I couldn’t see it working. In truth, I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to.
And it’s not only true about me. It’s true for each of his children. The superstars are not the only ones who will rise. Through each of us God is at work in a thousand ways, and we are delivered all over town. I’ve learned to trust the leaven in others as well—in the right time each kingdom child will shine like the sun. We are the aroma of Christ to a perishing world. Resurrection nightly, not just at the end of days.
And while we wait, we are in on the secret. The leaven is here. In us, breaking forth.
A few days ago my son, father to his seventeen-month old little girl, texted, “last night Madeline and I went outside and looked at the moon and sang to the stars and let the night breeze tousle our hair. You could see the universe pouring into her eyes. Kids are beautiful.”
When I look at my children I see the beauty and grace of creation. A son and two daughters (and now a granddaughter), they’ve been shaped by the hand of God, kissed to life by his breath. I see decades of life to come: joy and laughter, worry and fear, discovery and rest. I’m a father, a man with limited experience and wisdom, a man filled to overflowing with love for my children but also aware that my cup doesn’t hold nearly enough love to give them all they need.
Then I turn my attention to the perfect parent, the Heavenly Father, and I begin to understand his love and care have no limit. What’s more he has given us everything we need for life and godliness. The DNA of his Spirit contains eternity, buried within us like treasure in a field. He watches and waits for us to discover the wealth.
A famous son once wrote, “God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” ~ Ecclesiastes 3:11 Indeed, the universe is pouring into our eyes. Solomon may have been correct when he wrote these words, but his insight has been superseded by the Incarnation. Jesus revealed that the one who knows us best loves us most: that one insight unlocks the eternity in my heart.
Jesus demonstrated how to seek and find the treasure. He told us the Kingdom of God was within us, and also told us the Kingdom was breaking in from above. His actions and his words demonstrate a beauty Solomon could only glimpse in Ecclesiastes. If it’s true that God has placed eternity in our hearts, then Jesus gave us words for what our hearts already know. When I come to Jesus my heart burns from within because deep calls to deep.
I’m an infant soaking in the night sky. Who needs words—let it pour. It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give me the kingdom.
Just when we are tempted to think these times are unique, the Scriptures remind us that people of every generation, every race, and every society have had to cope with fear and uncertainty. That’s because these are the weapons of the god of this age.
The excellent news is we can receive the right relationships, deep peace and inner-spring of joy conferred upon subjects of the King by his Holy Spirit. These are gifts of the Kingdom, and they are more real than the fears and doubts sown into the everyday messages of this age. To live in these three realities is actually a signal to the Adversary his methods are passing away, and being replaced with a resurrected people living in the age to come even now: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel: in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.” (Philippians 1:27-28)
The answer is always the same: there is a King in Heaven who will return to earth, and we can participate in His Kingdom right now, even before he returns. In the on-going mission of God’s people living in this present age, there is no such thing as a “non-combatant.” The only question is whether I’m aware of the conflict raging around me.
Meditate: Have I ever thought of my life as the battleground between two kingdoms?