for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the politics of the good news

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Mark 4:12-17

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Mark 4:17; MSG

Jesus’s message and proclamation was “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The gospel is actually political through and through. Of course it’s about our individual salvation as well, but it includes so much more, really everything within God’s creation and human culture. God’s kingdom in King Jesus was coming in, but not in the way that people would naturally anticipate. They wanted in one way or another for God to end Rome’s rule over them. But God saw a much bigger picture, and really an altogether different one. Yes, it was about fulfilling God’s prior promises to them, but in the ways of a costly love which would break down all barriers, creating one new humanity, a beautifully woven mosaic of people groups together (Ephesians 2:11-22).

During this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s take time to pray and ask God to show us where we are blind and resistant to what God has done, is doing, and will complete in and through King Jesus. And what works God has for us in what God is doing now in this regard (Ephesians 2:10; MSG). In and through Jesus.

questioning our identity, or acting foolishly on it

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 3:16-4:4

The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

Matthew 3:16-4:4; MSG

Jesus’s baptism and temptation amount to him fulfilling what Israel failed to do, and more than that, we might say confirming his calling to be the Savior of the world. This was done for us, and in a certain sense none of it can be repeated. Just the same, we can learn important aspects of it for our lives, not the least of which is the importance of standing on Scripture when we’re actually tempted in some way to deviate from God’s will and grace to us in Jesus.

It’s interesting, the difference in the NIV and in most other English translations (not all) from Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message. Usually it is written and read as if the devil is tempting Jesus to question his Sonship, and hence him being the Messiah. But from Peterson and a few other English translations we might gather that what the tempter was trying to do was have Jesus act presumptively upon that Sonship. Either way, if the devil can get Jesus to depart from trust/faith and obedience, the devil wins. Jesus would have been sidetracked and diverted from his Sonship, his Messiahship.

Of course we know what Jesus does: He refutes the devil each time by quoting Scripture. Jesus stands firm on and in his Father’s will.

We can take for ourselves a couple of subcategory thoughts. We will be challenged about our identity, so that we might question it. Are we really God’s children by faith in Christ? Am I really loved by God in Jesus? Is God really my Father? When we question our identity in Christ, we’re in danger of acting as if that’s not so, even when it is. And we can either miss out on more than a lot, or we can cave in to that which a child of God should not be victim to.

The entire human race are created children of God. God has made the way for each person in and through Christ, by his life in his incarnation, his teachings and life lived, his death for our sins and resurrection for new life, new creation, and his ascension with the outpouring of the Spirit with the promise of his return when salvation will finally be made complete. But each of us has to put our faith in God through Christ. Trusting in God, that God can and will carry us through in Jesus. That God includes us in his special family in Jesus.

The other temptation is to act presumptively on our identity in Christ. We are God’s children, therefore we can throw caution to the wind. What can be lacking here is the proper reverential awe for God and realization that who we are is meant to be a representation of God to the world, of course that revealed in Jesus and given to us by the Spirit. As far as I can tell, this is less of a temptation for me, so that it’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It may be akin to some things we see going on in the world in the name of Christ which don’t have the scent of Christ on them at all, but instead, the stench of the anti-Christ. We have to be careful lest in our pride and arrogance, we act in ways that are evil in God’s eyes.

We are God’s dearly loved children in Christ. I want to remember that, and keep reminding myself of that again and again, so that I continue to cry out to God for all the help I need. And never to act pridefully on that help, as if somehow I’m something special apart from God. All is a gift, the greatest gift of all being Christ and what he did for us so that we might be included in God’s forever completely loved family. In and through Jesus.

the only way to fulfill God’s law

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:18

At this odd date in history, the thought could easily be mistranslated into if you are led by the same spirit that animates others in a common cause, then you can flout the law. Of course that is not even remotely related to what Paul is saying here. In Christ the law is fulfilled. It was never fulfilled by human understanding and effort, anyhow. There was a large prescribed way that became cumbersome because of all the add-ons by the religious leaders. But still, God intended the Law to be an important backdrop both for the life of Israel, and most importantly as a preparation for the fulfillment to come in Jesus. Of course the way that took place, Jesus’s actual fulfillment of the law and the prophets was unexpected, counterintuitive and contrary to those expectations. They began to see how this idea of embracing the cross, even dying on it was actually a fulfillment of the law. That is rather hidden in the First/Old Testament narrative, but you can see it after the fulfillment.

