May 8, 2013
Making the Invisible Kingdom Visible (part 2)
Learning to see a God-with-us world will completely change the way we engage it.
This post is from my keynote address at the Wilberforce Weekend hosted by The Chuck Colson Center in Washington DC on April 26. My actual remarks may have differed slightly from this transcript. You can read Part 1 of the talk here.
PART TWO: FROM EXILE TO INCARNATION
So what is the solution? If the Exile model, derived from Jeremiah 29:7, is a sub-Christian model of cultural engagement, what is the alternative? Just as the church shifted from the Exodus to the Exile model 40 years ago, I believe we need to shift again. But this time we need more than a new strategy. We need new eyes to see the world in a fundamentally different way. If we don’t then our efforts to manifest the kingdom will remain flawed because we will still be driven by fear and control--by a vision of the world as an unsafe and dangerous place. But to see the world differently, to see with new eyes, requires a supernatural encounter with the grace of God.
In 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. was a young Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama. After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, King found himself leading a bus boycott against the racist policies of the city. He lived under constant threat to his life. On Jan 27, he was woken in the middle of the night by a phone call. The voice said that if he wasn’t out of town in three days they were going to kill his family.
King couldn’t go back to sleep. With his wife and infant daughter in the next room, he made himself a cup of coffee and sat in the kitchen trying to figure out how to escape Montgomery. He later admitted that he was “scared to death” and “paralyzed by fear.” Like Thomas Aquinas’ city under siege, fear had caused King to turn inward in a posture of self-protection.
But then something happened, something unexpected. King felt something stirring within him--an inner voice that spoke to him. It said, “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth, and lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world. ”The voice promised “never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. He promised to never leave me, never, to leave me alone.”
That night King experienced the presence of Christ and it changed the way he saw the world. It took away his fear. He saw with new eyes. He saw a God-with-us world. After that encounter in his kitchen with God he said, “I can stand up without fear. I can face anything.” His new view of the world was about to be tested.
Four nights later he was speaking at a rally when someone ran in and shouted that King’s home had just been bombed—with his wife and daughter inside. He ran out to find an angry mob assembled in front of his still burning home. His family was ok, but the mob of angry African-Americans, with guns and bats, were ready to riot. King stood up on his still smoldering porch and addressed the crowd. He said:
He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. I want you to love your enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them. For we are doing what is right. We are doing what is just. And God is with us.
The mob put down their guns and bats, and starting singing a hymn--”Amazing Grace.” Historians look back at that night as the turning point in the civil rights movement. It was the night that nonviolence and love were put into practice and it changed our nation. I think they’re wrong. The real turning point in the civil rights movement was four nights earlier in King’s kitchen when he encountered Christ and had his vision of the world transformed. God gave him new eyes--eyes to see not a dangerous world in which our activism must be driven by fear and self-interest, but a God-with-us world in which we are freed from fear, freed to serve, freed to love even those who seek our harm.
This is the higher call of Christian cultural engagement. We are not called to seek the welfare of our society so that things may go well for us. We are not called to make the best of our exile. We are called to the way of Christ. We are called to Incarnation. Incarnation differs from Exile in three important ways.
First, Incarnation is a choice. Both Exodus and Exile are circumstances that God’s people find themselves in against their will. They are trapped in a pagan land that they did not choose, and if possible would flee in a moments notice.
But Jesus’ Incarnation was different. Jesus chose to empty himself, take on the form of a servant, and dwell among us. He willingly came to this world, to those he knew would hate and reject him. So, as his people, our call is not Jeremiah 29. We aren’t simply to make the best of an unfortunate situation. We are called to embrace this world, this day, this culture, this community where God has put us.
Consider the messages our society hears from the church. They either hear us speak of an idealized past that wasn’t as immoral or ungodly as today, or they hear us talk about the future--about heaven or the perfection of the age to come. But when we focus on being somewhere else, or we complain incessantly about the world today, we are arrogantly questioning God’s wisdom and his call. He has called us to this time, to this place, to this culture. And we have the choice to embrace our call as Jesus did, or kick against it.
