Archive for the ‘Gospel’ Category

VGGI should state at the outset of my review that I am a white, 46 year-old, educated, public special education teacher who happens also to be a man. I am a Christian and I have bachelors degree in theology and bible teaching and a masters degree in education. I am a public school teacher as a second career so I am not very far up the pay scale and thus I am, by definition, not-wealthy. Finally, I am married and have children. I want to dispel, at the outset, any of the concerns my readers may have about whether or not I am biased or prejudiced in any way at all.

Well…I suppose I am. I suppose everyone has a fault or two they have to reckon with in this lifetime while they work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Reading this book, I got the sense that Ms Harper has all the sins of everyone in the world pegged–and there are a lot of sins to reckon with according to her, plenty of guilt to go around. I am not entirely opposed to her pointing out sin–preachers, good and bad alike, do that. The problem I had with this book is that the majority of sins in this world have, evidently and only, been committed by a very small minority of people; namely, rich, white, men in positions of power. And as I read through the book as a relatively poor white man, who has evidently been handed everything in life because of my relatively pale skin color, I couldn't help but wonder if the solutions to the world's problems would go away if all the white men who have exploited black people and poor people and the environment and women and other minorities; who have schemed and exploited and pillaged their way to economic prosperity; who have never suffered at the hands of anyone; would simply repent or, well, die.

The subtitle of the book is 'How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right.' This is audacious to say the least because her solution has very little to do with what Paul describes as the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. What is more amazing, however, is that as I read through the book which is thick with what some might call the 'Liberal Democrat Presidential Platform,' is this: there are people all around who think that her solutions to the problems she describes can be solved in better, less blame-assigning, guilt-compounding, accusatory ways. What is amazing is that someone who would agree with her every single jot and tittle has been president of the U.S. of A. for the last seven and a half years–and yet this book was still deemed necessary. The policies she would champion have been the policies of this nation for nearly eight years…and yet this book was still necessary?!

You may well have guessed that I didn't like this book. I will give a few reasons for my dislike. (I assure you my dislike is purely philosophical and theological.) Aside from the pretense of being a book about 'solutions' when it's really a book about 'blame', Harper has an a prior commitment to a view of Scripture that I don't think most conservative Christians readers will find helpful. For example, she dates the book of Genesis as "the youngest of the first five books of the Bible, like written just after the fall of Babylonian empire and at the end of the exilic period (ca. 538-450 BCE)" (18). Throughout the book she will use short phrases like 'most scholars now believe' (e.g., 143). This is misleading, at best, because it depends entirely upon which 'scholars' one reads. Among her favorites are Gerhard von Rad, Walter Brueggemann, Phyllis Trible, and Jim Wallis–none of whom are recognized for their theological or canonical conservatism. It is easy enough to find a host of Bible scholars who can produce compelling linguistic, archaeological, theological, and historical reasons for early dates of important Bible books like Genesis (and, furthermore, demonstrate compelling reasons why such books as the Pentateuch are not scraps cobbled together by some imaginary priestly class but are unified wholes written with a singular purpose, by a single author). 

She also makes selective use of statistics. For example, she notes that in 2015, "forty percent of unarmed people killed by police were black men, yet they make up only six percent of the national population." But this is only part of the statistic (and it may not be entirely true because it does not tell us the racial demographics of the cops who shot 'unarmed' black men or the circumstances under which they were killed, etc.; don't get me wrong: I am no fan of the current authoritarian tactics of many police forces across this county. My point which is that this statistic is selective at best and misleading at worst.) It doesn't take much effort to do a google search and come up with a set of statistics that demonstrate that black men kill each other at an alarming rate in this country–a fact perhaps more lamentable than the fact that police kill all sorts of unarmed people–Black, White, Latino, etc. See this article by Allen West for statistics that are easily verified. Statistics like this are used to prop up support for movements like 'black lives matter'. (She even advocates taking the 'Harvard Implicit Association Test' which, evidently, helps us know if we are racist ('implicit bias', 154).)

Another problem with the book is the constant whining. She constantly laments the slavery history of the United States. Yes. We all lament it. It is a terrible aspect of our history. Yet: "At the same time, the God-shaped abyss in my soul was hungry to be filled. Born black in a white world, a woman in a man's world, I became a child survivor of bullying, sexual abuse, and divorce. I was lost and trying my best to be okay" (61). Or, "I suffered the humiliation of being placed in general-education classes even though I had been in the highest reading group in a competitive class in Philadelphia" (55; the students in my special education class would not think being in general education a humiliation; nor would the 98% of the population who also 'suffered' in GE). But seriously. Everyone has had to suffer. I am a white man and no one has handed me anything. I was bullied as a young boy and worse. I grew up poor. I'm still paying for my education. We all have a history. But I submit that my suffering is no worse than hers; and hers no worse than mine. It's different, but none of it is beyond the hope of Jesus. Part of the glory of belonging to Jesus is that we are not defined by our history, but by our future. A significant part of the problem with this book and its underlying assumptions is that it is mired in the past, seemingly unable to think about Jesus has, indeed, set us free. We are called to forget what is behind and press on to what Messiah has taken hold us for.

Kingdom making means acknowledging sin and repenting, making recompense when necessary, and pressing forward in hope. It doesn't mean dwelling in the past or oppressing people with guilt for the sins of their fathers.

Finally, there are some things in this book that are simply mind-mindbogglingly absurd and beyond my ability to believe. For example, Harper would have her readers believe that climate-change related conditions are largely responsible for the rise of such terrorism organizations as ISIS. "Imagine living in a land where there is no water," she writes. She then goes on to explain that because Syria had no water, a vacuum was created, people revolted against al-Assad, a war resulted, and (sarcasm deleted) ISIS was born (107-109)! All of this because of climate change–something for which there is no scientific consensus! (It seems to me that ISIS was created because some people in the world like to kill other people in the name of their religion–a point that doesn't escape Harper when it comes to white slave owners from another era but does when it comes to Islam.)

Enough of the problems with this book. I assure you I can go on for another thousand words, but I won't. My point in highlighting these points is to note that her arguments are open to interpretation at best and specious at worst. I am simply an optimist and this book is far too rife with blame and accusation to be of any useful optimistic hope. I think it will appeal to a certain part of the population, but I think many folks will see the logical holes, the fallacious arguments, the distorted history, and the misappropriation of Scripture and put the book down. Or never buy it to begin with.

I do want to end on one positive note. Of all that I have criticized, and I assure you I have more that I want to say, I did find chapter 10, "Shalom Between the Nations" to be an exceptionally well written and compelling chapter (aside from her application of Jubilee on pages 169-170). Here I think that Harper gets it right when she talks about the way 'empire' has corrupted the vision God has for this world in Jesus. She has some excellent observations about how 'war' and 'empire' are mentioned together early in the Biblical narrative (165) and how our leaders tend towards corruption and oppression. I thought she also had some rather brilliant thoughts about how the problem of 'empire' can be salved, "God has broken into the universe to disrupt the reign of humanity. A confrontation is brewing between the dominion of humanity and the dominion of God. God will confront the rulers of this world in the person of Jesus" (174). I think the confrontation already happened at the cross and in the resurrection. Nevertheless, this is, in my opinion, the best paragraph in the entire book.

Sadly it doesn't make the book worth buying. There are twelve chapters, a forward by Water Brueggemann, a conclusion, and end notes. It begins with a short 'study' (chapters 1-3) of the early chapters of Genesis and then drives into a more practical and political  application of what Shalom will look like in areas such as self, gender, creation, families, race, nations, and God himself. Each chapter concludes with a 'Reflection Exercise' where we are invited to do things like support the Paris agreement (115), support Black Lives Matter (156, 160 #6), and listen to the stories of women (99) among much else.

The problem is that this is not a book of Good News, Gospel. It is not a book about how the death and resurrection of Jesus already confronted the world and how through it God has begun to set things to rights. It's a book about all the things that Harper perceives as injustice or inequity in this world and her leftist political agenda for fixing them–I dislike the terms 'leftist' and 'right wing', but for lack of better terminology at this point, I submit to their use. I don't think we can have it both ways: the government cannot at once be the problem and the solution. If the Gospel is the solution, then the solutions will come one person at a time. Slowly. As a mustard seed takes root.

In some cases, she is correct in her identification of the problems, but misses the mark entirely in her solutions. And if I as a white, 'privileged', man have my biases, it's hard to see how Harper has none. I read a lot in this book about how she has been humiliated, shamed, or treated unfairly–none of it is right or just. I agree.

But I read very little, if anything, about her own culpability. Everyone in the book is guilty: Abraham. David. Solomon. Cops. Ben Franklin. White men. Adam. Her parents. And many more.

