a gospel bigger than I, me, mine, and even us- the only gospel there is

When we open our Bibles, the beginnning is Genesis, for a reason, and the end is the Revelation for a reason, and everything in between counts, every book and for that matter, every line, has its reason and place in the whole.

It is daunting, and takes commitment over time, but we all need to be in the entire Bible, as challenging on many levels as that is, and read it through again and again. When we do, we’ll come to see that the story of Israel picked by God to be a blessing to the world is a central theme. And how that is fulfilled through them, but mainly in anticipation of the true fulfillment in Jesus.

While this is certainly for each person in our relationship to God, it is for every other person, as well, and for the entire world. It’s a good news in and through Jesus which affects everything and is therefore worldly in that sense, or one could say earthly. But in another sense it can’t be worldly at all since it can’t participate, except insofar as it influences the change of worldy structures. This is the case, because the difference is in and through Jesus, and God’s redemption, salvation, and kingdom come in him.

Only when Jesus returns will all things be changed, the god of this age gone; the world, the flesh and the devil being a thing of the past. But until then, we witness not only to a gospel for each individual, but a gospel which is to begin to demonstrate the alternative to what is necessarily in place, in this present evil age and world.

And so we live in the in between times when God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus is beginning to break in through the gospel into the church, and out from that into the world. As we look forward to the end of this age which will bring in the fullness of what has begun now in Jesus, when he returns.

toward a more just society

In many nations in the world, the idea that people can have any influence in what government there is, is no more than a dream. Although in western-styled of influenced countries, there ordinarily is some element of demoocracy.

Israel was a theocratic nation, the church following under the rule of Christ. So that the society within each can’t exactly be compared in terms of other societies in the world. Israel of old, when one looks at the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) has laws to bring about a more just society, with an emphasis of providing for the poor beyond what the poor can provide for themselves. The church is different in that it is scattered throughout the world, but in its enclaves, it too is to have an emphasis on helping the poor, especially its own poor. The law (Torah) given to Israel and fulfilled now in the church is to be a light to the nations, pointing them to Christ, and to God’s will in Christ, a light to help them, but which in the end will judge them.

For too many Christians, the short passage on the state in Romans 13 is the sum total of what the state should be doing. That idea works well in an individualistic framework which is the heritage of the Enlightenment as in individual liberty, so that whatever good done within a nation, they suppose, should be done only out of the goodness of one’s own heart, and not something imposed by the state, forcing people to do what they don’t want to do, so that whatever good is done is actually not even accepted by God, they think.

Such a notion is far from the vision we find in the Bible even for this present life. The state should encourage and make room for the help from individuals, which should include allowing them to do so in terms of their faith. The state itself (and I think Miroslav Volf is right on in this if I understand him correctly, and a great gift in his thinking for the church and for the world) should not sanction any one faith, at least not as the faith people must embrace, even if the state is more influenced in its actions by some particular faith. It should make room for everyone, precisely because it is not a Theocracy, not a state directly ruled by God. Imagine if all the countries in the world thought they were states ruled by God. The vision in the Revelation sees that day coming under Christ’s rule, but not so now. Already there is and has been a big problem toward justifying state actions on the basis of that kind of thinking.

So the goal of nation states now should be to arrive at a consensus as to what is good not only for the indivividual, but also for society as a whole. In the case of America, I think the foundations of the Enlightenment along with scripture, that odd mix, actually have some value in the make up of this nation, which was the first and in its way, the only nation to go precisely that direction. The problem comes when we lionize any such state. We can appreciate the unique contribution America has made without thinking that it is the only way a nation state can do well in this world.

What we have to hold on to as Christians is the light given to us in scripture and the gospel, and carried out in the tradition of the church on how under God we are to live with each other. In that context it is not at all about individual liberty, even though each one is to follow Christ. But to do so in the context of one body, or the whole. Instead it is about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, in the context of loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. And there is present in the church the dynamic of the Spirit in Christ to make this work, especially in terms of the fruit of the Spirit in helping us to live well in community, along with the gifts meant to help each other grow toward the flourishing of true humanity in Christ.

Nation states in the world can’t have that same dynamic, but they can learn from the church, and incorporate something of that in just laws which hold people accountable, and punish evil, while encouraging good. Nations will be judged on how they took care of the poor and helpless in their societies. Consider the sin of Sodom.

