Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Seeing the Kingdom All Around You

Jesus told the disciples “kingdom stories” so that they would know both what they were “looking for” and “looking at.” Jesus asked them, “Have you understood all these things?” to equip them to understand what was happening in them and around them!

Immediately following the “kingdom parables” Matthew tells five stories where these parables are instructive concerning real life events. The story of Jesus visiting the synagogue at Nazareth and Herod’s beheading of John are both rejection stories. The people of Nazareth stood in the very presence of Jesus, but they allowed their familiarity to breed contempt. Herod spoke with John, one of the greatest of the prophets, yet killed him because of an oath he made on a whim. Both are stories of hard paths where the seed of the gospel just cannot break through. The disciples needed to know what rejection looked like and they found out in these two stories.

After hearing of John’s death Jesus tried unsuccessfully to get away by himself with his disciples. The crowd followed Jesus so he taught and healed them. As evening approached the disciples told Jesus to send the crowd away. Testing the faith of his disciples, Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples presented the small amount of food they had available as evidence that they could not feed the crowd. Jesus took their meager offering – gave thanks and broke it – and the disciples distributed it to the large crowd. When everyone had eaten the disciples gathered twelve baskets full of leftovers! If they thought about Jesus’ kingdom of heaven stories, bells should have been ringing: a small seed becomes a large plant, or a little yeast creates a lot of bread! Rather than looking at their lack, they could have, like Jesus, trusted their Father who provides abundantly. If they had been thinking of the farmer who sowed seed, they may have recognized themselves as the shallow soil.

After feeding the crowd, Jesus sent the disciples away by boat, dismissed the crowd, and went to pray. After hours of prayer, Jesus walked on the lake to his disciples who were struggling to get to their destination because the wind was against the boat. Seeing a figure walking on the water, the disciples were terrified, prompting Jesus to identify himself “It is I. Don’t be afraid!” Peter then made the craziest request – “Lord, if it is you, let me come to you on the water.” Jesus agreed and Peter walked out of the boat and almost to Jesus. But Peter took notice of the wind, which might have reminded him of the fact that people cannot walk on water. As he was sinking, he called out to Jesus – “Lord, save me.” Jesus did, of course, and together they walked back to the boat. Then those WHO WERE IN THE BOAT worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Big words for people who were reluctant to step out in faith. Peter was the only one wet that morning, but he was also given a powerful lesson about having a crowded heart – while walking on water (or through life!) there is not room for faith in Jesus and fear of the wind! Could Peter ever hear the story of the farmer sowing seed without remembering the day his crowded heart literally made him sink?

When Jesus and his disciples arrived at Gennesaret, they discovered a fertile field for their ministry. The people “recognized” Jesus and sent word for people to come. People came and healing was abundant. This is given as a summary statement, not as a series of stories giving details about those who were healed. According to the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, Gennesaret was a place with very fertile soil. Jesus and his disciples discovered that it was a very fertile field indeed!

Jesus did not teach the parables of the kingdom to be entertaining, but to provide a sort of spiritual map with which to understand the events and the people swirling around you, and to judge the shape of your own heart.

- Kenny Payne

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Watching Jesus Live Out His Calling

At around age thirty, Jesus began his public ministry. He was baptized by John, led by the Spirit to the wilderness, and tempted by Satan. He emerged from those experiences as a man with a mission. He lived for the kingdom of God.

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17) Jesus had a simple sermon with a pointed focus – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To repent simply means “to turn.” Jesus was calling people to turn from their sin to the holiness that God desires; to turn from their desire to live only for themselves to the realization that God is calling us to live for him and for one another; to turn from settling in comfortably into the kingdoms of the earth to a robust commitment to living fully in the kingdom of God. That is what Jesus preached.

            The strategy of Jesus concerning how best to live in the kingdom of God involved, of course, other people. So he began calling people to follow him, to walk with him, to serve others with him, to model a different way to organize daily life. He began with some young fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Jesus called, they answered! It looks quite simple but there is a lot of faith and hope bound up in the back story. With these four men as his core disciples, Jesus would put together a small group that would literally change the entire world! 

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23) Jesus was an amazing healer; he healed because he cared. From the compassionate heart of Jesus, God unleashed a flood of grace and healing that swept over Galilee and Judea like a refreshing stream in a parched and weary land. Jesus was later described by Peter as a man who “went around doing good!” What an impression the compassion of Jesus made in Peter’s heart. And this man who by trade was a fisherman, learned from Jesus what it meant to live in the kingdom of God and the power of doing good to everyone you meet.