Everyone seems guilty. Except her. 

1/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Subversive Jesus (Amazon, $14.00)
  • Author: Lisa Sharon Harper
  • On the Web: Lisa Sharon Harper
  • On Twitter: @lisasharper
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: WaterBrook Press
  • Pages: 227
  • Year: 2016
  • Audience: I'm not sure
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Blogging for Books bloggers review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

I preached a couple of weeks ago (again!) and I decided to use Matthew 13 as my text. I had been doing some light research on the chapter and taught a little of it in my Sunday school class so I took the next logical step and went ahead with a full blown manuscript. It preached fairly well although I would agree with anyone who said it's a bit long. It preached long too. Anyhow, here's the text of the sermon. Enjoy.

The Kingdom of God

Sermon Text: Matthew 13

One of the things we understand from Jesus, that is, things explicitly taught by Him, to us–about how to do something–is how to pray.

So, when Jesus, for example, said “I will make you fishers of men,” it’s not like he explicitly told you and me–and I assume the majority of us are not fishermen in the sense that Jesus’ first disciples were–how it is that we are to go about doing such a thing. For that matter, what does it mean to be a ‘fisher of men’?

But some will argue that he did in fact teach us how to make disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and thus we do, in actuality, have our blueprints for how to be fishers of men.

We might also take the idea of worshiping in Spirit and truth. We do not really gather from his conversation in John 4 what that means or exactly how such worship might look–and I assume it would look profoundly different in our culture than it would in Samaria in the first century, or in Africa in the 21st century.

But whatever else we may decide about such things as these, and they may be radically different from person to person while remaining profoundly orthodox, is that at the end of the day, Jesus did teach us how to pray. We know the sort of things he taught us to pray–things that are typically quite different from the things we pray for, safe travel, sunshine and safe travel–not that there’s anything wrong with these things but that they are different from what he specifically said to pray for.

And, to put a fine point on this, Jesus told us specifically to pray, “Your kingdom come.” I have heard a lot of people pray before that the Lord provide us with daily bread, and forgiveness of sins, and that his will be done. But I have heard few, very few, people–elders, deacons, preachers, prophets, or little old faithful ladies–pray that God’s kingdom come.

And why? What is it about this kingdom that prevents us from praying ‘your kingdom come’?

It seems that even in this context of Matthew 6, it’s not as odd as it might seem to find Jesus talking to his disciples about the Kingdom. Matthew has had the kingdom in mind from the beginning of his Gospel when he started with a genealogy of ‘Jesus Messiah, the son of King David, the son of Abraham.’ When you start a book by talking about kings, the reign of kings, and the sons of kings well, then I suppose we ought to assume that perhaps the idea is going to be featured in the rest of the book.

And so it is and so it goes. Over and over again in Matthew we see a clash of kingdoms: Jesus collides with Herod near his birth, he collides with the satan after his baptism and many other times too, at times he collides with his own disciples, and other times with the leadership of Israel. Finally, he collides with the kings of Rome.

Matthew’s Gospel is one telling you and me not so much about how to be saved–in some strange sense of going to heaven when we die–but about how God was once again becoming the King of this earth and thus bringing about to fulfillment his plan which he announced in creation–if He created this heavens and the earth, then the heavens and the earth and everything in them are his and he will rule them–and specified in the person of Abraham in Genesis 12–that is, his plan to bless all nations through Abraham and the promised Seed who would crush this earth’s kingdoms which are so masterfully under the control and direction of the serpent.

And in some way we see God becoming King in Jesus and we see Jesus reclaiming the heavens and the earth for God through his death and his resurrection: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, he said, now you go and tell this story and make disciples.

Scott McKnight writes, “I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we need to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told. To us common idiom, If Jesus was the answer, what was the question?’ Or, better, ‘If Jesus was the answer, and the answer was that Jesus was the Messiah/King, what was the question?’ (22) McKnight goes on to state, quite bluntly: “What is the kingdom story of the Bible? Until we can articulate the Bible’s kingdom story, we can’t do kingdom mission.’ (23)

Continue Reading »

Part 3: What the Church Needs. Now.

We've been taking the last Sunday of each month the past couple of months to visit other churches in our area. This, in conjunction with our travels to preach in various churches, gives us the opportunity to see how the Lord is working in our part of the world.

It appears, from what we can tell, that God is working in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are struggling, dying, small churches dotting the land around us. They are congregations full of few generations (which is a nice way of saying that they are filled with older people who have never left the small town where they were born). There's nothing particularly fancy about these churches. They still have fellowship dinners–carry-in–and sing songs from a hymn book. They still do traditional things like read Scripture as a call to worship and clutter up the spirit of worship with strange meditations before communion and too many announcements.

Yet these churches plod on day after day. They turn over their preacher every couple of years and operate on significantly small budgets. But they are still here, alive, and contributing to the Kingdom of God, in some way, right where they are. They wield very little power in this world. Yet here they are still here–living, breathing, and worshiping.

On the other hand, there are what I call hip churches. They are large and have virtually cut themselves off from anything resembling tradition. Their preacher is young and doesn't own a suit. They are spread out over large areas and consume a lot of resources. Their buildings are new and ergonomic. Everything is a production. The music is loud and modern and has a lot to do with singing about how great our problems are in this world and how God is somehow greater if we just open our eyes and see. These churches wield a lot of power and influence in the world precisely because they are so large.

And they too are here. They press on every day and face problems that are proportional to their size. Every church has problems and really it's simply a matter of size that determines the nature of the problem and solutions. They have large budgets and I suppose this might be one of the problems they face: how do we keep people interested and the money flowing? They are, nevertheless, here and they, too, are contributing to the advancement of God's kingdom–sometimes in spite of themselves–but here they are: living, breathing, and worshiping.

In Mark 1, we have seen that Mark had something to say to the church about preaching and repentance. In this third post of my short series, I'd like to look briefly at what he says about power. Here's what John the baptist said, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

If I hear him, and I think I do, he is saying something like this: the One who comes after me will not only come in power but he will also empower you. Now it could be that John was talking to the individuals in his audience that day and probably was, but it could also be, and I think it is more likely, that Mark has him speaking to us, the Church in every generation who reads this verse. After all, these words were recorded for us and we read them. Right? So I suspect that even though these words were uttered a long while ago by a preacher we would surely not listen to then any more than now, the words nevertheless mean something to us or at least should.

I also noticed this: John makes a connection between power, baptism, and the Spirit in verse 7-8 and then in verse 9-11 he makes another connection between power, crucifixion, and Jesus. Here's how I see this. Mark uses a word in verse 10 when Jesus is baptized that our Bible's have translated 'ripped' or 'torn.' There's nothing particularly fancy about this word in Greek. We sometimes transliterate it as 'schism.' The interesting thing about this word, though, is that Mark only uses it's verb form two times. Once, here in Mark 1:10 at Jesus' baptism and again in Mark 15:38–at Jesus' crucifixion: "The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." So, if I hear Mark, and I think I do, he is saying there is a serious connection between this Jesus who comes in power, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, and his crucifixion.

The crucifixion and the necessary resurrection are both a part of this powerful arrival of the Spirit of power.

Here's my point: this is what John the baptist preached. Look what Mark wrote: And this was his message. Or: And he was (continually) preaching saying. He was constantly preaching to whoever would listen that someone was coming who would do things in power of the Spirit. This echos the Older Testament prophets who made similar statements. In particular Zechariah who said, "This is the Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:  'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." (4:6). Now John says that this Spirit is the power of Jesus and that it was beginning with the arrival of Jesus and that it's full manifestation was to be realized at his crucifixion and resurrection. This is why he makes the connection between Jesus' baptism and his crucifixion.

This is what the prophets preached. John was another in that long line of Israelite prophets who announced this powerful arrival. Paul the apostle would later make this connection too when he wrote to the church at Corinth: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kingdom is about power. The prophets said it. John clarified it. Jesus brought it. Paul preached it. The Spirit is it. Here it is: the power of the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It just so happens that this morning I listened to a rather old lecture by Professor NT Wright from 2012. In this lecture, he made something of a similar point as I am making here. He said:

"The way God rescues people from sin and death is by overthrowing all the powers that held them captive. And the way he does that is not with superior firepower of the same kind, but with a different sort of power altogether…The power that is let loose transformatively in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will continue to work until every tongue confess and every knee bow."–NT Wright, How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels (my emphasis)

So what am I saying? And how does all this tie together? What does visiting churches around the area where I live come into play here? What does the church need? Now? Well, I think it's rather simple, isn't it? The church needs prophets who will proclaim this message of the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John didn't come in any fancy way. He came as a prophet of old, like Elijah. He used words that reminded us of Zechariah and Isaiah (or quoted them outright). He's the one prophesied by Malachi. He preached a message that pointed unalterably to Jesus–the one who came with power and the Spirit.