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:49-50

Of course how a better society is achieved is hotly debated here in the United States. But make no mistake about it, there does need to be work done towad a better society, which has to include not only the possibility for some prospering, but help for those who do not, to the point of not even surviving, or lacking what is necessary for the basics of life.

We long for true justice to come in the coming of King Jesus, andd we seek to live out more and more of that same justice in our own midst as God’s people in him. And we long for something of that to be inculcated in the societies in which we live, as we pray for those in positions of governmental authority, that a peace might be in place in which we can live as a witness to the one through whom the lasting peace in shalom will come. A peace which necessarily in biblical terms includes justice, what is right in God’s eyes. Even as we await the day when that justice will forever be the rule of the day in God’s love in and through King Jesus.

 

the telling circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth

Mary was pregnant, but she and Joseph had not yet come together as husband and wife. Everyone knew what that meant, and people were talking. And now they have to make the long journey (around 93 miles, 150 kilometers), four days to a week, from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census. To say the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth were not easy is an understatement. And when they at last arrive to Bethlehem, there is no room for them in normal living quarters. But there is a stable where they can lodge. And it is there that Mary gives birth to Jesus.  And places him in a manger, that is, a feeding trough.  And so we see the humble circumstances surrounding the birth of our Lord. A sure sign of what was to come.

The world wants glitter, glamour, the spectacular. Life on its terms, which actually ends up being on the serpent’s terms. With the knowledge of good and evil accessed apart from God. With God out of the picture, and other gods to serve their agenda, and in the process be served. There again is no room for the birth of one who would shake up and even dismantle the status quo.

But that is precisely what the coming of Jesus ends up doing. Nothing at all is the way at least the populous would have imagined it. Jesus grows up in a family that is hardly royal, and learns a trade from his father, Joseph, which he carries on until he is nearly thirty, not that young in those days. And we know the rest of the story. He does not fulfill the expectations of Messiah at all, except for miraculous signs he does which point that way. He proclaims God’s kingdom having come in him, and yet there is nothing of the trappings expected, yes long awaited for such a kingdom.

And at last after three amazing years of ministry Jesus meets the end of all failed, would be Messiahs. The terrible death of crucifixion. Apart from Simeon’s prophecy, it seems that no one would have suspected that this very death would be the means from God to bring life, to bring in the kingdom over which the resurrected Jesus would reign, first from heaven, seated at the place of ultimate authority and power at the right hand of the Father, and later when Jesus would return/reappear, when heaven and earth is made one in him. In final judgment and salvation, to bring in true justice and peace.

So this wonderful birth we celebrate is the beginning of the great end God has for the story of the world. The one story that gives us the needed hope before the completion of the fulfillment of God’s promises through Israel in Jesus for the world. Yes, it is this way, the way of Jesus to the very end, and forever.

the Word made flesh

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The importance of scripture cannot be overrated. It is God’s written word, no less, in all its beauty and brokenness. It tells the story of God and God’s interaction through creation and new creation with humankind, in the mess that is. Israel fulfills its calling from God in and through Jesus.

We hide in all kinds of ways, but God pursues and overtakes us in Jesus. God became human, one of us. To restore in us the humanity God created in his image. The incarnation at its heart is God’s final word spoken to humanity, and it’s relational at its core. Forgiveness of sin in and through the death of Jesus is for reconciliation and communion in love, with God and in that, with each other.

We do well to want to live in and from that to live out this new life in and through Jesus. It is a distinct kind of life from him into which we enter by faith. One that is human at its core in the uniqueness that each of us is from God. And a redemptive life in which all the sin, failure and brokenness of our lives is somehow redeemed in and through Jesus, in and through his death and resurrection, and by the Spirit. Redeemed in the sense of not only forgiven, but somehow used for the good of others and for God’s glory. We begin to experience and live in the love of the Father. A love in which we share as family in and through Jesus, and a love which reaches out to everyone in the world.

N. T. Wright on the gospels telling the story of how God became king* in Jesus

All four gospels are telling the story of how God became king in and through this story of Jesus of Nazareth. This central theme is stated in a thoroughly integrated way, again in all four gospels (though not at all in the so-called gospels that were produced later within the Gnostic and similar movements). This integrated theme, with the kingdom and the cross as the main coordinates, flanked by the question of Jesus’s divine identity, on the one hand, and the resurrection and ascension, on the other, is one that most Christians, right across the Western tradition, have failed even to glimpse, let alone to preach. The story Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell is the story of how God became king—in and through Jesus both in his public career and in his death.

