Tag Archives: kingdom of God

An Unlikely Kingdom Role Model

Mark 12:41-44
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. 43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

In Jesus’ day, if you had asked people, “Who do you look to for spiritual leadership?  Who are your spiritual role models?”, people would have likely named prominent, religious “experts” like the Pharisees or perhaps the Scribes.  These men were the cultural influencers and thought leaders.  They were the ancient equivalent of New York Times best-selling authors; prominent and popular religious celebrities that were believed to be the authorities that sincere, devout believers should seek to follow and emulate.

Jesus rewrites the script dramatically.

“Guys, come over here.  Did you see that poor, widowed woman?  She just gave more to God than everyone else, because although her amount was small compared to everyone else’s, they were giving out of their wealth.  She, from a place of poverty, gave her whole life.”

Notice that Jesus not only rejects the religious leaders/experts as spiritual role models (he actually condemns their leadership and “expertise” in Mark 12:38-40), he points to someone who by every conventional metric has the least to offer in terms of spiritual authority, influence and expertise: A poor, widowed woman.

Jesus wants the disciples to learn from a woman...who is poor…and widowed?  Why?  How?  In the context of the first-century this woman is second-class, impoverished, and lacking any meaningful social capital or cultural influence.

What kind of kingdom is Jesus inviting us into, that a poor, widowed woman is a role model for faithful discipleship?!

There’s an important lesson here.  Those that the world dismisses as irrelevant, unworthy, insufficient, damaged, and useless are often the very people through whom God’s kingdom breaks into this world.

This is precisely the reason Paul encourages the early church in Rome to “be willing to associate with people of low position” (Romans 12:16).  And its a truth that is reinforced by Paul in his first letter to the early church in Corinth:

1 Corinthians 1:26–29
26
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

The kingdom that Jesus is building is built through “lost causes” and “nobodies.”  That’s an essential part of the gospel (i.e. good news).  We are all lost causes spiritually speaking.  We can’t rescue or save ourselves from the power of sin.  But Jesus comes to deal with our sin issue by dying for us, in our place.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Jesus is resurrected and enthroned as King and Lord over all things, so that those who turn their lives over to him can be saved into a new kind of life.  A life God begins using within His mission to mend the world and overcome evil.

Weak, insignificant nobodies–in the hands of Jesus–become strong, significant somebodies.  No expertise required.

Is there better news than that?

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The Path to Greatness

On Sunday I preached on Mark 10:32-45.  The passage is a series of conversations through which Jesus reveals the path to greatness.

James and John approach Jesus and petition him: ““Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (v. 37).  They believe Jesus is destined for great things.  Power. Glory. Fame.  When Jesus establishes his kingdom rule, they want places of prominence within the coming government.  They are hungry for power and the attending privileges that come with it.

Jesus uses their request to subvert their entire worldview.

42 Jesus 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. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

Jesus offers a contrasting vision of authority, power, greatness, and glory.  James and John, who desire power OVER others, must learn that those who follow Jesus are to use power FOR others.  Power and authority are gifts that must be stewarded for the benefit of those under the power and authority.

Jesus makes it clear that authority and greatness in God’s kingdom is defined by one’s ability to use their power to serve others.  Tightening the screws on this upside-down paradigm, Jesus even insists that “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

The path to greatness Jesus holds out looks very different in a world that values power over others.  He calls his followers to the pattern of leadership that he embodied; a self-sacrificing use of power that leads to life and flourishing for others.

Walking the Path to Greatness

Even if it is meager, each of us holds a certain measure of power and influence.  What might it look like to move into our marriages, workplaces, schools, sports teams, relationships, etc., with a view to use that power to serve and bless others?

In his book The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf defines those who live out of this Jesus inspired paradigm as servant-leaders.

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Regardless of whether we occupy formal positions of authority, the characteristics that define servant leaders are ones that each of us can integrate in our lives.

Like James and John, our hearts crave greatness.  But too often we seek to satisfying this craving by putting ourselves in positions of power over others.  We desire to be on top and in control; masters but never mastered.  Jesus declares this path to “greatness” to be an anti-God and anti-human path to walk.

