Sunday, August 9, 2009

Divine Humility and Kingdom Power

Text: Mark 8:31 - 9:50
JESUS SAID, "I TELL YOU THE TRUTH, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."

To see the kingdom of God come with power! What true disciple of Jesus Christ would not want to see that? Proud oppressors put down, wicked rulers toppled, the hungry fed, the righteous rewarded, justice done, and peace and brotherhood extended over all the earth. That certainly would be worth seeing, and not only seeing, it’s also something we’d like to participate in and get the benefit of.

But here it’s nearly two thousand years later and still we don’t see the kingdom of God come with power. The messed-up brokenness of this world seems to go on as it always has. We see poverty, unemployment, and oppression. We see elected officials deceiving the voters and neighbor cheating neighbor. We see a man willing to kill total strangers at a fitness center to get revenge for how life had treated him. The celebrities we admire turn out to be riddled with drugs and adulteries, and often our lives and the lives of our own families wouldn’t bear media scrutiny, either. So how could Jesus say that "some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power"? Did our Lord-- who is the Truth-- somehow slip up and say something that wasn’t true? Or is the problem with us, that we’re off track on what the kingdom of God really is?

When I was in seminary, one of my professors, R. T. France, taught us something about the kingdom of God that I’ve never forgotten, and I don’t want you to forget it, either: He said, "The kingdom of God is that state of affairs where God is Lord and King-- beginning with you and me." It’s worth saying again: "The kingdom of God is that state of affairs where God is Lord and King-- beginning with you and me." In the kingdom of God, God is absolute Ruler. In His kingdom, God gives all the orders and gets all the glory. Where God is King, those who willingly bow the knee to Him are raised to a right relationship with Him and a right relationship with one another. His subjects enjoy the benefits He gives, including joy and fulfillment and peace. Where God is king, justice, righteousness, and holiness prevail.

The Gospel of Mark is about the coming of God’s rulership. In chapter 1, verse 15, Jesus declares, "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" With every demon driven out, every healing performed, Jesus advanced the borders of the kingdom. The Kingdom was present, but not yet achieved its full power. We must understand: The kingdom of God is not something that one minute does not exist and the next minute, there it is in all its perfection! Rather, it comes in gradually, without our realizing it, then one day our eyes are opened and we recognize what God has been doing all along.

Jesus’ statement in chapter 9, verse 1 follows on from the events at the end of Chapter 8. You’ll remember that in 8:29, Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ. I don’t think we can fully grasp what that meant for the Jewish people in the 1st century. At Christmas we joyfully sing, "Come, Thou long-expected Jesus" and "O come, O come, Emmanuel," but for a 1st century Jew, those hymns would have been cries of hope and anguish. Please, Lord! Send your Messiah, your Christ! Save us now! We can’t take much more! So when Peter has said, "You are the Christ!" and Jesus accepts the title, you have to know what the disciples were thinking. "Ah, soon we make our move! The Messiah is here! God will send His angels, His faithful ones will fight, and the wicked oppressing ungodly unrighteous uncircumcised false-god-worshipping, Temple-desecrating Romans will be driven out by force! The kingdom of God will come with power!"

That’s how things are supposed to happen, right? In this world, that’s the way things have to happen. If conditions are bad, you have to take your pride and your confidence in your hands and stand up and fight. You have to be assertive and aggressive and speak up and struggle for what you need and deserve. And if you’re too weak to do it yourself, you call upon somebody else who can be assertive and aggressive and outspoken enough to get out there and fight and win for you.

But that’s not how it works with the kingdom of God. With the kingdom of God, our normal expectations are turned upside down. Jesus accepts the title of Messiah, warns the disciples not to tell, and begins to teach them to expect His crucifixion. No no no no no, Jesus! says Peter (and you know he was speaking for them all). This is no time for You to be talking about weakness and death! This is the time for glory and triumph and power! But Jesus rebukes Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

For the kingdom of God to come, it had to come God’s way, through the suffering and resurrection of His Son. It had to come through the divine humility of Jesus Christ our Lord, who submitted to a shameful, unjust death to take the punishment for our sins. Jesus could never have sat down at the right hand of His Father in glory unless first He had taken His throne upon the cross. It’s Satan’s business to make us object to that, so we’ll uselessly spend our time and energies bringing in a human version of God’s kingdom in purely human ways. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to open our eyes and help us see things God’s way instead.

