The Lord’s Prayer: Yield

Scripture Reading: Luke 13:20-21

Yielding

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Some years ago, as roundabouts were becoming an increasing fixture of our American infrastructure, I was talking with some friends about the frustrations they caused us. 

One friend had never been out of North America and considered them a useless invention of liberal European society. 

I voiced my thoughts that they would work better if people actually followed the intended rules. 

And then our non-American friend said, “You know why they don’t work, don’t you? It’s because Americans don’t know how to yield.”

I certainly had not thought about that before, but I sure have since. It’s not just driving—we’re at a place in our American culture where we believe yielding demonstrates weakness. Yielding seems counterproductive to getting what you want, what you think you’ve earned, and what you think you deserve. Yielding is not the way to upward mobility, financial success, and accomplishing the American Dream. Yielding in the race of life will get you run over.

There’s so much traffic on the interstate of Americana that hardly anyone can merge—the on-ramps to success are backed up to disastrous proportions. And why? Because no one is willing to yield an inch.

I’m purposely using the world “yield” to talk about this line of the prayer instead of “submit.” Sadly, “submit” is a word that has come to carry some pretty negative connotations. It has been used to support terrible abuses in power—be they in politics, religion, or the family. To submit has come to mean that you are completely subsumed by another—that your own will/desires/intents/or even personality has been replaced by that of the one you submit to.

In contrast, I find “yield” to suggest something far closer to the biblical meaning—here and elsewhere. Yielding to my spouse (for instance) does not mean that my ideas are always terrible and I should never be trusted with myself again. It simply means that in this moment and in this way, my spouse’s desires are the ones we will follow through on.

The language of yielding affirms the individuality of a person, in all their gifts, abilities, and goodness. In contrast, the language of submitting consolidates a person of less worth into one of more.

The Will of God

And as important as all this is when we’re talking about human relationships, it gets far more serious when we start talking about how we respond to God’s will (or God’s desires, as I more often call them). 

I have know folks who force themselves to live lives they hate because they think it is God’s will, and they must submit. 

I have known people who deny themselves (and others) justice because they think the trauma they experienced was God’s will, and they must submit.

Roberta Bondi (an author I introduced you to last week), remarks on this, saying:

“It is surprising how often I hear people…speak of the will of God…to explain every awful thing that happens in life. To hear them speak, you would think that it is God who deliberately causes hurricanes, car accidents, childhood deaths, lost jobs, fires, disappointments in love, cancer, and even rape in order to punish us or teach us valuable lessons” (Roberta Bondi, A Place to Pray, p.56).

This is not the God of scripture. This is not the God revealed to us most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s son and our Savior. Again Roberta Bondi reminds us:

“God’s kingdom, which comes according to God’s will, is a gift, not a nightmare of coercion. God desires our life and not our death. ‘Do you not realize,’ Jesus asks us, ‘that God’s kingdom is where God’s will is done, and that God’s will for you is for your well-being, and for the well-being of all God has created? This is the Kingdom you pray for. If you live in this awareness, then as far as it is possible in this world, you can life now in the Kingdom.’” (Bondi, p.61)

Simple Truths

The Kingdom is a gift.
The Gospel is good news.
God is love.

It’s funny how these simple, core teachings of the Christian faith get so easily lost and distorted. It’s almost like on account of their simplicity, they slip from our pockets into the cracks of the sofa, not likely to be seen again for some time.

Maybe that’s one of the things Jesus meant when he said we had to become like little children. As we pass through life, we complicate sooo much that is simple, and we oversimplify the complicated. Maybe, in offering this prayer to those following him, Jesus hopes to anchor them to the simple hope of God’s kingdom made fully present in the world. After all: “Before anything else, the promise of the kingdom of God was meant to be Good News for those who embraced it. 

Coming upon the Kingdom, says Jesus, is like finding a treasure buried in a field. 

The Kingdom is expansive and inclusive, like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a bush big enough for birds to nest in it. 

It is like a mysteriously growing bowl of bread dough. 

It is the one pearl a pearl dealer might happen upon that is so wonderful he gladly sells everything he owns in order to buy it. 

It is like a wedding, or a banquet of the king to which everyone is invited” (Bondi p.54).

The Kingdom of God is indeed good news.

The End

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The parable of Jesus that we read a few moments ago is one of the undervalued gems of the gospels, I believe. So many of Jesus’ parables intend to teach us about the Kingdom of God, and this one speaks to the reality underneath Jesus’ model prayer and the hope we have to come. 

In Revelation 21-22, a man named John catches a vision of where the whole story of God and humanity is heading. He aims, using symbolism and whatever language he can cobble together, to depict God’s intended future—what God wills, if you’d rather. And the language that he settles into as best describing what he sees is that of marriage.

To appreciate this though, we have to realize that in the New Testament era, they divided everything in existence into spheres or realms. That phrase in Philippians 2 (for example), that anticipates how “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (v.10), speaks to three realms:

heaven—which is the realm of God

the earth—which is the realm of life, which we inhabit

under the earth—which is the realm of the dead (Paul is using the imagery of the Greek underworld Hades here, which would have been familiar to his audience)

When Revelation 21 begins, the dead (those in the “under the earth” realm) have been brought into another realm where they are “judged according to their works, as recorded in the books” (Revelation 20:12; cf. v.13). That leaves us with people in two realms: the God realm (heaven) and the realm of life (earth). These two realms are then united in Revelation 21, as in marriage. They become “one flesh,” so to speak; and “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6/Mark 10:9). This means, that at that point in the future:

The way things are in heaven and earth is the now the same.

There is no longer a disparity between the way things should be and the way they are.

The earth realm has so completely become the Kingdom of God (that began with Jesus) that it is no longer distinct from—or separable from—heaven itself.

In his book Surprised by Hope, scholar Tom Wright points out that “[Revelation 21-22] is the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as in heaven” (p.104). He continues:

“Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart… They are different, radically different, but they are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female. And when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: 

a creational sign that God’s project is going forward; 

that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; 

that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; 

that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation” (Surprised by Hope, p.105)

A Little Leaven…

So here comes the big question: how do we get from here to there?

