This is the last post in a series on relying on God in a messy world.
Jesus knew how to stay on message. Here’s the sound bite version: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
His parables and sermons convey what the kingdom of God is like. But Jesus wasn’t interested in telling us about some distant place to which we might escape some day.
That’s why he refused to rely on words alone to get his point across. Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, walked on water, calmed storms, died on a cross, and rose from the dead.
The Good News is that God is reasserting his authority in this messy world we inhabit. And he’s doing it in his Son Jesus Christ.
What sort of authority is God reasserting? Why would God need to reassert anything? And if he is in fact reasserting his authority, what’s taking so long? Let’s take these questions one at a time.
The scope of God’s authority is infinite. He sees the big picture and concerns himself with even the smallest detail. God reigns as a good king over his kingdom.
He is neither a chess master nor a passive spectator.
And while he may at points be content to work through the minor nudges of his angels as depicted in the film “The Adjustment Bureau,” in the end he insists on being the hands-on king.
His reign was perfect in the Garden of Eden.
You may not believe literally in such a Garden or in the creation narratives as found in chapters one and two of Genesis. But the lessons about God’s authority drawn from those verses remain the same whether you read them as historical account or as myths designed to tell a spiritual truth.
Adam and Eve were unselfconsciously naked. They didn’t have to keep secrets, to put their best foot forward, to draw defensive boundaries or to pretend to be something they’re not.
They were at peace with each other, with themselves, and with the world they inhabited (only after the flood did they eat meat, so the lion really did lie down with the lamb and the lamb didn’t need anti-anxiety meds).
Their lives were full of purpose and rich with meaning.
God gave them a desire to make a contribution and gave them a context within which that was possible. God made Adam his gardener and put him in a garden suited to his skills and temperament.
God gave Adam and Eve the gift of freedom so that they could lovingly tend the garden and share respect, compassion, and a common purpose with each other. Freedom never meant doing whatever they felt like doing.
God set parameters for the exercise of freedom. That’s because freedom’s purpose is to nurture, to promote growth, and to increase the good that God gives us to tend in the first place.
Freedom being what it is, Adam and Eve could freely choose to follow the path of love and nurture or to go another way.
But here is a key point. Freedom allows us to choose what path to take. It cannot change the destination of the various paths before us.
God showed them the way of nurture and love and growth. Adam and Eve chose a different way, and that way led to death, suffering and decay.
To put it simply, eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil amounted to taking the path of death.
Its poisonous fruit was in essence this: I can find my own way. I don’t need to rely upon God to make my life meaningful and valuable.
From that point on, Adam, Eve and all the rest of us shifted our focus.
Instead of focusing on God, we became so absorbed with grasping and forging and asserting our own meaning and value and happiness that we could only think about ourselves.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Each person could be free to pursue his or her own version of happiness.
As the Genesis story goes, Satan lured Adam and Eve onto this path. He was doing them a favor, he said. Helping us to express ourselves. In the film “The Devil’s Advocate,” Satan (played by Al Pacino) says, “I’m a fan of man!”
The bitter irony is this. So long as we pursue our own happiness, we will never find it. We will simply grow more and more self-absorbed.
And our self-absorption undermines the very thing that can give us happiness: relationships that we’ll give our life for.
Pursue self-giving love and you will experience happiness as a result. Pursue your own happiness and you will find neither love nor happiness.
God’s authority resides precisely in providing the reliable source of meaning, value and purpose in our lives. He can only provide this when we place him at the very center of our lives.
We’ve thrown him out of the center of our lives, and this is why he must reassert his authority.
He cannot force us to rely upon him. At least, he cannot do so without making us something he doesn’t want us to be.
God didn’t want robots or he would have started out with them. Reasserting his authority means winning back the hearts we wrenched away from him in the first place.
And this is precisely what Jesus came to do: to win back the hearts that belong rightfully to God, to get us to rely upon him again.
There are two challenges here.
God wants hearts that are freely given. Kidnapping our hearts would only mean that God has taken us captive. That’s not love. It’s bondage. God wants us to rely upon, not to be chained to him against our will.
In addition to this, we have to keep in mind that we didn’t just turn our hearts away from God. We gave them away to someone else. At this point, some of you will think of checking out, but I hope you’ll bear with me for a few passages more.
We’ve given our hearts to a different ruler. Satan holds us captive, and Jesus has come to give his life as the only ransom capable of setting us free.
There’s much to be said about the idea of our captivity and Jesus as ransom, but I will leave that for the next series of posts. For now, I’ll just say I’m in good company when using what you can at least see as a powerful metaphor.
If you have read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you will recognize this theme.
Aslan returns to Narnia. He defeats the White Witch to wrench the kingdom from her wicked rule. Crucial to his triumph is his death for another (Edmund) at the witch’s own hand. His resurrection came as an unwelcome surprise to her and marks the beginning of the end of her reign.
The bottom line is this. We will worship God or an idol.
Idols, as it turn out, draw us in and then refuse to let us go. We worship them only to find out that we’ve surrendered our freedom to them. Although they promised happiness, they eventually deliver only misery.
Drug addiction serves as a particularly clear example, but money, power, sex, and possessions can have precisely the same effect.
Christ’s death addresses both challenges at once.
He frees our hearts from captivity so that we can freely give them away. And he invites us to give him our hearts by giving us the most extravagant display of love you can imagine. He dies for love of us when we could care less about him.
So what’s taking so long?
God is at work winning us over. Some of us are easy marks. We fall for him before we’re old enough to know what we’re doing. Others of us take some serious wooing. God is giving us time.
Some of us just won’t be won over. No matter what. No thanks. God alone knows when a rejection is genuinely final.
But one day the struggle will be over. The decisive event has already happened. God became a man. He died for our sins. He rose again. The king is reasserting his authority.
Citizenship in the Kingdom of God is neither a moral achievement nor a spiritual accomplishment. The King reigns by mercy. We belong to his gracious realm by relying upon that mercy for life itself.