I recently picked up N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began. Admittedly, I loved it as soon as I read the title. I loved it even more after being pulled into the biblical storyline and enjoying Wright’s ability to pull me into the narrative. Here is an excerpt from the first page; “Another young leader had been brutally liquidated. This was the sort of thing that Rome did best. Caesar was on his throne. Death, as usual, had the last word. Except that in this case it didn’t…” He goes on “Something had happened that afternoon that had changed the world. That by six o’clock on that dark Friday evening the world was a different place.”
Crucifixion was intended to demonstrate who holds the power. And that the powerful were willing to use extreme pain, brutality and shame to make that message clear. Crucifixion was designed to stop a revolution in its tracks. Wright tells us that when Jesus told followers to carry their cross, they would not have heard this as a metaphor. In opposition to the worlds displays of power, the shame and horror became part of the meaning. The biblical storyline became clearer for the followers of Jesus.
The biblical storyline is not the only thing that helped shape the meaning of the crucifixion. There were already existing meanings of the cross as a death instrument that were influential. Wright gives three meanings for crucifixion in the first century. 1) The cross carries social meaning. Simply, we are superior and you are inferior. 2) The cross had political meaning. We are in charge here and you are not. 3) The cross had theological meaning. The gods of Rome and Caesar (son of a god) are more powerful than your gods. As Jesus hung on the cross, these meanings were heard loud and clear and appeared to be true.
Wright spends significant time talking about the themes and narratives that early Christians would have already had in their heads that allowed them to make sense of the crucifixion the way they did. We might ask, alongside Wright, “Why did they not see this as an end of a potential Jesus based revolution?” Instead they saw crucifixion as the beginning. The New Testament insists that when Jesus of Nazareth died, something happened that changed the world.
Early Christians started talking as if this shocking, scandalous execution launched a revolution. They began to see this as the pivotal event in the story of God. In fact, this was the vital moment in all of human history. God had put his plan in operation – his plan to rescue the world. They saw the crucifixion as the inauguration of God’s plan. The early Christians insisted that followers of King Jesus became part of the difference. The New Testament, with the cross at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. According to Wright, the first sign the revolution was underway was the resurrection.
Wright wants us to recognize the cross as more than allowing for personal salvation, more than a ticket to heaven. He does not deny personal meaning for individuals, but wants to be clear that the cross carries significant meaning for the wider world. Wright wants us to know that Jesus died so that we could become part of God’s plan to put the world right. Welcome to the revolution.
There is a lot of energy spent trying to convince us that we are dependent on politicians. This is not a new phenomenon. Even Luke the historian from the first century knows this. I can’t help but notice how political Luke gets when writing his Gospel. Chapter three begins by making certain we know who the Caesar is (Tiberius), who the governor of Judea is (Pontius Pilate), who the tetrarch of Galilee is (Herod). We are also told that Philip is tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitus. That Lysanius is tetrarch of Abilene. That Annas and Caiaphas were high priests.
Yet, these are not the politics Luke is primarily interested in. What he really wants us to know is that during this time “The word of God came to John.” Luke is reminded of someone else who preached in politically charged times by the name of Isaiah. Isaiah preached to kings. Isaiah watched kings go to war. He watched kings rise and kings fall and new kings take their place. I think Luke is interested that in the day of Isaiah – God intervened.
This reminds us of another politically charged message, John’s. After he spoke the crowd asked “What are your politics John?” And John replied “share with one another. Be generous. Be aware of those in need.” The tax collectors asked “What are your politics?” And John replied “do not steal from others. Stop taking what does not belong to you.” The soldiers asked “John what are your politics?” And John replied “do not coerce others or use force to get them to do what you want. Do not accuse others falsely. Be content with your wages.” Some wanted him to run for office. He declined but did confront the tetrarch about his politics.