John didn't come doing miracles. John didn't come from a high class of people. He didn't stand in the temple. He didn't write books or anything like that. He simply, continually, preached the good news, the Gospel, that God was beginning to do what he had promised he was going to do: return to his temple and set all people free from the bonds of captivity and exile. There had been 400 years of silence, sin, and exile in Israel–490 years said Daniel–and this is what God did: He sent a prophet to proclaim his Good News. Nothing more. Nothing less. He sent a preacher to preach, prepare, and proclaim in power the coming of Jesus.

John came along and simply said: you want to be free? The power to set you free is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

That is power!

I think this is what the church needs now. We live in desperate times, don't we? People are desperate for hope and healing and many churches and christians do little more than point to a political candidate and say 'vote for her or him.'  Churches keep plodding along as they always have–but with remarkably little demonstration of the Spirit's power. Some are old and dying and plodding along. Some are new and living and plodding along. But where is the Word of God? Where are the prophets? Where is the Spirit? Where is the Power? We will get things done not by strength and might but by the Spirit of God. How are we, as the prophets of God, manifesting this Spirit of power, the Spirit of God here, among ourselves and in the world in general?

Or is the church devoid of prophets?

How can we get out of the way so that the Spirit's power is evident among us?

How can we preach in such a way that when we are finished people will know that Jesus is arriving? How can we preach with such power that people know who empowers us?

What the church needs right now is the sort of prophets who will stand up, like John did, and take their place among the long history of Israelite prophets who proclaimed God's enduring message of hope that in Jesus God is becoming King of this world for all people and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.

So here's a further point: it makes no difference if the church is small and dying or if the church is large and living. The same power is available to both and ought to be manifest in and among both. The same Holy Spirit of Jesus is available to the dying church as the living church. And perhaps if more dying churches recognized this there would be less dying churches. And if the living churches recognized this perhaps their fruit would be even greater.

Most of what we preach in the church is superfluous. Seriously. What we need in the church is prophets. Prophets who stand up and proclaim the unfiltered, unadulterated, Word of God. I'm tired of fluff. How are we, as the church, demonstrating the power of the Spirit of God among us?

I want power. Let's hear the prophets speak and so say with the congregations of generations gone by: Maranatha! Come Holy Spirit!

Or maybe our prophets will speak so powerfully, as a demonstration of the Spirit, that the Spirit will simply come among us, shake the place where we are meeting, and enable more of us to go forth and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is King!

Part 1: What the Church Should be Doing. Now.

Part 2: What the Church Should be Preaching. Now.

Part 2 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Preaching. Now.

In part one of this short series of posts, I talked about what I think the church needs to be doing now, namely, preparing the way for the coming of Jesus. By preparing the way, I mean: calling people to repentance. It may seem simple and, perhaps, a wee bit out of sync with all the fancy things that churches are told they ought to be doing, but it seems to me that everyone needs to repent–including the church. In fact, the apostle Peter himself wrote: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).  Funny that Peter said this to the Church!

My point is, hopefully clearly, that there is always room for repentance and that perhaps this ought to form more our core message even today.

So there's that. John preached repentance. Jesus preached it. Paul preached it. Peter preached it. Clearly this is an important aspect of our preaching. But there's also another important part of our preaching that I want to explore in this short post. It has to do with the Kingdom.

For whatever reason, I can count on my one hand the number of sermons I have heard about the Kingdom in the local church. One sermon stands out because I was still in college at the time and didn't understand a single word the preacher preached. He preached from Matthew 13 and used Robert Farrar Capon's book The Parables of the Kingdom and its rather complicated (at the time for me) text to expound upon what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom. To this day I'm not sure I understand what the preacher said that Sunday or what Capon wrote in his book.

Scott McKnight has done a superior job teaching us about the Kingdom. His book Kingdom Conspiracy was a shockingly devastating book that nails it from the first page to the last. I took a lot from the book. Here's one thing McKnight wrote:

Kingdom mission flows from the kingdom story, and that story focuses on on God at work in history as God brings that history to its focal point in Jesus as King. That kingdom story, then, focuses on God as King through King Jesus. That story counters all other stories, especially stories that make humans kings and queens and thereby become stories of idolatry. […] This kingdom story tells the story of a kingdom; kingdom is a people, and that means kingdom mission is about forming the people of God. That is, the kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church. This means kingdom mission is all about forming and enhancing local churches as expressions of the kingdom of God in this world. Which leads us back to a central reality of kingdom theology: there is no kingdom without a King. (123)

He says on the next page, which also happens to be the first page of chapter 8 "The King of the Kingdom", this: "Indeed, God is king, but God rules through his Son, the Messiah, the Lord, King Jesus." (125)

A little later he writes, "This ideal-king psalm [Psalm 72] leads to one of the most important observations about kings and kingdoms: kings determine what their kingdoms are like" (his emphasis, 128).

There is so much more I'd love to share, but this is a short post and you really should get your own copy of the book. But here's the point, from Mark 1:1: "The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah." He then goes on to tell the story of Jesus: the things Jesus said, the things Jesus did, the places Jesus visited, the people Jesus interacted with, and the things Jesus preached. So, from the get go of Mark's Gospel, we, the readers, know that this is the Gospel (good news) about Jesus.

A few verses later, Mark tells us that John the baptist had been put in prison and that Jesus picked up where John left off. Mark wrote, "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God. 'The time has come,' he said, 'the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15). Well this is certainly interesting isn't it? Mark says the Gospel is about Jesus, the Messiah. Then John prepared the way for this Gospel to be preached. Then Jesus came on the scene preaching this same Gospel. And Mark uses the same word in all three places: 1:1, 14, and 15 all contain the word 'gospel' (or, as some translations say, 'good news.')

What are we to make of this? Well, if I may put a very sharp point on this, I will say: Jesus went around preaching…himself. The good news, or Gospel, is Jesus. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was 'near' (interestingly, after he started preaching) and that because of this proximity, we ought to…wait for it…repent and believe the gospel! This is remarkable, isn't it?

Now, I think about this. The content of the Gospel is Jesus (of course this is fleshed out for us in several places; 1 Corinthians 15 comes to mind). It's what Jesus preached–and somehow this good news about Jesus, this Gospel, is related to this Kingdom of God he also proclaimed as near. We need to think about how, in our pulpits, we are going to make this connection both central and clear. We need to be telling a different story from our pulpits. We need to be constructing a different mission in our churches. We need to be preaching a different kingdom in our congregations. We need to be assuring the church and the not-church that Jesus is king, has received all authority in heaven and earth, and will be returning to claim his rightful place as King of this world.

We need to talk about the good news that Jesus is King. That Jesus rules.

In short: we need to be talking an awfully, significantly, larger amount about Jesus. We need to talk about the things Jesus did: he did miracles, he showed compassion, he demonstrated God's mercy, he loved unconditionally. And we need to talk about these things not as mere object lessons for how we can live better lives, but for the sake of themselves, for the sake of Jesus. In other words, these are the things Jesus did that characterize the Kingdom he said was near! Are we talking about them in our churches? Why do they matter? Why did Jesus do them? What do they signify or point to? What do they tell us about Jesus?

We need to talk about the things Jesus said. What did he say about himself? What did he say about the Kingdom? What did he say about humanity's need for repentance? What did he say about God's wrath, God's love, God's mercy, God's church, and the way of life he called us to? Jesus said his life was defined by the cross and resurrection. He told us that our way of life will be defined by taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following him. Well, what are we saying about this life? What did Jesus say about the kingdoms of this world? What did he say about the end of exile, forgiveness of sins, and return to the Land? And again: we ought to talk about these things as part of the meta-narrative they are embedded in and not as if they were merely ways to help us live a better Americanized version of Christianity. We tell of the things Jesus said because Jesus said them. They are his words to us! We ought to listen to what he said. And we ought to preach them.

What story are we telling in the church? The world has all sorts of narratives out there floating around and many people are falling for them hook, line, sinker, and bobber. What story are we telling? Are we merely telling the story of mere salvation? Is it a mere join the club kind of thing? Or is it something greater, grander, better, bigger, badder, more magnificent and spectacular, and grandiose–and I'll run out of adjectives before I can run out of talking about the peculiar beauty and power that is the Kingdom of God Jesus was telling us about in his story. It's sad when our politicians speak more about Jesus than the church does. Jesus didn't call us to spend a lot of our efforts preaching theology–as important as that is–but he did tell us to spend a lot of time talking about himself. Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the Life. Jesus is living water. Jesus is the bread of Life. Jesus is truth. Jesus is the Resurrection. Jesus is I Am. That's who and what we ought to preach.

