kingdom of God

The Un-self Self

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Honeysuckle on the fence
Honeysuckle on the fence

By Linda Rex

A while back I was getting some help with health issues from a local chiropractor. It was good to receive some assistance with my problems, but I was appalled at the way shame and guilt were used there to try to motivate people to take care of their bodies through eating right, exercise and chiropractic care. If a person did not leave that place feeling bad about themselves, I would have been surprised—it was hard to escape the message that was being given.

As I began to look around me, I found many cultural messages that try to tell us we are guilty and ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Often it is churches or parachurch groups that push this message—with the best of intentions, of course. But it can be seen and experienced in many places, even in advertising and in the business place.

I remember a pastor saying once that guilt and shame are healthy—they tell us when we have crossed the line between wrong and right, and they show us our need to repent. That’s all well and good, but I really don’t see Jesus using shame and guilt as a motivator anywhere in his ministry. Even his call to repent pointed people to himself as the coming and presence of the kingdom of God in their midst.

For example, when the woman who is caught in the act of adultery is brought before him, he merely asks that the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. So instead of shaming the poor woman further, or making her feel more guilty than she already probably felt, he pointed out our common humanity—that we are all imperfect and in need of grace. Then he invited the woman into a new way of living and being—“Go, and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus’ ultimate invitation to a new way of living and being came through the cross. The apostle Paul helps us to understand that in Christ we are all new creatures—all that old self with its guilt and shame was taken up with Christ on the cross, crucified, buried and resurrected into a new self. God not only gives us a perfected humanity in Jesus, he also transforms us by his Spirit into a new person who can fully participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father.

At some point we all face the reality that we are not what we should be. It isn’t helpful to pile on guilt and shame in such situations. It is a whole lot more helpful to address such personal failures through love and grace within the context of community and loving relationship.

In other words, we are offered in Christ and by the Spirit a relationship full of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness, predicated on Christ’s perfected humanity and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us into alignment with all we were created to be as image-bearers of God. We offer this same relationship to one another, understanding that Christ defines our humanity now, and our shortcomings and failures, which are real, are buried in Christ and transformed by the Spirit as we are willing to participate with God in his work of transforming us into Christlikeness.

There is an appropriate time to speak truth into someone’s life about the harm they are doing to themselves and to others. This is a participation in God’s justice, and must always be done with love and grace. It is not constructive to go from there to shame and guilt—it is much more productive to offer forgiveness and unconditional acceptance while at the same time refusing to allow the person to continue to hurt themselves or others.

I’ve heard this called passive resistance. I once heard someone say that this is actually what Jesus was talking about when he said to turn the other cheek. In the culture of the time, turning the other cheek wasn’t about letting someone abuse you freely, but rather about exposing the one who was being abusive to the public exposure and criticism of his behavior since it was culturally inappropriate and wrong to be abusive in that way. And therefore, within the context of community, the person would be motivated to change.

This means our communities and relationships need to be places where love and grace abound, and where people are accepted and forgiven rather than overwhelmed with shame and guilt. They need to be places where we point out our common center in Christ, and where we invite one another to grow up into all that Christ won for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Here the Holy Spirit is welcomed and obeyed, as he leads us into all truth and creates in us and among us the holy fellowship of the Triune God and the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ our Lord.

In this place of our common center in Christ, we both acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses, but we also acknowledge where others are growing up in Christ as well. We create a safe environment in which people can face up to their shortcomings, confess their faults and receive the grace and help they need to begin to change. We open ourselves up through spiritual disciplines and shared community life to the work of the Holy Spirit who is the only one who can truly transform a person from the inside out.

This is what James Torrance and others call Christian community. This is a sharing in the divine fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit. It is a wonderful experience to participate in such a community, so I encourage all my readers to find a group they can be a part of where such grace, love and truth are lived out in the presence of the Triune God. It can be hard to find people who are willing to be this transparent, humble and gracious. But it is definitely worth it.