You may be thinking, I didn’t choose this time or this culture. You’re right, but as Jacque Philippe reminds us, true inner freedom comes when we learn to choose what we did not choose. Consider Simon of Cyrene, the bystander forced by the Romans to help Jesus carry his cross. Like Simon we did not choose the challenges of our age, but under this heavy beam we now have a choice. We can complain or we can embrace our call. We can choose to bear the burden of another and fulfill the law of Christ; the law of love. Or we can grumble at our lot. Incarnation is a choice.
Second, Incarnation is for the sake of others and not ourselves. We’ve already seen how the Exile model is rooted in self-interest and self-preservation. But Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. He came to lay down his life. To surrender it. To offer it as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Such a posture is only possible when we are set free from fear. Such service for others can only occur when we are free to love.
This other-focus was one of the most beautiful aspects of Martin Luther King’s activism. Of course his work was about rescuing his own community from oppression and injustice, but again and again King went beyond that obvious goal. He articulated a kingdom ethic. He recognized that the evil of racism not only hurt black Americans, but it also enslaved the white Americans who practiced it. He wanted to free them from the clutches of hate as well. Unlike some civil rights leaders of his day, King wasn’t interested in vengeance or reciprocity toward whites. He wanted their freedom and redemption as well.
We live in a cynical culture, and that cynicism extends to the church. The world perceives our activism and political engagement as self-interested. They think we’re driven to preserve our families, our churches, our institutions, and our values. And if we’re following the Exile model, they’re probably right. But if we are to break through the cynicism, then we must be the people who engage not primarily for our good, but for theirs. The church should be the one community in our culture that genuinely exists for the sake and the welfare of others rather than itself. Incarnation is always for the sake of others.
Third, the goal of Incarnation isn’t merely survival, but flourishing. Remember, the Exile model was predicated on surviving an undesirable situation--captivity in a foreign land. But Jesus didn’t say he came to help us “get by.” He didn’t take on flesh and dwell among us so that we could survive this broken world. He said that he came that we might have life, and have it in abundance. Everywhere Jesus went he didn’t just make things better, he made them fantastic. He gave the crowds more to eat than they could consume. He didn’t just make sure the wedding at Cana was acceptable--he made it the best party they’d ever seen.
Incarnation isn’t about survival until we can escape this rock and get to heaven. It’s about flourishing--cultivating all of the order, beauty, and abundance of the Kingdom we can here and now. This world matters to God. It’s not just his first failed attempt that he’s planning to throw away so he can start over. We do not worship a God who replaces, but a God who redeems. To follow the Incarnation of Jesus means to seek the flourishing of this world and our neighbors within it, and not simply survive an unfortunate circumstance.
Friends, in the last century we have seen the church move beyond the Exodus model of cultural disengagement toward the Exile model of cultural activism. But we cannot remain there. We must continue forward to a model rooted in the New Testament; one that is centered on Christ. We must become people of Incarnation. That means choosing this world; embracing this time and this place as our calling from God. It means engaging not to preserve or advance our community, but engaging for the sake of others. And it means seeking more than mere survival, but the flourishing of all.
But this kind of cultural engagement can only happen when we see the world with new eyes. Not as a dangerous and threatening place that drives us through fear; that contracts us inward in a posture of self-preservation and control. But as a God-with-us world in which he will never leave us or forsake us; a perfectly safe world in which neither a Roman cross or an assassin's bullet can snatch us from God's hand. We must see a world in which we are set free from every fear so that we can give our lives in love even to those who call us their enemy.
How do we receive these new eyes? Exactly as the hymn says--by God’s amazing grace. It is only as we draw near to him and experience his presence that we will come to see the world differently. So, while we are here to talk about making the invisible kingdom visible, amid our strategizing and planning, let’s also be in prayer for ourselves and the Church. Let’s call upon God to shed his grace upon us, that we might be freed from fear, transformed by his love, and be given new eyes. Only then we will be able to truly sing, “I was blind, but now I see.” Amen.