The Kingdom

The best stories (books, movies, folk tales, comics, opera… whatever) are ones where I reach the end and think, “I never saw it coming. But that was the only way it could have ended.”
Bonus points go to authors who make me want to smack my own forehead, and exclaim that I should have seen it coming. But when the masters are at work, regardless of how much it was staring me in the face, I don’t see it before. But once I get there it is just so perfect and inevitable.
I know I am not alone in loving this about stories. And I am going to speculate that maybe we have been hard-wired for this reaction. Because The Sixth Sense, Looper, Lord of the Rings, and every other Great story is just a shadow, a feeble grasping after a more fundamental Story.
Jesus was not what anybody expected. Never mind that he fulfilled hundreds of predictions. He baffled everybody… and of course, the very existence of the Jewish faith confirms that there are some (many!) who still don’t see how he fits. I would like to think if I was there, when Jesus walked the earth, I would have smacked my forehead, and said “I never saw Him coming, but this is the only way it could have ended.”
I don’t think I’m out on a limb, here. I think most of Christianity is on that same page with me– Jesus fulfilled and confounded expectations at the same time.
There is another area, though, that I think we are often missing the boat on. NT Wright has been helping me wrap my brain around the idea of Jesus’ kingdom.
Despite the fact that we affirm that Jesus is no ordinary king, we seem to have trouble asserting that his kingdom is no ordinary kingdom.
The Roman Catholic church is the easiest target here. But the most insidious ways this plays out is within our hearts. We create these hierarchies, these structures, these priorities that are really not much different than the world’s.
Before Jesus came, they had all these ideas about his person that were rooted in the world’s ideas. Now that he has come, we have all these ideas about what his kingdom is like, and we root in the world’s kingdoms.
When we see it clearly, we have that same forehead-smacking experience: It was nothing like we thought it was going to be. And yet we see it clearly: this is the only way it truly could have been.
I have never sat there and counted, but I’m going to bet that Jesus gives us more warnings about the backwardsness, the upsidedownness, the experience-defyingness of the kingdom than he ever does about his person. Jesus tells us how the first will be last, and the meek will inherit the earth, and the expected top dogs won’t be the top dogs.
And yet, it is so hard to live that out. When we do, the kingdom is among us, and Jesus is right here with us. But it is so hard.

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Entering into the world

English: The Sarejevo Hagadah, 15th century Sp...
Image via Wikipedia

It’s so easy to let familiarity breed a laxadasical attitude.  People who live with gorgeous views tend to stop seeing them.  Those of us who know amazing people tend to take them for granted.  It seems to me that the very rich probably don’t notice the wealth around them.  And probably somewhere, there’s a person sitting in a third world country thinking that a guy like me doesn’t have a clue how amazing it is to always have a full belly, to live with antiobiotics and electrical lights, to recieve a free education, to experience freedom of religion and expression.  That person who doesn’t have any of those things, who might want to judge me for how much I don’t appreciate so many of those things… he’d be kind-of right to judge me for this.

There are truths about the world that should seem fundamentally wierd but we slowly stop noticing: apparently solid things are over 99% empty space; obects never actually touch eachother, they just interact with negative electrical charges of the elctrons; some trees are centuries old; light from stars that reach us at night left thier points of orgin milenia ago.

Similarly, there are things about my faith that should boggle my mind.  In a way, I become immune to their wierdness by thinking about them too much.  But in some other way, the real problem is that I stop thinking on them.  I kind process some information, I can’t wrap my brain around it, so I just give up and go about my daily existence.

The facts of Jesus’ birth certainly fit this.  The author of space-time and everything in it; the originator of peace and the source of all goodness, he somehow managed to squeeze all that he is into a little bitty flawed human, living in a fallen world.  This human was born the lowest of the low, in the world’s eyes.  Even though his mom was ready to give birth no one had enough mercy to even put her up with the other people.  This God was born in a nasty, smelly barn.

His mission on Earth was not to gather power in the world’s eyes.  His life is a testament to the fact that the world’s power is meaningless.  He died not through a show of force but a sacrifice of love.

It just doesn’t make any sense, when we look at this through the world’s eyes.

And through the eyes that Jesus’ contemporaries had?  Well, sometimes, I wonder if God didn’t set certain aspects of Judaism up just to mess with their heads.  Not in a malicious way, but I have to wonder if he didn’t have just a bit of a smile on his lips when he set the whole thing up.