Father, thank you that through your Son and by your Spirit you have freed us from guilt and shame, and you offer each of us participation in Christ’s perfected humanity and your Triune life of love. Grant us the grace to offer one another this same love and grace, and to live in fellowship with one another as you do. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.

“But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Eph 4:20–24 NASB

Deciding Who’s In and Who’s Out

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Amazed by His Grace by Linda Rex May 17, 2002--resized

By Linda Rex

In the day to day issues of relationships, it would be helpful if there was a referee in our personal lives whose only responsibility was to tell us who’s in and who’s out. When we just can’t get along with someone because they are a stinking awful jerk (in our mind and maybe our experience too), we’d love to have someone come along and say to them “You’re out!” and blip! they’d just disappear.

This would be really helpful in those relationships where we’re not sure if the person is really what or who they say they are. We wouldn’t have to risk the danger of being wounded, hurt or rejected by them because the referee would just call them in or out, and everything would be wonderful.

When we’re having a fight with our mate, we’d be able to know for sure that indeed we are right and our mate is wrong (which is generally the case, right?). We wouldn’t have to wrestle with the discomfort of repentance, confession, and admission of guilt, not to mention the hassle of understanding, forgiveness and mercy.

I think this whole paradigm of some being in and some being out comes from the dualistic framework in which western culture and religion are framed. This impacts our relationships with one another and with God, and causes us to live out our existence with the idea that good and evil are real opposites with equal power. This way of thinking and believing has its roots in Greek philosophy. I appreciate Dr. Bruce Wauchope wrestling with this in his series on “God, the Who and the Why” (see the link on the blog site, bottom right).

We make a lot of assumptions that in reality are not based on the teachings of Christ and the early church. For example, we assume that either a person is in God’s kingdom or out of God’s kingdom. Often in our view, there’s no other alternative.

But the scripture teaches us that God through Christ and in the Spirit created all things, and all things are upheld by his powerful Word. (1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2; John 1:1-5) Nothing exists apart from God or outside of God. When Christ came to earth, taking on our human flesh, Jesus declared that the kingdom of God had come to earth in a real way in his very person and presence. God was present, and so his kingdom was being established in and through Jesus Christ.

And yet we talk about sin and evil and the evil one as though they exist in some place or existence apart from God. Dr. Wauchope points out that anything that exists in some place or existence apart from God is therefore self-existent, and therefore also a god. In other words, when we say that an evil person dies and goes to hell, separated from God forever, we are saying that person is capable of self-existent life apart from God and will sustain him or herself forever in an existence that is not dependent upon God in any way. But this is not the truth.

Nothing exists apart from God. All life is contingent upon God sustaining it and holding it. In order for anyone or anything to exist, God has to give it life. Even evil and the evil one, though not caused by God, are held within God’s very life and existence. They are permitted by God, but always servants of God. They must always bow the knee to God and God ever works to redeem and destroy the harm they do. They do not exist separately from or independently from God.

This is where alarm bells go off and people get offended. We believe that God cannot be in the presence of evil or sin, quoting Habakkuk 1:13. In reality the prophet was declaring that God cannot look on evil without doing something about it. And the way God did something about evil and sin was that he became sin for us. (2 Cor. 5:21) God came into our brokenness and healed it.

So we have to wrestle with this whole idea of who Jesus Christ is and what he did when he as God came into our human existence and reconciled all humanity, indeed even the creation, to God. If indeed in the very beginning God through the Word and by the Spirit breathed life into us to give us our very existence, and if indeed, God himself as the Word through the Spirit came into our very human existence and lived, died, and rose again, ascending while bearing our humanity with him, all of us as human beings exist within the kingdom God has established through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit.

Now, existing in the kingdom of God and participating in the kingdom of God are, I believe, two very different things. Just because we exist in the presence of God (which we all do) doesn’t mean that we even acknowledge that God exists. We can live our entire lives believing there is no such thing as a God. The gracious Creator of all allows us the freedom to do that. But the consequences of believing and living according to that lie are disastrous.