I wonder: are we selling people short by not telling them this story? It's a better story, isn't it? I'm not content with the stories of this world. I want a better story. I'm willing to bet there are other folks who feel the exact same way. So let's tell them the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus and nothing else. When people come to the church, they should hear the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus. I think Jesus is far less concerned about us leading 'good' lives here in America than he is about his kingdom being proclaimed and the good news about himself being heralded from our pulpits.

So the question remains: What ought the church to be preaching? Now? I think the answer is simple: Jesus.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Just Jesus.

Part 1 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Doing. Now.

Been thinking about church. I do that a lot for some reason. It's not like I have anything else to do with my time. (/sarcasm). The truth is, I'm fairly heavily involved with my local church through helping lead worship (singing, playing guitar, reading Scripture), teaching a Bible school class, and teaching at a small, local Bible College. I also do pulpit supply whenever I can, wherever I can. I wish every day was Sunday, sometimes.

I have a love/hate relationship with the church. I have spent my entire life married to the church. It has seen my best days (baptism, wedding) and my worst days (termination, heartbreak). I am almost 46 and the church has never not been a part of my life in some way, some shape, or other. So this post isn't about any church in particular, it's about the church in general. It's a short sermon sans a pulpit.

Anyhow.

Here's the first of three things the church ought to consider when the church considers its appearance and mission to the world. All three will be drawn from Mark's Gospel, chapter 1.

First, preparing the way. The last thing faithful Israelites heard from the prophets before a what must have been a dreadfully long 400 year silence, was this: "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). There's a lot more to Malachi's thoughts, but this is where Mark's Gospel begins. That is, he begins by telling his readers that this is what the prophet(s) said, and this is what happened, "And so John the baptist appeared in the wilderness" (Mark 1:4a).

I doubt seriously this is what people had in mind. Maybe they expected some flashbang or shock and awe. Maybe they thought about fire from heaven or miracles galore. Maybe they thought and end to the Roman occupation with a giant military coup. Yet there was John. Preaching a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." So, it seems, what Mark is telling us is this: the way John prepared the way for the Lord's arrival, the way he prepared people for the appearance of the Lord in his temple, was this: Take personal inventory of your sin and repent. Imagine that such a task–preparing the way of the Lord–could be accomplished with such an unflashy medium. Preaching: repentance.

This is decidedly not how we prepare the way of the Lord in the church. Instead we draw them in with fidgets and gadgets and gimmicks. And all churches do it. To an extent, some churches even make repentance a gimmick. John did nothing fancy. He simply went out and preached that people needed to repent. Interestingly enough, when Jesus took up the mantle of gospeling after John was put in prison, he did the same thing: "The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). John didn't even draw people in with supernatural power. He went as far away from them as he could in fact–the wilderness. He didn't hang out at all the swank places eating rich fair–he simply at locusts. He didn't look particularly fashionable–he wore scratchy camel hair and a belt. Yet people went to him. And listened. And were baptized by him.

Maybe there is something to what John was doing? Maybe the Lord knew what he was doing? Maybe we need to imitate John? Maybe part of our preaching objectives ought to be calling people to repentance from their sin?

How is it that such a simple message was able to prepare a generation of people for the arrival of the Lord in his temple? And why don't we do more of this in our churches? I mean, isn't the Lord going to return someday to claim his bride? Maybe the best message that the church can preach to the world and to the church is that they and we need to repent.

I've been thinking about it. There's a lot to do in the church in America, here in the last days. Maybe it is time for the church to stop pushing a gospel of America and to start preaching repentance again. It's just a thought. Maybe it is time for the church to abandon all the tricks and gimmicks and all the sermon series' about How a Good American Can Have a Happy Outlook on Life.

Maybe it's time for real power in our pulpits again.

I saw the other day in my Twitter feed where someone quoted a certain political candidate as saying if he is elected to the presidency Christians will have power in this country. Everyone knows that such statements are merely populist in nature, but if it has even a thread of truth in it, the church ought to be afraid. The church doesn't need power (and I'll demonstrate this in a future post). The church needs prophets. The power will come, but not from politicians. This is all another post. In the second post, I'll write about preaching the Kingdom.

Read: Matthew 12; Exodus; 1 Kings 1-11

In his short little book simply titled Following Jesus, NT Wright waltzes through several New Testament books and explores their main themes and ideas. Among the books explored is the Gospel according to Matthew. Of Matthew he writes:

Matthew's whole gospel is, in fact, a Coronation Anthem. And the only sensible reason for going to church and hearing Matthew read is so that we can learn how to join in.

But who is being crowned King? Matthew gives him two names, and explains them both. He is to be called 'Jesus', which means 'YHWH saves'–because, says Matthew (1.21), he will save his people from their sins. That is, he will deliver his people from their exile, which was the punishment for their sin. He will be the King who will go down into exile with his people and lead them up and out the other side. And the real exile is not the Babylonian one. It is the satanic exile of sin and death.

The second name is 'Emmanuel', which means 'God with us' (1.23). Matthew has drawn together the two threads of Jewish expectation. First, God will save his people from their sins; yes, and he'll do it through the King, Jesus. Second, God himself will come and dwell with his people. Yes, says Matthew; he'll do that, too, through the King, Jesus. This book celebrates the coronation of the saviour, the God-with-us-King. (25)

Well, that's a wonderfully beautiful way of saying it. I've said it with several more words, to be sure, and so has Matthew. But Matthew is building his Gospel brick by brick (if I may change the metaphor) and will not be satisfied until he laws the final brick, the capstone to the entire edifice: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime there's a lot of ground to cover. This is where we meet chapter 12 of Matthew. And it is overwhelming.

One thought, governing two aspects of Israelite history, bookends this chapter and thus defines for us everything going on in the middle. First, in verse 6: "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here." This must have absolutely sent shock waves through the community. People just didn't talk about the temple that way, but Jesus did. I think perhaps he wanted them to keep the temple in perspective or maybe he wanted them to think about the temple in a new way–not so much as a place, but as a person in whom all that the temple offered was reserved and unleashed.

I suppose we are kind of that way with our own buildings now too. And the sad, sad reality is that in our modernish ways we tend to invest a lot more of our time and resources in our properties than we do in our people. And maybe Jesus was making a similar judgment about the people of that generation. The key is found in what he says: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. In other words, I care far more about people than I do about your rituals. They never escaped that trap. I wonder if the church of now will? Jesus said this. Jesus said that mercy is more important than ritual.

This is a message the church has yet to hear.

There's so much kingdom talk in this chapter. One thing that stands out is that now the agitation and aggression towards Jesus is heating up. Now the Pharisees are openly plotting to 'destroy' him. Now they are actively thinking that Jesus is a mere agent of the devil. Jesus keeps on going. He will continue to be a man of healing and hope. He will continue to be merciful to all who desire mercy. I guess Jesus' thinking is that the more people line up against him, the more merciful he will be. I mean seriously: how depraved does one have to be to plot against someone who heals another person? Yet that's what they did. Jesus heals, and he's in league with the devil. Jesus heals, and he's a threat to the power structures and must be destroyed. Jesus lets his people eat, and he's little more than the leader of a sinful band of degenerates.

No one says such things about the church. I suspect that's because we don't do these kinds of things that arouse the suspicions of others.

The chapter ends much as it began, in verse 42: "The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." Solomon, man of wisdom and wives, was indeed a great king. He wasn't as great as his father, but he was special. Now Jesus says that even Solomon is eclipsed by Jesus.

Jesus is greater than the temple. He's greater than Solomon. He's greater than sacrifice; he's greater than wisdom. And he will keep pressing on doing good to people and preaching the kingdom of God.

You have to admire Jesus…even though 'admire' is a poorly chosen word. Something greater. And? This something greater says that what really matters is mercy. Jesus, the King, Emmanuel, the Son of Man, says that what matters for his disciples, for those who would follow is this: mercy.

NT Wright concludes his chapter on Matthew in Following Jesus with these words, "In the kingdom of the Son of Man, the power that counts is the power of love. It is the rule of Emmanuel, God-with-us." (31) Jesus says he is building a family of brothers, sisters, and mothers around himself. He is the center which holds us together and how does he hold us together? Mercy, love. And what is he saying to us? Be merciful. Love.

This is the something greater: the teaching, embodied in Jesus, that what matters here and now is mercy, not sacrifice.

Go and be merciful.