N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels

*In the sense of God’s kingdom come to earth through Israel, Jesus as Messiah being the fulfillment of that.

the problem with the two kingdom approach

Luther and the Lutheran theology which follows, advocates a two kingdom approach in which we as followers of Jesus are called to live as responsible citizens in both. For example, Paul would be a responsible Roman citizen, while at the same time being a responsible citizen of heaven, or the kingdom of God.

Part of the argument for a two kingdom approach would be that people must live in an order in which the sword of the state plays its part to restrain evildoers. Note Romans 13:1-7.

The problem with the two kingdom approach for us who are followers of Jesus is simply this: Jesus is Lord. It’s as simple as that.

Of course all Christians subscribe to that statement, but if Jesus’ Lordship means anything, it must mean that we are to follow his teaching (the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are foundational in this). Which I believe denies that we are to give our allegiance to any earthly kingdom or government, including any that is supposed to be Christian. No, we are of a different kingdom, which may live in the kingdom of this world, indeed is in the world, but is not of it. We are to live out a countercultural life across the board, and yet one that is not seeking to overturn the powers that be. They have their place, indeed they are called “God’s servant for your good.” They are part of a kind of justice from God, which followers of Jesus are not to work out. Romans 12:14-21 sets the Roman 13 passage in context.

And so we in Jesus are salt and light, hopefully influencing the powers that be for good, but never seeking to overturn them. We are not of the world, including not of them, as the followers of Jesus in the reconstituted, restored Israel. The Israel of God for the world.

being grounded in the faith (so that we are both in the world, but not of it)

Sometimes, in fact I think oftentimes we Christians are not sufficiently grounded in the faith, our faith, the faith that is in Jesus. I am not referring to Christendom and all we’ve inherited from that: much good and much not so good. Nor am I referring to our cultural brand of Christianity which is much more in the grip of the unholy alliance of state and church, the result of Christendom (I would say church and state, except when these are aligned, the state always takes precedence). Of course our reference point is Christ and his fulfillment of Israel’s calling from God for the world. By his coming, life, ministry, and then “finished” in his death out of which came his resurrection, then ascension, we experience his rule at the Father’s right hand through the continued pouring out of the Spirit on us his body the church, in the world. And Christendom or not, along with all our failures and shortcomings, which in a sense are inevitable, but in another sense, not, God’s work in Christ continues. God is faithful.

What I’m getting at infects us all; none of us are immune to this. However it helps if we begin to become aware of the problem, so that we can begin to take baby steps to correct it by God’s grace. This problem is manifest in a host of ways, not just the Christendom which I don’t believe is Christian in the thoroughly biblical, apostolic sense. The problem is that when we come to Christ, we experience heart conversion, but we tend to live in the same system with its values, as we did before. In a certain sense that is inevitable, but in another sense that is not to be. Yes, we’re in the world, while not of it. And yes, we want to be all things to all people in order that through all possible means, we might see some, even many saved. So we want to keep what from culture is good and can be used by God not only to bring people to faith, but as a vehicle or means of expressing our faith.

The problem is when we fail to take into our culture the faith God has entrusted to us in Jesus. An example of how this problem manifests itself came in the context of a discussion I had with a devout believer. The context of the discussion is important, so that I could be misunderstanding something of their intent, but when I questioned just why we Christians are to be ordering our lives according to the United States Constitution, as if that document has a final or even a primary voice in how we live, they asked incredulously what I live by. My answer to them at the time was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We well may have been talking past each other a bit. But I think this illustrates enough the problem I’m referring to. It is also manifested popularly in our attention to “precious promises” in scripture, taken out of context, or more charitably put, not considering the context sufficiently enough. For example we have promises that God wishes to bless us as his people in Jesus, but with an emphasis that God blesses us to be a blessing particularly to the poor, the outcast, the down and out.

Where to get started in correcting this problem? Of course I’m assuming a faith from the gospel, the good news of Jesus, that he is Lord, and all that flows out from that in his saving work. But both regularly praying and meditating on this text can help us become better grounded, and rooted in God’s covenant community in Jesus, the manifestation of God’s kingdom in fulfilling Israel and Israel’s calling, in a true sense the true restoration of Israel in and for the world today. And so let us pray with the words our Lord taught his disciples:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one,
for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.