Fruitful Living

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable that is one of my favorites. I’ll paraphrase the main ideas here, but you should really take a minute to read it and mull it over. In the parable, a farmer is planting a field. As he is casting seeds, Jesus describes various fates as an allusion to how people respond to hearing about the good news of God’s kingdom. Some seeds are trampled or eaten. Others take root in shallow, rocky, or weedy soil and fail to produce a crop. Finally, some seeds fall into good soil and have a return of 30, 60, or 100 fold. And in the end, the only thing that really seems to matter is whether or not the seed bears its intended fruit.

As the people are left scratching their heads, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples. First, people are fruitful because they don’t really understand what’s going on. Second, people aren’t rooted enough to sustain growth over the time and to the degree that is necessary. Finally, the cares of the world choke out God’s word and prevent fruitfulness.

Understanding.

Character and Support.

Holy. (Set apart.)

I’d like to share a few thoughts on this parable from the perspective of a dad and a person who really loves to see God working in people’s lives. The truth is, if we’re going to become the men and women that God created us to be, we’re going to have to understand a few things about Jesus, about God’s kingdom, about how this whole thing comes together, and about what it all means for us. We’re also going to need to become a rooted people – we’re going to need to embrace the lifelong, tedious, painful, and extraordinary process of character formation as well the fellowship of others who can support, encourage, and strengthen us along the way. Finally, we’re going to have to be a different, holy people set apart from the world in our priorities, concerns, attitudes, habits, and behavior.

Because God is good and because he created us with unfathomable potential, we can expect that he’ll be working in us toward these ends as he shapes us throughout our lives into sons and daughters that are ready to inherit his kingdom and his reign over all creation. Our part is to submit to God’s work in us and to cooperate with him. In other words, invest yourself in understanding more about what God is up to in the Bible. Understand what was taking place in the big picture with Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. Embrace character formation and tweak your lifestyle to cooperate with God and to continue growing. Embrace fellowship with people who will catalyze God’s work in you. And finally, learn to be a different kind of person than the rest of the world despite the pain and the cost along the way.

These are the big ideas of Matthew 13 that I’ve been contemplating over the past several days. In Part 2, I’ll unpack them a bit more from the perspective of a dad (and friend and pastor) and offer some thoughts as to a way forward in response.

 

The Blessed

I read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) again this morning while enjoying the peacefulness of a good cup of coffee, a quiet house, and a beautiful view of the mountains on a crisp, clear morning. For many years, this passage felt like a heavy list of commandments that didn’t fit too well in what I thought the New Testament (and Christianity) should be all about. But as the years have passed, my appreciation for these words and the picture of life that they paint has continued growing.

I suppose I’m not really a young man anymore. I’m less interested in conquering the world than I used to be, but I want more than ever before to love my wife and boys well. And I want to be faithful to God more than ever, though I’m still having to discover exactly what that looks like in every day life.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him (Matthew 5:1)

I love the way this passage opens, because I know I’m somewhere out in that audience. In the midst of things, Jesus looked up. He saw a mass of people wandering around behind him. He saw people who were searching and curious and broken and desperate. He saw the eager and ambitious. He saw the skeptical and the hardened. He saw lots and lots of people doing the best they knew to do who were working very hard to get by and to provide a good life for their loved ones. He saw people trying to figure out exactly who Jesus was and what that meant for them.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons (and daughters) of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…

I love these words because they are so hopeful in the stride of normal life. From the typical perspective, no one wants to be poor in spirit – downtrodden, worn out, beaten down. Normally, the meek are overlooked and cast aside. Normally, the merciful are taken advantage of and the peacemakers scorned. Normally, the loud and powerful and wealthy and ambitious get ahead by exerting their considerable influence and by their willingness to do what is needed.

But Jesus saw things a different way. And while the world is still busy scrambling to get the proverbial piece of the the pie, Jesus’ words remind us that there is a bigger story unfolding in which we’ll all one day take our places.

God created this whole thing. The heavens. The earth. Everything. In his mysterious, beautiful love and wisdom, he decided to give humanity a significant role in the story. And when it all wraps up and transitions into the next phase of things, everything will be restored under God’s reign. All of Creation will be his “kingdom” once again and it will reflect his original intentions. He’ll sort things out with a wisdom that, as far as I can tell, is far beyond anything we can grasp here and now.

So in the meantime, as most of us live extraordinarily ordinary lives, we can rest in Jesus’ words. The downtrodden and mourning, the meek and merciful, the pure-hearted peacemakers, and all those who have been overrun in their humble efforts to follow Jesus will not be discounted or overlooked in the end.

So let us all be faithful with what God has given us while not worrying too much about what he has not. Love those well God has put in your life. Thoughtfully consider how you can use the time, energy, and resources God has given you to be a blessing to others and to reflect God’s likeness and to make God known wherever you are.

Allegiance

The 4th of July brings to light the significance of what is perhaps my favorite parable (Luke 19). To understand the connection, let’s remember exactly how different this day would have been back in 1776.

As the ink was drying on the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War was just around the corner. Whether willingly or reluctantly, every citizen was thrust onto the horns of a dilemma:

  1.  Take up arms as citizens of the new nation and simultaneously condemn themselves as traitors against Britain.
  2. Take up arms on behalf of the “homeland” (Britain) and fight to quell the rebellion. (Be traitors against America.)
  3. Play it safe by avoiding allegiance to either country in order to await the end result of the war before deciding. (Be condemned as cowards regardless of who won the war.)