This is the way history goes according to the bible. Politicians appear to rule. They look so in charge. But repeatedly, God intervenes. It is of interest to us that in the days of politicians, God intervenes. In the seasons where kings and Caesar’s rule and governors govern, and tetrarchs do whatever tetrarchs do – God intervenes. Every time, anytime we look at history, politicians will seem to be in charge. Hopefully we will be reminded of John the Baptist and be reminded that our politics are different.
With political conventions just around the corner, it may be a good time to be reminded that like anyone else the church can get caught up thinking that Caesar and Caesar’s politics are in control. Listening to would be presidents and watching the polls and reading the news are activities that try to convince us the world exists because of Caesar. This is an all too familiar song from the symphony of human strategies.
The world will continue to sing this song because it is convinced the best way to change things is through politics. This makes it even more important for us to gather to sing our songs and name the Name and open the words that remind us who we are. If we do not believe or behave differently than anyone else, why would we expect anyone else to be interested in what we have to say?
No matter your political preference, the world still begins and ends with God. Whatever happens in the capital on any day is never as significant as what happened one spring morning in a Jerusalem cemetery. No philosophy of government will ever be as interesting as the adventure the church is already on. Both democrats and republicans are only offering solutions to maintain status quo and their own versions of power. It is not their fault they only have human solutions to offer. This short reminder is not a call to boycott Election Day, only a reminder that we serve another Kingdom.
In case you haven’t heard, there will be an election in November. You may not be excited about it. Just thinking about the next president may make you anxious. You might not be convinced the candidates are strong. This may be the first presidential election in history where no one actually votes for a candidate, only against the other one. You might be planning to cast a ballot and then pray for four years of gridlock.
Even in the church, many are pulling for one candidate over the other. Or, as others are, planning to vote against one or the other. While making plans about whether to vote, or who to vote for, or against – we must not forget we belong to a political story that does not accommodate the mainstream political story. We must remember that no matter what happens in November, Jesus is still King.
When we say Jesus is King we are not talking about some metaphor, we are talking about the reality of “The Kingdom is at Hand.” When we say Kingdom we may picture a spiritual rule but we also recognize it as a political term that places the church smack dab in the middle of a political discussion. We cannot get away from politics when we talk about the church. Ecclesia is the word used for church in the New Testament. Interestingly, before the word was used for church it was used to describe local political gatherings. It seems that both kingdom and church take us into politics. If this puts you in the conversation of American politics, I pray you are able to behave as a follower of King Jesus.
Still it is easy at this point of the political cycle to bow to the politics of the world. It is easy to begin thinking that victory on the world stage is the same as a victory in the Kingdom. Yet, we are not called to be soldiers in the culture wars. We cannot vacillate between treating Jesus as King in the spiritual realm but Caesar as king in the public sector. We are not casting a ballot for Caesar; we have already given our allegiance to another. We may not be able to get away from political implications. But, whatever else happens in November, we will still be living under the rule of our King and by the expectations of His Kingdom. Perhaps our best political moves will be to gather in order to do the things we are called to do as followers of King Jesus.
The Philistines came from a strong military tradition. Their armies included disciplined soldiers, superior weapons, and chariots. The tribal confederacy of Israel was vulnerable to the Philistines. Her armies were ill trained and ill equipped. Not only that but the Ark had been captured and the priests responsible for it had been killed. It was not long before the Philistines began to occupy the land.
The time was right for another to be raised up by God to stand in succession to the judges. Samuel is not one of the judges but more like a holy man who travels to important shrines in order to decide local cases. W. F. Albright considers Samuel the founder of the prophetic movement. Whatever we choose to say about him, he carries on the tradition of one who is raised up by God.
His arrival on the scene occurs when many in Israel believed their situation was hopeless. He arrives at a time when many were calling for stronger leadership, primarily someone who could defeat the Philistines. His role caused him to play a primary part in the transition of leadership. While not a unanimous decision, Samuel anointed Saul to be king of Israel.
