You may have heard the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On”….which is actually an old phrase that has – as of late – enjoyed an unlikely resurgence in popularity. What does this phrase have to do with Mark 4:35 – 41….a passage of scripture that documents a most famous storm? How do we respond when storms do arise? And does Christianity always protect us against “nasty weather”? Tough questions. Come join us this Sunday as we explore them together.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke often of the “Kingdom of God”. Oddly, however, the exact meaning of “Kingdom” was never clearly defined. Some scholars believe that Jesus may have thought the meaning of Kingdom of God was so obvious to his listeners that he didn’t see the need to define it. Nevertheless, today there are generally two lines of interpretation regarding the kingdom: that the kingdom is “here and now” or it is something that is to come in the future.
The idea of a coming Kingdom has fascinated believers for centuries…..and there has been much speculation about events surrounding end times, the second coming and end-of-the-world prophecy. The Left Behind series has sold an incredible 67 million copies…becoming the best-selling Christian fiction literature of all time. Understandably, Christians often look forward to a coming Kingdom of God with anticipation. And who could blame believers for being excited about our heavenly reward given the sin and evil that is so pervasive in our world today?
But one has to wonder….as Christians, can we become so preoccupied with a coming kingdom that we neglect a rich kingdom that could exist on earth? Are we failing to serve God by not focusing on a better kingdom in the here-and-now? What can we learn from the Gospel regarding God’s expectations of us….right now….where we find ourselves?
There are two scripture passages where Jesus appears to be referring to the Kingdom of God as something that exists in the present tense: Luke 17:21 – 22 and Matthew 6:10. In Luke, Jesus is having a verbal exchange with some Pharisees who were looking for signs and wonders related to their perception of what the coming kingdom might look like…..and Jesus explains that “the kingdom is already among you”. In the passage from Matthew – part of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus is seen teaching his disciples how to pray and part of his instructions on prayer include “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. A petition of sorts that God’s divine purpose – which is already present in heaven – be executed on earth.
John Ortberg (pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church) said: “Many people think our job is to get my afterlife destination taken care of, then tread water till we all get ejected and God comes back and torches this place. But Jesus never told anybody—neither his disciples nor us—to pray, ‘Get me out of here so I can go up there.’ His prayer was, ‘Make up there come down here. Make things down here run the way they do up there.’ The request that ‘thy will be done’ is God’s invitation to ‘join him in making things down here the way they are up there.’ “
As humans, we often struggle with control. We want to control our situation….environment….destiny. And sometimes it even looks like we are in control. But it’ all an illusion. And being obsessed with control can alienate us from God.
The Old Testament is full of stories about people (and groups of people) who have tried – and failed – to wrestle control away from God. One could say that a significant portion of the Old Testament is just one long, sad story of the people of Israel being rescued God….turning away from God….and falling into despair. Repeat the cycle. It was the Israelites “turning away” that always got them in trouble. And that turning away was symptomatic of the fact that the Israelites thought they could control their own destiny.
Apart from the story of the Israelites, there are many stories with the same theme. I like the one about Belshazzar in Daniel chapter 5. Maybe because it’s just easy for us to relate to. We’ve seen parts of this story in movies, books, our own experience, etc.
You know that story about the rich, spoiled brat who always seemed to get his way and partied way too much? Well…that was Belshazzar. This young Babylonian ruler surely knew about Nebuchadnezzar (probably Belshazzar’s grandfather) and where Neb’s rejection of God got him….but Belshazzar was hardheaded and didn’t learn from it. About 25 years before Belshazzar’s time, Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah…pillaging Jerusalem of her spoils and taking her people into exile. Of course, that’s how Daniel came can to settle in Babylon. But more on that later in our story. All that conquering and pillaging surely gave Nebuchadnezzar the illusion of control….until God showed him “real” authority. Nebuchadnezzar was broken…exiled….but later in life came to respect and honor God. As a sign of respect, Nebuchadnezzar locked away the religious artifacts pillaged from Jerusalem….including the sacred challises used to honor God.
Fast forward 25 years to Belshazzar’s reign. When his parents and all the senior royalty of the castle were out of town….Belshazzar did what many young men decide to do. He threw a party. A small one of course….probably no more than 1,000 of his closest friends. The wine flowed….and flowed…..and flowed. And I bet Belshazzar must have felt like he was on top of the world….in total control….as the who’s who of the Babylonian kingdom ate, drank and partied. He was large and in charge…or so he thought. But the fact hasn’t changed that when folks sit around drinking long enough…someone’s gonna do something stupid…..and Belshazzar doesn’t disappoint. Sometime during the feast he came to the conclusion that the “red solo cups” he handed out to his guests just weren’t good enough. He decided to break out the “fine china”….the sacred challises his grandfather locked away so many years ago. Undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser, the party cranked up a notch as Neb mocked God and his people (now exiled and enslaved in Babylon) through the use of all those ancient grails.
