Message: March 11, 2018- A Mercedes Benz vs. Taking Up the Cross (Already, but Not Yet)

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Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ? /My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. /Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, /So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV ? /Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me. I wait for delivery each day until three,/ So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV ?

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?/ I’m counting on you, Lord, please don’t let me down. /Prove that you love me and buy the next round, Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?

Everybody! Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends, Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ? That’s it!- Janis Joplin, “Mercedes Benz”

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (or tested) by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Psalm 91:11,12)

 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Deuteronomy 6:13)

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. Matthew 4:1-11 (NIV)

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24 (NIV)

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated.  And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.  He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”  Mark 14:32-36 (NRSV)

Now, already… but not yet.

Mark Allan Powell is a Lutheran theologian and writer who was also a professor of the New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary for many years. He wrote a book entitled, Loving Jesus. Powell devotes an entire chapter of his book on the “here now, but not yet” reality of the Kingdom of God and what that means for us today. He gives us a bit of a fresh perspective on what living in God’s Kingdom, here on earth and in the life that comes after this one, really means when the rubber hits the road.

It is important for us to understand that we are welcomed into the Kingdom of God in the water and the Word of our baptism. The Kingdom of God is here and now- but also not yet.

As Lutheran Christians we believe that our relationship with God centers on Jesus.  Our theology begins with the three “onlys”- Jesus, Faith, and the Bible.

Everything we believe centers on Jesus. From the beginning of creation: Genesis 1- “In the beginning, God”, and in the beginning of John’s Gospel – John 1:1- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Because all of everything starts with Him, so everything continues and is always with Him.

Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  We are not able to believe in God by our own power, but only because God calls us, names and claims us (John 6:44.)

The Bible is the inspired word of God- the Holy Spirit speaks directly to us through the human writers.  The teaching of the Bible leads us to Jesus as well as it sets the norms and standards for Christian living. The Law- or God’s rules- show us how much we need Jesus, because we can’t do anything with the rules other than break them.  The Gospel shows us that in Jesus we are saved, made good, and redeemed because He put sin and death to death for us all.  As Martin Luther taught, the Bible is the manger that holds the Christ child.

God’s Kingdom is here and now in that God is everywhere and He is always at work in and through us, but His work in us and in the world is not complete yet.  Suffering still exists.  Evil still exists.  We still have to struggle and feel pain.  Jesus enters into our earthly sufferings too.  He told those of us who follow Him that we will have to take up our crosses and enter in to His suffering and sacrifice as part of the deal. He did not so much promise that He’s dropping off the Benz and the flat screen before 3pm tomorrow.

There is a common fallacy taught in some sects of American Protestantism known as the Prosperity Gospel, (also known as “Believe and Receive” or “Name it and Claim It”) in which it is taught that following Jesus leads one to monetary riches and prosperity here and now.  Prosperity Gospel assumes that the Kingdom is already here in its fullness- no waiting- you just have to “believe and receive.”  Prosperity teaching portrays God as a sort of celestial Santa Claus.  It also implies- contrary to what Jesus teaches us in the Bible- that we control God by our requests and prayers instead of us acknowledging God is the one in control of all things. We were created to conform to God’s will- Romans 12:1-2 –  rather than the other way around.  In the prosperity gospel mindset, instead of praying, “thy will be done,” we are really praying, “my will be done.” In this system, one can just ask God, and if one prays hard enough, the Benz is in the driveway in the morning. It sounds appealing, but this is not how the Kingdom of God works.

Do we really want to believe in a God that we control, rather than the God of the universe, the God we know from the Holy Scriptures, Who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent?

Prosperity Gospel is an outgrowth of a false theology known as the Theology of Glory, and it’s nothing new. The problem with Prosperity Gospel or other manifestations of the Theology of Glory is that those systems of thought are not Biblical and they don’t represent the way God works. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert as we read in Matthew 4, this was the false theological premise to which Satan was appealing. “Hey Jesus, you’re the Son of God, you want bread, just make those rocks into bread…” “Hey, Jesus, throw yourself off of that mountain, ‘cause you’re the Son of God and you can take over all the governments of the world.”   Jesus reminds Satan that we don’t live on bread alone, and that it’s a bad idea to put God to the test.

Yes God CAN do whatever it is we might request. God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) so nothing is outside of His capabilities.  What God can or can’t do is not the question.  Is it God’s will?, and does it fit in HIS plan?- those are better questions, although we may never get answers to those questions.  The hard truth is that if our faith is contingent upon our circumstances, or upon getting our own way, it isn’t a faith that is centered on Jesus. It isn’t a faith in God who we learn about in the Bible. It isn’t what Jesus tells us about the Kingdom of God.