Well, as Paul reminds us in 1Corinthians & Galatians “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9; 1Corinthains 5:6).

 

And that’s our parable, really.

I don’t know how many of you have made bread from scratch before, let alone a sourdough bread or other older type that doesn’t actually use yeast. But I suppose for Jesus’ point, even store-bought yeast is effective.

If I’m making a couple loaves of bread, I might use 4 or 6 or more cups of flour. But it only takes a couple-few teaspoons of yeast for the dough to do what it needs to do. This is a tiny amount. An old recipe book of ours prescribes a teaspoon of yeast per cup of flour…that’s a 1:48 ratio!!

When worked through the dough, the yeast does its subversive, insidious, infectious thing. It transforms the rest of the dough chemically, changing its very nature from the inside out. What power is exerted by this fraction! this minority! this remnant!

This is what the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus says. When the subversive love of God is worked through the world by the people who are yeasty like Jesus, all of creation will be transformed.

When we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we invite the leaven of Jesus to bubble up in us, no matter how many times we punch it down. But we also invite God to knead us into a needy world, that the salvation made available to all may be experienced by all.

Charge

You know, it’s nearly impossible for me to hear “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” without remembering another adage that I often heard alongside it: “One bad apple spoils the barrel.” 

It’s got the same meaning, right? It only takes one to infect the whole. 

I’m sure Jesus knew about apples. After all, they came out of central Asia and were pretty significant to Greek mythology. I don’t know if he ever ate one, but I do know that Jesus liked to turn contemporary proverbs and cultural expectations on their head. 

So instead of urging you to be less crusty and more yeasty, I though I’d suggest you be the bad apple for God’s kingdom. (NOT “be the bad apple IN God’s kingdom.”) But if the world thinks Christianity is effectively a blight, let’s own it. Let’s spoil the whole barrel, smearing God’s love all over the place so completely that they’ll never be able to wash it off.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

 

 

Advertisements

Kindling the Kingdom of God

Scripture: Romans 8:22-27

Creation is in labor

When I first started really getting into translating the Hebrew language, one of the things that I found remarkable was how much imagery in the bible is rooted in the image of childbirth. For a language that usually talks about the process of making a baby as simply “knowing” each other, Hebrew tends to compare a lot of things to the swelling of pregnancy, the relentlessness of contractions, and the incomparable “pains” of birth.

Childbirth is a threshold event—there is before, and there is after. (That may be the only clear-cut and certain thing about it.) And aside from death, there may not be another experience in life that draws so firm a line.

So in before-and-after events of Isaiah 42:14 (for example), when God is so pained by the injustice of the world (and especially that perpetrated by Israel) that God steps back and allows their consequences to crash over them with devestating effect, Isaiah knows of no better description than this. God says: “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (NRSV).

When (in Psalm 88) the psalmist is trying to describe the relentless and overwhelming nature of being on the wrong side of God, the best imagery available is that of the relentless and overwhelming contractions of childbirth (often translated as “waves” here), which seemingly interminably wrack the mother’s body.

And so here (in Romans 8), as Paul is searching for a way of describing the ultimate before-and-after event (the return of Christ and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God), he too—Jew among Jews—reaches for the imagery of childbirth.

Starting in v.18, Paul begins to imagine with (and for) the Roman church “the glory about to be revealed to us” (v.18b). And here, it is in fact all of creation that is “groaning in labor pains” (v.22). The Kingdom of God that is being birthed into existence does not just affect we human beings—but everything that iseverything that God made, and called “good” back in Genesis 1.

Labor Pains

It’s not too hard to see these “labor pains” if we open our eyes and look around us. Another week has gone by……

Another school shooting……

Another round of dehumanizing rhetoric……

Another series of murders in the Near East due to misguided theology……

More terrorist bombings: India, Nigeria, Afghanistan (2), Iraq (2), Indonesia (5)—and that’s just this past week……

Another week of wars and rumors of wars……of natural disasters and evacuations……

Another week of political corruption being exposed……

Another week of the most vulnerable slipping through the cracks……

Another week of our deep division being exposed by something as simple as a soundbite and the words: “laurel” and “yanny.”

Truly Paul is right: all creation is quaking, wracked by wave after wave of contractions, nearly splitting itself apart as it awaits transformation at the emergence of God’s kingdom.

But what about us? How is our labor coming along?

“Likewise” Means We Too

You see, Paul follows up v.22 with v.23, moving from the labor pains that creation is experiencing to the ones that we are experiencing “while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (NRSV).

Paul expects that we—if we are followers of Jesus in whom the Kingdom begins—we will be “groaning” as we are similarly wracked by the contractions of a Kingdom that wants to be born. 

But I don’t think we’re dilated at all.

And I wonder: Perhaps we need some “spiritual pitocin” to help us along. 

You know: if a woman’s labor isn’t moving along as it needs to for everyone to be healthy, she is often given pitocin. It induces labor by jump-starting contractions in the uterus. It is not (admittedly, in my passive experience) a pleasant thing to need. Birth is traumatic enough without anything being forced more than happens naturally. But sometimes that push is exactly what needs to happen in order for mother and child to pass safely from before into after.

And while it might not be pleasant for us, some “spiritual pitocin” might just ensure that we survive the birthing of God’s kingdom too.

Pentecost

It’s been required before, you realize: that little IV bag of the Holy Spirit hooked up to the people of God?

Nearly two-thousand years ago in a city named Jerusalem, the disciples were in labor with the Church of Christ Jesus. It wanted to be born—it needed to be born. But those “contractions” just weren’t happening. 

The disciples were still afraid. 

The disciples were still struggling to make sense of what happened: Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death; their failings and Jesus’ forgiveness; and the way Jesus just disappeared back to heaven, when they were hoping for an eternal kingdom then and there. 

Acts 2 describes the disciples as “all together in one place,” which is remarkably similar to how they were described when the risen Christ first appeared to them in John 20. 

Forty days with the risen Christ and they’re still stuck, closed up from the world? 

Forty days with the risen Christ and they’ve still not grasped that Jesus meant that “Great Commission” thing?

If something didn’t happen soon, the Church was going to have to come by C-section.

But something did happen on that Pentecost day: 

There weren’t any IV bags, but there were tongues of fire.