The initial selection of Saul as king was likely related to the spirit filled gifts of leadership he demonstrated as the judges did before him (I Samuel 11). Each one a kind of charismatic hero. It is unlikely anyone would have followed Saul if this were not true. Still, Samuel was suspicious about the new king. John Bright even suggests Samuel may have anointed Saul commander instead of king. Nevertheless, the people thought of Saul as king. Saul therefore carried on the function of the judges before him, he rallied the people against the enemy (primarily the Philistines). His popularity brought new hope into the land.
Not all things were positive with Saul. Despite minor successes, he was not able to defeat the Philistines. Saul also struggled with his own emotional stability. These things, along with Samuel’s mistrust of Saul led Samuel to eventually revoke Saul’s kingship in public.
From the beginning until Samuel, God has been king in Israel. God ruled Israel by raising up spirit filled leaders, charismatic heroes, to intervene at strategic moments. But from the time of Saul to the end of the Old Testament , Israel’s story includes a human king. This conflicts with Gideon’s statement that Yahweh was King. Bright says this is the beginning of Yahweh as King becoming a memory in Israel. Yet, there lingered the hope that Yahweh will rule Israel again one day.
What if we viewed the story of the church as a rebellion? After all, that is the way it has been viewed through much of history. It is only because we have convinced ourselves we are part of the mainstream that we have lost sight of our connection with a historical rebellion.
The fact is, we have been at odds with what goes on around us for a long time. Abraham was an early recipient of information that things were not ok and a different way was necessary. Ever since, we have carried with us a promise of blessing and curse. Moses led a band of rescued slaves into occupied territory and they claimed it as their own. The prophets preached and wrote messages contrary to majority opinion for hundreds of years. John came preaching a challenge to existing kingdoms, announcing that a new king and new kingdom was at hand.
When the rulers of the majority kingdom realized they could not stop this king from his contrary ways, they crucified him. This was supposed to stop the rebellion. Instead, his following continued to grow and his news began spreading everywhere. Followers were often in danger, they sometimes met in secret, they shared their news from prison, and many were put to death. One was ostracized but even there he continued to preach how the ways of God are at odds with the ways of the world.
This story has not stopped and we are part of it. We still carry an old promise, stories of rescued slaves, and the words of prophets. We are participants in an ongoing rebellion that has been alive for centuries. We are recipients of information that things are not ok as they are. We still gather in the presence of a crucified king who sends us out with news of a better way.
In recent years we have heard an increased use of the phrase (especially by politicians) “wrong side of history.” Whenever I hear it, I cannot help but try to figure out what the speaker intends when it is spoken. Is it supposed to be a statement of hope? Perhaps a statement of confidence that one’s plans will come to pass? Sometimes it sounds like a plea for better behavior or more likely a plea to be in agreement with the speaker about behavior. Other times it sounds overconfident. As if the speaker is convinced that they will be able to steer history in a direction of their choosing. Sometimes it just sounds like the speaker is insulting the listener for not agreeing with the speaker.
We can’t fault the politicians. We all like to project what the future might look like. Perhaps that is part of the fascination with something like Star Wars. I even have predictions of my own. Does anyone else think that fast food and soda pop will become illegal or at least heavily taxed. I do not think debates about things like education, pollution, and taxes are going to be resolved in our lifetime. I am certain that we will continue to struggle to balance things like diet, exercise, work and recreation. I am certain that our inability to do these things will cause anxiety to rise higher and higher. I fear terrorism will be as real in the future as it is today. On a different note, does anyone else think it strange that the future will bring an onslaught of grandmothers named Brittany, Allison, and Lexy? For comparison sake, my grandmothers are Olive and Myrtle.
The fact is we could project many things but we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend to know how history will flow. We are not the captains on that ship. It is our fortune that the biblical text considers the future. We typically talk about this as eschatology. Regardless of what earthly powers are making decisions or who claims to be right about the course of history, the bible contributes to this conversation.
The fact is, if we choose to accept the bible as a reliable voice, we know there is something more important than knowing what future events may come. It is more important that we have confidence in the one we choose to follow and serve. If we accept the bible as reliable, it does not matter who is in the majority or who claims to have executive power. The bible insists that Jesus is King.