Jesus makes it clear: If we would be children of the kingdom, we must follow Him in His divine humility. We don’t live in a time and place where they execute people by crucifixion, but Jesus still calls us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses. He calls for our hearts to be so utterly dedicated to God that we’re willing to suffer injustice, shame, even torture and death for Jesus’ sake. We see the kingdom come in power when our own wills are crying out, "I want, I need, I gotta have, I wanna do!" and we submit to God’s rulership and do what He wants instead. Not by our own strength, but through trust in Him. The kingdom of God is that state of affairs where God is King, starting with you and me, but can be true for us only because first it was true for God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is His divine humility in saving us and redeeming us from our sins that makes it possible for us to submit to God’s rulership and see His kingdom come in this world.

Throughout Chapter 9 and into Chapter 10, our sovereign Lord causes things to happen to show us the Christlike humility His kingship demands. In verse 9, after the awesome experience of the Transfiguration, the Voice of God echoes from the cloud, "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"

Listen to Jesus! Hear and obey His word! Let His voice drown out the conflicting demands of your flesh and this world. Let His will be your first priority and your greatest joy.

Then in verse 12, Jesus again mentions that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected. In divine humility the kingdom comes, and in no other way. Will you accept His death for your sake? It is the way of the kingdom.

In verse 14 and thereafter, Jesus and the three disciples come down from the mountain and encounter the crowd in conflict over the other disciples’ failure to drive a vicious demon out of a young boy. Mark tells us the teachers of the law were arguing with the other disciples. What about? Most likely, about who had the best technique or the best formula for driving out demons. About which of the two groups, the Pharisees or the Nazarenes, had the most power. But in verses 23 and 24, all Jesus demands from the father of the boy is the merest measure of faith. Not faith as a work or faith as human effort, but faith as total humility before Almighty God and total submission to His will. Jesus delivers the boy and afterwards, in verse 29, He tells his disciples that kind of demon can come out only by prayer. But what is prayer, true, honest, God-pleasing prayer? Again, it is our confession of our total dependency on His power and His will.

When we pray, is it to get God to do our will? Or is it for us to seek His will and to accept it when we know it? Where there is a prayerful, submitted heart, there is the kingdom of God.

Not easy, is it? It wasn’t easy for the disciples, either. Along the road to Capernaum, they reverted to the old human understanding of the kingdom of God as position and greatness and power. You have to wonder if Peter, James, and John hadn’t been a little proud of themselves for having seen what they saw on the mountain. But once they all returned to home base, Jesus reminded them of what the coming of God’s kingdom was all about. "Sitting down," Mark tells us, "Jesus said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’" It is humility that gives us our place in the kingdom of God! The little child Jesus calls to Him is a walking parable of that truth. Not because children are intrinsically good or innocent, but rather that in that culture in particular, children were not esteemed. They were helpless and humble and dependent as Jesus was when He hung on Calvary’s cross, with only faith in His heavenly Father to tell Him that He would be raised to life on the third day. And we see the kingdom of God come in power when our hearts are disciplined to trust God for all our needs, when we are content to be humbled and even humiliated in this world, providing God will get the glory.

Then the disciples object that some other man, not of their group, was driving out demons in Jesus name. John reports that he told the man to stop. But Jesus says no, "whoever is not against us is for us," and "I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward." Our group pride is meaningless in the sight of God. Rather, His favor hinges on and revolves around Jesus Christ. This teaching of our Lord would find greater fulfillment after He ascended into heaven, when the Gentiles began to believe in Him and the Jewish believers had to come to terms with the fact that belonging to Christ didn’t mean joining a Jewish club.

Can we do that? Can we judge only by the measure of Christ and stop drawing lines according to whether someone is inside or outside our particular group? When we do, there is the kingdom of God come in power.

And in verses 42 and following, Jesus impresses on us our critical responsibility for the spiritual well-being of others, especially those who are young in years or young in the faith. There are many ways that spiritual pride can cause us to do things that could lead the weaker brother or sister astray. Is the kingdom of God come in us to the extent that we give up our freedom for the sake of others? And Jesus says, "It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell." There’s more to this teaching than hands and feet and eyes! What is precious to you in this world? What is dearer to you beyond anything else? Your health? Your financial security? Your relationships? Your good name? Jesus says, if any of these things causes you to sin, if any of these good things separate you from God and prevent you from submitting to His kingdom rule, end it. Cut it off. No good thing on this earth can compare with the glory of God’s perfect rulership over you, and no earthly loss, however painful, can be in any way as bad as the agony of hell, the eternal pain of knowing you’ve missed His glorious kingdom for ever.