There were no shrieks of unnatural contractions, but there was a “whoooosh” as the extraordinary Spirit of God filled the room.

There was no cursing at husbands, but the Gospel was miraculously heard in all languages simultaneously.

And the disciples even appeared drunk from the giddiness of this birth.

Against all odds, and despite the Body of Christ not working quite as nature intended, the Church was born. 

That same church continues today. 

Admittedly, its teenage years were rough. 

Sure, there were a lot of bad decisions in early adulthood as we were usually full of passion and just as often misguided.

And it’s no secret that we’ve made huge, blasphemous, God-betraying mistakes—both in the distant and recent past—mistakes that cannot be forgiven lightly……if at all.

But if there is one thing we have, it is the hope that what God is doing does not rest solely on our own shoulders. 

As followers of Jesus, we are often messengers—or even ambassadors, as we are called in 2Cor 5:20. 

And as followers of Jesus, we are often “the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world”; we “are the feet with which he walks to do good”; we “are the hands with which he blesses all the world.” 

But the Pentecost story reminds us that always, always, God will do what it takes to move things along toward health, healing, wholeness, and love.

Kindling the Kingdom

This Lenten season and Eastertide we have been seeking out ways to live the life of Christ more fully—”to walk just as [Jesus] walked,” as 1John describes it (2:6 NRSV). 

All of it—our entire journey—combined could be summed up as “kindling the Kingdom of God.” For that is our task today—as every day. 

Jesus himself urged us not to get caught up in the uncertainty and busy-ness things, of the fear of each other and whether there would be enough. Instead, he simply insisted: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too (Matthew 6:33 VOICE). 

 

If we need a dose or two of pitocin to birth the kingdom, I am sure God is already measuring it and checking it against our chart. But let’s make sure we’re doing all we can of ourselves, too. 

Let us follow Jesus instead of the world.

Let us look to the well-being of others before ourselves.

Let us prove the goodness of creation with our generosity.

Let us pursue justice instead of fairness.

Let us confess our sins so no one can claim we are hypocrites.

Let us seek to see the image of the Creator in each and every person.

Let us overwhelm fear with love.

Let us practice the Kingdom of God as though it were already here.

For such is the model left for us by the one and only person who has taught us true life.

In the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen. And let us pray:

Prayer

God,

What a journey these past months have been.

If there is one thing that has become clear to us,
it is that we we have become conformed too much to our world,
and transformed too little by your Spirit.

Send that Spirit among us now,
kindling our hearts with fire as in ancient days,
overcoming the obstacles within us and outside us
by the power of your unrelenting love.

May your name be praised
on this and every day,
within our hearts, mind, and lives;
as we offer our whole self to you—
the one who made us,
redeemed us,
transforms us,
and will one day resurrect us
to the new, abundant, eternal, and true life
that is available to all
who will become like little children
and follow the Christ.

Amen.

Kindling Love

Scripture: 1John 4:7-21

“Simply” Hard Teachings

I love these verses. For me, this reading contains some of the most important words of scripture that did not originate from the mouth of Jesus.

“God is love” (v.8).

“Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v.11).

“God is love” (v.16).

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (v.18).

“We love because [God] first loved us” (v.19).

All these things can be hinted at in every other part of the bible, but here they find their most direct expression. So direct, in fact, that sometimes it seems hard to do more than just quote them.

But as simple as they are, these are hard teachings to really accept—especially for us today.

The Fear Industrial Complex

An article I read recently began with this observation:

“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. It fuels the Internet. It dominates political campaigns, talk radio, and the evening news. It sits on therapist couches and speaks on Facebook feeds. No respecter of persons, it steals sleep from feeble beggars and mighty kings.

What is this pervasive, inescapable, suffocating phenomenon?

Fear……

On paper [the article continued], we should have fewer fears than any generation before us. We’re surrounded by security systems, advanced medicine, organic food, and endless information on a glowing rectangle in our pockets.

Yet we are deeply, miserably afraid. Far from loosening the choke hold of fear, the material blessings of our age seem only to have tightened it.”

And what are we afraid of? In short: everything.

scarcity

losing influence/resources/power or control

being wrong (investing in the wrong things; fighting the wrong battles)

looking foolish (aka “what others think”)

aging/death

isolation/being alone

It’s not just limited to spiders and the dark: we are driven by fear each and every day.

Day in the Life…

You arrive home from work or being out or whatever, and you turn on the news—just in time to hear the newscaster offer the tag before they cut to commercial. The newscaster says: “These three items are found in 95% of American homes and may be killing you right now. This and more stories after the break……”

The first commercial begins: a handsome, silver-haired man in his mid-50’s steps away from his spouse to smile into the camera with his icy blue eyes. “Do you ever have a headache,” he asks, “that doesn’t go away when you sit down?” “I didn’t think anything about it, but thankfully Pat made me talk to our doctor. Turns out, it’s a warning sign for a ridiculously rare heart condition that I probably don’t have. But since my doctor prescribed Preventra, I don’t have to worry anymore. My life is too valuable to leave things to chance. Is yours?”

Turning off the TV, you decide to try the radio. The DJ’s are on opposite sides of some hot-button political issue, each escalating the rhetoric of the other to argue that their opponent’s ideas will be the death of civilization as we know it.

Their bickering is interrupted by an urgent news report about a white supremacist who drove a van into a crowd some long distance away from your home. You turn off the radio and decide to cancel your plans to go to the mall that weekend.

Looking around, you pick up a magazine—you know, some fluff rag filled with top ten lists and style advice. Opening randomly, you land on an article titled “Ten Signs Your Spouse Is Cheating on You.”

You’d like to just put all this away—to be done with TV and the facebookery and everything that traffics fear for advertising dollars. But then you’d be left with the voices in your own head. The ones that say:

You don’t do enough
You are not enough
You didn’t try hard enough
You didn’t come through in time

What about this?
What about that?

You’re letting people down
You’re letting yourself down
You’re letting God down

It seems—for so many of us—that there is no escape from fear. Fear is peddled to us 24/7. It is marketed to us constantly because fear sells. It sells hamburgers and pizzas, adult beverages and soda pop, magazine subscriptions and political candidates, bicycles and vacations…… Everything that is sold is sold on the principle of fear: “If you do not have this, you’re missing out.”