Read: Matthew 4; Daniel 7; Isaiah 52-53; Romans 10

"Nowhere in scripture is it set out more clearly that the kingdom of the one true God stands over against the kingdoms of the world, judging them, calling them to account, condemning them, and vindicating God's people" than in the Book of Daniel. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, 158)

After Jesus is baptized, he goes out into the 'wilderness to be tempted by the devil' (4:1). Jesus stands his ground by remembering Scripture. This is probably something I suppose we all ought to do instead of relying on all the tricks and methods that modern pulpiteers created and package and encourage us to practice. But I digress.

But maybe I do not. You see, here's what I see. I see Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry going about with the Word of God on his lips, in his mouth, rolling off his tongue to whoever would listen and perhaps to some who would not listen willingly. I'm sure the devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness was not happy to hear the word of God thrown into his face. Remember when he tempted Adam and Eve? They too hurled Scripture back to the devil, but something went wrong and they gave in to the temptation to sin anyhow.

I wonder how Jesus succeeded where they failed? I wonder if anyone of us noticed that Jesus succeeded where they failed? That third temptation always bowls me over too, "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'" (4:8-9). Then we note, again flashing forward to the end of the book, that Jesus gets these kingdoms anyhow doesn't he? All authority in heaven and earth, he says, has been given to Me.

Let me get back to that part where Jesus quotes Scripture because this is the part that I find most instructional. Jesus knew the Scripture. He quoted Scripture. In my mind, then, I think what Jesus is saying is that this battle he was fighting against the temptations of the devil was theological. It was about far more than simply not doing something that the devil thought would be sinful or otherwise. It was about honoring the Lord God who gave the Scripture in the first place. Jesus, in quoting the Scripture in the face of temptation, is not just 'warding off the devil.' No. He's honoring God first in his life and trusting that it is God's order of things that matters and that the devil's order of things matters not.

Like Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael: We know our God will protect us, but even if he doesn't, know this: we will not bow down and worship your idol.

But we do not live like that, mostly. I know my own tendency is to not trust the Word of God first–even though I know it fairly well. I'm often like Adam and Eve: I quote it well and then rush right into the devil's hands. Ultimately, Jesus trusted God and was not about to usurp God's place for his own pleasure which is exactly what Adam and Eve. Trusting God's Word means, I think, trusting that the devil will leave on his own when he sees that we mean to practice what we are quoting back to him. It doesn't mean he will not be back later; he will. But it does mean for now there is a victory found not in winning, but in trusting God.

Jesus trusted that God's Word was sufficient. It was this very paradigm of ministry and preaching that Jesus practiced. We see it from the very beginning: in battles with the enemy, he trusted the Word of God. When preaching the kingdom of God, he spoke the word of God (4:17). When he went teaching throughout Galilee, 'proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom', he preached the Word of God (4:23). His preaching of the Kingdom and healing of people in cooperation with his preaching told us what the Kingdom is about: It's about God's Word finally being fulfilled among the people.

There's nothing fancy about it. No special techniques involved. He simply went about doing the things that the Word taught: resisting temptation, preaching the kingdom, healing the broken people of the world. Jesus is telling us: this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.

What's that mean for us at Advent in 2015? It means that maybe Jesus ought to be our paradigm for doing the work of ministry. But even more important that that, is, I think, what Jesus thinks the Kingdom of God is about. First, those who belong to it will, inevitably, face the same obstructions that Jesus faced from the satan. We will be tempted to think that the kingdom is about his ideas instead of God's ideas. We must resist him with the word of God and constantly remind ourselves or be reminded, what God's kingdom looks like–a Scriptural picture. The kingdom is shaped by God's word, not by our vision of it.

Second, the Kingdom of God will reach into unlikely places in this world. Jesus began his Kingdom preaching in 'Galilee of the Gentiles'…something terribly dangerous. It is a dangerous thing to announce to our congregations that it is imperative that we take the kingdom into places people consider unlikely. This might mean that we are sharing the Gospel, too, with unlikely people. At Advent, how unlikely was it that God himself came down and tabernacled among us? Yeah. That's the kind of unlikely I'm talking about.

Third, the Kingdom of God partners with unlikely people to get into the hearts and hands of people. We think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We think some people simply cannot be partners with Jesus. But this is the key: we are not calling people to follow me, or you, or the church, or the religion. Jesus called people unto himself: "Follow me!" he said. The key of our kingdom message is that we are inviting people to follow Jesus. Nothing else. Jesus called strange people, fishermen. Who calls fishermen to the climactic act of God in his world? Jesus. Who calls people like you and me? Jesus. We should try not to think so highly of ourselves.

Fourth, the Kingdom of God reaches into the lives of broken people in this world. Jesus did two things. He proclaimed; he healed. This is the essence of the kingdom: bringing new life to the broken people of this world. And Jesus' fame spread throughout all Syria. I see a lot of 'ministries' who do a lot of stuff, but the only people who gain any fame are those miracle workers. It's not Jesus. Here, it was Jesus whose fame spread. In our Kingdom preaching, the only one who should be noticed, or gain fame, or be exalted is Jesus.

In our kingdom work, whatever we do, we do it for the fame of Jesus. Always. Only. Jesus.

Read: Matthew 3; Psalm 2; Isaiah 42; Genesis 22; 1 Peter 1:1-12

It is quite impossible for me to overstate how important it is for us to see the big picture in the Bible. We are so accustomed to reading the Bible to find either how to be saved (in some way that we usually get to retain our American identity and be Christians) or as a great search for how to live a successful happy life. 

But the big picture is not limited to a few verses here or there that tell us some magical formula for how to join the 'safe and happy' club. Scott McKnight sums up brilliant the point: "The messianic, lordly, and kingly confession of Jesus is not incidental to the Bible. It is the point of the Bible, and the gospel is the good news that Jesus is that Messiah, that Lord, and that King." (The King Jesus Gospel, 141).

This 'big picture', though, is, again, not confined to the New Testament. It is the message that was heralded for years in the Old Testament. Listen to Peter's words: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicated when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Peter 1:10-11). The OT prophets were struggling to understand Jesus, to point to Jesus, to announce the coming kingdom which was in Jesus. Periodically we get glimpses, glimmers. Only in the New Testament do we get the full taste.

There's an old saying that floats around the church and goes like this: The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. It's kind of corny, but it is no less true: the Old Testament was telling its way to the New Testament. Matthew says from Abraham to David to Jesus and all points in between (Matthew 1). Matthew 3 points out for us an even greater connection because he says that the prophets also pointed to John as 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.' John was heralding the announcement that what the prophets had been pointing to was now beginning to happen.

The Kingdom was coming, the King had arrived, it was time. And there was only one direction he was pointing: Jesus.

I'm sure when Isaiah said that he was talking about YHWH, but now here is the New Testament saying that John announced Jesus. And when John announced a Kingdom that was coming, he was also point to Jesus. Whatever else might be said, our eyes are being trained here to look away from Herod (chapter 2), to look away from John (3:11-12), to look away from a certain ancestral connection (3:7-10), and to look directly to Jesus. Of Jesus, the voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." This, interestingly enough, is the same sort of language used in Psalm 2, a royal Psalm, when a King was ascending to the throne.

John cuts through it all too when he announces Jesus. John announces a Kingdom and points to Jesus. John baptized with water, but pointed to the greater baptism of the Holy Spirit which would be brought about by Jesus. John called people to repent, but pointed to Jesus as the final arbiter of righteousness. John was a voice in the wilderness who prepared the way, but deferred to a greater voice from heaven that announced Jesus as the Son. John came as a messenger, Jesus came as Messiah.

Advent is a time to think about this arrival. John announced a lot to the people:

    1. The coming wrath (v 7)

    2. The coming kingdom (v 2)

    3. The coming Lord (v 3)

    4. The coming Spirit (v 11)

    5. The coming King (v 17)

We too are heralds. We too have an announcement to make to people about this King, and this Kingdom. We too have something to say about the Holy Spirit. We too have something to say about the coming of the Lord to visit this planet. Now as we prepare through Advent for this announcement at Christmas time, we pause to allow the Lord to teach us words to say. We are mere 'voices.' We are no more worthy to untie Jesus sandals than John was. Yet we have a message to proclaim. We may not always know exactly when to say it; we may be in a wilderness too. All John knew was that he was a voice pointing not to baptism, ancestry, or his own good looks. John's message was Jesus.

The message is simple and complex, but the essence of it is what I wrote above, what is concealed in the Old Testament, and what is revealed in the New Testament: The King has come, the Kingdom is here, the Spirit is available, the Lord has visited us, and only in Him will we avoid the wrath.

