God’s kingdom

Rending the Heavens

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By Linda Rex

November 29, 2020, ADVENT | HOPE—Last night I was watching a report by Nashville’s mayor in which he was describing the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and an upcoming mandated reduction in the size of gatherings. As you can imagine, my heart turned over. I’m not looking forward to the isolation and health problems this will bring about for so many, nor am I thrilled about the loss of income, business and other difficulties it will create for those already struggling.

In some ways, I can identify with the prophet Isaiah when he wrote:

“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence—
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-9 NASB)

What is interesting about the rest of this passage, though, is how Isaiah didn’t focus on the glorious entry of God into the human sphere to exact his fiery judgment, but rather on God’s deliverance for us from our human proclivity to sin and our futile efforts to do the right thing. This one-of-a-kind God, who Isaiah describes as the potter, is called upon to do the work only he can do for and in us as his clay (Isaiah 64:1–9).

The psalmist in Psalm 80 acknowledges that the only hope for any of us is for him to smile upon us and restore us. This request is repeated three times—emphasizing a passionate desire for God’s grace and good will to be showered upon us. At the end of this psalm, he writes:

“Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we shall not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
O LORD God of hosts, restore us;
Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”
(Psalm 80:(1-7) 17-19 NASB)

Do you see it? Here is a hint of how God is going to save his people—something related to a “son of man” whom God places his hand on and makes strong. Our only hope for God’s grace, restoration and renewal begins with God himself and his desire for and accomplishment of our transformation and healing through the Son of Man.

In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, when the apostle Paul speaks of the final revealing of Jesus Christ, he affirms that we are found blameless not by our own efforts, but because God is faithful. God’s faithfulness is expressed to us in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ which enriched us in speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and in the testimony of Christ being confirmed in us. He has called us into and has ensured we can participate in Christ’s fellowship by the Spirit with his Father.

So often we look into passages regarding the coming of Christ in glory and begin to impress upon them our private expectations and opinions rather than seeing them from God’s point of view. We see the world around us as very messy, filled with evil and sin, and right away call for God to rend the heavens and come down in a dramatic deliverance. We can easily diminish the incredible reality of what God has already done for us in the entrance of his Son into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.

We’re entering into the Advent season, and I am reminded of that beautiful night when the shepherds were quietly tending their flocks on the Judean hillsides. Suddenly an angel appeared—“rending the heavens”—with an incredible message that would change the world forever—the Messiah had come in the person of an infant lying in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. The angels gathered around and celebrated this good news, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).

Later on, this Savior, as he faced his upcoming death on the cross and resurrection, spoke of the transition which would occur between the kingdom of God which he was inaugurating in his passion and that glorious day when he would come in power, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. He knew there would be a substantial time lapse between his ascension and the day of his final arrival, and he wanted his followers to stay in a state of continual readiness and diligence, especially with regards to sharing the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

What Jesus forged for us in our humanity tore open our cosmos and set it upon a new footing—in the all-ready/not-yet of God’s kingdom, he has made all things new. We have an incredible hope that bursts into our gloomy sin-laden world and lays bare all our futile efforts at being good and forces us to a crisis—where will we put our faith? Will we continue to trust in our human efforts to rule ourselves—to count on our 201 ways to solve our own problems and save ourselves? Will we keep to our own agenda or will we submit ourselves to God’s plan for our lives? Is Christ—the way he really is—good enough for us? Or do we need to add something to the simple reality of his grace and truth?

Our attention does not need to be on some particular plan or outline of end-time events, but solely on Jesus. Christ is our life. We participate through baptism in his death and resurrection, renewing this covenant relation as we take the bread and the wine in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We live each day in attentiveness to Jesus’ coming and presence—both in his presence here and now by the Spirit at work in this world, but also in anticipation of his coming glorious presence at the renewal of all things. As things grow more difficult for us, as we struggle to stay the course, we can hold ever more tightly to the reality that Christ has come, he is come now by the Spirit, and one day he will come in glory. We have every reason to hope. Maranatha—even so come, Lord Jesus!

Father, thank you for the grace you have given us in your Son, for the work you already accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and are working out in this world even now by your Holy Spirit. Keep us ever diligent, ever faithful, attentive to the end to our precious Lord Jesus by your Spirit. Amen.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 NASB

See also Mark 13:24–37.

Celebrating Divine Deliverance

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By Linda Rex

July 26, 2020, PROPER 12—If we were to examine the many apocalyptic films of the last few decades, we would probably find a common thread. Many of these films begin with people living their everyday lives oblivious to the reality that their world is just about to come to a cataclysmic end. Whether by horrific natural disaster, invasion of evil aliens, or angry divine intervention, the result is often the destruction of all the things we value as humans, leaving only a few people behind struggling to survive.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we as followers of Christ often assume things about the end of the world that are based more in our culturally held beliefs than they are in what Jesus actually said about how things would end. We read the book of Revelation as a literal reference book on end-time events rather than as what it is—an apocalyptic book of inspiration and encouragement for believers in the midst of persecution and suffering. When someone dares to question our opinion on how things will end, we become upset and angry—we expect God to come and destroy all the sinners, often forgetting that sinner is a good description of everyone on the earth, including us.

