Why Doesn’t God Do Something?
By Neil Earle
On one level world news is looking more discouraging all the time and violence is becoming a hallmark.
No wonder some people ask: Where is God? What is he doing? We’ve prayed and prayed but the news is still bad. What is going on here?
Where Is the Deliverer?
Jesus’ day was also full of atrocities and tensions and a background atmosphere of seething violence. In Luke 13 Jesus cited two “breaking stories.” A tower had fallen on people in Siloam killing many people and the Roman governor had just executed worshippers in the very precincts of the sacred Jewish temple (Luke 13:1-5).
Remember, the Jewish people of Jesus’ day were expecting a great Deliverer to come from Bethlehem known as the Messiah. They were chafing under the oppressive heel of Roman rule. One of Jesus’ disciples was a former Zealot named Simon. The Zealots were sworn terrorists who had vowed to wreak whatever havoc they could upon Roman officials and their puppets, the Herods.
Let’s remember the Gospels are not always written with a cute Sunday School halo around them. For example, Jesus’ challenging statement in the Sermon on the Mount about carrying someone’s baggage two miles if they forced you to do it referred to an everyday situation whereby Roman soldiers often pulled out a sword to forcibly conscript Jewish peasants to carry their gear.
So when Jesus showed up preaching the kingdom of God it must have seemed at first like a cry of relief in the ears of his hearers. His disciples may have passed on the stories about Jesus’ birth, how he had been born in Bethlehem as the prophecies had called for, how a heavenly choir had appeared to shepherds at his birth and how wise men had come from far away bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh saluting a young baby as the King of the Jews.
Then there were Jesus’s miracles, the well-attested healings that emanated from his personal appearances. Surely, with all this the Kingdom was ready to move in – right?
Well, in part. Jesus early showed he had no taste for the violent overthrow of constituted authorities. He paid taxes, made friends with Roman officers and one of his disciples had been a government tax collector. What happened to the dramatically different Kingdom of peace Jesus had begun proclaiming?
We can ask the same question today. What on earth is God doing?
Well, this requires some deeper background in Scripture. A few years ago a book came out titled “The Upside Down Kingdom” about how the Kingdom Jesus initiated was so different than what everyone was looking for in the First Century…and ever since.
Martin Luther called it “the left-handed kingdom,” a kingdom so unlike the governments and power structures of this world that even Jesus’ friend, the rip-roaring fiery preacher named John the Baptizer was temporarily confused. Remember (Matthew 11:1-11)?
The very fact that the Christ child was born in a fairly “small potatoes” town such as Bethlehem and not mighty Jerusalem five miles north should have made people think. It should make us think. These small details paint a picture of a Kingdom coming in weakness, coming in great humility, coming in great insignificance as a far as the rich and famous of the First Century were concerned. Which is why the title “The Upside Down Kingdom” is such a good one.
Anglican minister Robert Capon loves the Parables of Jesus. He claims they consistently taught “left-handed power” as opposed to the right-handed power of the despots and rulers of his era. This included King Herod who had all the boy babies killed in Bethlehem to stamp out this rumor of “King of the Jews.” What a senseless atrocity! It meant the Romans with their 6000 crosses erected on the road to Rome after one major slave revolt, as we see in the movie “Spartacus,” were calling the shots.
Grisly, sickening stuff. This is like the bad news of the world today, mired in atrocity then as now. Where is the Kingdom amidst of all this? Well in the very midst of these senseless atrocities we should remember that the Church Jesus founded was exploding in growth and influence. Its main public task was to announce the dawn of a better day, the righting of all things, the event known as the Kingdom of God.
Left-handed power, says Capon, is “a paradoxical power, power that looks for all the world like weakness, non-intervention that seems indistinguishable from calloused apathy.” It’s an intriguing phrase. It reminds us of how Jesus worked and taught, not as a powerful political figure with backing from the Rich and Famous but…a kingdom hinging on cups of cold water given in his name, drafting boys with loaves and sardines to feed thousands, pointing to powerless little children as forerunners of the kingdom. It includes fathers extending unfathomable mercy to a rebellious, heedless Prodigal Son and compassionate half-breeds like the Good Samaritan ending up as heroes. It has time for impoverished housewives like the one who throws a party because she’s found her lost coin or a rugged shepherd striding into the storm to fund a lost, possibly stupid, sheep with no TV cameras to record his good deed.
Is This the Kingdom?
All this helps answer the question – where is the Kingdom Jesus promised? Why are people still dying in Afghanistan or Iraq or Haiti, or on the highways or in the ICU units or trying to stay warm wrapped in cardboard under a freeway tunnel? What’s going on? Has Jesus let us down? Where is the King of Mighty David’s Royal Line, the Deliverer the Jewish people were expecting? We could all use a Deliverer right about now after a year like this is turning into.