And you don’t want to miss out, do you?

 

The truly sad thing about all this is that there should be a shleter from this emotional marketing storm: the church. Many come to a church needing to know that they have value without all the other stuff—or despite all the other stuff—and instead……they are subjected to the same fear-mongering that convinced them they needed to try that new laundry soap.

Instead of an encounter with the true and living and loving God—instead of experiencing liberation by the Prince of Peace—they are told that they are hopeless sinners……whom God will rejoice at torturing and tormenting for all eternity……because they do not measure up to the impossible ideal of a perfect life. But don’t worry! Act now and your salvation comes with free shipping! Just repent of your sins……come down the aisle……pray this prayer……send money to this ministry……join this church……volunteer for this activity……invite your friends…… If they will only do all these things and so much more, then God’s “sweet sweet Spirit” will welcome them into those pearly gates. Now doesn’t that sound nice?

It is an abomination

It is blasphemy to attach God’s name to such methods and message.

No Fear Tactics

Sisters & brothers, our scripture text today is clear: “Perfect love casts out fear” (1John 4:18). It assures us that where fear is, there is no love, but also that love—wherever it is—will drive out fear.

And first and foremost that means (for us churches), that when we “sell” Christ using the same kind of fear tactics the world uses to sell everything else, we may change behaviors, but that will be all. People may outwardly conform to our expectations and demands……at least for a while.

But fear never changes hearts. Only love can do that. Only love can change hearts and lives. Only love can move us in that pure, whole, authentic way that God uses to bring life and love and hope to each and every one in creation.

The most repeated command in the bible is: “Do not fear.” It’s true.

But is that the most frequent soundbite the Church has broadcast? No. It doesn’t even rank.

To Do

So what can we each do about it? Well, here’s some suggestions—but they’re certainly not the only options.

1. Prayerfully ask God to help you see when fear is being used to manipulate you and others. It’s sort of like buying a car: You never realized there were so many out there until you really noticed one yourself.

2. Speak up and speak out when you see it happen. Don’t be a jerk, but it is ok to “just say ‘no’ to emotional manipulation.” Don’t use it with your spouse or kids. Name it when your friends post that article on Facebook. Speak up for those who have no voice.

3. Ask those you trust to hold you accountable. None of us are perfect. And even the most self-aware among us have blind spots you could drive a Mack truck through. If we’re going to change our behaviors and our thought patterns, it’s going to take more than we’ve got in ourselves. And God’s going to need somebody—enfleshed—if God is going to be able to work do this transformative work in us.

4. Believe in the power of God’s love. Whether you agree or not, I think this is a lot harder than we admit. It’s easier to believe the world’s way of things, when we look around us and the world seems to be right: the strong survive, the generous get taken advantage of, take care of yourself because nobody else is going to, and so on. In the face of such cultural force, believing that love can overcome all obstacles, redeem every trauma, and resurrect any death seems……quaint, at best. Like the way children believe in fairy tales until they realize the way the world really works.

But according to the scriptures, God’s way of love is the way the world really works.

The first really is last. The last really is first.

Become like a child if you want to enter God’s kingdom.

The Samaritan (rather than a faithful Jew) models neighborliness and fulfills God’s instruction.

You must be born again.

Let the one without sin cast the first stone.

That widow’s two pennies were a greater contribution than all of the wealthy combined.

Who among us wouldn’t abandon the 99 sheep to pursue the one that was lost?

Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.

The kingdom of God is in you.

None of it makes any sense, according to the American Dream and whatever else this world has taught us. But all of it slides into perfect focus when we abandon ourselves to the reckless love of God, demonstrated through Jesus the Christ.

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1John 4:11–12 NRSV).

Where charity and love are found, there is God.

May we kindle love in our hearts this Easter season, that God’s Spirit may move through us, burning away the chaff built by this world in our hearts, our communities, our nations, and all of creation.

“Jesus Is Lord” Means Caesar Isn’t

 

Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10

 

Once…

Once upon a time……

There’s a wealth of storied history and legend that follows those words, is there not?

Once upon a time, a man named Odysseus set out on a journey……

Once upon a time, Hansel & Gretel wandered into the woods……

Once upon a time, a mermaid named Ariel caught a glimpse of a human……

Once upon a time, a young Arthur discovers a sword in a stone in a churchyard……

 

Once upon a time, a small group of persecuted British Christians started a church that called itself “Baptist”……

Once upon a time, the American colonists grew weary of being treated as second-class citizens and said “Enough!”……

Once upon a time, a teenager named Claudette Colvin refused to get up from her seat on the bus, inspiring a woman named Rosa Parks to do the same, who in turn inspired a Baptist minister named Martin King……

 

Once upon a time, God created the heavens and the earth……

Once upon a time, a baby was born in Bethlehem……

Once upon a time, a cross was erected in Jerusalem……

Once upon a time……

Paul’s “Once up a Time……”

In today’s scripture lesson, Paul is telling a “once upon a time” story.

Once upon a time (he shows us), we were citizens of this world. Our allegiance was to this world—its ways, its laws; its behaviors, its promises; its hopes, its dreams. But in this once upon a time, our allegiance was also to the ruler of this world, though we did not even know we were forming this allegiance.

We didn’t realize it because this ruler taught us to live for ourselves, that nothing is wrong unless it hurts someone, that if it feels good it must be good, that external struggles are worse than internal struggles, and that my rights are more important than yours.

Even though this world and its ruler taught us that these things lead to a full and complete life, God has revealed it to be a lie. These things damage our health, our relationships, our communities, and our planet.

But they also damage the connection we have with God. They are modern manifestations of the same temptation that felled our first ancestors in the Garden of Eden. Then—as now—the temptation is to decide for yourself what is right and pleasing and good, instead of trusting the God who brought all things into being.

Paul says that “once upon a time” this was everyone’s story. Because once upon a time we didn’t know God. Once upon a time we did live for ourselves. Once upon a time we pledged allegiance to nation and flag and culture, and we believed that was the highest allegiance that was due to anyone beyond our own person. That is the way “in which you used to live,” as Paul says in the first verse.