God taught the people that he was so far above them.  To see his face would kill a person.   To interact with him for extended periods left Moses’ face glowing.   When he took up residence in the Arc of the Tabernacle, he visited only one person only once a year.   He was a distant God, far above them.

Yet God told them that they’d set apart.  He even gave them rituals for making themselves presentable to him through sacrifice of livestock that they otherwise would have enjoyed for themselves; it was only the best and healthiest that was worthy of putting themselves in a standing that they could come anywhere near approaching God.  There was an emphasis on man’s fallen nature, a history of even the Jews being unworthy, and a borderline obsession with purity-cleanliness.

Always the idea was that they might temporarily elevate themselves.  God was only visited on God’s terms.  The very idea that God might lower himself to their filthy level must have been nearly unthinkable.

And later, Jesus would go on to be equally scandelous.  People in general have an “ick factor” associated with dead bodies.  The Hebrews in particular had specific rules and expectations around avoiding contact with dead flesh and bodily fluids.

So I can only wonder what it must have been like when Jesus told them to remember him, to eat the bread as if it were his flesh, to drink the wine as if it were his blood.  But I digress.  My focus today is on God’s entry into the world in the shape of Jesus.

And the last thing I guess that I have to offer about this mind-blowing entry, is that in a way, it fits.

I realize that I’ve just babbled on and on about the manner in which Jesus didn’t fit.  And I stand by that.  But the thing is, in a different way, it fits very well.

God often enters the world in just this way: long after anybody would have expected, far mightier than we can fathom, and utterly backwards to what had been expected, turning the tables utterly on what had been the status quo.

More on that next post.

An epilogue on Expectations

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilige of sharing a message with Fellowship Church.  The topic that I’d been given was the truimphal entry.  After praying and discussing the issue with Marty, I decided that the thing that God wanted me to focus on was expectations: those around Jesus had this set of mostly wrong expectations as Jesus entered Jeruselum.   Similiairly, today, we often pin our expectations on Jesus and act frustrated with him when refuses to be boxed into them.

As I prayed and thought and discussed the topic, a thing occured to me.  I didn’t really get much of a chance to work these ideas into the sermon.  I thought I’d spout them here.

Expectations aren’t all bad.  They are in fact, closely aligned to faith: we are supposed to expect that God is active in the world today; we are supposed to expect that God works miracles, we are supposed to expect that he loves us.

I think the best way to navigate through this question about when expectations are good and when expectations are bad is to look at our Earthly relationships.

This isn’t a perfect solution.  But at the very least it illuminates how a lack of expectations is just as destructive as the wrong kinds of expectations.

The expectations I have had on my wife (and that she has had on me) are in fact a pretty good litmus test, a sort-of vital sign, for our relationship as a whole.

When we were first married neither of us liked the other very much.  We had significant expectations on each other.  These expectations were out of touch with who we were.    She expected me to be a Christian dude and act like it, for example.  The problem was that I wasn’t a Christian dude and saw no reason to act like it.  

What caused our to get begin to heal was that we dropped the expectations we had of each other.  Since the only expectations we had were not realistic ones, this was a slight improvement.  But only a slight improvement.

Because when we don’t expect anything of a person we are not holding them accountable.  When we are intimately connected with a person, to not expect anything of them is to really place them at your mercy.

If we expect nothing of a person we don’t expect them to treat us respectfully.  If we expect nothing of a person we don’t expect them to be productive or to carry their weight.

There’s a bigger problem than the idea that it’s bad for yourself to expect nothing of the other person.  This bigger problem is that it is bad for them.

It was not healthy for me that my wife did not hold me accountable for my behavior and decisions.  Nor was it healthy for her that I did not hold her similarly accountable.

A final illustration:

I never planned on being a dad or a family man.  When I announced I was going to be a father to friends they had trouble with it.  Many didn’t share my prior aversion to families.  But they’d come to expect me to be that way.  Shattering these expectations was so uncomfortable that some of them simply drifted out of my life rather than reaquiant themselves to the new me.

Jesus doesn’t change like I changed.  But we would sometimes rather drift out of touch with him than adjust our expectations of him.  Our expectations are only healthy if they begin with who we are.  Where fallible humanity is concerned they should call us to be the best we can be.  Where Jesus is concerned, they should rest assured that he is the best anyone could possibly be. 

What do you think about expectations and God?