We really are no different than the leaders of Jesus’ day. They and the Jewish people had looked for divine intervention for their people for centuries and believed it would come with the destruction of their oppressors. In Jesus’ time, it was the Roman overlords who needed to be conquered so that the kingdom of God would come—and it was the Messiah who was to come and do this. They expectantly awaited the age of the Spirit, when all would bow the knee to God—and this new age of righteousness, they believed, would be brought in by the conquering Messiah, a Jewish deliverer, who would destroy all their enemies and make their people once again a powerful, blessed nation.

When Jesus began to talk about the kingdom of God, he was set up against some deeply engrained views which needed to be corrected. He needed his people to recognize the Messiah for who he really was, rather than them insisting that he fit their preconceived ideas of what he would be like when he came. Because of their wrong view of how deliverance would arrive, they rejected Jesus. He was God in human flesh, the Messiah they longed for, but because he was not bringing in the kingdom in the way they expected, he ended up suffering a horrific death at the hands of those he came to save.

But none of this was a surprise to God. It was in God’s mind before time began to include all of humanity in his love and life no matter how they might respond to his gift. The eternally existing Word, Jesus Christ, is the Creator of everything. He sustains it all, so that like the yeast in dough, he permeates every part of our existence. The yeast creates small pockets of carbon dioxide (like the divine Breath which gives us life), which when heated, causes the dough to rise, and makes the loaf of bread soft and spongy. Jesus explained that the kingdom of God present in his person, was a hidden mystery, like the yeast hidden in dough, and like a tiny mustard seed, which was progressively filling the world and would eventually be fully manifest in glory in the new heavens and new earth, a large tree in which the birds could find safety and rest.

The way that the kingdom of God would be entered into was much different that the expected view of that day. Jesus used the imagery of a treasure buried in a field and a pearl hidden away in his kingdom parables. These are apt pictures of burial, something which he knew would be part of the process of the mystery of the kingdom of God being worked out in his person as the suffering-servant Messiah. The value of all God had made was more than worth the price Jesus would pay in his death at the hands of his people.

But this brings us up against the hardest question of all—are we willing to share in Christ’s death and resurrection? For the only way to participate in the kingdom of God is by participating in Jesus Christ by faith. Any other path only leads to death. Life, real life, is life in relationship with God through Christ by the Spirit—and we are given this gift by faith in Jesus. What are we willing to give up to follow Jesus?

This means that judgment is set on a totally different basis. We don’t judge who is good and who is evil—God does. And he does this in and through Jesus, the one who died humanity’s death and rose bearing humanity into the presence of the Father, sending the Spirit so we could participate in his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit now and forever. Like the seine which is drawn through the sea drawing everything to shore, God’s love and grace sweeps everything into a new place—slowly, inexorably drawing all towards the climactic ushering in of the new heavens and new earth.

In Jesus’ parable, the net draws everything in the ocean onto the shore. This may include an old shoe, a broken bicycle, hundreds of plastic bottles, and every different type of sea life. In the same way, God is inevitably moving all he has made to an end, bringing about the culmination of his divine purpose and plan and ushering in the new heavens and new earth. Because Christ has been raised from death, every human being will be raised—to face the sorting of the fish who will be thrown back in the ocean or the fish who will join Jesus in eternal life. The one making the decision of who stays and who goes is Jesus, and his angels carry out his divine will. It’s obvious that trash does not belong in the ocean—there is a lot of evil and junk which never belonged in this world—it must be burned up and gotten rid of.

But the fish and other sea life dependent upon the salt water are a different story. Sea life of this kind if left on the shore, will die. In order to be a part of what the fishermen are doing in this parable though, the fish or sea animal has to remain on shore, be placed in a container and carried away, and by extrapolation—die. In the same way, the only way we can have eternal life is to participate in Christ’s death. If we insist on continuing our existence on our own terms, on staying in the ocean and swimming about to our heart’s content, we will miss out on real life—on the new life created for us in Christ Jesus which is only possible through sharing in his death and resurrection.

We must die in Christ to sin, self, and Satan, and share in Christ’s resurrected life—living in the truth of who we are as God’s adopted children. We are members of a new household now. All that was before is gone, having gone to the grave with Jesus. We have new life in him. We are members of Christ’s body, the universal church of believers, who follow Jesus wherever he leads. What we believe is essential, then, and will determine how we face our eternal future.