Embracing the heart of a servant, Jesus says, is the path to true greatness.  And it’s a glorious and world-transforming path to walk.

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An Inevitable, Unstoppable Kingdom

Mark 4:30–32
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

This short parable of Jesus is packed with significance for us. In attempting to explain the nature of God’s Kingdom (ie. God’s “rule and reign”), Jesus used the picture of a mustard seed.

mustard seeds
Photo courtesy of Anja Herbert Noordam

The mustard seed indigenous to the land of Israel is extremely small.  To the naked eye a single mustard seed seems trivial.

What possible significance could come from something so small?

Indeed, it’s difficult to image that from just one mustard seed a tree like this could emerge:

 

mustard seed tree
Photo courtesy of Anja Herbert Noordam

Many sermons have emphasized the point of Jesus’ parable to be that God’s kingdom begins small–almost imperceptively so–but grows large.  That is an important (and encouraging!) dimension to this teaching.  But there’s another aspect to this parable that sometimes goes unnoticed.

In the first-century laws were in place that placed strict parameters on where mustard seeds could be planted.  Why?  Because the aggressive, fast-growing nature of the mustard plant caused some to view it as a “malignant weed” with “dangerous takeover properties” (Michael F. Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, Continuum, 2006, pp. 73–77).

From the Wikipedia Entry on the parable:

Pliny the Elder (Roman Naturalist and philosopher) , in his Natural History (published around AD 78) writes that “mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

The significance of this fact is incredibly important for us to understand.  Jesus wants his disciples to understand that although the kingdom starts small, it’s growth is inevitable and unstoppable.  Regardless of where it’s planted, God’s kingdom is a offensive, encroaching, non-domesticated force that quickly overwhelms the ecosystem around it with God’s power, joy, love, grace, and truth.

Last Sunday about 60 people gathered at our church to worship, share communion together, pray, and learn more about following Jesus.  By Sunday afternoon I found myself reflecting on the the future of our church within the broader Nelson community. To the naked eye our church seems trivial.  

What possible significance could come from something so small?

And I realized in light of this teaching that I was asking the wrong question.

If we are sincerely following Jesus and allowing God to establish his kingdom within our lives, growth and impact will materialize.  The question I should have been mulling over was, “What possible significance will come from something so small?”

Because the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  It has takeover properties.  Despite its meager beginnings, life-giving impact to the surrounding ecosystem is inevitable and unstoppable.

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One-Minute Review: “Journey to the Common Good”

Today I finished a short, punchy book by Walter Brueggemann called Journey to the Common Good.  Here’s my one-minute review.

 

common good journey

 

“What is Journey to the Common Good all about?”
Brueggemann is a brilliant Old Testament scholar who draws powerful connections between the decisive events of the Old Testament (e.g. enslavement, exodus, Sinai covenant, exile, etc.,) and our contemporary political and social landscape.  In just 115 pages, Journey to the Common Good contrasts the life-defining narratives and values offered by the empires of this world (both ancient and modern) against those of the kingdom of God.  Brueggemann offers Israel’s journey as a nation as the pattern for how the people of God today can release themselves from the empire’s distorted values of wisdom, power, and wealth, and embrace the values of God’s kingdom; values that lead to common good flourishing for all.  Brueggemann believes the realization of this kind of communal life can only be achieved through “neighbourliness,” covenanting, and reconstructing a social imagination based on the distinctively prophetic texts of the Old Testament.

“Should I read it?”
Maybe.  Journey is a dense book.  There’s absolutely no filler.  There’s no feel-good stories, humorous quips, and I don’t remember one illustration.  It’s a fiery, intense book.  On the positive side, that means the book ends up being a scant 115 pages.  On the negative side, its literary intensity and compactness doesn’t offer a lot of breathing room.  Personally I found Journey to be incredibly stimulating, but I could see how many people might not connect with Brueggemann’s material due to its “no nonsense” approach, and due to the fact that there’s no emotional bridge into the subject matter.  Journey is the very definition of a Mind type book!  That being said, for those looking for a rich and insightful analysis of why Christians ought to be committed to the common good, and ways to practically subvert empiric values that demean and dehumanize, this small book will have a big impact.

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