Being led by the Spirit as itself a fulfillment of the law (Romans 8:4 and context) is another way of saying that one is not under or subject to (NRSV) the law.  This is really about the law of Moses as it’s called, what was given by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. It was directives, really orders for their lives individually and as community. But it ended up being an important means of showing them their sin, and need for a Savior, indeed for the shedding of the blood of animals for forgiveness to be later fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul’s emphasis on being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit is contrary to our normal impulses. We want to do it ourselves, and in so doing, we automatically think of our efforts as fulfilling God’s law, what we understand God to be telling us as to what’s right and wrong. When we do that, we’re not living in the new life and the new freedom that new life brings us in Christ. We are either led by the Spirit, or we fall back into a practice that contradicts who we are as children of God. We are no longer in the flesh, according to Romans 8, so we need to live accordingly. Our desire and effort should be to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. Out of that, the Spirit will bear the Spirit’s fruit in our lives:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

To be led by the Spirit doesn’t mean we’re above the law so that we can flout it. It is more related to Augustine’s words: “Love and do what you please.” What he meant is the love that comes from the Spirit through Christ.

But back to the main point: Being led by God’s Spirit means, as a friend said this morning to “have the grace of God allow us to walk in the Spirit’s guidance.” Paul’s letter to the Galatians here is all about living in God’s grace rather than under God’s law. And that’s done by the Holy Spirit. May God help us, help me to more fully enter into this reality and experience in and through Jesus.

the way of peace found in Jesus

The way of peace they do not know;
there is no justice in their paths.

Isaiah 59:8a

And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else?

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him.

Romans 3:19b,21-22a; MSG

Justice and the peace that comes from that is often the emphasis we hear from younger Christians nowadays. And for many good reasons. For one thing, the gospel often proclaimed and taught in evangelical circles is mostly about our own relationship with God and with others. That is truth, and very needed, and certainly does not exclude teaching about what is just and right, true and good, merciful and bringing peace. But it’s not the entire truth or application of the gospel.

There does need to be an emphasis on justice in society, not just personal righteousness which supposedly brings the needed justice. There is a needed reckoning within the world system to judge and root out, yes, systemic evil. With reference to racial injustice, and many other evils in the world. So this instinct and passion within and active in the younger generations should be welcomed and appreciated.

What we have to be careful of is getting the cart before the horse. Justice in itself is not the point nor the goal, not for the Christian. Jesus and God’s good news of grace and the kingdom come in him is the proper focus. That brings the necessary judgment on evil to be replaced by what is truly the good, flourishing life for humans, for all humanity. 

The emphasis therefore needs to be on Jesus, on God in the human Jesus, the Spirit’s amen and work from that, and the difference that can make, yes, even in this world. In challenging all the injustice, and beginning to see the new world emerge among us. And we shouldn’t fail to mention that it is through nothing short of the blood of Jesus, his death, so that all evil was absorbed into that day on Jesus. So that evil is now dealt with in the truly Christian way through Jesus’s death on the cross. The new life through his resurrection, following.

Not to say that God isn’t at work through some ways in the world which though we would say ultimately is through Jesus and God’s work in him, is not actually linked to that. Indeed that may well be. But the unique way in Jesus in the love for one’s enemies and the way of the cross is at the forefront of what God’s justice looks like. It is tempered with mercy, and brings in the needed full salvation beginning even now. In our lives, but breaking into earthly principalities and powers, high places where this is not only known, but opposed. Even though that’s ongoing on this side of time. Not for the faint of heart, but part of our calling. In and through Jesus.

God works with imperfect, even broken people, people who don’t have it altogether

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby…

Luke 2:8a

I go to the famous Christmas passage, but just to consider one aspect of it, we could say pre-Christmas, and fitting well into Advent maybe in the sense that God’s coming may take us by surprise. Shepherds did move around, but their way of life was the same. They lived with their flocks of sheep, taking care of them, especially on guard at night. The group here who witnessed the angelic hosts proclaiming the Lord’s birth were surely just as ordinary as any of us. But they also were each and everyone created by God, loved by God, and each gifted by God. Yes, in humble work, but didn’t our Lord live in obscurity? Surely good in its place, but not anything extraordinary. Our Lord has been there.

I’m so glad that God mercifully in grace reveals himself to us, and works with us right where we are. One of the many lies from the evil one (Satan, the satan meaning the opposer) is that if we get out of line this way or that, God will no longer deal with us. That is a plain out old fashioned lie. Christ died for our sins. In him we are forgiven as we accept that sacrifice of love for ourselves. God certainly wants to help us do better, and grow spiritually. But God will not abandon us, the work of his hands both in creation and now in new creation in Jesus.

Of course again, I’m not talking about us living in out and out sin. Even then God will seek to rescue us in God’s deep love. But none of us have it altogether. We all have our weaknesses, and faults along the way. So glad the Lord wants to meet us there, right where we’re at. So that we can receive his blessing directly and through others, and be a blessing to others. Just like the shepherds of old. In and through Jesus.

finding common ground

He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’

Acts 17:25b-28; MSG

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.

