Monday, January 23, 2017

Proclaiming the Year of God's Favor

Citizens of a New Kind of Country
A reflection on the life and politics of Jesus by Lyndon Perry

I’d like to tell you about a man who was born in Palestine a number of years ago. He was seen by more than a few as a revolutionary figure. A Yassar Arafat, if you will; a polarizing figure who spoke of a new government for Israel. This really disturbed the higher-ups, of course, but excited many of the common people who had been living like refugees in their own country – occupied territory! – for many years.

It’s strange, the story of this man. Predictions about him becoming a kind of prime minister, king even, of Israel began when he was born. His mother Mary, for instance, believed God was going to throw princes from their thrones so that her son could reign. His uncle, Zechariah, called him a political savior - like King David of old. When he was born he was even named Yeshua, or Joshua, which means “God will save.” (Of course, we know him by way of his Greek name, Iesous, or Jesus.) It was prophecy fulfilled: this Yeshua was destined to save his people from their oppressors. At least, that is what so many people believed.

You see, foreign armies had occupied the Eastern Mediterranean Seaboard for nearly 400 years. The enemy’s presence was a constant reminder of their once free nation. And the people were bitter, some were divided. All anticipated a day when things would be better.

Yeshua grew up with much the same anticipation, but he was not bitter or alone. There was his cousin, John. They were likely good friends. They must have played together, talked with one another, dreamed of the future – a future where God would rule through one person chosen especially for the task. A messiah. They yearned for this future and had a feeling that they were going to be a part of it somehow.

 As John and Yeshua grew they saw the political climate of Israel change. Revolutionary groups sprung up, died away, and sprung up again. Would-be saviors were killed and their cause humiliated. Yet one loosely organized underground resistance force gained strength and numbers. They were known as the Zealots. Their purpose was to overthrow their oppressors and reestablish a government by the people, for the people - the chosen people!

Neither John nor Yeshua joined the Zealots but each knew the day was coming when they would have to act, when God would call upon them to fulfill their destinies as agents in the new government. So they continued to talk and dream and prepare. For they would have to be ready; one day they would have to act.

One day John did.

“Herod, the ruler of Galilee, is sleeping with his brother’s wife!” John declared. “This isn’t right. But not only does Herod need to repent of this sin, everyone who wants God’s new government to be set up must do the same. You’ve heard of the messiah? The one who will save Israel? Well, he’s coming, so repent of your sins, be baptized, and prepare yourself for an incredible shake down.”

People flocked to hear John campaign for the new president, the nation’s next leader. They wanted to know how they could help. They were tired of being oppressed, of having their basic rights refused or taken away from them.

“What can we do?” they wanted to know. “Shall we form an occupy movement? Shall we take up arms against the insurgent fascists?”

“No,” John said. “You must stop oppressing each other. Look around, are there poor among you? If so, it is a sign of your oppression not the enemy’s. Therefore repent of it and change your lifestyle. If you have an extra coat, give it to someone who doesn’t have any. If you have extra food, do the same. Are you in business? Don’t extort, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t steal. Change will come when you change your hearts and your actions.”

What a message. A revolutionary message. People began to think that this John might be the messiah, the political savior everyone was waiting for. But again, John said no.

“You think my words are potent, wait till you hear the real thing. I only baptize with water, powerful and cleansing as it may be. But one day, someone will come and baptize you with fire, the Holy Spirit. Then God will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into the barn and burn up all the chaff. Get ready for that day, it’s coming soon.”

John promised that one day soon Yeshua would act too. And he did. John’s cousin, after being baptized as an inauguration of this new kingdom, returned to Nazareth, his home town, and there preached a political message that set the establishment on its collective ear.

“The Spirit of God is on me,” Yeshua said. “I have been handpicked to bring good news to poor folk. I have been chosen to proclaim freedom for those in debtor’s prison.

“I am here to give sight to the blind, power to the oppressed, and to announce that this year is the year of God.

“Let me level you with you people. Good news to the poor often means bad news for the rich. Freedom for those in debtor’s prison means that someone is going to be out big bucks. Giving sight to the blind and rights to the powerless means that something is going to be taken away from the powerful. And what’s more? This good news is for everyone in the whole world – not just the chosen people of Israel, but the Gentiles as well.

“I am the one God is going to use to set up a new government.  Are you ready for that kind of leader?”

Evidently they weren’t. But they were ready to throw Yeshua off a cliff and end his political campaign then and there. The higher-ups were disturbed. But many of the common people got excited and began to follow Yeshua as he preached from town to town and demonstrated that his words had meaning.

From this crowd Yeshua selected a cabinet. A group of people who were not so much advisors - although they did keep him informed as to public opinion - as they were trainees. Yeshua selected teachable women and men whom he could shape into citizens of the coming kingdom and learn to train others to be citizens of this new kind of country.

“Follow me,” he said to his early picks, who were fisherman, “and I’ll teach you to fish for people.”

Pretty interesting picks for his top cabinet positions, fishermen. But his top choices didn’t end there. Yeshua tapped a tax collector named Matthew – despised by fellow Jews as a turncoat - and then he enlisted a Zealot named of Simon, a man who wanted nothing to do with Roman sympathizers. Those choices raised a few eyebrows, let me tell you. There was probably more tension in that group than a Hillary voter and a Trump supporter worshiping together in the same church!

Yet the news about Yeshua’s words and deeds spread throughout the country and his popularity with the masses grew. He asked his followers one day who the crowd said he was. They gave him a number of answers. Then he asked them what they thought. And they agreed that he was the messiah, the one sent from God to rule a new Israel.

Then he told his cabinet what they had been waiting for and wanting to hear. A campaign promise straight from his lips: “You will see the kingdom of God.” The excitement grew.