But God…

But there’s a but. Or at least there’s supposed to be. “But God”……

Hereafter we discover an abbreviated telling of an incredible story—one fit for the ages, for sure! It has a hero and villains, comedy and tragedy, suspense and romance, and a plot twist more unexpected than that of The Sixth Sense. Paul says:

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4–7 NRSV)

As one of our old hymns tells it:

One day when Heaven was filled with His praises,
One day when sin was as black as could be,
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin,
Dwelt among men, my example is He!

One day they led Him up Calvary’s mountain,
One day they nailed Him to die on the tree;
Suffering anguish, despised and rejected:
Bearing our sins, my Redeemer is He!

One day they left Him alone in the garden,
One day He rested, from suffering free;
Angels came down o’er His tomb to keep vigil;
Hope of the hopeless, my Savior is He!

One day the grave could conceal Him no longer,
One day the stone rolled away from the door;
Then He arose, over death He had conquered;
Now is ascended, my Lord evermore!

This amazing thing has happened—and not just in the past, but in our lives today. God has made us alive through Christ, saving us by God’s grace and on account of God’s great love for us.

After such a dramatic change of circumstances, Paul expects our priorities are going to shift. We will respond to God’s liberating love with the recognition that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” as we read in v.10 (NIV). And as a result, we will spend our new, redeemed, transformed, liberated lives allowing Christ to live through us, as Paul says in Galatians 2:20.

Instead of pledging allegiance to this world, its powers, and its empty promises, we now pledge allegiance to God’s Kingdom. When we confess that Jesus is Lord, we confess that Caesar is not. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom overrides our citizenship in any worldly nation. If we have “by grace been saved” as Paul insists twice—twice!!—in these verses, then that “once upon a time” is not going to describe the way our present life is lived.

But…

But……

But my “once upon a time” (the description of my life before my commitment to follow Jesus) too often describes the current events of my life.

Too often my transgressions and sin bring death to my life—the death of relationships, the death of possibilities, the death of hopes, and even very real physical death.

Too often I still follow the ways of this world.

Too often my cravings for donuts and coffee and Thai food and books and buying and learning and indulging and consuming and possessing take precedence in my life over everything that is really important.

Too often, my allegiance is fractured at best, all while Jesus himself reminds us that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Matthew 12:25 NRSV).

This isn’t a guilt-trip sermon. You all know I don’t approve of those. Instead, this is a sermon about our honest confession that where we are doesn’t line up with where we are called to be. There are things that have become entangled with our faith that have more to do with politics than the bible. There are confessions we make religiously that are nothing more than our regional cultural identity.

And (of course) there’s nothing inherently wrong with these other parts of our identity. In fact, to deny that they shape us is both dishonest and it hinders the Cause of Christ (or so I believe). But they are not to be where our primary allegiance lies. And they should not be allowed to contradict the priorities, values, and purposes of our primary identity as the Beloved of God, citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Paul’s Conversion & Commitment

Sometimes I get frustrated with Paul. He has this amazing “Road to Damascus” conversion experience, filled with shining light, voices from the sky, and being changed inside and out forever. But Paul doesn’t seem to always understand that not everyone has encountered God in that kind of way. Maybe Paul can turn 180 degrees in a couple days, but most of us can’t go half that far in a lifetime.

But then again, I don’t think Paul’s transformation was quite as instant or complete as we often imagine. He left for Damascus that day with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. When he began laboring for Christ instead of against Christians, he did it with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. Maybe there was a subtler shift than we—or he—realized.

But regardless, no one can doubt that Paul knew what it meant to confess that Jesus is Lord.

It landed him in prison.

It got him beaten.

It led him to advocate against slavery and for women’s rights in ways that were radical then, but (admittedly) seem backwards today.

He went toe-to-toe with Jesus’s disciples and expanded their conception of Jesus’s liberating work.

He went toe-to-toe with pagan leaders, judges, soldiers, and even (according to John Chrysostom) with Caesar Nero himself before Paul was killed—beheaded, according to tradition—because his allegiance rested unequivocally with Jesus and God’s Kingdom.

Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t.

It’s a hard truth for us to live into. It’s a harder truth for this world and its powers to accept.

May God help us put to death our allegiance to this world, so our allegiance to the Kingdom of God might be completely undivided.

The Not-So-Subtle Work of God

 

Scripture: Psalm 50:1-6

 

 

 

Transfiguration: Mark 8-9

It happened before they even knew what was going on.

Things with Jesus had been strange for a few days–ever since Jesus got weird with Peter. There’d been some amazing things happening: thousands fed miraculously, a blind man healed. And then, in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus circled the wagons (as he was wont to do when he wanted to ask hard questions or offer some mysterious teaching).

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27–30 NRSV)

But this time it seemed neither. “Who do people say I am?” he asked. It was a strange question, coming from Jesus. For someone who cared so much about people, Jesus never seemed to care much what they thought of him.

Not knowing where he was going with this, they tried to answer his question: “Some think John the Baptist, others Elijah, or one of the prophets.” But then Jesus made it personal: “Who do you say I am?”

Of course, before anyone else had the chance to say anything, Simon Peter’s enthusiasm burst out: “You are the Christ.” Given the way Jesus responded, it seemed to be the right answer, so to speak. Because that’s when Jesus started getting all hush hush about him being the Messiah (–that’s what “christ” means, after all).

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31–33 NRSV)

But that’s also when Jesus started getting pretty explicit about what was to come, saying he was going to suffer, face persecution from the religious establishment, and ultimately be killed and rise again.

But then Peter’s enthusiasm got the better of him……again. I think he stopped listening at “be killed,” assuming he got any further than “suffering.” Peter pulled Jesus aside and told him that Jesus has it all wrong–that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The intensity of Jesus’ rebuke hit all twelve disciples. He addressed Peter as though Peter were Satan himself, and said that Peter had lost sight of God’s values.

Peter wilted, of course. You couldn’t look at him and not think he must have gotten whiplash being jerked from such a height to such depth.