Temptation is nothing new. We want to solve our own problems and do things our own way. This was the sin of the Garden.  The serpent told Eve to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil so she would be as God. (Genesis 3:4-5)  It’s a huge human temptation to set ourselves up as our own god.  C.S. Lewis calls this desire to be as God the sin of pride, and that pride is the mother of all sin. My will versus thy will.  God has different ways of doing things.  Often we have to deny ourselves and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of God’s Kingdom. We don’t always get our way.

We do not live on bread alone but on the very word and will of God. We get frustrated when we can’t make things happen on our own terms and on our own authority. We get angry when following Jesus isn’t easy.  Where is God’s Kingdom in all the dirt and suffering of this world? It’s here…but not yet.  It wasn’t easy for Jesus in His humanity, in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading with God the Father to take the cup of suffering away from Him.  Following Jesus means that on this side of eternity we will have those times where we will have to share in His cup of suffering.  Teaching the necessity of suffering is not a popular way to get butts in seats at church, but then again God is equipping us for the long term, not just for what makes us comfortable now.  We are part of His Kingdom, but it’s not all the way here.

Jesus’ theology was radically different than the Theology of Glory. His was the Theology of the Cross– that in our humanity and in all the facets of the human condition, including sacrifice and suffering, we were created to work toward bringing about the Kingdom of God here on earth. Jesus taught us to pray, “thy will be done,” because we were created to fulfill God’s will, not the other way around. We enter to the joy of being with Jesus as well as we enter into His suffering.  We too are called to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus as He teaches us in Matthew 16:24.  The Kingdom is both here and now, and not yet.  We are still being formed and conformed to the will of God while we are in these temporary bodies and in this perishable world. We aren’t here to be served, but to serve.

Surrendering to God isn’t a bargain we strike, as in, “God, if I love You, what will you give me in return?” Quite simply, God is not going to be dropping the Benz- or the big screen TV- or the night on the town- by anytime soon.

When Jesus lived on earth He entered into human suffering. We are called to follow Jesus’ example- to serve others, and to sacrifice our time and possessions for the sake of others. We are called to enter into all the imperfections and “not-yets” of this life, as messy as they are.  Jesus got dirty.  He got emotionally and physically involved with life here on earth. It is in this way that we bring about the Kingdom of God on earth- by submitting to God’s will, by getting involved and getting dirty- that we are conformed to God’s will and we are equipped for life in the world to come.

How do we see the Kingdom of God? Do we immediately go to the imagery of Revelation 21  and imagine the city of Jerusalem descending from the skies? It’s really cool.  God’s Kingdom includes that, but is not limited to the not-yet. Powell proposes a different, more holistic and practical perspective- that we see the Kingdom of God as being everywhere God lives.

God of course, lives everywhere, in through and with His creation. Yet at the same time we are mired in the long reaching effects of sin in the world.  This world is very broken.  We are broken people.  Our mission in this world is to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit to bring comfort now and to fix what’s broken as we can.

This is the paradox we live out here on this earth. We are here- living in a broken and messed up world- but as the apostle Paul teaches us, we are not of this world. Our story doesn’t begin with “eat, drink and be merry,” and it doesn’t end with “and then you die.” Our narrative should be far different- a story of surrendered and sacrificial living for the sake of others, a life characterized by radical giving, and radical joy.  In our challenges we grow, we are made stronger, and we are developed into the people God created us to be.  We are called to offer a window to the rest of the world to what the Kingdom looks like as it unfolds. In the Sacrament of Holy Communion-we get a foretaste of the feast to come. We are reminded that this world is not the end and that we are connected with a far greater reality.

We have to be aware that right now we are living in both systems at the same time. We are living in the NOW as well as in the not-yet.  We are promised the fulfilled Kingdom –the majestic vision of Revelation 21- in the future, but it’s not here yet.  There is still death, crying, mourning, decay and loss in this world.  We cannot help but to enter into the pathos of this world and be touched by it, just as Jesus was, but we also live beyond this world where there is no more suffering or death or tears. Look around and we can’t miss the fallen nature of this world. We have to live where we are.  Even so, God’s Kingdom is all around us, and it is here now.  If we only focus on the life to come after this one, we miss out on the blessings as well as the preparation and training that are happening here and now.  God-life isn’t just for the life to come, but it is right here for us to experience, and to spread around.

Redemption is a process, just as our salvation is a process. We trust in God’s slow work, and in His way and time. The Kingdom is here…and the Kingdom is to come. Praise be to God.