November 24, 2013

The Kingdom of His Beloved Son

Passage: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
Service Type:

He (God) has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Former IT specialist Alan John Miller—or AJ as he prefers to be known—runs a religious movement known as the Divine Truth from his home in Australia. Mr. Miller claims to be Jesus reborn and that his partner Mary Luck is in fact Mary Magdalene. In a news interview Miller said he has “very clear memories of the crucifixion, but it wasn’t as harrowing for me as it was for others like Mary who were present.”

Of all the things being done in our world in the name of Jesus why is it that stories like this one are the ones to make the news? Would a person who claimed to be Julius Caesar reborn, for example, similarly make the news? In a similar vein, people write novels of historical fiction whose plots turn on a fantasyland interpretation of Jesus—The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is an example. “The extraordinary popularity of this book can’t be explained in terms of its being a cleverly written thriller,” observed N.T. Wright. “There are plenty of those. Something about Jesus, and the chance that there might be more to him than our culture has realized, still awakens in millions a sense of new possibilities and prospects.” (Simply Christian, p. 93) Jesus haunts the memory and imagination of Western culture like few (if any) other figures of either past or present.

1. “Christianity is about something that happened. Something that happened to Jesus of Nazareth. Something that happened through Jesus of Nazareth.” (Simply Christian, p. 91) Jesus is the climax of all the ancient promises of God to bless the world through his people.

Key to the study of Jesus are the gospels—the four books known by the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is the collection of books that the church, from early on, recognized as authentic and authoritative with respect to what happened to and through Jesus. Can these gospels be trusted? There are many in our day who have urged us to see these gospels as only four among dozens of similar works; these four were eventually privileged, some say, because they supported a view of Jesus that supported church leaders of the day—the others were discarded, suppressed, or even banned.

Assessing the historical worth of the gospels is painstaking historical work; work that scholars like N.T. Wright have undertaken. (If you are interested in this subject I would be happy to suggest a number of books to read). Take for example the copy of the Greek New Testament I have in my office. The evidence and scholarship is so voluminous it is commonly accepted that what I read in this copy is what was originally written by the author; there are a few places where uncertainty remains but nothing that changes the story told in the New Testament. (No other ancient book comes close.)

N.T. Wright, after years of painstaking historic study says this. “I record it as my conviction that the four canonical gospels, broadly speaking, present a portrait of Jesus of Nazareth which is firmly grounded in real history. … The portrait of Jesus we find in the canonical gospels makes sense within the world of Palestine in the 20s and 30s of the first century. Above all, it makes coherent sense in itself. The Jesus who emerges is thoroughly believable as a figure of history, even though the more we look at him, the more we feel once more that we may be staring into the sun.” (Simply, p. 99)

2. According to those gospels the centre of Jesus’s public pronouncements was “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Paul’s Colossian letter is writer from prison during either his incarceration at Ephesus (Ad 55-57) or Rome (AD 60 – 61); written 25 to 30 years after Jesus death and resurrection. Listen for how the theme of the kingdom of God remains central to faith in Jesus: “He (God) has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The prophets had spoken of God’s coming kingdom when his promises would be fulfilled, when Israel would be rescued, when evil would be judged, when God would set everything straight, and usher in a new reign of justice and peace. The world would be turned to the right way at last. When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand he summons this entire narrative—God’s future was breaking into the present. Heaven was arriving on earth.

Jesus did not regard his healings as a kind of pre-modern traveling hospital. Jesus’s healings were signs of the message of the kingdom. God, the world’s creator, was at work through him, to do what he promised, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to rescue people, to turn everything right side up. Note in the Colossians text (Colossians 1:13-14) the constellation of words that are together—kingdom, rescue, redemption, forgiveness.

Jesus hasn’t come to fight Rome on behalf of Israel. Jesus has come to destroy evil and the evil one. To rescue “from the power of darkness”; the word translated “rescue” here is a Greek word that means “to drag out of danger.” Jesus’s kingdom language stirred up the Jewish hope of rescue from Roman rule and oppression. But Jesus was here to rescue people from a different enemy. Jesus told his parable of the prodigal son to illustrate the kingdom. There is a great celebration going on of sinners being welcomed home and if you refuse to join in you look like the brother who remains outside who bitterly resented the father’s lavish welcome of his brother.

Both in what he said and did Jesus announced the arriving of God’s kingdom—his message was that the ancient prophesies were coming true, that Israel’s story was reaching its destination at last, that God was on the move once more and was about to rescue his people and put the world to rights.