After that, the disciples were all a bit wary of Jesus. And not much happened until several days later when everything changed forever.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus…Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4, 7-8 NRSV)

Jesus was going out, and with him he took only Peter, James, and John. That part wasn’t all that strange, really. They made up the inner circle, so to speak.

Jesus had lots of disciples–hundreds of men and women mentioned in the scriptures.

But there was a smaller circle of 70 that got commissioned to go out two by two and perform miracles and preach the Kingdom of God.

Of that 70, there was a smaller group known as the Twelve. These were what we think of as the disciples, proper.

But then there was still an inner circle within the Twelve, made up of these three. They were Jesus’ most trusted confidants. They were closest in the most pivotal or sensitive moments of Jesus life.

And this thing that happened…… well, I’d say it fits that bill.

Like many times before, Jesus seemed to be going to pray. And when he went out to pray, Jesus often went into the country, and he climbed up to a high place. For virtually the whole of human existence–despite culture or geography or religion–humans have felt that high places were holy places.

But instead of just praying like the disciples expected, something otherworldly happened.

Jesus’ appearance changed dramatically. It was so extraordinary that it’s hard to describe. His clothes looked so white it was difficult to look at them. There was a sparkly radiance, like the sunlight being reflected by a shard of glass. And before the disciples came to terms with this sudden transformation, they realized they were not alone. Two other human figures appeared–as if out of the ether. Somehow the disciples knew them to be Moses and Elijah–but how can this be? they’ve been dead for ages! The three of them talked–Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—-and for how long? no one could tell. It seemed over before anyone came to terms with it starting.

It took some time, but the disciples slowly understood what had happened. This not-so-subtle transformation of their Rabbi Jesus was a kind of revealing or unveiling (that’s what “apocalypse” means, by the way). In this moment, the curtain of eternity temporarily pulled back and they saw Jesus for who he is: the Beloved Son of God.

We today, of course, know that the Beloved Son of God will return. Immanuel–God with us–will one day return and bring about the full transformation of all things according to God’s loving desires.

Like the transfiguration of Jesus before his disciples, the transformation of all of creation is not a subtle thing that God is doing. As another translation of Psalm 50 puts v.3: “Our God will come, and He will not enter on a whisper” (VOICE).

In order to help us imagine it, Isaiah 42:14 tells us that God is like a woman giving birth, “crying out” and “gasping and panting” “like a woman in labor” (NRSV). As someone who’s been in the room three times while a woman gave birth, I’d say “crying out, gasping, and panting” is an understatement–and that’s with modern medicine smoothing the way as best as it can.

I can’t even imagine what it must have been like 2000 years ago, when child-bearing was incredibly dangerous for both mother and child. It is estimated that at that time almost 1 in every 50 childbirths resulted in the death of the mother. Around a third of newborns did not live a month, with more than 50% dying before they reached ten years of age.

I simply cannot imagine the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma these mothers endured. And Isaiah says to us that God is like this.

God is like this because God is working to birth a future into existence……a future that Jesus and the bible call the Kingdom of God. Today’s psalm talks about this not-so-subtle transformation of all things as being characterized by God’s justice, people of all sorts being drawn to God, and the recognition that Yahweh is the only and true God.

Later in the New Testament, Jesus says this Kingdom is incubating in us (Luke 17:21 MLS). We, as his followers and disciples, are the womb where this transformation is gestating. This isn’t going to be easy for us either–this birthing of God’s kingdom into the world. And if we’re going to do it, it is going to require some not-so-subtle transformation of our own lives as well.

Someone once said that a church is a community where we practice living in the Kingdom of God. There’s something to that, I think. If we cannot learn to do it alongside other people who are supposedly learning to do it too, how are we going to do it alongside people with a different set of priorities and convictions?

Subtle Goals?

But sometimes I wonder if we undermine all of this by convincing ourselves that the change–the transformation–God intends is a subtle paradigm shift. Our emphasis on “achievable goals” means that each generation reaches only slightly forward of where we are. If we believe any progress is possible among the church or in the world, we think in terms of being a little bit bigger, a little more wealthy, a little more knowledgable, a little better production, a few more people “served,” and so on.

But today’s psalm reminds me that God doesn’t really do subtle. If you doubt me, look at virtually any interaction Jesus had with anyone: there are no subtle actions; there are no subtle insinuations; there is only direct engagement about the radically transforming work of God.

If we’re going to be honest, we know that we don’t look much like the Jesus we’re supposed to be embodying. That goes for us as individuals, but also as the church.

And while I am fully aware that we are a bunch of sinners who have no hope aside from the hope we find in Jesus, I wonder if we’re just not thinking big enough.

If God is about not-so-subtle transformation, maybe we should be too.

If God is bringing about dramatic changes, maybe we should be dreaming in more dramatic terms.

As much as we’re using our imaginations this morning, I don’t think I’m imagining anything. I think God has big hopes and dreams for each one of you–and for our church–and achieving them is as simple as opening ourselves up for God to do the work in us.

But in order for that to happen:

We’ve got to realize that a band-aid won’t do when major surgery is needed.

We can’t expect that afterward our life will remain essentially the same.

We’ve got to realize that with great power comes great responsibility, and if you’ve been liberated by Christ, it’s for a purpose that’s bigger than you.

If we’re going to be part of birthing God’s Kingdom into this world, it’s going to change us in some not-so-subtle ways. But that transformation will bring about a greater fulfillment and love than anything we can ever know.

And it takes a not-so-subtle commitment to our not-so-subtle God. What do you think? Are we up to it?

 

Resurrection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 28:1-10

 

A New Boy

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a boy was born. The circumstances of that birth were only noteworthy on account of the misfortune that tainted that supposedly joyous day.

The mother—pregnant out of wedlock.

The location—forced to travel 70 dangerous miles on account of a ridiculous political decree.

The parents—so shunned by family members that they were forced to sleep where the animals were kept at night.

There would be visitors laterafter the birth of this boy—but their arrival would be more unsettling than joyous. I mean, what do you do with the promises and predictions of vagabond shepherds and Iranian astrologers?