Acts 17:16b; MSG

We see part of Paul’s response to the Athenians, particularly those who did what so many Athenians did at that time, philosophize and listen to philosophy with whatever large and small talk that was done. But what stood out to Paul was just how wrong and how lost they were in their concept of God, or lack thereof, including their pantheon of gods of their own making. When you read Scripture you’ll find that along with idolatry comes not only the loss of loving God, but also not loving one’s neighbor. All is dependent on the latest thoughts floating around.

And we see something of this in our world today. People living in fear for this or that reason with maybe some legitimacy. We all have deep concerns today, no matter who we are and where our disagreements lie. And there are some things which for the follower of Christ are non-negotiables. We can’t set aside love for our neighbor which goes hand in hand with our love for God. And followers of Jesus even include love for our enemies.

Paul looked for common ground, but that which could ultimately undermine and replace the idolatry all around him. Instead of attacking them and their gods, he appealed to the altar of “THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS” (Acts 17:23; MSG).

Trying to translate this today in the mess we’re currently in is no small challenge. Maybe just the thought here can help us imagine ways this might be achievable to some extent. I think of our common humanity which I believe comes from our common origin, yes through evolution, but ultimately by the hand of God. And in that, being made in God’s image. We are all made in God’s image, regardless of our beliefs, or how we see life. We need to start there.

And then we need to inquire and search for just who this god might be. For some of us it may seem mostly a stretch to imagine such. For others, we were raised in that tradition, and have hardly ever had a doubt. Regardless, it’s good to begin to understand at least the uniqueness of us as a human species, and then wonder why, where that uniqueness came from. 

What we’re referring to now should be more basic to us than anything else. But out of that will come a shaping of our thoughts in every way conceivable. For us who are followers of Jesus, that is shaped by Scripture, and ultimately Jesus and his fulfillment of it. And only in Jesus do we see God.

We will continue throughout this life to have our different perspectives, and won’t see eye to eye on everything. After all, it is said that even we Jesus followers see through a glass dimly and only know in part (1 Corinthians 13). What we do end up with is something of the sacredness of human beings. We need to appeal to the best, what’s good and beautiful. And find unity in that. 

Yes, through the good news in Jesus, and his death, all division is ultimately broken. Humanity becomes one in him. But we’re not there yet, though that’s supposed to be becoming evident in the church, and ultimately that’s true in what actually is church. We in Jesus want that grace to touch us and everyone. In the meantime we are thankful for God’s common grace which can help us live respectfully together in spite of whatever differences we have.

For us Jesus followers, we’re going to have to take the way of the cross. In sacrificial love finding what is most basic, what should center all of life. And living together with other Jesus followers in that. Always honoring the oneness we have as human beings in creation. As we live in the new creation in and through Jesus. 

 

what is the most important thing about you?

No matter what else, the most basic truth about us all is that we’re made in God’s image. And that we as individuals are part of the human community. And that God has placed us here to rule over the earth under God’s rulership and authority. That plays itself out in as many ways as there are people, but humankind is to be in that together.

Yes, sin has broken our relationship to God and to each other. So another basic truth about us is that we are sinners in need of salvation. That we’ve all disobeyed God’s will which is essentially our failure to love God in return for God’s love for us, and our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves, sometimes instead, sadly enough resorting to hatred. And violence in word and deed, tragically way too often.

Another basic truth about us is that we as human beings are indeed unique. Each and every animal and species deserves our appreciation and respect for their own importance and dignity. But human beings alone are said to be made in God’s image, as already stated. We need to protect God’s creation, the animals which are important for themselves and for the biosphere, and seek to manage all of that well.

That God became flesh, fully human and one of us in Jesus speaks volumes as to who we are. God forever becoming human in Jesus means that our humanity is valuable, as we read in the Psalms, we’re made a little lower than the angels or it can be translated there, a little lower than God.

That Jesus took our sin on himself, the wrath of humanity poured on him at the cross, and that God turned that very act into God’s means of forgiveness for all who believe is quite remarkable. In God’s purposes done before the creation of the world.

And Jesus rose from the dead, thus defeating death and ushering in the new creation. And all who have faith are destined to share in that new creation when all will be well at last. For all who have faith, and look to God. Through Christ.

But we must beware that this is only about making ourselves feel better, while failing to include others. Like our African American sisters and brothers who have suffered indignity after indignity. Or our Muslim friends, or the LGBTQ+ community. We’re all in this together in the human race. Each and everyone of us is important to God, indeed cherished by God. We need to stand with those whose humanity is falsely seen as diminished for this or that reason.