Some Thoughts from the Sermon Part 3: The idolatry of Expectations

This is the third posting that’s a portion of the sermon I’ve got the honor of delivering to Fellowship Church in about a week.    If you live in Massachusetts, I hope you’ll stop in.  If you don’t, I hope you’ll consider viewing the service online.  (Fellowshipholden.com)

Rather than posting the whole text of what I’m planning to say in one big entry, I’ve decided to carve it up this time around.  If you read it, I hope you’ll leave a comment or two.  Perhaps there’s a different way of looking at these issues, or some more thoughts you have on the topic.

I don’t know what kind of expectations that you have… But maybe some of these sound familiar. They certainly are familiar ones to me.

There is this expection that the way things have been is the way things always must be.
There is this expectation that everybody– even Jesus– will let us down in the end.
Or we expect that a religion, not relationship is the important thing: it’s about legalism, observing all the right rules in the right order.
Sometimes we expect that we’re not worth being loved by him.
Sometimes, we expect Jesus to act in a certain way, to heal us in a certain time. To lift our burdens in a certain manner.
There is this thing in my life that is a challenge. I have worked on it and prayed about and sought out Godly counsel… I have borne through it, and wished over it, and tried to make changes.
And it just isn’t getting any better.
And sometimes, I struggle with Jesus about it. Sometimes I mad at God.
When I search my heart, though, when I stop, and really listen, when I pray and really seek out Jesus, I know what I am doing.
I am worshipping my expecations.
I expect that my pain has this easy-to-read expiration date. I expect that things will bget easier in this life. I expect that God will work on my schedule.
My expectations are on the throne, not Jesus. I can console myself, at least, with the realization that I’m in pretty good company. People who walked with Jesus in the flesh did the same thing.

Some thoughts from the sermon, Part I: Mantaining the Vision

In about a week, I’ll be sharing the message at Fellowship Church.  If you live in Massachusetts, I hope you’ll stop in.  If you don’t, I hope you’ll consider viewing the service online.  (Fellowshipholden.com)

Rather than posting the whole text of what I’m planning to say in one big entry, I’ve decided to carve it up this time around.  If you read it, I hope you’ll leave a comment or two.  Perhaps there’s a different way of looking at these issues, or some more thoughts you have on the topic.

Jesus’ followers do something that lots of us do. They get so wrapped up in their success that they forget what got them succesful in the first place.

Jesus amassed his followers by healing the sick. Jesus amassed his followers by loving everybody. But what starts to happen at this point is that his disciples seem to forget that. They seem to think they’ve grown past that. Jesus is approached by kids and the disciples try to divert them away. Then a blind man comes to Jesus for healing, and the disciples try to stop him. Then, this:

A good sort of summary of where they were at and how things are going is here:

Mark 10, 35-45

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

 36″What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
 37They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
 38″You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
 39″We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
 41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

I’d submit that the problem was one of expectations. The disciples expected, in the early days that eventually they’d build enough of a following to not have to do the same boring things anymore. They wanted glamour. They wanted fame. They wanted to be Jesus’ entourage.

They expected that they could use healings, and even loving, as a way to establish power and prestige. They expected that they’d put there time in, and now they could move on to the important things. We see them here, as they begin to jockey for position and try to figure out whose the number one guy, who Jesus’ bff is. They are worse than a couple of preteens, they’re like an episode of survivor, forming their secret little alliances.

Most of the disciples, they’d been with Jesus for years by this point. They were involved in relationship with him. But they’d been in the world for even longer. And they had their expectations based on the way things in the world are:

They “new” that you put the grunt work in, and eventually you got to sit back while others did the grunt work. They “new” that if you positioned yourself carefully, you got the choice spot.

But Jesus had always told them the opposite of those things: he’d told them that the first shall be last, that we should long to be the servant, not the served. He told them that if you establish yourself by doing the hard work of loving and healing, once you’re established, you should keep loving, and keep healing. You don’t need to look very hard for it. Almost every time he speaks, Jesus recognizes that he is confounding our expectations. He tells us “The world says this, but the truth is that” Or “The saying goes this way, but the reality is that way.” Or “The tendency is to do one thing, but I want you to do the other.”

He speaks to the disciples expectations and he defies them.

And they were like you. And me. They had a choice.

What would be their own Lord? What would they worship? Would it be Jesus? Or would it be their expectations based on the way things had always been?

Because the throne inside our hearts is a narrow throne. And Jesus, he is a big king. There is not room for both our expectations about the world and Jesus. It’s one or the other.