During Advent we allow the Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive the one who visited us all over again and we prepare for his soon arrival again, here, among us. We will not miss him when he arrives and we hope others will not either. So herald his coming! Announce his arrival! Prepare the way of the Lord!

John's message was Jesus, should ours be anything less?

Read: Matthew 2; Psalm 2; Revelation 12; Genesis 12

I thought a little more about that genealogy from Matthew chapter 1: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham." So, in some way, Jesus is related to David and Abraham. OK. And the Lord made promises to Abraham ("I will bless all nations through you") and to David ("Your offspring shall forever sit on the throne of Israel"). Now Matthew tells us these promises are somehow fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. So I'm thinking…hear me out…maybe the promise to Abraham originally was that God would bless the world through a king, a ruler. Maybe all along the plan was that God would be king of not only Israel, but of the nations.

Later Jesus says that 'all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.' Why would he say such a thing? What could such a thing even mean? Well, I think it's fairly clear what he means: I am the King. Now, keep that in mind and let's see Matthew 2.

What is amazing about chapter 2 of Matthew is the mention of Herod: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'" Well, this is all very, very tantalizing isn't it? But it doesn't stop there because Matthew goes on to give us a fairly good description of just who this Herod was.

Ten different times Herod is mentioned in this chapter and we are not given a glowing report. He was 'troubled' by this report that another king had been born and that people wanted to worship him. He summoned the wise men secretly and questioned them–intrigue (see Daniel 11). He was so dangerous that the wise men had to be supernaturally warned (12)! We are told that he wanted to 'search for the child, to destroy him' (13). He becomes furious that he was duped (16) and ordered that all babies 2 years old and under be slaughtered. And, finally, we learn that he died (15, 19) and that his offspring, Archelaus, evidently worse than his father, was ruling.

Here's my point. From his very birth, Jesus was in conflict with the kings of the earth. Why? "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" Right there is your answer. There was conflict because Herod saw that he had a rival for the hearts and affections of the people of Israel. Herod, like Belshazzar in Daniel 5, saw the writing on the wall. The question the chapter is opening up for us is this: Who is the rightful king of Israel? Who is rightfully the heir of David, the son of Abraham (1:1)?

All we learn about Herod in Matthew 2 is that he was a fearful man, paranoid, secretive, prone to anger, violence, murder, that he died, and left offspring to rule who was, evidently, worse than Herod himself. That's what Matthew tells us about him. Herod was so fearful and unworthy of his position that he murdered innocent children. He did not rule in love, but by fear.

Then Matthew goes on to give us 26 more chapters concerning Jesus–the one we were told in chapter 1 is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. I don't think this means Jesus is necessarily opposed to earthly kings or rulers. And I don't think those rulers who rule with justice and righteousness need to worry much either. But there is a conflict because Herod rules this way: the sword, fear, aggression, violence. Jesus rules another way: by dying. Jesus is the one who would later say to his disciples, "Put your sword back in its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Jesus would surrender to violence at the appropriate time, but not until then (see Revelation 12). Jesus would demonstrate his rightful kingship by surrendering to the violence of Pilate, Herod, and others and eventually overcoming it in his Resurrection.

Jesus stands in marked contrast to the kings of this earth because on the mountain in Matthew 28 he said, 'All authority has been given to me.' All. "The point is that now, with Jesus's death and resurrection, the rule of the king of the Jews has been established over the nations, as in Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2, 72, and 89. His followers are to go and put that rule into effect" (NT Wright, How God Became King, 115). Yep.

So what? Well, here's the thing: Jesus is either king of the entire world or someone else is, but if Jesus is king then no one else can be. Herod tried to cling to that title, but he didn't understand that his rule was derivative. That is, like Pilate, he had no authority except that which was granted him by God (John 18-19). The kings of this world do not recognize this either in our day. They just don't. They think the world is their plaything and that they can do as they like, when they like, with whomever they like. Humans are stupid like that. Jesus' point is very simply this: the kings of the world did their worst to him, they tried from a very early age to kill him and end his rule before it began, but Jesus undid them. He exposed them for what they are. He triumphed over them at the cross and the Resurrection.

We have one king. It is not a president. It is not a prime minister. It is not a high priest or a pope. It is Jesus. He rules because he lives. Kings will come in conflict with him and they will lose because at the end of the day all authority belongs to Jesus. And no one else.

So what? The question is: Who is the rightful king of Israel, and consequently, the World? And: To whom have you given your allegiance: Jesus or or someone else?

There's only one king.

Once upon a midnight dreary, I was enrolled in seminary. I had to write a paper once concerning whether or not Jesus ever said anything political. I don't remember everything I wrote but I do remember being marked down a grade because it was my opinion that Jesus had very little to say about politics.

I suppose by now I might change my mind. He probably said a lot. He probably said more than I really care to think about right now. I think if Jesus did say something about politics it is something that most people really will not want to hear. The liberal thinks Jesus said something that justifies their liberal social agenda. The conservative thinks Jesus said something that justifies their conservative social agenda. If we use Scripture to justify a political point of view then we have missed the point of reading Scripture altogether.

I think Jesus said something about the Kingdom of God and anything he said about politics, and how they are used, must be found somewhere within the matrix of God's Kingdom. I think we must also be careful because Jesus spoke to a particular and peculiar political situation. He did not, to be sure, say anything specifically about American politics, American politicians, or the American political machine. There's a lot of folks who think Jesus had something to say about America, but he didn't. Not specifically anyhow. But if he did say something in general, I think he warned his followers that we ought to tread lightly and not be found holding hands with those in power.

Jesus had lots of things to say about the Kingdom of God though.

So I got to thinking tonight and went on a mini-facebook rant, posting mini-screed after mini-screed to my wall. (Mostly I do things like this to aggravate people, but tonight I was kind of being serious because I'm kind of getting sick of the attitudes of many of my conservative Christian friends. Jesus did say something to them, something about humility or being humble or being last or something.) The point here, then, is to post a few of those mini-screeds.

I think if Christians really, really, really want to see the world changed for the better, kind of a redeeming the time sort of thing, then it would be better if we aligned ourselves with Love instead of a particular political party.

[Comment: Jesus gave us one command: Love. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love God. Love one another. That's pretty much it in a nutshell. What bothers me is that more people seem to get this who aren't christians than who are. I think that should bother people; a lot.]

I think if Christians really, really, really aligned themselves with Jesus, then we would have the same opinion of both sides of the political aisle because in truth, neither conservatives nor liberals have in mind the things of Jesus. I'll go a step further and suggest that they don't have your best interests in mind either. Politics is about one thing and one thing only: power. And the Gospel of Jesus is the power we already possess and the only power we need.

[Comment: In my opinion, way, way, way too many Christians think that our salvation comes from electing socially and fiscally conservative politicians. I disagree. I happen to be a socially and fiscally conservative Jesus follower, but that is not where our hope is found. We are not a people of power and we do not need those in power for protection and/or salvation. We belong to Jesus. He is our King. He is our love. He is our God who came to bring us back to Him. David Crowder wrote those last three lines. All I'm saying is that dialogue is fine. Opinion is fine. Belief is fine. But don't for a minute think that dialogue, opinion, and belief in or with a political party is going to keep you safe. It's dog eat dog in politics and Christians are very tiny dogs.]

Funny thing is that I often find it is those who are politically liberal or religiously agnostic who tolerate my ideas more than my conservative friends.

[Comment: I don't even care anymore. I don't even try. I like a good debate, but I have long since given up the idea that I will lead anyone to Jesus just because I have more arguments against evolution than they have for it. I figure if God wanted it to be so clear, he could have made it clearer himself. These political and scientific arguments are great fun, but really amount to nothing in the grand scheme of things. Let's talk about things that really matter–like life, and love, and happiness (that's from Audio Adrenaline.) Down at the bottom of a person, I want to know they are into Jesus. They can sort out their political and scientific angst in their own time and with God. None of this means we have to agree with one another. Jesus didn't say: A new command I give you: Agree with one another. No. No. No. Jesus said, verbally and demonstratively, Love. That's all. Just Love. ]

The Resurrection of Jesus is God's demonstration of Power and if Christians think we need something more or other then we have not truly understood the Gospel of Jesus yet. The greatest among you will be the least. The first shall be last.