But suddenly….out of nowhere….a floating hand begin writing on a wall….right there in front of everyone. Shock. Dismay. Disbelief. All those words probably described the reaction of the party-goers. Belshazzar – the young, strapping, confident ruler – buckled at the knees and fell in a heap on the ground. Undoubtedly, the crowd began to turn to Belshazzar for leadership…..as he tried to gather himself from his fainting spell. How would this situation be handled? To make matters worse…..the floating hand wrote words that no one could interpret….including all of Belshazzar’s astrologers, sages, sorcerers and wise men. Things got so crazy that the queen mother had to step in and rescue her son. The queen remembered a sharp, intelligent, wise-beyond-his-years young man who was taken into exile from Jerusalem. His name was Daniel. Surely he could interpret the words. He was summoned immediately.
Daniel was in fact able to interpret the words – “mene”, “tekel” and “parsin”. But more importantly Daniel understood the message was from God. And it was not comforting. Belshazzar’s days were numbered….he was evaluated by God and found wanting….and his kingdom would be divided. Tragically, Belshazzar was slain that very night.
Belshazzar’s pride, blasphemy and arrogance were symptoms of his belief that he was in complete control of his own life. As one commentator put it:
“Belshazzar acted as though he was in command and his life would go on for many years, yet the very breath in his mouth was controlled by God.”
To us, sitting here in 2013, this may sound like a “fantastic” story….and it’s very easy to get caught up in the supernatural and grandiose elements of the scripture. But underneath the outrageous conduct of Belshazzar lies the desire for control….through money, careers, possessions, power, violence/abuse…even religion. Thousands of years later….not much has changed. We’re all tempted by the illusion of control these things can bring.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock….or have turned off the television….cancelled your newspaper subscription….and disavowed yourself from the Internet….you know that our nation continues down a path of political turmoil. Debate and dialogue have been replaced by the brute force of ideology. …and now “liberal” and “conservative” are the holes into which almost everyone is pegged. And the divide between the two keeps getting larger.
Churches aren’t immune from this battle of wills between liberals and conservatives. In fact, I bet most of you reading this can think of at least one church that has split over liberal versus conservative interpretations of religious ad theological issues. What can churches do to avoid that trap? How does a better understanding of faith and works help us unite and grow as congregations?
Paul dealt with this problem with the early church in Rome. And, fortunately for us, he left behind his notes in his Letter to the Romans. For the Roman congregation….the big issue of the day was food. May not seem like a big deal to us in 2013….but for the converted pagans and Jews in that ancient city….”doing food right” was of extreme importance….albeit for different reasons. There was much finger-pointing and both sides of the debate were labeling actions as sinful….when, actually, there was no sin at all. The fledging church may have well spilt had it not been for the Spirit-lead advice from Paul. In Romans 14:1 – 6, Paul makes it clear that we are to be accepting….and that there is room for personal preferences within the body of Christ. Paul reminds us that we are all guests at Christ’s table. That it’s better to “be in right relationship” than to “be right”.
Life would be easy if everything were black and white. But often it is anything but that. And it’s the gray areas that cause us to stumble the most. The next time you find yourself on the edge of one of those gray dilemmas, try applying these questions to the problem-at-hand:
Can I do this without sinning?
Can I influence others for good, rather than being influenced by them?
If I do this, will it help or hinder the Kingdom of God?
Am I doing this to glorify or honor God?
Am I giving God credit?
Paul’s message in chapter 14 could be summed up like this: Nurture new and weak believers. Honor each other’s faith in the risen Christ. If you see others doing works you may not understand or approve of – give ‘em a pass. We are all at different places in spiritual maturity so focus on your own personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Please contribute – we’re collecting non-perishable items for Bay Area Food Bank through November 19.
As we prepare for the Holiday season, let’s help those who need a hand.
Clean out your pantry or pick up extra pantry items to help Bay Area Food Bank.
Bring your non-perishables to our church by Nov 19 and Hillcrest will get them to the Food Bank by Thanksgiving.
The church workday will be Saturday, November 10 from 8 am – 4 pm.
Come early or late and work as long as you can. Bring any general and yard tools you may have.
We have an “aggressive” list of projects, so all help is needed:
- Clean playground
- Haul off rotted benches and tables in back
- Trim bushes front and back
- Replace “exit” sign in children’s hall
- Interior cleaning
- Prepare areas for use by brides
- Repair folding doors in front hall
- Apply second coat of pain on interior doors of fellowship hall
We hope to see you then!
It has been a while since we last had an update. So sorry.
This week at Hillcrest:
Tuesday Bible Study is still on a Break.
Wednesday Night Bible Study and Prayer Meeting will meet at 6pm.
Next Sunday we encourage children to wear their ‘happy’ Halloween Costumes to church and we will have several activities for them during the Sunday School hour at 9:30.
Next Sunday, the 28th is Church Conference and Luncheon following Worship. Please bring a covered Dish.
Hillcrest Serves at 15 Place on October 31. Please sign up to join us.
Reading with the Rev. Has been postponed twice, but will meet on November 1 at 7pm in the Howell Classroom. We are reading, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation by John Fea.
Are you interested in writing? Space 301 in Downtown is holding a Writers Workshop on Tuesday nights, October 30, November 6 and 13. The cost is $15. If you are interested in joining Chris Aho as he attends this workshop, please contact him or Space 301 for further details and to sign up.
Have a great week and keep in touch.