            The gospels present Jesus as a person committed to listening to and obeying the voice of the Father, who loved people enough to befriend them and train them to listen to and obey the Father, and who cared so much about the people around him that he did everything he could do to bring healing and health to their lives. As we watch Jesus interact with people he met, we learn what it means to live in the kingdom of God. 

            Like Jesus, you have a calling from God concerning how to live your life. You will not automatically know how best to live out that calling, but through watching Jesus carefully and looking into the lives of other disciples, you can learn what it means to walk with Jesus in the kingdom of God. The strategy of Jesus was clear – listen to and obey God, teach others to do the same, help everyone you meet. That is world changing!

- Kenny Payne

Watching Jesus Create the Kingdom

Jesus was born to be a king. Expectations were high at the time of his birth that God was going to right the wrongs of the world and set up his kingdom that will never end. Herod was jealous and struck out to protect his power. Caesar was oblivious, but even mighty Rome would soon feel the pressure exuding from the kingdom of heaven.

            Yet Jesus did not travel to Jerusalem or Rome to claim the throne through power and conquest – though he had enough power to do so if he desired. Rather he traveled through the Judean and Galilean country sides teaching people about the will of God and the kingdom that was being created by his life and ministry.

            Jesus’ commitment to creating God’s kingdom is clearly revealed when you notice the prominence of the kingdom in his famous sermon on the mount. He begins the sermon with his phrase, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The beatitudes end with the other bookend concerning the kingdom: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit (just “poor” in Luke) are surely surprised to discover that while the world has no use for them, the kingdom of heaven is composed of people like them! How does one move from being poor in spirit to being persecuted because of righteousness? They grow in the “upside down” kingdom of God!

            It is not just the beatitudes that begin and end with reference to the kingdom, the entire sermon does as well. Jesus warns all who want to live in the kingdom of God that it is not the talkers about God’s will, but the doers of God’s will who make up the citizens of the kingdom.

            In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s Prayer. The heart of the Lord’s Prayer is this statement: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This was the goal of Jesus’ life and death, to usher in the kingdom through his obedient heart. If we are faithfully walking with Jesus then we will also be consumed with the kingdom of God. We will seek to live with reference first to God’s kingdom, not to some worldly kingdom (whether a nation or a private “kingdom”). We will recognize our solidarity with people all around the world who are also members of the kingdom of God. We will love and pray for our enemies so that they might come to know the grace and love of God, transitioning from enemies to dearly loved siblings in the kingdom of heaven. When enough people who are citizens of the kingdom beginning living like the kingdom is the most important value in life, then we will see the expansion of God’s will being done on earth (in our lives) as it is in heaven!

            I once read a rather sad statement about Christians who do not take the kingdom of God very seriously – “After Jesus taught about the coming kingdom, people got excited and anticipated its arrival, but sadly realized that while they were expecting the kingdom, all they got was the church!” While I am not nearly so pessimistic about the church, I will acknowledge that when we who comprise the church live without passion for the kingdom we prove to be a disappointment for those who are longing for the kingdom. I hope that you are in awe of King Jesus and are striving with all that is within you to let his kingdom be created in your life!

- Kenny Payne     

Inviting People Into the Kingdom

The Jewish people at the time of Jesus knew exactly what they wanted in the coming kingdom: full restoration and vindication for Israel, and full vengeance on Gentile enemies. Any king who could pull that off would, of course, be welcomed with open arms. Any king who could not manage it would be undesirable.

            Jesus was most certainly a king, but he had no interest in giving the people the things they most longed for, because his vision was much larger than theirs. Jesus was interested in restoration, but he wanted the entire creation to be the object of that restoration, not just Israel. So he was left in the position of trying to invite people to follow a king and live in a kingdom that did not meet up with either their expectations or demands. The very idea that a king would invite, not command, people to enter his kingdom was itself quite novel. The strategy Jesus used to achieve his goal was nothing short of genius.

           He told this story: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.  As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:3-8) Besides reaching the conclusion that Jesus did not know much about good farming techniques, it must have been difficult for the people to catch the meaning of this story. Actually even the disciples of Jesus, once they were away from the crowd, asked him to interpret the parable for them.