[Comment: At the heart of the matter is that we now live in a church that reflects the US constitution and not the Bible. I'm sorry to say it. The church is stagnant–and mega churches prove nothing otherwise. I know from first hand experience how churches treat people–and they do so because of power. Churches like power just as much as the politicians with whom they align themselves. And our daily commentary on world events is not Jesus or Scripture, but talk radio hosts whose use of Scripture is offensive and appalling. What's worse is that Christians buy into it: lock, stock, and barrel. We think because it's conservative, it's right. We think because it's liberal, it's wrong. Seriously, who cares? Let's talk about something like fixing the world because we love Jesus or because he loves us. Let's talk about what real power is and where real power comes from. Let's talk about love. Let's talk about something like how we as Christians can be Jesus to the thousands of people who are illegally entering this country each day. What can we do to alleviate some or all of their burden? Let's talk about how that Jesus Resurrection Power can make this earth shake.]

So you see I am a little out there tonight. It's not about being contrary. It's about thinking through what the Bible really, really, really says and means. It's about being a Jesus follower first and an American second. America is great. I have no desire to live anywhere else, well, maybe Paris for a year or so, but other than Paris, Venice, and Berlin, I'm all about America the beautiful.

But I'm more about Jesus.

Christians need to give serious thought to where their loyalties lie and to whom they belong. Faith is about trusting that God knows better what's going on than we do and that that's OK. We don't have to be in the know about everything. We don't have to be on the supposed right side of everything. Key to our discipleship is God's grace: no one will be saved because they dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. We are saved only by grace. No one will be saved because they had the right political opinion or because they hobnobbed with all the right political power mongers. Grace. That's all.

In other words, I don't think Jesus gives a rip what your politics are. I do think he pays attention to your motivations when it comes to politics though–that is, where your faith is, how you use politics, etc. He knows your heart. That's what he is concerned with each moment of each day. Your heart. Many of us would do well to be liberated from the notion that our political persuasion will somehow persuade Jesus.

Jesus-NowTitle: Jesus Now

Author: Frank Viola

Publisher: David C Cook

Year: 2014

Pages: 210

Other Resources:

    The Deeper Journey

    Love Not the World

[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this e-book via NetGalley. It is my duty to inform you that I was provided this resource for a short period of time in exchange for my fair review of the contents. This is yet another example of the government intruding and infringing upon the rights of citizens. Nevertheless, this is my disclaimer.]

I cannot remember how I came across the name Frank Viola. It may have been when I was reading Primal Fire by Neil Cole. It may have been chance. It may have been Twitter. At this juncture, I'm not really sure that it matters all that much because I'm just about sold on his ideas. I probably need to do some more reading, but it is probably important that I started with Jesus Now. This really is an excellent book and I highly recommend that if you are a leader in the church or someone who seeks to be a catalyst for change in an otherwise boring and stagnant vacuum of faithlessness. 

That sounds remarkably harsh, but I speak from experience. Since being evicted from the ranks of paid, professional clergy five years ago, I have had the opportunity to travel about to various churches from various denominational backgrounds and listen to a variety of preachers. It has been my experience that for the most part most churches in most parts of the world are utterly boring–and it is precisely for reasons that Viola expounds upon in this book: "One of the greatest concerns I have for the 'good news' today is that we often present a gospel that is more 'true' than 'useful.' This is never more true than when we're considering the subject and actor of our entire faith: Jesus Christ" (6).

Or maybe I should say it this way: churches are bored. Yet I can attribute the same reason for their boredom: there is simply not any significant emphasis on Jesus as the Resurrected Lord who is our power, as the Lord who has been given all authority in heaven and earth, as the King who has ascended to the Right Hand of God, as the Messiah who has exposed the powers of this earth through His death on the Cross. Frankly (no pun), I don't think the church is enamored with Jesus. Maybe the church doesn't really know Jesus well enough.

I like the idea behind the book: that we will see Jesus didn't just quit working because he ascended to the right hand of the Father, but he continues to work in us, through, and for us in a variety of ways and in a variety of capacities. Some of the important ways Jesus continues to work are as our Great High Priest, as the Chief Shepherd, the Author and Finisher of our Faith, Head of the Church, and Lord of the World. There are others too, but I think you get the idea of where Viola is going with this. He pays particular attention to the book of Hebrews which I appreciated immensely, but that's not all. The book is just filthy with Scripture references, quotes, and exegetical ideas from Scripture. This is for sure: there is no lack of Scripture in this book–in fact, take away the Scripture references and there's not much book left.

Theologically there are, of course, areas where the reader will find some disagreement with Viola. There were a few examples for me. For example, I am somewhat in disagreement with him concerning the idea of cessationism. Many competent theologians have concluded that some of the Spirit's gifts have, in fact, ceased to be fully present in the church–which is not to say that such gifts are not manifested ever. He writes, "There is no biblical merit for the cessationist idea" (65). I'm not so sure about this because there seems to be some indication that even for Paul such gifts were not perpetuated (i.e., leaving people sick at places, exhorting Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach ailments). That said, it's a disagreement that I'm not willing to die for. If the Spirit chooses to do what the Spirit chooses to do, then so be it. Maybe if the church stopped stumbling around in the darkness over silly arguments we would see an atmosphere where the Spirit is manifest more often. Maybe the Holy Spirit is waiting for us to finish with all our petty bickering and treating each other poorly. Or maybe the Holy Spirit simply refuses to show up in churches where the predetermined conclusion is that he is no longer working among his people. That is, maybe we prevent his appearance because of our disbelief. 

There are also areas where I am complete agreement with Viola. In chapter 5 he talks about Jesus the 'builder of ekklesia.' His question early on is: "So what happens when gifted Christians are reared in a human organization built on unbiblical systems rather than in an organic expression of the body of Christ?"  So what happens? Let me be honest. I am new to this whole 'organic church' movement so I remain just a tad bit skeptical when it comes to abandoning the 'old ways' of doing things. On the other hand, as someone who grew up, learned, and sought to perpetuate the 'old way' of doing things, I know how badly I was burned–strike that–how badly my faith has been wrecked by those old people doing old things the old ways. Much of the wrecking of my faith has occurred at the hands of people who simply didn't want to hear the truth about grace, Jesus, and the hard cost of following Jesus.

So I think it is true that Jesus can work through these structures and that perhaps he does; nevertheless, who is to say that the gigantic growth of a relative few churches has been the best thing for the many churches that have not experienced such growth? And who is to say that setting up the church like a multi-million dollar corporation with a CEO at the head is necessarily what Jesus had in mind? We Protestants scoff at the idea of the Papacy of the Catholic Church, but we are no better when we have one preacher set over thousands of people on several different campuses all connected via satellite and the internet. We just do it on a smaller scale than the Catholics.Viola is right: "The great need today in the body of Christ is to reinstate the headship of Christ. Tragically, all sorts of things have replaced Christ's headship. Church boards, committee meetings, church leaders, church programs, manmade rules and regulations, etc., have often supplanted the headship of Jesus Christ" (75).

As someone who has been at the mercy of these supplanters, I can only say 'amen!' and ask how many other preachers like me have suffered at the hands of these interlopers? How many of us have had our faith wrecked and turned upside down because of such ideas? I couldn't agree more that there must be something better for the church. And Viola may not come right out and say it in the book, but I have a suspicion he would agree that these things are not only killing God's prophets, apostles, and evangelists, but they are also slowly choking the church to death. When a church spends more time in committee talking about 'business' than they spend on their knees seeking the face of God there is a problem. A serious problem. "Christ alone has the right to rule his church–not any human or committee. It is His body, not ours" (76).

I could go on and on about this, but I'm writing a review of a book so I must stop. In that spirit, just a couple of final thoughts.

First, I love the few times that Viola gives us big long lists of things such as things the Holy Spirit is doing, names of the enemy, or the ways in which Jesus is exercising his authority over the church and directing the Work. I seriously believe that if the church took more time to see Jesus for who he is the church would be like Josiah whose architects found the word of God: "When the king heard the words of the book of the Law he tore his robes" (2 Kings 22:11) except that we would be tearing our robes and saying, "That is Jesus?!?!?! Woe is us!"

Second, I read the Nook version of this book (e-pub using Adobe Digital Editions) and I found the book very nicely put together (I only found one typo in the book). I always put in a plug for the Nook version of e-books since the other guys seem to get all the publicity.

I highly recommend this book. Again, it is true that not everyone is going to find agreement at all points, but that's not a bad thing. The author's enthusiasm for Jesus is what comes across in the book and is what, in my opinion, needs to come across. If you are interested in what Jesus is doing now, if you need a spark to your boring church life, or if you need your passion for Jesus reignited, this is a good place to start. And when you are finished reading it, give it to a friend or a preacher or to your entire church board. Do your best to be a catalyst to get the church's eyes turned back to Jesus.

This is an important work for the way in which it redirects our attention to Jesus and away from the wreck we have made of the church which will only be repaired when we fix our eyes on Jesus.