Suppose a person lived their entire life opposed to the idea that God exists at all, and they certainly did not believe that there was any such thing as heaven or hell. What if they were so adamant that when we die that we just cease to exist and that there is no existence beyond this human life—and then they died?

If it is true that God holds all things in his hand and nothing exists apart from him, it would be quite distressing for such a person to suddenly find themselves in the presence of a loving, gracious God. If this person had spent their whole life running from God and resisting every effort God made to draw them to himself, they would be caught in a serious dilemma.

They would find they had spent their entire life acting as if they were a law unto themselves, that they were a self-sustaining, self-existent one, who could make up their own rules and run every relationship however they chose. But now they are face to face with the reality that God in Christ defines and sustains their very existence. And they’re part of an enormous extended family. It’s like they’ve lived in a darkened room with the shutters drawn, and God has just walked in and turned on the floodlights, showing the room is filled with millions of people.

They’re in, but they’re wishing desperately to be out. God’s adopted them and given them life in the Spirit, but they’re wishing there’s some other family out there who’d take them in. So they run off screaming, hoping to find the door and leave, but they can’t leave. They’re on the inside—there is no outside.

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like a very nice way to spend eternity, does it?

Especially since we really can’t take anything with us but the relationships we have built during our lives and the character God has formed within us through Christ and in the Spirit. This poor person has no relationship with God (at least from their point of view) and many, if not all, of their relationships with others were based on selfish, self-centered motives which no longer apply in this new existence. And the One they thought was the referee (since apparently he does exist after all) has called them in, not out! What do they do now? Good question!

Holy Father, thank you for including each one of us in your life and love through your Son and in the Holy Spirit. Remove the blinders from our eyes so we can see the truth about who you are and who we are in you. Grant us the grace to fully embrace and participate in the adoption you have given us, allowing your Spirit to lead us and to transform us into Christlikeness. Through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, …” Romans 8:15–16 NASB

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

Death of a Kingdom

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Stream Scene from trip to AR, taken by Linda Rex
Stream Scene from trip to AR, taken by Linda Rex

By Linda Rex

I was reading in some Karl Barth tomes this morning and got caught up in his writings regarding the kingdom of God. I agree with Barth that if any of us truly caught the vision of the kingdom Jesus brought and illustrated for us here on earth and began to live it, we would turn the world upside down—or more likely, end up dead because we so radically opposed all that society stands for.

Indeed, as Barth pointed out, it would be almost suicidal in our society to live in the way Jesus lived—always turning the other cheek, living free to move about rather than owning things, caring for the outcasts and rejects, and refusing to conform to the religious and cultural traditions of his people. He honored the governments and institutions of his time, but at the same time, he never yielded up his position as Lord of the cosmos and his right to rewrite the God-concepts and societal norms of his peers.

Thinking about all this makes me wonder if we have ever truly come to grips with what it means that Jesus came to this earth as the king of a divine kingdom. What does it mean that someone who is other than us became one of us, lived as we did, and yet lived and died in a way none of us would or could live and die, so that one day we could share the world he came from?

Seriously, that almost sounds like a script from “Ancient Aliens” (no criticism or ridicule intended). Indeed, while his followers were anxiously preparing for the invasion of a political kingdom, Jesus had something totally different in mind. While they were thinking in terms of positions of power and who would be the greatest, Jesus was hammering out what it would take to transform a human being into the image of God he or she was meant to reflect. Jesus was working on a transformation of our very being while everyone else was thinking about getting ahead in the human sphere.

Our culture today for the most part is wrapped around our marketplace, whatever form that may take. What we own, or what we want to own and how we will pay for it, consumes our attention. Our culture is money and power driven, whether we like it or not.

I can almost see Jesus with his scourge chasing out our cash cows and other financial obsessions. It has infected the church, just as it did many centuries ago, and has created so much grief in the process. How often we have had to be pained by the sight of another Christian leader infected with greed, falling from grace! It breaks my heart, especially since I know the capability of my own human heart to fall prey to that disease.