The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus came preaching “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Later he preaches a longer sermon that we call the Sermon on the Mount. It is also about the Kingdom of heaven. In fact, it is safe to say that Matthew has some kind of obsession with the Kingdom of heaven.
Early in that sermon we are told “heaven is the throne of God.” Later we are told to pray “Your Kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.” This prayer comes right in the middle of the sermon and we have already been told to take anger seriously, to be generous even with evil people, to make friends with our opponents, and to love our enemies. Now we are praying to be forgiven as we forgive others. We are getting an idea of what it is like for God to rule on earth as in heaven.
Gary W. Burnett labels this a prayer for revolutionaries. At the very least we should be willing to ask the question “what do we expect when we pray for Kingdom come?” After all we are praying for a kingdom different than the one ruled by Herods or Caesars or Pharaohs or Presidents. We are praying for a Kingdom ruled by God. We are praying for God to invade the land and challenge the rule of corrupted humans. We are praying for what God wants, not for humans to continue what they are already doing.
When we pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we acknowledge that God is back in charge and rules through King Jesus. When we pray for Kingdom come we pray that we will live under the rule of King Jesus. When we pray for Kingdom come we acknowledge the certainty that the Kingdom is at hand.
Matthew chapter two opens with the birth of Jesus and a search for the one born King of the Jews. We have become familiar with this story and its characters; Joseph the husband of Mary, a dreamer born into a kingly bloodline. Magi from the east, willing to give time, effort and treasure in their desire to worship the rightful King. And King Herod, the ruler of a corrupted earthly kingdom who contrasts with the Kingdom of heaven that God has in mind.
Perhaps because of our artificial chapter breaks or perhaps it is due to the obvious years that have passed in between, but we sometimes fail to see how chapter two and three go together. However, it is unnecessary to ask whether Matthew sees a connection between the kingly discussion of chapter two and the announcement made immediately in chapter three that “The Kingdom is at hand.”
This part of the text carries with it romance and heartache, treasure and tragedy, a royal bloodline and an imposter, murder and narrow escape, secrets, espionage, dreams, angels. Just saying, if you open your door and find Magi standing outside, you may be in for a wild ride. But this story about the one born King does not stop there. It takes us into chapter three where we find John the Baptist announcing “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He might as well have said it like this “Your King is at hand.”
It becomes important for us to remember that the story of this Kingdom does not stop with gift giving in Bethlehem. Christmas is not the end of the story. The Kingdom story continues and we are in on it. The Kingdom continues in the ways we choose to follow the rightful King.
Luke is a careful investigator. He passes along details learned from eyewitnesses and is a student of history. This is important enough that it is the first thing he tells us in his gospel. He wants us to know that what follows is set in history.
That may be why he goes on to tell us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree and that Quirinius was governor and that a census was taking place. But Luke also wants us to be aware that other things were happening also. Luke wants us to know that the plan of God is in full effect. A new kingdom is on the horizon. The existing powers may continue to act as if they possess some ultimate authority. So Caesar decrees, Quirinius governs, Mary and Joseph try to follow the laws of the land.
Meanwhile a new king is near and with him a new kingdom. Perhaps in effort to emphasize this Luke points out that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem the town of David (home of Israel’s greatest king) and that Joseph was related to David (Israel’s greatest king). Perhaps that is why he records the angel’s announcement that the child is born in the town of David. Is Luke hinting that here lies Israel’s next king? Has kingdom come in a manger?
We sometimes read Luke 2 as instructions to set up our nativity scene. Luke wants us to know that something else is going on. God has invaded history. We sometimes try to spiritualize the work of God as if He only works in some spiritual arena. Luke wants us to know that God invades our real time history. God invades time while Caesar is decreeing, while wanna-be-Caesars debate on network television, while planning menus, while Quirinius governs, while balancing the checkbook, while shepherds watch their flocks, while worrying about fuel prices, while a census is taken, while unexpected weather occurs, while looking for room at the inn. Christmas is the message of kingdom come in a manger.