5/5 stars

 

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Book Review: Primal Fire

Grace. "It's a name for a girl" (U2). Grace falls all over us and colors us clean. Grace marks as children of the living God. Grace prevails upon us when we have no clue who we are, what we are doing, or where we are going. Grace guides, teaches, sustains, and reveals to us the mystery of God. All we need to know is found in grace–charis.

And why not? While all the other gods of this world demand from us, Jesus gives to us. Grace enlivens the heart and enlightens the eyes. Grace creates space inside of the void of our selfish and survivalist existence and then fills the vacuum. Then slowly it begins to expand like a universe and what started as a mere pinpoint of light eventually has expanded into a galaxy full of light and life within us. We are consumed. We are lost and found again in grace. We are destroyed and made by Grace.

Grace is our peace. Grace is a thought we can never lose, yet we can never track it down. We can scarcely pin down and yet it never lets us go. Never let me go. Never let us go. Let your grace conquer the abyss of wickedness that swims and swirls in our hearts and minds. Dear Father replace our inclination to evil with a bent towards your mercy and love and forgiveness.

Grace like rain. Grace like a waterfall. Grace like an ocean. These are all ways various artists have spoken or sung about grace. It's always about drowning, being overwhelmed by a fluid density that we cannot stand up under: we are lost, we are drown, we are suffocated, we are consumed and of us there is nothing left when grace is finished. Can we overstate the case for grace? Can we condense grace to a single point? Can we contain grace or keep it from expanding in our lives until it replaces all of us we hate and even bleeds into the lives of others? I think not.

If grace once infects us, we can neither contain nor control its growth. It grows and spreads with a rapidity we cannot imagine or believe. We cannot stand before the flood, the rushing tidal wave of forgiveness, mercy and love. Once we see it, it's too late. Grace utterly wrecks and makes us less useful to the world of self-interests and more useful to the ministry of Jesus.

And we cannot stand before God any longer without fear and trembling once grace has taken over our lives. So with reckless abandon we hurl ourselves and are ourselves hurled into a broken world where the Father invites us to trust and believe and hope despite all that speaks against such things. We are asked to live as though his grace is all we will ever need–it is sufficient–and that it will somehow sustain us now and forever come hell or high water.

We need grace just to live in grace.

I'm spending the month of May reading through the entire New Testament and I am now finished with the book of Acts (actually finished a couple of days ago). When I was reading it I came to chapters 13-16 where I saw something I had either not noticed or not paid attention to in past readings: grace. See it with me: 13:43, Paul and Barnabas urged the church to 'continue in the grace of God'; 14:3, Paul and Barnabas 'spoke boldly for the Lord who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders'; 14:26, we learn Paul and Barnabas went back to Antioch where they had been 'committed to grace of God'; 15:11, 'We believe it is through the grace of the Lord Jesus that we are saved…'; 15:40, Paul and Silas were 'commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.'

I like that they are not ordained into 'ministry' but to grace. They are not committed to missions but to grace. They are not commended to good works but to grace. They are not preaching growth, but grace. Their message is not of self-improvement, but grace. They are not to continue in spiritual disciplines, but in grace. Maybe one of the reasons we see our message so often confirmed by mere growth instead of by signs and wonders is because we preach a message other than grace? (14:3). This is a serious church problem: we preach more for results than we do for God to come among us and shred us with his power. I have little use for results, and we live in a results oriented church culture. And often we use the book of Acts to prove it when we point to times when God added 3000 to their number, or the number grew to 5000, and things like that.

What we fail to remember is that God was moving among them and empowering them. I think it's because they preached grace not because they were looking for results. There was no strategy for growth, no delineation of demographics, no plan for prosperity–it was just the clear, intentional, and deliberate preaching of the Gospel of God's grace to people who were broken and beaten down by life and by a religion that afforded no room for error or reconciliation. I think we do much the same in today's church. Our message is not one of 'comfort, comfort for my people', it's one of follow all the rules and you get to go to heaven.

I swear half the time people in churches do not even know what they are getting saved from or for so consumed are they with the mere idea of some vague notion of heaven. But grace–grace is always a fresh message, always a word of power, and always a welcome sermon to a people broken and beaten down in this world by sin, poverty, suffering, and hurt. Grace is a balm for our pain and how can we preach anything less in this world?

I came across a startling idea when reading John's Gospel and it has to do with greatness or greater. Great. Greater. Greatest. We have fun ways of delineating hierarchy in the English language. I always enjoy seeing words like 'greater' in a text because it makes me wonder what's just 'great.'

It happens in John's Gospel on more than one occasion. I first saw it in chapter 1:51 when Jesus said that Nathanael would 'see greater things' than Jesus merely seeing him sitting under a fig tree. I saw it again in chapter 4 when Jesus was talking with a woman in Samaria (4:12) and in a discourse by Jesus in chapter 5 (20, 36), the latter of which Jesus says, "I have testimony greater than that of John." In chapter 8 someone asked Jesus if he is 'greater than Abraham' (8:53).

Jesus changes the perspective in chapter 10 when he notes for us that the Father..'is greater than all.' He tells his disciples in chapter 15:13 that there is no 'greater love' than to lay down your life for a friend and that 'servants are not greater than their masters' (15:20). Just before all this in chapter 14 Jesus said something interesting about those who follow him: "I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (14:12).

It's all very exciting. I should note that in each of those verses I cited Jesus used the same word for 'greater.' I don't know if that means anything in particular or not, but I note it simply to point out that Jesus was concerned about a hierarchy of people in the God-scheme of things: we rank somewhere far below Abraham, Jacob, John the Baptizer, Jesus, and the Father. Yet Jesus also says that because he is going to the Father we will do greater things than these. I'm not sure what the referent is for 'these', but it's at least interesting to know that Jesus is thinking about us: "All who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…" (14:12).

Well, that's exciting isn't it? We will do greater things. Greater things. Well, there's at least one other reference to 'greater' in John's Gospel that startles us back to reality–and we probably need that startling because it's very easy to start thinking like gods when we read that we will do greater things than these. It comes from, interestingly enough, from the mouth of John the Baptizer: "He must become greater; I must become less" (3:30).

I don't think we ought to pursue greatness. Maybe our greatness comes when we recognize that we ought to be lesser. Maybe we get too concerned about greatness. Maybe we need to focus on shrinking and when we do the greatness of the things we do will become more evident to the world around us. Until then, it's all so much selfish ambition.

I will be honest: I struggle with prayer. Eugene Peterson wrote in one of his books that's quite OK if we struggle and that when we don't have words the Holy Spirit prays for us. Many people struggle, yet for some reason I find little comfort in that. For some reason this is the one area of my life where I take little comfort in the company that loves my misery. I wish, I wish I had the fortitude and strength to pray like David or Paul.

Luke's Gospel begins and ends with prayer–that is, if prayer is defined as talking to or responding to God. The first prayer (1:38) is Mary's: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word." And the last prayer is either that of Jesus (24:30) and is simply a matter of giving thanks or it is that of the disciples and is a matter of worship (24:52). Maybe it's both.  Scattered throughout Luke's Gospel are other prayers–important prayers of people like Zechariah, Angels, Jesus. Prayers are sometimes rather long and drawn out (Luke 1:68-79) and other times prayers are short, simple phrases like, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me" (Luke 18:38). Sometimes they are utterly confessional (Luke 18:13; "God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), and other times utterly desperate, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42).

There's more. Sometimes when I think about it I realize that, given these examples, I pray a lot more than I think. Prayer need not be so formal–with all the hand folding, head bowing, and knee dropping. Prayer is not something we need to fear. I confess that I struggle because I'm not like those prayer warriors we read about in books on spiritual disciplines–you know the ones who say they wake up at four AM and pray for three hours before they eat breakfast, read the paper, shave, use the toilet, and go to work. Nah, that's not so much me.

I like these simple prayers I see in the Gospels–short little quiet prayers that demonstrate to God my minute by minute dependence or at least serve to remind me that I am no island. Even when Jesus taught his disciples to pray the prayer he used is a skeleton: basic, simple, and we have mostly memorized it (Luke 11:2-4). Jesus simply says for us to ask, seek, and knock. I find myself pounding on his door a lot–sometimes the hand is bloodied from so much rapping on the oak–yet like the mighty widow we persist (Luke 18:1-8).

I try not to be afraid of praying. I don't want to disappoint the Lord who wants us to pray. So the other day before I did my reading for the day, I wrote out my prayer. They are never long and this was true on that day. Yet I was feeling especially thankful for the simple things in life so I prayed: Dear Lord, thank you for this delicious Lender's Bagel I'm about to eat.