Sunday, December 18, 2011

What is your role in the kingdom of God?

I've been thinking lately about Mary, the mother of Jesus. When Mary was growing up, her people anticipated the coming of the kingdom of God. They might have been more comfortable with the Old Testament prophets' language of the "day of the Lord," but they had a sense God was going to show up and do something amazing, radical, important, earth-shattering.

Lots of Mary's people had a pretty clear sense that they just needed to wait and pray. (Some, of course, ignored the possibility that God would do anything -- they just lived their lives and missed it when God eventually showed up. Sad.) They knew God would do his work. These faithful ones anticipated, waited, watched, and hoped.

Others believed they could make God's kingdom happen by force. They were the Zealots who took up arms to throw off the Roman usurpers and set up an earthly kingdom for God to rule through their power. They looked back to the Maccabean revolt against the Jews almost two hundred years earlier, when the military revolt of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers bought a window of partial freedom for his people and created the Hasmonean dynasty among the Jews, until the Romans came in and took over a century later.

Still others believed that if they moved out into the desert, purified their lives and distanced themselves from the pollution of this ugly world, God would come to them and rescue them. They believed that if they could just get away from sin and corruption, they could pave the way for the Messiah. These were the Essenes, living out along the Dead Sea.

Another group decided that they were really more interested in their own rule and authority because they saw themselves as the heirs of God's kingdom, whatever it meant. They had power and they meant to keep it. These were the Sadducees who ruled the Temple and the sacrificial system, who had the endorsement of the Roman authorities and lived well on the religious taxes they levied on their people.

What about Mary? We don't know a whole lot about her before Gabriel showed up to tell her she was going to carry the Messiah inside her body for nine months. We know, however, that when the angel showed up Mary heard what he had to say. And when he'd said his piece, she responded with willingness to be a part of God's plan. "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

Do we have ears to hear when God invites us into his plans? Or do we simply go our own ways and assume that's just more of the noise that fills our minds and hearts this time of year? The church invites us into a class or a program. A neighbor wants to sit and visit. A friend needs a caring ear or a helping hand. The Salvation Army is looking for bell ringers. The food bank needs donations. Which of these is the voice of God and which is just background noise? Do you even care?

If we are seeking to know God's voice, he'll help us discern when he is speaking. Mary must have known him to some extent before Gabriel showed up. Jesus said many years later, "My sheep hear my voice."

What happens next? Mary responds, willing to be a part of God's work. Then she is mostly passive. The baby grows within her whether she focuses on it or not. Gestation and birth don't require Mary's consent. So often we think that our participation in God's work is about what we do, about what we accomplish, about how we help God out. Instead, more often God builds his kingdom in and through us when we are willing -- not through our hard work, most often, but through our willingness to let him do his work in us. Most of the best ministry I've done in my life I've felt more like a spectator on the fifty yard line watching God get his hands dirty, rather than like a quarterback throwing brilliant passes. The privilege of professional ministry for me has been that I have really good seats to watch the kingdom of God happen, and sometimes I even get to be in the game for a while.

What Mary does, more than anything, is to reflect on God's work. She ponders. She contemplates. She's a good example for us these Advent days when the world seems dark and we know we need God to come and make his kingdom a reality among us.

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