I’m thrilled to see and hear that God through the Spirit is calling people everywhere into relationship. Relationships should always supersede the demands of the marketplace. If we can keep the reality of who we are and who we were created to reflect foremost in our minds, then surely all the rest will fall into perspective.

Maybe, instead of constantly collecting more things for ourselves, we could follow the lifestyle of a friend of mine. Her policy was that whenever she was given something, or something nice came her way, it was because God had someone in mind for her to give it to. Believe me—I saw this in action and it was a beautiful sight to see!

This is like the kingdom of God as expressed in the early Christian church. The believers shared so that no one was in need. No, it wasn’t a communal society. But it was a fellowship, a communion. They loved and cared for one another so much and so well that no one had to go without. In the process, others noticed and became caught up in the experience with them.

Jesus’ effort to change the world was accomplished through the changing of our very being as humans. His work through his life, death, resurrection and ascension has been and is life-changing. The kingdom of God is a kingdom that crosses all human kingdoms and cultural boundaries. It is open to each and every person because the gift of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus sent to transform human hearts and minds, is available to everyone.

Perhaps if we were less willing to content ourselves with the trappings of this human life and sought instead to embrace the gift of radical grace in the Holy Spirit, we might find ourselves experiencing in fuller measure the kingdom of God now in our lives and in our culture. Bonhoeffer, in his book “Ethics” talked about how important it is that the body of Christ influence its culture and the government of the world in which it lives. We don’t try to create a theocracy so much as we live out the kingdom of God in our being, and that living it out in all we think, say and do will dramatically transform the world around us.

The path to the death of our human kingdoms and the darkness in our world is the path that Jesus took on our behalf. Through death and resurrection, Jesus ended the kingdom of darkness and in its place, inaugurated the kingdom of God.

At some point we’re going to need to release our grip upon the things of this human existence and begin to embrace the values and lifestyles of God’s kingdom. And the only way that will happen is through our sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. We express this symbolically through water baptism, and we partake of Christ’s life in an ongoing way as we eat the bread and wine of the eucharist table. As we daily turn away from all the things we depend upon and idolize, and turn to Christ instead, we experience the life and death of Jesus in our human existence.

Living in the reality that there is a world or kingdom that is ours that is beyond this life enables us to hold loosely to the things of this human existence. Accepting that one day they will all be gone and all that will be left is what has been built in the spiritual sphere, in our relationships with God and others, helps us to stay focused on what really matters.

One day this will all be gone—and it could happen in this next moment—and what will be left? Just ashes? Or a beautiful being refined by suffering and glowing with love and grace? It’s worth considering.

Father, thank you for sending your Son Jesus to establish a new, glorious kingdom that includes all of humanity. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to dwell in human hearts and to bring to pass a transformation of our lives and our world. Forgive us, God that we resist you and deny you entrance to our hearts and lives, and instead fill them up with clutter of every shape and size and shut you out. Grant us the grace turn to you and to reject anything that may stand in the way of a loving relationship with you and with others. May we trust you to finish what you have begun in us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 11:15

A Warrior’s Heart

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Stream Scene
Stream Scene

By Linda Rex

Yesterday I took my child to Franklin so she could participate in a career assessment. The event included a rather lengthy presentation by two army recruiters, who were doing their best to inspire the teens who were present to join the Army or one of the branches of the military.

From where I was sitting, I could tell that there were a few of the teens, who with the encouragement of their parents, would probably enlist in the near future. Some of them were from military families, who were well acquainted with the rigors of this life.

I reflected back to that morning when I had read about King David in 1 Chronicles 12. I had had one of those epiphanies the Spirit gives sometimes when we are reading the Scriptures. It was something I had not really put together in that way before. Let me share it with you.