And as we know from the story, kingdoms collided. So what did Jesus intend by it all? Why did he walk into trouble in the way he did? And why, after his own violent death, did anyone take his seriously any longer, let alone suppose that he was the living embodiment of the one true God, that he is the world’s true Sovereign?

3. Jesus followers had come to regard Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, God’s “anointed,” the king-in-waiting for whom the nation had longed; a conviction Jesus affirms in Peter’s confession of who they thought he was. No one thought that the Messiah should suffer—except Jesus. Jesus’s understanding of the ancient prophesies was announced to his disciples when he began to tell them that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day rise again.” (Mark 8:31)

Matters came to a head when Jesus, with his disciples and a growing crowd, arrived at Jerusalem for one last Passover. The choice of festival was no accident; Passover us the festival that celebrated exodus from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’s whole vision was for God to act in one final great “exodus,” rescuing Israel and the world from that which really enslaved them, and lead them to a new Promised Land.

Celebrating Passover always carries, to this day, the hope that God will again act powerfully to save his people. Jesus’s fresh understanding of Passover spoke of that future arriving immediately in the present. God was about to act to bring in the kingdom, but in a way that none of Jesus’s followers had anticipated. He would fight the messianic battle—by losing it. The real enemy, after all, was not Rome, but the powers of evil that stood behind human arrogance and violence, powers of evil with which Israel’s leaders had fatally colluded. It was time for the evil which had dogged Jesus’s footsteps throughout his career—the shrieking maniacs, the conspiring Herodians, the carping Pharisees, the plotting chief priests, the betrayer among his own disciples, the whispering voices in his own soul—to gather in one great tidal wave of evil that would crash with full force over his head. (Simply, p.110)

The time had now come when, at last, God would rescue his people, and the whole world, not from mere political enemies, but from evil itself, from the sin which had enslaved them. His death would do what the Temple, with its sacrificial system, had pointed toward but had never actually accomplished. The Temple was understood as the place where heaven and earth met. In meeting his destiny on the cross Jesus himself would be the place where heaven and earth met, as he hung suspended between the two. (Simply, p.110)

The pain and tears of all the years were met together on Calvary. The sorrow of heaven joined with the anguish of earth; the forgiving love stored up in God’s future was poured out into the present; the voices that echo in a million hearts, crying for justice, longing for spirituality, eager for relationship, yearning for beauty, drew themselves together in a final scream.

The death of Jesus of Nazareth as the king of the Jews, the bearer of Israel’s destiny, the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people of old, is either the most stupid, senseless waste and misunderstanding the world has ever seen, or it is the fulcrum around which history turns. Christianity is based on the belief that it was the latter. (Simply, p.111) Upon Jesus history turns.

The reason we believe this is because of what happened on the third day. Christians believe that on the third day following his execution Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised form the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind him. The risen Jesus is the reason why his first followers came to believe that Jesus’s death was not a messy, tragic accident, but the surprising victory of God over all the forces of evil. Jesus raised from the dead is God’s vindication that his life and death achieved the world’s rescue.

Christianity asserts that it was Israel’s vocation to be the people through whom the one God would rescue his beloved creation; that Jesus, as God’s Messiah, bore this vocation in himself; that in going to his death he took upon himself, and in some sense exhausted, the full weight of the world’s evil. When Jesus rose from the grave, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have joined forever. Instead of mere echoes we hear the voice itself; a voice which speaks of rescue from evil and death. (Simply, p. 116)

All of this is loaded into this sentence from Paul’s Colossian letter. “He (God) has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” The music Jesus wrote must now be performed. The disciples understood this to be their mission; it is the mission of the church in every generation.

4. Conclusion
We have been hovering at what you might speak of as the 50,000 foot view; trying to take in the whole scene. But what does this look like from the ground so to speak. I invite you to compare the testimony of two people on how they experience life.

The first is by the comedian Louis C.K. who was on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He was talking about our soul-numbing addiction to technology. C.K. said: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone. It's down there. And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, 'Oh no, here it comes. That I'm alone.' It starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it …
C.K. concluded, “The thing is, because we don't want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or [sex] or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die.”

The second testimony is from the very popular reality TV show Duck Dynasty. The show features a Louisiana family as they operate a thriving family business while trying to stay true to their family values. Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, said this; “Fame is rather fleeting, as you know or should know. Money can come and go, and fame comes and goes. Peace of mind and a relationship with God is far more important, so this is the precedent we’ve set in our lives. The bottom line is we all die so, so Jesus is the answer. Many have told me through the years; “I think I’ll take my chances without Jesus.” And I always come back and say, ‘so what chance is that?’”

He (God) has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.