Well, take heart. Jesus wasn’t deceiving us. The Kingdom is here…only it’s present in the smallest, quietest, weakest places. It is present but cloaked with invisibility. The Parables Jesus gave make it clear that to see the Kingdom at work we have to be looking in the right direction. What is the kingdom like? Jesus once asked. Well, it’s like…like leaven, which a woman puts in three measures of meal till the whole mass is leavened.
“The Kingdom? Like yeast? Jesus – you’ve got to be kidding,” some might say.
The Everyday Kingdom
But wait! There’s something about leaven. It is small and miniscule yet steady, relentless, unstoppable and ultimately…transformative.
The fact that the kingdom is small means it gives us – ordinary people like you and I – a chance to participate. The fact that it is always working means God has been conscripting ordinary people like you and I to do his bidding.
These are great tip-offs to the way it works in the Kingdom of God.
In his writing on Matthew’s Gospel, Michael Green raises the questions about the Kingdom that the parables of Matthew 13 answer. As well as the hiddenness and ordinary “every-dayness” of the Kingdom enshrined in the leaven analogy, Green explores other answers. Let’s listen in as Green imaginatively “raps” with Jesus.
“Why it seems, Lord that hardly anyone is responding.” Right. That’s an understandable reaction. But the Parable of the Sower had already answered this. Of four categories Jesus described only group four seems to “get it” (Matthew 13:1-9). Capon, by the way, has an even better answer for that in his book, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. Even seed scattered by the wayside has a habit of growing up against the odds. And the birds take it and scatter it far afield. What looks hopeless isn’t so.
“But…the kingdom, dear Master, seems so ineffective up against the disastrous news of the world today.” Remember the Parable of the Mustard Seed. This tiny bead of life starts miniscule and insignificant. You can hardly hold it between your fingers it’s so small. Yet it slowly, inexorably takes over the bush (Matthew 13:31-32). In the Kingdom small things gather momentum and begin to win out over time. The abolition of slavery largely traces to a group of English Christians in a small village named Clapham that the world has never heard of. (Google “Clapham Sect.”) Mighty America was sped along by 51 survivors of 100 from a tiny ship called “Mayflower” and Spanish missionary/martyrs pushing up from Mexico. The house churches in China – now numbering in the millions of adherents – took off under the baleful days of Mao’s China.
You have to know where to look.
Yes, but “well it seems, forgive me, my King, so hard to keep this before us with all that’s happening.” Ah, well don’t forget the parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-45). You have to know what to look for. It takes a special kind of person to spot the kingdom at work. If you have responded to Jesus’ invitation you are that person. You’re an ambassador of the Left-Handed Kingdom.
“Why is it so weak, Jesus, and why does evil persist?” The parable of the weeds growing vigorously among the wheat reminds us that there is a judgment coming. The Good God has allowed evil to co-exist but he will not tolerate it forever. Witness the spectacular ends of abusers from Adolf Hitler to Saddam Hussein. The once-scary USSR is no more. The final ushering in of the Kingdom will be even more spectacular. The Kingdom is indeed the great equalizer (Matthew 13:24-30). Meanwhile we have work to do.
“Why do we have to wait so long for vindication?” Ah, remember the Parable of the Great Dragnet. The Lord is keeping watch (Matthew 13:47-50). He promises to sort out the good fish from the bad. The Kingdom is the time of the Great Reversal when the first are last and the last are first. Jesus staked his life on that belief and so have thousands of his people across time. These folks must have seen something. You can’t keep up “faking it” forever. That would be illogical to believe.
Seeding the Kingdom
By now we begin to see. Our questions have answers. Our job is to pass out cups of cold water, scrounge about for loaves and fishes to feed the hungry, visit the sick, encourage the prisoners, pass out Thanksgiving turkeys, run food banks, staff cold-weather shelters – in other words, the kind of work that Christians have been doing for centuries! It doesn’t seem like it’s changing the world does it? But it is making a big big difference in the lives of millions and millions of people.
After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2011 I couldn’t help but notice how one news reporter and his team stumbled ashore in search of a first-hand report. The first people they met were aid workers from World Vision! Christians were already there. World Vision itself was formed out of tragedy – the nightmare so many orphans faced back in the Korean War (1950-1953).
We seem to have come full circle. The kingdom that began at Bethlehem is small, quiet, humble, insidious almost, but very very effective, like leaven. Take another look – the Kingdom is at hand. Maybe you can help it out, that’s the beauty of being small. Everyone counts.