David was a simple shepherd boy, the youngest of eight brothers, when the prophet Samuel anointed him king over Israel. God arranged the circumstances in his life so that he served and trained in the presence of King Saul, in the royal court. He became a close friend to Saul’s son Jonathan, and grew into a powerful warrior and leader of Israel’s army. In time, the blessing of God on his life could not be hidden, and Saul’s jealousy drove him to seek to take David’s life.

So then we see David hiding in the wilderness, running from place to place so that he did not need to engage King Saul in battle. He had a couple opportunities to kill the king, but chose not to, choosing instead to let God take care of removing King Saul from office. Eventually King Saul and his sons died during a war with the Philistines.

But even then, David did not take the kingship to himself. His tribe of Judah declared him to be king, but other men wanted Saul’s son Ishbosheth to be king. That, however, did not last long. In time all of Israel turned to David and he became their ruler.

In the centuries after these events, King David was often used by the prophets as an illustration of the coming Messiah who would restore Israel’s glory. What came to my mind yesterday was that King David’s experience in the wilderness is a good illustration of the ministry of God in the world today.

Just as David was anointed by God in his humility to be king and yet lived in obscurity for many years, our Messiah Jesus Christ was born and raised in humble circumstances, living as the Son of God in our humanity and experiencing all aspects of our lives. The evil one sought to destroy him and his work at every turn—and in many ways, like David, Jesus’ real glory as the king of all was hidden in his humanity. Even though he was tempted by Satan to take the throne of the earth on his own terms, he refused to, trusting his Father to bring it to pass in his good time.

In Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, he was anointed by the Father to be king of all. And even though Jesus is the real king, right now we live in a world that is ruled by a dark king who acts as though he is still in charge. He seduces, twists people’s minds and hearts, steals all that we cherish and value, lies and deceives, and somehow continues to keep people enthralled by his reign.

But Jesus is the reality of the kingdom of God here on earth, though we do not fully experience that kingdom in all its fullness right now. Through the gift of the Spirit and the calling of the church to bear witness to Jesus Christ, we see God bringing his kingdom into new places and to new people in new ways all the time.

The scriptures call our God a warrior, who, like King David, is assembling a great army against the darkness and evil that exists in the world today. Each of us is like the warriors who came to David and gave themselves to serve him in battle. We are each participating with Jesus in this battle to bring light into dark places.

The good news is that Satan’s rule is over. It is only a matter of time and he will be gone and righteousness, life, and light will truly reign in every part of the cosmos. At that time there will not be any room left for evil or for those who committed themselves to participating in the darkness. At some point, there will only be room for light and life, and God, with his people, will reign in triumphant glory. We anxiously await that day.

But in the meantime, we are at war. Like the mighty men who were equipped for battle, each of us has been equipped by the Holy Spirit with gifts, talents, abilities, experiences and resources to be used in this divine warfare. We have each been placed in certain circumstances around certain people and given opportunities to participate in God’s work in this world to bring light into dark places.

The picture of Jesus on the white horse with his armies following him, is reminiscence of King David with his warriors and raiding bands and armies. And it also is a good picture of God at work even today through Jesus and in the Spirit as he works through people all over the world who are actively bringing life to dead places, light into darkness, hope to despairing people everywhere. Churches, parachurch organizations, food pantries, caregivers, people working to protect and heal the environment—the list goes on. People in every area of life, in every place, are all participating in God’s work to retake this world for Christ.

That leaves one question: Will you join in? I cannot promise that the benefits are superlative. There is a possibility you may suffer and struggle, be wounded in battle, maybe even die. But I can promise you that in the end, you’ll be a whole lot better off than someone who joins the other side—because they’ve already lost the war.

Lord, you are a Mighty Warrior. We are so proud to be a part of your conquering army. Finish what you have begun in us and in our world. We need your kingdom to be fully earthed so that all of life reflects you and your glory. Even so come, Lord Jesus, in every area of life and fully in each of us. In the name the Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.