The next few months, however, were confusing to many people. On the one hand Yeshua sent out groups of two to tell the people about this coming kingdom. He wanted his message to be heard by as many as possible.

Yet on the other hand he spent, what seemed like to some, too much time with all the wrong people. Some wondered if he was defeating his purpose by wasting his efforts on alcoholics, prostitutes, and other assorted riff raff.

His cousin, John, even sent word to Yeshua and asked if he indeed had the political answer they were looking for and had dreamt about when they were growing up. And Yeshua’s reply was this: “Blind people are seeing, cripples are walking, the diseased are healed, the deaf can hear, and good news is given to the poor. Isn’t this what God’s new government is all about?”

Some said no. Some thought the next leader should focus on rebellion not repentance. They wanted revolution of the land, not revolution of the heart. They wanted to drain the Roman swamp. So some said no, no to Yeshua and his way to the kingdom. His popularity began to wane for he was now being actively opposed by the higher-ups in society.

His friends realized this and wondered what was going to happen. Yeshua knew the time was right to explain everything as clearly as he could. So he began to speak to his close friends about his end game. How he would be betrayed by a friend, sold down the river, tried, convicted, and put to death.

Of course, they said no to that; it couldn’t happen. It wouldn’t happen. They would stand by him, fight with him, lead the country into an uprising against their oppressors. They were going to make Israel great again!

“Haven’t you heard a word I’ve been saying?” Yeshua asked. “Are you dense? I’ve been talking about the kingdom of God.”

“Yah, yah, the kingdom. Preach it, we’re behind you.”

“No, no, the kingdom of God, not human beings. Let me show you.”

So Yeshua demonstrated what it meant to be a citizen of God’s country. He washed his friends’ feet.

This is the true way to revolution and lasting change and true greatness, he said. If they didn’t understand it now, they would when the Spirit came upon them in power.

Needless to say, they did not understand at that point. But they did hear his promise. First, Yeshua had vowed they would see the kingdom and now he said they would receive power from the Spirit of God.

One day soon, just as John had predicted, when they were baptized with spiritual fire, the kingdom would come. These 100 or so women and men who had given up everything to follow the messiah were stoked, because soon they would be rewarded for their faithfulness!

Oh, how their hopes were dashed when Yeshua was executed. In the eyes of the world, another revolutionary figure had come to a humiliating end.

But no. Something happened. Yeshua wasn’t dead. Within a matter of days, his followers saw him! No one could quite understand the turn of events, but no matter, their savior was alive, their leader, their messiah! And his message hadn’t changed! He still spoke about the new government! The Kingdom of God was indeed coming. Hallelujah! The air was electric with excitement.

Then one day he was eating with his friends and said, “Don’t leave the city. The promise I’ve been talking about, I’m going to make good. In a few days you will be baptized with spiritual fire.”

Yes! This was it. The time had come. But they wanted to make sure, so they asked Yeshua, “Are you going to throw off the oppressors and give the nation back to Israel...right now?”

Jesus waved it off. “Those type of events are secondary. They’re God’s responsibility, the kingdom of Israel is God’s concern. Your concern is the kingdom of God. Yes, you will receive freedom and power. Once you were oppressed, powerless, but now you are free and full of power. Don’t you see? You shall use that freedom and power to be my agents here in Jerusalem and in Judea, even in Samaria and the rest of the world. For the kingdom of God is here and it breaks out beyond the political boundaries set by human beings. It touches every area under heaven, every area of life, every area. You can witness to that fact.”

You fishermen, you can now fish for people.
You Zealots, you can now be zealous to reach people.
You tax collectors, you business people, you can now use your wealth to share the gospel.
You chosen people of God, you can now proclaim to the world that God has chosen them as well.

And so that band of followers took Yeshua’s words to heart and began to proclaim that the Spirit of God was upon them. That they had been handpicked to bring good news to poor folk. That they had been chosen to proclaim freedom for those in debtor’s prison. That they were there to give sight to the blind, power to the oppressed, and to announce the year of God’s favor.

A revolution began that day and it continues into the present. The year of God is this year as well. We who are followers of Joshua, Yeshua the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, have been baptized with spiritual fire as well.

We just haven’t take hold of it yet, it seems. So often we get caught up in concerns of this world and we miss the point that God is taking care of the kingdoms of this world.

We deceive ourselves into thinking that we must carry the burden of revolution. That a vote will make the difference. That a march will make the difference. That power in the hands of our candidate will make the difference.

And when that fails, we sometimes despair that anything can make a difference. We wonder if we can really do anything in this world to save it from itself. And of course, on our own we can not.

So for many of us, we resign ourselves to wait until Jesus comes, to restore the church to her rightful place, with power and honor and glory. We ask, like those early followers, is now the time when you will break into this world and loose the bonds of government corruption, of corporate greed, of militarism, of secular humanism, of philosophical materialism, of wanton disregard for all of life, of warfare and violence, of hate and anarchy, of the sexualization of our culture and the power of addiction?

“Yeshua, are you going to throw off the oppressors and give the nation back to us...right now?”

But Yeshua shakes his head and assures us, “As to when this happens, that is God’s responsibility. Your concern is the kingdom of God. Live the kingdom. Do the things I have done. Wash feet. You’re citizens of a new kind of country. Live like it! Take my words to heart and begin to proclaim that the Spirit of God is upon you.

“And know, deep in your soul, that you have been hand picked to bring good news to poor folk. That you have been chosen to give freedom to those in debtor’s prison, to give sight to the blind, power to the oppressed, love to the lonely and lost. Be my witnesses, shout to the world that this is the year, this is the year, this is the year of God’s favor. That is your commission.”