And so what is most important about you or I is not a whole host of things we might be thinking about now. Like how you voted or what your American political position is. We are loved by God, and out of that love we’re to love each other. All through the saving work of Christ. So that who we are is more and more fully known only in community together with everyone else. In God’s love in and through Jesus.

the fruit of the Spirit, the love of the cross

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Galatians 5:22-26

Something of the practical culmination of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we are seeing how this new life no longer under Torah (the Law), but under the Spirit is to be worked out in life. We see that while it is a fruit of the Spirit, something we could never come up with ourselves, we still have responsibility in living it out. It doesn’t just happen automatically. We can fall into sins of the flesh, and inevitably will if we fail to walk by the Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit here in its essence is a love which is the same as the love of the cross, by which I mean Christ’s love made known and given to us through his death, so that we not only receive its benefits, but participate in it in this life. When you read the entire letter to the Galatians you see that Paul’s argument is inextricably linked to the cross, to Christ’s death for us, of course followed by his resurrection. So that all that follows comes from that.

Love is straightforward in that love is love. But the love spoken of here is not the love we find in the world. There’s overlap, but through and through it is genuinely different. It is a love which forgives others, and doesn’t hold grudges. It’s a love willing to sacrifice for the good of others, whatever the cost might be. It’s a love which never accepts or rejoices in evil, but delights in truth prevailing in all of life. 1 Corinthians 13 describes this love well. No less than the love of Christ himself.

What is needed in our lives is nothing less than the fruit of the Spirit. We have to depend on the Holy Spirit and as we do, we’ll see the Spirit’s fruit, and the love which is surely the heart of it become more and more a part of who we are and how we live. In and through Jesus.

receiving eternal life is not merely signing on the dotted line

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ. Most of the brothers have gained confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the word fearlessly. To be sure, some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. These preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice because I know this will lead to my salvation through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all courage, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

Philippians 1:12-20; CSB

I have been away from churches like this for decades, but there at least used to be the strong teaching, and I think it still holds sway in the minds of many evangelicals, to some extent it has in my own thinking, that once you’re saved through faith in Christ, you’re always saved. There’s no need to get into the weeds over that teaching here. What I want to highlight is what the King James Version, and here, the Christian Standard Bible translate more literally:

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice because I know this will lead to my salvation through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:18b-19; CSB

The Greek word, σωτηρία is more literally translated “salvation”, though in some contexts it might mean physical deliverance. Most translations do translate it “deliverance” or the like. But from what I’ve heard, Paul could well have had something else in mind here. Namely the salvation he wanted to receive from God when he would stand before God after this life in the great Day.

There is past, present and future salvation in Scripture. Like Karl Barth answered when someone asked him when he was saved, he pointed back to the time of the cross, Jesus’s death, whatever year that was (33 AD), or many of us would point to the time when we committed our lives to Christ, or for some, they don’t know when their faith began, but they know they have it now. God’s salvation is accomplished in the past act of Christ in Christ’s death and resurrection, and by faith we receive and enter into that salvation.

When salvation is spoken of, it is mostly, as I remember, present. God is at work in our lives to change us, indeed save from the present evil age. To save us not only from the penalty, but also the power of sin. To indeed save us from ourselves in our fallenness and brokenness. More and more into who we were created to be through the new creation in Jesus.

And salvation is future. Someday, in the great Day, we’ll be transformed into full conformity to Jesus, something which indeed begins in this life, but will be completed then. And that will be a vindication of what we were in this life. Not just what we had received as a gift, but how we lived as a result of that gift. Something we see expressed in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10

Eternal life is not just about signing on the dotted line, and thinking we’re secure. That can end up being what Dallas Willard called “bar code Christianity,” thinking one is in no matter what, just because they once “asked Jesus into their heart,” or however they might describe their salvation experience.

Eternal life involves no less than following Jesus all the way. No turning back, and doing so together with others, through our love, help, and prayers, just what Paul was alluding to here. In and through Jesus.

God’s greatest act of salvation

Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.

Psalm 98:1-2

When you read the Old Testament, you’ll read stories of God’s salvation in terms of overcoming the enemy by acts of power, sometimes through God’s people, but other times not. In fact the greatest act of redemption we find there is the Exodus, which while includes the Passover and is primarily seen as the parting of the Red Sea for God’s people to cross, after which it fell back, engulfing those intent on bringing God’s people back into bondage.

When those of that time read Psalm 98, they surely thought of that act in Exodus, the Exodus: God’s deliverance of his people from slavery. So they would not have been prepared for God’s ultimate act of salvation and redemption.

We find that in Jesus in the unimaginable way of the cross. That is where the last enemies of God are completely defeated, someday to be forever vanquished. That is where God makes his salvation known, and reveals his righteousness to the nations. The cross of Christ. His death for the world, followed by the verification of that in his resurrection.

That is the greatest act of God’s salvation. In and through Jesus.