How does the kingdom of God come in power? Against all the expectations of this world, it comes in weakness and humility. It comes through the cross of Christ and His humbling, saving, pride-purging work on our behalf. The kingdom of God certainly will bring justice and liberation and prosperity and joy. It will bring it, because all creation will be in submission to Christ as King. Pray that God will humble your pride, lest you remain in rebellion and sin and know His kingship only from the depths of hell. Pray He will give you faith to trust and grace to submit to Him in holy joy, that you may know the height and depth and width of the blessings of His rulership.

By Christ’s divine humility, God’s kingdom will come perfectly in power. Blessed were the eyes who saw its coming in the days when Jesus walked this earth. In our time, may He grant us eyes to see and hearts to proclaim His glory alone, now and forever, amen.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Food That Endures

Texts: Exodus 16:1-20; John 6:22-40

I’M GOING TO TAKE A risk now: Even though I’ve just met you all, I’ll predict that sometime during this service you’ll be thinking about food. No matter how hard you try, some stray thought will cross your mind about what you’re going to eat once you get home, or how the roast is doing in the oven, or how crowded it might be at the restaurant where you always go after church. I’m not risking that I might be wrong about that; the risk is that now I’ve brought the subject up, you won’t be able to think about anything except food.

It doesn’t take much to get us thinking about food, does it? Here in America, even when times are harder than usual, our thoughts usually run to what we might be eating next and how good it’s going to taste. In other places and times, we’d more likely worry about where our next meal is coming from at all. Food means life and lifestyle and a whole lot of other important and necessary things, and it stands to reason we’ll often have it on our minds.

The problem is, we don’t take our concern for food far enough. We contemplate and worry about and work for the kind of food that will sustain and enliven and give pleasure to our physical bodies, but we neglect to go on to contemplate and desire and work for the food that will enliven and sustain and give pleasure to our immortal souls. We consume our lives going after the kind of food that feeds us for a little while then we need more or we die, but forget about the food that can make us live forever. Sure, let us think about food, but let us go much further and concern ourselves with the food that really matters!

In John, chapter 6, verse 27, our Lord Jesus Christ says, "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." Jesus the Son of Man has this special kind of food that sustains the new and different kind of life that we all need, and He promises simply to give it to us!

The people He originally addressed with these words, the crowd gathered around Him there in Capernaum, certainly needed this good news. They’d been running themselves to exhaustion the past several hours trying to get Jesus to give them more of the food that spoils. Yes, the bread and fish that Jesus gave them on the other side of the Lake was miraculously multiplied. But it remained plain ordinary bread and fish. Yes, God gave the Children of Israel manna in the wilderness, long ago in the days of the exodus from Egypt. But it was still food for the flesh, to be digested and done with; after a few hours, it would still breed maggots and spoil.

But that was the kind of food the crowds were after. That’s why they’d been searching so strenuously for Jesus. That’s why, as John tells us up in verse 15, they’d wanted to make Him king of Israel by force. Feed us, Jesus! Give us food for our bodies! We’ll do anything, we’ll be Your subjects and slaves, if You’ll just satisfy the hunger of our flesh! Their minds were stuck here on earth and hadn’t risen up to desire the food that endures to eternal life.

We’re often the same. Not just when we’re feeling hungry ourselves, but even in our Christian service. Too often we think our main calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to do physical relief work. To make sure the less advantaged are provided with food and clothing and medical care. And that once we’ve done that, we’ve done our duty as Christian disciples.

Now I’m really getting into dangerous territory, right? Yes, we should and ought and must show that kind of loving physical care for others. James the brother of our Lord says in his letter that if we see a brother or sister starving or naked and simply say, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed" and do nothing to meet his physical needs, we’ve clearly demonstrated that our faith in Jesus is meaningless and dead. But if food and clothing is all we give; if physical help is all we render, then we’ve given them only the food that perishes and we’re starving them of the food that endures. And that goes triple if the needy person is not yet a brother or sister in Christ. This mortal body is important, but it is doomed to die. What’s more, any well-meaning unbeliever can feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Only we as followers of Christ can go beyond that good work to do the best work of all. What’s the point of us going into the world in Jesus’ name if we nourish only people’s mortal bodies and fail to serve them the enduring food that only Jesus gives?