 

Undoubtedly, there were many reluctant decision makers in the days following July 4, 1776. Many people were going about their lives, doing their work, paying their taxes, and raising their families. Most weren’t politicians. Most weren’t soldiers. They were simply swept into something bigger than themselves. Many were forced to make a decision that they didn’t want to have to make.

This is exactly the scenario that Jesus describes in Luke 19 to help us understand the circumstances in which we’re living. He has declared (and revealed) himself to be the King over all creation – the heavens and the earth. The kingdom of God has come. However, his reign has not yet been fully implemented. And in the meantime, conflict is underway because many people are living in opposition to the King’s reign.

How we emerge into God’s story is determined by how we respond to Jesus’ claim of lordship in the meantime. We find ourselves (along with every person we’ll ever know) on the same horns of a dilemma faced by the first citizens of America back on July 4, 1776:

  1. We can be faithful to the King and live in faith and anticipation that he will indeed reign.
  2. We can be appalled that Jesus’ claims lordship over us and live in opposition to him.
  3. We can try to play it safe and simply go about our own business trying to offend neither Jesus nor his opponents.

The decision is inevitable. Our circumstances have been thrust upon us whether we like it or not. The only question is how we will respond and who we will be in God’s story.

One day, the decision will seem as obvious as it does for us today looking back on America’s Independence Day. Jesus will reign over all creation. Everything will be restored and renewed according to God’s eternal plans for his creation. God’s people will live eternally and immortally, reigning over creation and governing it according to God’s design. We will eternally celebrate what God has done and remember every step we took along the way to be faithful to him, living in response to his goodness and in anticipation of the New Creation.

 

Temples

Throughout the Bible, everyone and everything emerges from within the same story – God’s story. Every New Testament teaching about our new life in Jesus Christ overlaps and compliments the others. This is especially the case as we consider one of the New Testament’s most contextualized metaphors for Jesus’ followers:

“We are the temple of the living God.”
(2 Corinthians 6:16)

To appreciate the significance of this verse (and others like it), let’s trace this line of thought forward from its origin in Creation.

Creation. When God created, there was no temple. Creation was whole. There was no division between heavenly and earthly realms. Creation was God’s resting place. It was home. God was fully present to people and people fully present to God. People walked with God. They talked with God. They knew the sound of God approaching. God wasn’t present in special places; he was just present.

Israel. Part of the fallout of humanity’s rebellion was the veil that came to exist between the heavenly and earthly realms of Creation. Humanity was exiled from the presence of God.

As we know, God did not stand idly by with his creative intentions for humanity shattered. In short order, redemption was underway. God called Abraham and set his descendants apart from the nations as cooperative participants in the redemptive plan for all creation.

A major aspect of Israel’s uniqueness was that they were called to build and care for the Temple –- the one place on earth where the heavens and earth would remain intertwined…the place where God would dwell. The Temple was a testimony to the way things were supposed to be. It was filled with the imagery of creation as a reminder that God’s rightful dwelling place with humanity was not confined to the Temple.

Unfortunately, Israel fell to the same fate as humanity: rebellion and sin. After repeated calls for Israel to repent and return to God and his purposes for the nation, the presence of God departed the Temple. Shortly thereafter, the building itself was destroyed in the Babylonian invasion. Rebellion once again led to exile: God’s people were separated from their God-given dwelling place and from God’s presence.

Jesus. With Jesus, everything changed. Sin was forgiven. Exile ended. God returned. He became present with his people in a manner anyone could see and experience, but no one could have predicted.

Everything the Temple represented and every religious purpose it served was fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ.

Then, despite all Jesus accomplished, his first disciples watched him ascend back into the heavens a short while after his resurrection. God departed again. And the disciples were told to wait… (Luke 24:49)

Church. On the day of Pentecost, the unthinkable happened. Per Jesus’ instructions, his followers had gathered to wait and to pray. Then suddenly, in a scene reminiscent of 2 Chronicles 7 when the Spirit descended and filled Solomon’s Temple:

“There came a sound from heaven like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…”
(Acts 2:2-4a)

The Spirit of God returned as the people of Israel had long been hoping –- only not in the manner they anticipated. It was not to a rebuilt Temple that the Spirit returned. No longer would a single high priest enter God’s presence on one solitary day each year.

The Holy Spirit came and filled Jesus’ disciples! In and through Jesus Christ, the disciples became the new Temple/s:

  • the resting place of God
  • the place in Creation that is once again whole –- where God’s presence resides
  • the witness in the world of the way things are supposed to be and will one day be again fully

As Jesus’ disciples, we are the temples of God in the world today. We are the intersection of the heavens and the earth. We are the witnesses of the way things were always supposed to be and the way they will one day be again. We are foretastes of what it truly means to be human. The Holy Spirit has come to dwell within us to empower us for this very high calling (Acts 1:8). In response, let us learn to live and walk by the Spirit:

  • Living intentionally.
  • Remembering where our story began & anticipating where it’s going.
  • Pursuing ongoing apprenticeship unto Jesus.
  • Loving sacrificially.
  • Living an eternal kind of life here & now.
  • Establishing our allegiance in Jesus’ eternal kingdom.
  • Showing the rest of the world how to live well here & now…

WHEN JESUS IS KING.

(Excerpt from Reimagining Discipleship)