kingdom of heaven
By Linda Rex
September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.
The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.
God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.
What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?
Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.
When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.
The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.
For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.
As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.
Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?
Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?
Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” Psalm 145:8 NASB
“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB
See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.
by Linda Rex
Often we read the sermons of Jesus in which he advocates doing good to our enemies rather than giving them what they deserve (Matt. 5:39). Our natural response may be to say how ridiculous it is to even think of trying to do this in real life. What we experience in the normal course of events is most often the exact opposite.
A story I came across the other day in the Old Testament popped out at me, because it actually illustrated this specific principle at work. Of course, it was many millenia ago, and involved two kings who were at war with one another, and a prophet who was diligently doing the will of God.
The story goes like this. The nation of Aram was at war with the nation of Israel. Every time the king of Aram went to attack the nation of Israel, the prophet Elisha would warn the king of Israel about the ambush. This kept the Israelites safe from attack.
After a while, the king of Aram got ticked off, and began searching for a traitor among his officers. Apparently their military intelligence was working properly this time, because one of the officers told him about the prophet Elisha and what he was doing to inform the king of Israel about their plans of attack.
So early the next morning, Elisha’s servant woke up to find his beloved city of Dothan surrounded by the Aramean army with its soldiers, horses and chariots. Needless to say, he was terrified, and anxiously asked Elisha what they should do.
Elisha first asked God to give his servant an assurance of his presence in the midst of this terrifying situation. So God enabled Elisha’s servant to see that God’s army with its horses and chariots covered the hills around the city. They were perfectly safe in the midst of this danger.
Then Elisha asked God to cause the soldiers of Aram to be blinded so they couldn’t see where they were or where they would be going. Then he proceeded to tell the commander that he would lead them to the city and person they were looking for. And off they went to Israel’s capital city of Samaria.
There in the middle of Samaria with the Israelite army surrounding them, Elisha asked God to give the Arameans back their sight. Now they saw that they were totally at the mercy of the Israelites, their enemies! At that point the king of Israel asked if he should kill them.
How simple it would have been to kill all of those enemy soldiers! They had no hope of escaping, and they were guilty of harassing the Israelites with their constant attacks. It certainly would have been just, if looked at from that point of view.
But Elisha pulled out the “do good to your enemies” principle and told the king of Israel he should give them food and water and send them back to their master. So the king held a great feast, made sure they were all well supplied and then sent them home.
What’s interesting is the small statement at the end of this story—the soldiers from Aram quit raiding the Israelite territory. Now if the king of Israel had gone ahead and killed all those soldiers from Aram, it would have probably been the “just” thing to do, but it would have only escalated the tension between the two countries. It would have initiated real war. But in doing good to their enemies, the Israelites, guided by God through Elisha the prophet, invoked the power of grace and service. And hearts were changed, at least, for the time being. So how is it possible to really do this in real life?
First, we see that Elisha was living in a relationship with God in which he was in tune with God’s heart and mind, and he was trusting in God’s love, grace and protection. He was living in obedience to God, doing as God asked, even when it was difficult or dangerous.
Secondly, we need to see beyond the physical into the realm of God’s kingdom life. There is a spiritual reality that exists beyond our humanity. We participate in the spiritual realm through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. God is with us, in us and for us. We have no reason to be afraid.
Thirdly, we need to follow God’s lead, and allow him to take us wherever he wishes us to go. He will give us the ability to see what’s really going on when the time is right. He will help us to know what to do to best resolve the situation without revenge or violence.
Lastly, we need to choose grace and service rather than revenge or cold justice. Looking at the situation through the eyes of Christ, we can ask, what would be the most gracious, hospitable thing to do? How can I offer this person God’s love in the midst of this?
The reality is that even our efforts to do good in response to evil may end in suffering, loss and abuse. Christ called us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. There is a need for caution, wisdom, and seeking counsel and help from others in the midst of dangerous or potentially harmful circumstances. But at the same time we can apply God’s principle of grace and service in the midst of it all, and experience God’s blessings as a result.
Father, thank you that you are faithful in the midst of difficult and dangerous circumstances. Grant us the heart, wisdom and strength to do good to others, no matter their response to us. Grant us courage, faith, and obedience so we will follow you wherever you lead. Show us how best to love others with Christ’s love through the Spirit in the midst of adversity. In Jesus’ name, by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:20–21 NASB
(You can find the story in 2 Kings 6:8-23.)
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.