The childhood of this boy also bears no particular mention. It was a typical childhood for one born into a blue-collar family in that time and place. There was one peculiar event when he was about 12 years old. The family was traveling back from a festival, and it appears the boy did not get on the bus home with the rest of the family. When they saw he was missing, they called the police and went searching—but he was at a church (of all places) doing some Bible study. Certainly atypical for a teenager who runs away. But then again, maybe it was just a mix-up, right?

The life of this boy does not gather much attention until he is a man. But even then, one wonders. It was a turbulent time and place—and itinerant preachers were pretty common. I’m sure it was hard for his father and mother when the boy-now-man failed to continue the family business. But I suspect they came around—especially seeing the way people came to seek him out.

The man taught a back-to-basics type of religion. Be kind. Care for each other. Do good. Wash behind your ears……that kind of stuff. But he had some radical notions too.

He said that following God involved self-sacrifice: “take up your cross and follow me.”

He taught an inversion of the social order: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

And—most radically—he taught that we are to love our enemies.

Like many of us in the exuberant days of our youth, the man had a flair for bucking authority. He didn’t keep the Sabbath the way he was taught—that attracted a lot of negative attention. But what made it worse is that he’d break the Sabbath by doing remarkable and incredibly good things.

Somehow, he’d heal someone’s blindness……but it was on the Sabbath.

Somehow, he’d cure someone’s sickness……but it was on the Sabbath.

Sometimes, it almost seemed like he was giving the middle finger to the religious authorities.

And people in power will usually do anything to keep their power. That’s the way this story goes, too. Our fellow upsets the wrong people. A plan is made. A betrayal is bought. A trap is set.

Arrest.

Trial.

Sentence.

His life ends as a footnote: just another would-be messiah, crucified by the Romans as a rabble-rouser and insurrectionist. Just as in the beginning, there are those who saw something more as he died, yet they proved unsettling too: a crucified thief, a Roman centurion……

But death was not the end for our Jesus. The morning after the Sabbath, two women go to the grave. They are tasked with the dirty, stinky, tainting job of attending to a decomposing corpse. But instead of a fetid body, they discover an empty tomb. Instead of the corpse of their teacher and friend, they receive word from an angel. And as they run away, afraid, they meet their risen Savior, who proclaims “Do not fear.”

A New World

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, a new world was born—a Kingdom “not of this world.” It’s birth, too, went largely unnoticed by the world at large. It’s advent, too, appeared more unsettling than joyous in the moment.

Jesus, having “descended to the grave” (as the Apostle’s Creed and 1Peter 3:19 tell us), is raised by God to new life.

His resurrection conquers death and paves the way for abundant life—eternal life.

His resurrection breaks this world open so that a new creation can emerge.

His resurrection is a taste of the resurrection that awaits us all.

For in Jesus’ resurrection, the power that this world has wielded against us—the power of death—has been rendered impotent, for all time.

In Jesus’ resurrection, the very fundamental realities of how life works have been altered. It is as dramatic as though gravity no longer applies, or the earth no longer rotates around the sun.

In Jesus’ resurrection, the Kingdom of God is birthed into this world.

And now we—who were so lost to sin—can find rescue.

Now we—who were so broken by the world—can find healing.

Now we—who were so devastated by grief—can find comfort.

Now we—who were so afraid—we can find love.

In the resurrection of Jesus, what is of this world has been broken open. A new day has dawned. A new beginning has started.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the End was decided. And life, peace, joy, and hope……and love……love wins.

Christ has died!
Christ is risen!
Christ is coming again!

 

 

Lent: Rejection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 4:1-11

 

Rejection

It’s a familiar text and story that we have before us today. Jesus, having just been baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, is whisked away to the wilderness where he experiences a period of preparation, discernment, and temptation. The gospel accounts pay the most attention to the last hours of this isolating-yet-constructive experience of our Savior, as he—like any and every other human being that has ever lived—experiences pressures that could very well reroute his life away from the narrow path of God’s Kingdom.

Three times he experiences the pull of this world, forces that would draw him away from the path of God’s Kingdom—forces that are still very present and very powerful in our world today. These are the forces of the world—the empire, if you will—that we too will need to learn to reject, if we are to remain on the path of God’s Kingdom, following the footsteps of Jesus our leader.

1. Miracle of Bread

As Matthew tells the story, the first temptation faced by Jesus—the first strong pull of the way of the world—is to turn stones into bread. The temptation here is more than miracle—it is to be a savior of people’s immediate needs—and thus to be needed by them.

Now when we see folks hungry, God is pretty clear that we should be working and sacrificing to meet their needs (cf. Isa 58, 1John 3:17, Matthew 25, and many other places). But as Jesus reveals in John 6, he did not come to end physical hunger but to become the Bread of Life, through whom we obtain abundant and everlasting life.

The temptation that Jesus faces here in the desert is the temptation to be needed by others. And Christ could have done this. Jesus could have come as our high-and-mighty Savior, turning stones into bread, purifying the waters of the world, renewing creation, and saving us from ourselves by taking away the free will that we were given when formed of the dust of the earth.

And honestly, some days that sounds pretty good. But it only sounds good because of how we’ve been brainwashed by the culture and powers of our world. Jesus himself knows it to be a false promise—that it doesn’t really work that way, and that it couldn’t work that way.

And so Jesus rejects this pull that the world imposes on him, and he chooses the way of God’s Kingdom.

Instead of appearing as our high-and-mighty Savior, Jesus is born as yet another apparently insignificant Jewish baby.

Instead of crushing our free will, Christ enters into our broken human condition, engages with the lowest and least of society and the world, and extends sacrificial love to all.

Instead of being our “white knight,” Jesus accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death, supporting and encouraging us. Becoming human like us and with us, he walks with us and guides us toward salvation through relationship with God.

The pull of the world is to make sure others need us—to ourselves become the saviors who brings culture/enlightenment/protection to the weak heathens around us. This was, in fact (and quite sadly), the way the Christian church performed missionary activity for quite some time. Identifying with a savior instead of those Jesus loves (those in need of salvation), we infiltrated and destroyed entire cultures in the name of evangelism. We tried to force our own way of faith upon people instead of meeting them where they were, which was what Jesus himself did. And in the process, we Christians became complicit in some of the most violent and unjust systems that continue even to this day.