The kingdom of God, then, is not a political kingdom. It is not a place which honors power, authority, privilege, or any of the temporary human values we venerate, but values humility, service, love, grace, and sharing. The judgment of who is worthy to participate in this kingdom isn’t based on performance, but on grace—on the compassion and mercy of the One who believed each of us valuable enough that he was willing to set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity to bring us into life with himself. This kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and it is even at work in our world today by the Spirit—a hidden mystery which will be fully revealed when Jesus returns in glory. And may that day come soon!

When we look at the kingdom of God in this way, we do not need to be afraid. We can joyously anticipate the day when all Christ accomplished for us is fully manifested. We look forward to when we will shine as stars in the new heavens and new earth. And we live in the kingdom of God now, as citizens of God’s new city, following Jesus wherever he leads, trusting him to finish what he has begun in us. For he will not rest until he has accomplished what he intended before time began. Praise God!

We may need to ask ourselves, then, what is it we believe about the kingdom of God? What do we believe abut Jesus Christ? Do we need to reframe our reference when we think of the end of the world? If everything erupted in nuclear war tomorrow, what would be our response? Would it be fear, anxiety, depression, anger? Or would we remember that God is still at work in this world, death has no power any longer to create fear, and we have hope for a glorious future in and through Jesus our Lord?

Lord, you are the king of the kingdom, and you have drawn us to yourself, to be citizens in your kingdom. Taken from the kingdom of darkness, you have set us in the kingdom of light. Grant us the grace to live fully in the light of your love and grace, to walk in your paths, to give ourselves fully to your will and purposes. We know this is all in and through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 NASB

See also Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52.

Prayer as Participation

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By Linda Rex

Last night I watched one of the episodes of “A.D.” in which the disciples were gathered together praying on Pentecost. The movie showed them repeating over and over the words of the prayer Jesus gave them.

I found this quite disturbing because I have a really hard time believing after walking and talking with Jesus for three years they had nothing else to say to God other than this. Surely they witnessed many conversations between Jesus and his heavenly Father. And the intimacy in that relationship could not have been hidden from them, especially when Jesus spoke about how the Father was in him and he was in the Father.

Inherent within this prayer though is the one lesson Jesus taught his disciples over and over: The kingdom of God was not going to be the kingdom they expected it to be. In other words, the kingdom to come would not be a restoration of the human kingdom of Israel, but rather a kingdom formed without hands—God’s kingdom of heaven established on earth through the Messiah Jesus, an eternal kingdom of divine rule, of God’s will being done, in every part of our human existence.

Sometimes when it is hard to find anything to say to God, it is helpful to be able to recite a prayer from memory. This is why these written prayers, or the prayers given to us in the Bible, are helpful. They provide a way for us to reach out to God in some way, even when our hearts are resisting the relationship.

In truth, prayer is an integral part of our relationship with God. Praying, in whatever form it may take, is our conversation with God. It can be as natural as breathing, as we go through our day and include God in every moment. It can be a spiritual discipline, being expressed in many forms both privately and publically, in which we take our concerns to God and intercede on behalf of others.

But in prayer, we must always remember the direction Jesus gave us—it is God’s kingdom and God’s will we seek to be done here on earth. In other words, we release our personal expectations and desires and allow God to do whatever he believes is best in the situation we are praying about.

God has a lot of unique ways in which he deals with problems. We tend to take a pretty direct approach, asking God to fix things and fix people. But often instead of changing the thing we think needs to be changed in a situation, God opts to change something completely different. And in doing so, he succeeds in bringing about what really matters—the transformation of human hearts and the restoration of relationships.

God’s heart is expressed through and in loving relationships. It is his nature to build, heal and restore. Sometimes God will tear something down so he can build it up again in a new way, or so he can build something entirely different. His wisdom surpasses us so much—we need to trust him to do the right and loving thing in every situation. We need to believe that he is indeed good and that his heart is full of everlasting love and grace for us.

The main thing that the disciples were doing that day of Pentecost was waiting. They were waiting on God, on Jesus to send the Holy Spirit from the Father. Their participation in what God was doing through Jesus was prayer. They prayed and they waited. When the Holy Spirit came and Jesus began to give them direction, then they acted.

Because they were living and walking in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the empowering, transforming Holy Spirit was made evident in a dramatic way whenever the disciples prayed. Their prayers were effective as they were prayed in accordance with the will and purposes of God. They prayed as Jesus directed them to pray and as they were led by the Holy Spirit to pray. So when they prayed, awesome things happened.

When we pray today in agreement with God through Jesus and in the Spirit, things happen—God works in new ways. Through prayer, we participate in God’s work in the world. We are included in his missionary work of bringing his kingdom to earth and accomplishing his will in the world. May we each be diligent in prayer, participating by the Spirit in Jesus’ perfect relationship with the Father, and seeking God’s will to be done in all things through Jesus our Lord and by his Spirit. Amen.

“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]’” Mt 6:9–13 NASB