And yes, Jesus, alone, is the only Giver of that food. There’s a wonderful irony here in verse 27. "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."

Wait a minute! You don’t work for a gift! You just receive it! Are we listening? Do we have ears to hear? The crowd there in Capernaum were deaf to what Jesus had to say. They missed the part about the gift and asked, "What must we do to the works God requires?" We fall into the same trap today. Okay, Jesus, okay, You’re offering us a better kind of food that doesn’t go bad but lasts forever and nourishes eternal life. All right, tell us what we have to do to get it!

And to them and to us, Jesus replies, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

That’s it. Just receive the gift of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. He is the one whom God has approved. He is the one whom God the Father has sent from heaven to be our Bread of eternal life. Open the hands and mouth of your will and take Him in by faith. When you have done that, you have done all that God requires for you to be fed. Preach Him broken on the cross for the sin of humankind and you have fed a spiritually-starving world.

The manna in the wilderness was a wonderful thing. But the Jews of Jesus’ day were wrong to be fixated on it. The manna that God gave in Moses’ day was not the true bread of heaven, rather it pointed to it. Or rather, it pointed to Him, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, sent into the world to die for our sins and turn aside the wrath of God we so deeply deserved. We all wander starving in the wilderness of our rebellion until God raises up the cross of Christ before us and leads us into the bounty of His eternal kingdom. Jesus tells us clearly, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."

"Yes, Lord," we say, "but I’ve lost my job, my unemployment’s running out, and if it’s all the same to You, I’d prefer You gave me food I can chomp down on with my physical teeth." If that’s where you are, I can’t blame you. In my flesh I’m just as shortsighted. Before we can even desire Jesus to give us Himself as the bread of God, we first need to beg Him to give us a true and holy appetite for Him. Oh, that He would make us into sort of people, that if some persecutor should give us the choice between eating a meal and remaining faithful to Jesus Christ, we’d choose to starve our physical bodies so our spiritual bodies could live.

That heavenly appetite is not something we can gin up on our own. It’s not in our fallen human nature to crave the bread of heaven over the bread of this earth. We can never come to Jesus to feed on Him unless the Father first has put that craving in us by giving us to His Son. It is God alone who makes us desire Jesus the bread of life beyond all other satisfactions. The good news is, that if you even desire to desire this, it’s a good sign that the Father is drawing you closer, ever closer to eternal life in Him.

The Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of the reality of God’s promise in His Son. This year we’re celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, and he said a beautiful thing about Holy Communion. He said that the heavenly reality of eternal life through the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ is given along with the physical elements of bread and wine. The bread and wine are not changed in themselves, but they certainly are set apart to a holy use and mystery. For when we eat the bread and drink the cup, looking in faith to the Son and believing in His power to raise us up at the last day, we truly receive all the holy and life-giving benefits won for us by Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord. St. Augustine, many centuries before Calvin, was asked, "How can one eat of Christ, the bread of heaven?" He answered, "Believe, and you have eaten."

For this is the work of God: to believe in the One He has sent. It not only is the work God requires, it is the work God Himself performs on our behalf. Belief itself is a gift from God the Father; our ability to exercise that belief is also a gift, and Jesus Christ, the food that endures to eternal life, is the greatest gift of all.

So be at peace in Him. Your life with God does not depend upon your works, your good intentions, or even on how much you feel you love and desire Him. It depends totally on Him, in the power of the Holy Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ. He has given you to His Son, He has given His Son to you, and whoever comes to Jesus He will never drive away.

The manna that fed the Hebrews in the wilderness was a picture and a preview of Christ the true bread from heaven. In our own lives, may every meal, every thought of food, remind us of Jesus the bread of life. May the food that spoils spur us on to crave and hunger for the food that endures, the food that is Jesus Christ alone. May this craving seize not only ourselves, but all who don’t even realize they are perishing without the Son of God. And may God in His love use us to spread that hunger so others may refuse to be satisfied with anything less than Christ, the true and ever-living Bread.

This is His Table, spread for you. Here taste of the bread which satisfies all hunger, and drink of the wine that slakes all thirst. Receive your Lord, Jesus, the bread of life. In thankfulness and faith feast on Him, and receive the food that endures to eternal life.