            The seed, according to the explanation of Jesus, is the message of the kingdom. It is neither easy to understand nor commit to the kingdom of God. So people who do not understand are like the path – nothing gets through to them and the seed is unable to grow. Some people understand, but do not have a deep commitment to the kingdom, and when trouble arises because of kingdom commitment (which it always does!) they quickly fall away (back to previous commitments). Others understand the kingdom and its demands, but their lives are too full with competing commitments that the kingdom just withers and dies due to lack of full attention (what Jesus called “Seeking first” the kingdom). Some people both understand and commit to living in the kingdom with the result that their lives become very fruitful. The task of Jesus and his disciples (in any generation) is to help people move from being the path, the shallow ground or the thorny ground to being good ground for the seed of the kingdom to sprout and grow.

            Jesus ended his story with this phrase: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:9) Apparently Jesus believed that by paying attention one could change the shape of their heart, mind and understanding. If you want your life to be fruitful and productive for God’s kingdom, the best strategy, according to Jesus, is to use your ears to understand and commit to the kingdom!

- Kenny Payne

The Messy, Mysterious Kingdom

            There is a reason the Magic Kingdom is called “the happiest place on earth.” It is clean, fun and the good guys always win in the end. Even many of the bad guys are comical and, dare I say it, lovable.

            That is pretty much what people want in a kingdom, the Magic Kingdom where things always go their way. That is not the kingdom that Jesus created and is bringing to fulfillment. Listen to the things Jesus says as he describes his kingdom…

            “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

            What a mess. A diligent farmer sows good seed in a well prepared field and expects it to do the work of growing and producing a harvest. Without his knowledge an enemy comes and sows tares along with the wheat. This is not noticed at first, of course, because there was no growth. But eventually someone noticed the problem. His servants had a great solution, just pull out the weeds, but the master would have none of that because the wheat might be destroyed along with the weeds. Patience was the order of the day and the wheat and tares would simply grow together. What a mess!

            “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

            People have long marveled how such mighty plants can come from such small seeds.. The seed, small as it is, has everything it needs inside itself to produce something that is radically different from the seed itself. There is a mystery to life that remains secretive despite the remarkable strides in our understanding

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Sixty pounds of flour mixed with the necessary water would create over one hundred pounds of dough. A little yeast makes that large lump of dough into something else entirely. There is mystery here.

While Jesus might enjoy a day at the Magic Kingdom, it is not the kingdom he is building for his family. Rather his kingdom is messy and mysterious. He resists our simple solutions for dealing with good and evil, preferring to give good and evil every opportunity to become what he intended at creation. He does not instruct us on the inner workings of the kingdom or the mind of God, preferring rather to call us to greater trust!

The messy and mysterious kingdom sounds a lot like life! Are you trusting God with the mess and the mystery?

                                                                                                - Kenny Payne

The Valuable Kingdom!

            When I was a kid I liked to trade things. Because of that, I was always on the look out for a good trade. I learned a lot of lessons while trading, but perhaps the most important one was that not everyone will understand why you want something so much that you will trade other great things to get what it is you prize. I also learned that it did not matter what other people thought of your trade, as long as you and the person you were trading with were pleased.

            I think I loved these parables of Jesus the first time I heard them because I knew exactly what he was talking about: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46) Having made some costly trades myself, I knew both the desire to make the trade and the thrill of giving it all to get the new item. That is the way Jesus wants people to approach his kingdom: recognize the value, desire it above all else, sell it all, make the deal!

            And if you do, the people around you will think you have lost your mind. But you will know that you got a great deal and you will always treasure the kingdom.

            Jesus followed those two stories about trading with a fishing story. Here it is:  “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.” (Matthew 13:47-48) This is still a story of looking for treasure, but just from a different angle. The fishermen fish to eat and to earn money. Every fish in the net is potentially valuable. The men sort through and cull out the fish that are bad (read: that no one wants to eat). The good ones, they keep to either sell or eat.

            But notice the explanation of Jesus concerning this story: This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:49-50) It is not really people are doing the fishing, people are the fish. The angels are doing the sorting and it is, therefore, God who is looking for treasure! This story often frustrates Christians, because we want to be the ones doing the sorting – picking out who is saved and who is lost. But in reality we are all in the net among the fish that are being sorted. It is not our taste that decides between good and bad, but God’s taste alone that makes that distinction.

            Jesus seems to be saying that the best way to live is to give up everything for the kingdom of heaven. Then live in such a way to match the taste of the one who gave up everything for you, the treasure he was seeking!

- Kenny Payne