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STEPPING INTO THE KINGDOM OF GOD
We're at a party where almost all of the people know my wife but not me. We're introduced to friends of friends and begin to make small talk. Eventually the husband says, "What do you do for a living?" I say, "I'm a Presbyterian minister." He says, "Oh, that's great." I say, "Yea, most of the time." There's a short pause and then he says, "You know, I accepted the Lord in July of '87, so I know where I'll be spending eternity." I say, "That's good, it's very important."
This sort of conversation happens more often than you'd think. As I've thought about it I'm impressed that people want to tell about their religious experiences.
Another thing that strikes me about these conversations is how frequently making a decision for Christ is immediately linked with going to heaven. "I accepted the Lord, so I know where I'll be spending eternity." Sometimes they are so quickly associated that I'm tempted to ask what's happening in the meantime. What are you doing with your faith between your decision and when you arrive at heaven's door?
Sometimes these conversations strike me as selfish. It sometimes comes across as: I was smart enough to make this decision for Jesus, and now I get an eternity of goodness with God. This is a great deal! I made this one choice, and now I get this enormous benefit.
At its worst it sounds like buying a great insurance policy - you know, carefully looking out for your long term future. Choose Jesus, get heaven.
Maybe this sounds a little cynical; I don't mean it to. But sometimes in these conversations the decision to be Christian comes across as less about Jesus and more about making sure I get a pleasant hereafter. Again, there is very little conversation about what will happen between now and the day they enter eternity.
We don't have to know much about Christianity to know that it isn't about being selfish. The decision to be Christian isn't about looking out for yourself; this is not a selfish religion. Jesus laid before us such difficult words: "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me," or "It is more blessed to give than to receive."
Yes, when we make a commitment to Christ, God offers us eternal life. That is true and we don't want to diminish the importance of that in the least - it is a gift literally beyond what we can imagine. It is God's great gift of grace.
The question we want to look at is what does God want us to do between now and then? What does God call us to do during these days on earth?
This Old Testament passage tells us a great deal. First, it says: don't trust in authority figures, leaders, politicians, or religious leaders.
The Psalmist tells us even the greatest among our leaders has only limited knowledge. Plus, when they die, all their great plans perish with them.
Trust instead in God who made the earth and sea and everything that is in them. This is the One who keeps faith forever.
Then the Psalmist lists what our God does: God brings justice to the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets prisoners free, heals the blind, lifts up those who are bent over, and watches out for strangers, orphans, and widows.
Those words give direction to the people of God. What do we do differently because we are Christians? Psalm 146 tells us to join God in these acts of mercy and justice.
And this isn't some isolated text buried deep in the Old Testament. These same concerns are found throughout the bible.
The scene is Nazareth. Jesus is thirty years old. He has just been baptized and tempted in the wilderness. All this has happened before he begins his ministry. But now Jesus will, for the first time, explain who he is and why he is here.
Jesus goes to the synagogue "as is his custom." During the service he stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Then he said to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
That wasn't exactly what we were expecting was it? If Jesus is speaking about why he has come to us and what he is about, we think he would say something like, "I have come so that you may have eternal life" or "I have come to take away all your sins and make you right with God," or "I have come so that if you believe in me you won't die but live eternally."
Instead he talks of the poor, those who are captives, the blind and oppressed. I noticed that Jesus doesn't speak about what he will do for me personally, but what he will do for those who suffer.
Certainly Jesus also spoke about forgiveness and eternal life and being right with God, but in his first comments about who he is, he speaks of helping the helpless and oppressed.
So if we are followers of Jesus, we share his concern for those who are starving, handicapped, tortured, abused or oppressed. If these are important parts of Jesus' mission, why wouldn't they be part of ours too?
Jesus' words draw our attention to children in Africa with skin like tissue paper whose whole set of ribs shows, to the men, women and children who are abused in Somalia, to the political prisoners held around the world, to the foster children in Michigan, and to the abuse of the elderly that happens all across this country.
It's not that we make a decision for Christ and then sit around waiting for heaven. Our commitment is to follow Christ. Christ told us that even if we offer a cup of cool water to one in need we are doing his will. And Matthew 25 reminds us that to help the hungry, a stranger, the naked, sick and imprisoned is to provide that help to Christ himself. Not to help those in need is to not help Christ, and thus risk your inheritance.
When we make a Christian commitment, we are entering into the Kingdom of God. It's just the beginning; it's like we've taken a few steps in the door, but we are part of God's kingdom. We certainly haven't arrived - that will come later - but we want to grow in God's kingdom, to grow in faithfulness and dedication.
From the words of Psalm 146, to Jesus' statement about his mission, to the demanding words of Christ throughout the gospel and especially in Matthew 25, we see the same emphasis everywhere in the Bible: care for those in need; look out for those who are oppressed; lift up those who have been put down; and help those who are suffering.
You are a child of God - a follower of Jesus Christ. You have been called to a high calling. Your life and work and words are important. Faithfully serve your Lord.
Many years ago a young women went off to Yale. She didn't have any religious background - it wasn't important in the family she grew up in. At school she became involved in an emergency food program. What she soon learned was that almost all of the people she worked with there were Christians. Some spoke about their faith easily; others were more reticent.
She participated in some rallies against the war in Viet Nam and, again, she found so many of the people she walked with were young Christians who thought the war was unjust and unnecessary.
When issues of injustice came up she found Christians in the forefront, speaking out for fairness and equality.
She began to talk with the friends she had made, asking them about what they believed and why their faith caused them to be so involved with issues of poverty, injustice, and equality. The more she talked with them, the more interested she became in faith. She began to explore the teachings of Jesus. She took some religion classes.
By the time graduation came around she had decided to go to seminary and begin training to be a minister. She is now a great preacher; she has written books about faith, and she has influenced hundreds of thousands of people.
No one grabbed her by the collar to try to convert her, but by faithfully living out what Christ taught, the people around her helped to change her life forever. Their quiet witness helped lead her to faith.
© Richard J. Henderson 2010