To follow the Kingdom way of Jesus is to reject these impulses to be needed and to save. Instead, we follow the example of Jesus Christ to love sacrificially, remembering his teaching that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV).

The cause of Christ is advanced—the Kingdom of God is expanded and made more complete in this world when we identify with the broken, the forgotten, the abused, the abandoned, the addicted, the imprisoned, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the powerless. If we cannot learn to love them for the sheer purpose of loving them, then we are not following the example of Christ in rejecting the empire of this world in favor of God’s Kingdom.

2. Miracle of the Superman

After this first temptation in Matt 4, Jesus is tempted to play Superman—to perform amazing supernatural feats that are guaranteed to impress and garner positive attention. If only Jesus would use his abilities to bring himself fame—if only he would amaze and entertain the easily-impressed masses—then he would have a platform to carry his message throughout the world. That is his temptation. That is the pull of the world.

But this, too, is rejected by Jesus. It is rejected because it involves—once again—playing by the rules of this world instead of the rules of God’s Kingdom. To seek to impress people and cultivate fame is one of the more powerful forces this world wields within us. Yet (as Jesus knows), fame is an empty promise; it never leads us to the expected fulfillment.

Yet there is so much we do in order to impress—in order to ensure people think well of us. When we meet new people, we change our introduction of ourselves so they will accept us. So many of our untruths—our lies and deceptions—are fueled by the fear that we won’t be accepted, or that we need to impress. Instead of “count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves,” as the Kingdom way of Jesus instructs (Phil 2:3), the way of the world (the pull we feel within us) is to prove ourselves superior to everyone we meet, no matter the deception or violence it entails.

If we are to reject the pull of the empire around us and follow the way of God’s Kingdom, we will practice a disciplined humility, instead of a false pride. One early Christian voice, a man aptly nicknamed “the Shepherd,” offered this recommendation: “Behave as if you were a stranger, and wherever you are, do not expect your words to have any influence and you will be at peace” (Abba Poemen).

3. Complete World Domination

This brings us to Jesus’ third temptation. Psychologists tell us there are two powerful desires within us that require constant management: control and power. In fact, most of our conflicts with one another come down to issues of power or control.

When we feel a loss of power in one area of life, we seek to exert power in another. I have seen many good folks do terrible harm to their families and churches because of an experience of powerlessness somewhere else.

In the same way, when we feel a loss of control in one area of life, we seek to control other people and things as a way of restoring balance. Along with power, such efforts to control others bring us great frustration and can result in great violence. The most dramatic example of this reassertion of power and control is domestic violence, but there are far more insidious ways we inflict power and control on people, as well.

There are times when we deceive ourselves into thinking we are helping them—saving them from themselves, perhaps. But here Jesus has that opportunity—he is offered complete world domination, to use however he sees fit. He could successfully take over the world, as Pinky and the Brain could never manage. He could end poverty, stop all wars, mete out true justice, ensure land is used responsibly and for the best purpose. He could redistribute populations to ease the burdens on creation that we generate when we clump up in cities, and to ensure reliable access to the necessary services that are harder to come by in rural areas. He could blend our red states and blue states into a royal purple, where he is to rule as king. With Jesus exerting ultimate power—with Jesus controlling everyone and everything—it seems like the world would be so much better, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it??

It might seem that way, but Jesus did not come to control us but to love us. Such it is for our life and mission as well. Even those times when it seems controlling others would be for their benefit, we are being deceived by the forces that want to break us down and destroy us. The way of Jesus—the way of God’s Kingdom—is not to control, but to love.

And the Bible tells us what that love looks like: willing, humble, self-sacrificing obedience. In 1John we find repeated over and over that we know we are walking with Jesus if we obey his commandments and if we love one another. These are (of course) one and the same, for Jesus tells us that the way of God’s kingdom is fulfilled when we love God and love one another—even our enemies.

So while the world pulls us toward trying to exert as much power and control over people and things as possible, we Christians must reject and fight against this notion. Like our example and savior Jesus, we must submit completely to God in order to purge our desire for power over others.

There’s an ancient story from the early years of Christianity that is symbolic of the kind of counter-cultural submission and obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us.

There was a Christian leader named Sylvanus, who was regarded as a wise fellow who closely walked Jesus’ path. Because of this, others were drawn to him as disciples or apprentices, seeking to be mentored by this sage. Trouble was that his disciples thought Sylvanus had a favorite disciple, a man named Mark. They got so jealous of Mark that they started causing trouble, and the other Christian leaders in the area showed up to correct Sylvanus, reminding him not to have favorites and all that.

When they showed up, however, Abba Sylvanus decided to show them around first—you know, give them the tour. As he passed the rooms of his disciples, he knocked on the door of each, calling out, “Brother, come out, I have work for you to do.” But none of them opened their doors right away.

When they came to Mark’s door, Abba Sylvanus had hardly finished speaking before the door was opened. He issued Mark some task to complete, and Mark went on his way. But Abba Sylvanus and his visitors went into Mark’s room. He’d been writing—copying a book—and was making the letter “O.” But when he heard Abba Sylvanus’ voice, he didn’t even finish that one letter, which is made of a single stroke of a pen.

The kind of obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us is immediate and complete. Jesus does not ask God to wait for him to finish what he’s doing—not even to finish that word or that letter. No, Jesus submits in complete obedience to God. He voluntarily chooses powerlessness. He voluntarily gives up control of his life and destiny. He voluntarily rejects these ways of the world.

And he does it on account of love.

1 + 1 + 1 = Empire

It’s important to understand these temptations individually—these “pulls” on our hearts by the powers of this world. But it is equally vital that we recognize them in combination as the core of an empire that is not God’s Kingdom. These forces are the building blocks of the social evils around us and throughout history.

If we do not reject this empire, we can have no part of God’s Kingdom. If we wish to follow the way of Jesus, we must reject the ways of this world. A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25).

Sisters and brothers—followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom—let us then reject the empire around us and follow Jesus’ kingdom example to love sacrificially, to humbly consider others more significant than ourselves, and to submit completely in obedience to God’s leading and desires.

In doing so, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, on earth, just as it is in heaven.

Amen.