“For day by day men came to David to help him, until there was a great army alike the army of God.” 1 Chronicles 12:22
“The LORD your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, he will rejoice over you with shouts of joy. Zephaniah 3:17

Oh, To Be Somebody…

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Gathering of pumpkins
Gathering of pumpkins

by Linda Rex

This morning I was thinking about all the ways we go about trying to find or create our own significance in this world. As we grow up, we want people to notice us, to see that we are somebody. Unless, of course, being invisible is a safer way of being for us.

But this drive to be noticed, to be considered worthwhile, motivates approaches to life and living that are not always healthy and sound-minded. I came across the story of a young man who discovered this power of significance the day he first rode a bull in a rodeo competition. Somehow, being the guy at school who rode the bulls gave him a feeling of self-worth and made him believe he had value he would not have had otherwise. It was only after he began to evaluate the cost in terms of suffering and loss of life that he began to look for other ways to establish his significance.

It is interesting to flip through the channels on the TV and to look at all the shows based on this whole premise—if I’m the best at this then I’ll be somebody—if I do this thing in this unique way, everyone will notice me. Watching one of the newest sitcoms the other day, I realized that the whole concept of a person trying to be somebody, to be noticed, to be approved of, to be a good person, drives so many of the plotlines. It’s just our story as human beings.

And this story is as old as the history of humanity. My morning reading in the Old Testament today was the 15th chapter of Samuel. God had given Israel the king they requested and his name was Saul. He started out a pretty humble man, but in this chapter we find that somehow being significant and important supplanted his humility.

God instructed King Saul to lead the Israelites into battle against a particular king and told him to destroy everything associated with that particular group of people. God wasn’t being cruel—he was just exacting justice and was inviting his people to be a part of that process. (He does that today in a similar way through our armies and police forces, though he typically doesn’t call for genocide any longer.)

In this case, though, the point the writer was making was that King Saul hadn’t grasped the importance of following God’s instructions exactly. He won the battle, but he kept the king alive and brought the best of the cattle and animals, ostensibly for an offering to God. Then he built a memorial to himself. Note: the memorial built was to the king, not to God, the One who had given the king success in battle.

Needless to say, God was ticked, and so was Samuel. In the unpleasant conversation that followed, King Saul was more concerned about the opinion of the people and his significance with them than he was about the reality that he had alienated himself from the God who made him king in the first place.

Sometimes the price we pay for some type of significance and worth and value is too high. Sometimes we lay down our most important relationships in payment for this feeling of importance and power. We give over the only things that in the long run will carry us through eternity—our relationships with God and each other—for the sake of our moment of glory. Is it really worth the price we are willing to pay?

I think it is instructive that Jesus Christ spent the majority of his earthly existence refusing to accept any pats on the back for being the Messiah. Instead he focused on being a servant. Over and over, he reminded his disciples of the inverse values of the kingdom of God: the least are the greatest; the servant will lead; the dead will live; the rejected are those who are most valued by God.

In being God in human flesh, Jesus had every right to expect people to make everything be about him. Yet, instead, he pointed people to his Father. Whatever he did, he did in, with and for his heavenly Father. It wasn’t about him. It was about the will of God.

How clearly Christ demonstrated that our human existence isn’t about us finding some significance in ourselves or in what we do! It’s not about us at all. We don’t find our value and worth in anything we say, think or do. We only find it in God and in his Son, who enveloped our humanity within his own and gave it ultimate significant, worth and value in himself.

So when we live wrapped up in trying to find some value and significance in our own feeble, human way, we will find in the end only emptiness and loss. Human applause and approval are fickle things. They come and go like the weather changes.

But when we surrender this search to the will and purposes of Almighty God, and seek Christ and value his significance and worth, we find that we are cherished, valued and significant ways that really matter. We are God’s treasure. He has every intention to share his life and glory with us in Christ forever. And that’s something worth sacrificing everything for.

Heavenly Father, we confess that too often we make life all about us, and about what others may think or feel about us. Forgive our self-centered, self-seeking ways of being, and grant that, in Jesus, we might live God-centered, other-centered lives instead. Grant us the grace to obey you first and foremost—to surrender our wishes and wills to you, Almighty God, no matter the cost to ourselves. Thank you for the grace you give us, and for your precious Spirit who awakens us to our true value and significance in Christ. Thank you for counting us as precious, valued and significant forever. In Christ, we pray. Amen.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.’ And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night.” 1 Samuel 15:10–11

The Kingdom, the Baker and Breadmaking

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Main ingredients of basic bread recipes include water, flour, salt and yeast.
Main ingredients of basic bread recipes include water, flour, salt and yeast.

by Linda Rex

Jesus had this way of taking the most everyday tasks and events and turning them into a deeply spiritual concept, especially when he started talking about the kingdom of God. One of those unique parables of Jesus was brought to my attention in a new way this week as I prepared for Sunday’s sermon.

Previously, I hadn’t given much focused thought on the idea that Jesus described God as a baker. And not just a baker, but a woman who baked bread. And she wasn’t a wimpy woman at that—she was able to handle a large amount of dough at once. Three pecks of flour is the equivalent of 16 five-pound bags—enough with about 42 cups of water to make about 101 pounds of dough. That’s a lot of dough!(1)

So, here I see pictured a woman who is doing an everyday task—making bread, and she is physically strong and capable. I like that. How often we women are called on to be physically strong and capable!

I think sometimes that we assume that the Bible and Jesus portray God as being male since most of the language used in relation to him is masculine. But there is a significant difference between human gender and the gender of human language. We have to keep that in mind when we begin to think seriously about the nature of God.

I know that many men are good bakers. In fact, I remember my dad being fond of making unleavened bread. It was something he took up doing late in life that I never expected to find him doing. I tasted some of his products and they were pretty good. But perhaps the culture in Jesus’ day expected a baker to be female—so here God is pictured as a woman.

Breadmaking is something I enjoy doing. In fact, at one point in my life, I started making all our bread by hand because the motion of kneading the dough helped me to heal from an injury to my wrist. It became a therapy that prevented me from having to have surgery. And it worked. And it’s a creative process. I love being creative—I take after the Creator in that way.

But, back to the Breadmaker. The woman with all that flour hides leaven in the flour and it all becomes leavened. One of the simplest recipes I’ve used is for making pizza dough, and it probably resembles pretty closely how bread was made centuries ago. And it got me to thinking about how hiding leaven in flour is related to the kingdom of God.

Most all of the recipes that I can think of for bread start with yeast and water (or milk), a touch of salt and oil. All of that comes first. It is possible that what is meant by leaven in this parable was sourdough starter, which is a small batch of dough that is full of active yeast cultures. Either way, the ingredients that we start bread with—oil, salt, water—along with the yeast, are often used in the Word to describe God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is worth giving meditative thought to.

In fact, I go back to the beginning of the world and find there hovering over the deep waters, the Spirit of God, who when the Word spoke the will of the Father, brought about our existence. God breathed the Breath of life into all that lives and breathes. All the animals and humans breathe oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. It is carbon dioxide that is created when the yeast in bread begins the fermentation process. And this is what causes the dough to rise. Thought-provoking.

Once these leavening ingredients are blended with the flour, there is no separating of them. The leavening process begins to fill the whole wad of dough, especially when the strong, capable baker begins to knead the dough. I’m not even sure she could stop the process once she started. The leaven is an intimate part of the dough, and this becomes evident as the dough begins to rise, and when it is baked into bread.

The kingdom of God is not something that just appeared when Jesus came to earth. For he was in the person of the Word, present in the beginning with the Father and the Spirit when all was made. The purposes and plans of God have not been derailed, but are gradually being kneaded into the dough. In time the heat of the fire will reveal an awesome loaf of bread.

In the meantime though, we find that the dough isn’t always compliant and responsive to the baker. As she pushes the dough down with her hands, the dough pushes back. The working of the dough and its response both positive and negative are a part of the bread-making process.

We tend to think God’s goal right now is to get rid of everything bad in the world. Just slay all these dragons, Lord! But the thing is that God is allowing the evil here for the moment—though he hates what it does to his children—so that he can accomplish the kingdom work he’s trying to do. He’s allowing us to resist him—though it’s foolish to do so—because he knows that it is a part of the free will and growing up process. He’s big enough, clever enough, perfect enough to deal with evil summarily and completely in his own time and way. But he doesn’t always do it right this minute when we think he should.

The baker decides what the end loaf is going to look like. Dough can be used for many things. In fact it can be divided up and used as individual little loafs we call dinner rolls. It can be used as a base for pizza. It can be broiled, boiled and baked as bagels. It can be fried as fritters or sweetened and spiced as cinnamon rolls. Or it can just be made into a plain, old loaf of bread. That’s the baker’s call.

We don’t know what the kingdom of God is going to look like in the end. We’re not really sure what the divine Baker is doing right now or why he is doing it. But one thing is sure—the leaven is filling the whole loaf. And all that God has created shares his Breath of life and participates in his kingdom life. And God’s not going to quit until he has a perfect loaf of bread. I can’t wait to see how it turns out and what it tastes like. I have a feeling it might taste a lot like the bread on Sunday morning’s communion plate.

Holy God, our Heavenly Baker, we are so thankful that you know what you are doing. We’re grateful that we can trust you to do everything necessary to complete the breadmaking process and to bring to pass the fullness of your kingdom. We trust you to finish what you have begun, and we look forward to sharing the bread of heaven with you in eternal communion. In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.

”He spoke another parable to them, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.’” Matt 13:33 NASB

(1) Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Pg. 100.

Expectancy

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by Linda Rex

One of the things that I enjoyed when my children were younger was buying them gifts for a special occasion. Months before the event I would be listening to them as we did things together, trying to see what kind of things they enjoyed and what they might be interested in having. We would walk through a store while I was getting some household items, and I would watch them linger over a toy or game that caught their eye.

I’d watch them plan out the number of chores they would have to do or how much allowance they would have to save up to buy it. Often it would be more than what they could manage immediately. They’d talk about it occasionally, maybe even hint around about it, but for them it was just a dream—their heart’s desire that they couldn’t see their way to achieving.

So it was with much secret delight that I would find a way to purchase the item and wrap it up so I could give it to them on a special occasion. Then I would expectantly look forward to the day when I could watch their face light up with joy as they opened their gift.

Can you imagine with what expectancy God awaits to reveal his Son to us in all his glory? And how he joyfully anticipates the day when you and I along with all his children will be revealed in the full glory he has given us in Jesus Christ—a glory that is already ours, but is for now, hidden with Christ in God? (Col. 3:3-4)

The ascension, which we will celebrate this Sunday, is so significant an event!

Jesus brings each and every one of us into the presence of the Father in the Spirit, so that our redemption is secure. And each and every moment, as a living Lord bearing our humanity, Jesus Christ intercedes for us and intervenes in our lives day by day.

He is actively working, building his temple, the dwelling place of God, even now—working for the day when everything he accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension into glory will be worked out in our human sphere, when his kingdom will be on earth as it is in heaven.

And we get to participate in what he is doing in bringing his kingdom here on earth! We can stand expectantly waiting and doing nothing. Or in our expectant waiting, we can be busy participating in his work of bringing his kingdom to earth.

We can respond to the lead of his Holy Spirit as God shows us ways to love God and love others. God has given each of us a way to participate in what he is doing in the world—let us do it in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and with one another day by day.

And let’s do it in expectant joy! Our ascended King rules even now and is handing us the gift we’ve only dreamed of having. He’s saying to you and to me: “Open it! It’s yours! I bought it, made it, just for you! You’ll love it!”

Thank you, Daddy-God, for the great gift you’ve planned from before time and have prepared for us. You gave everything up so we could have this gift. And you gave us your Son and now you’ve given us your Spirit. We have been given all we need for life and godliness. What a gift! Thank you so much! We receive it with great joy and gratitude. Amen.

“And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11