The Gospel Writer's Story: Plot Line 4
I have been exploring the four plot lines that the gospel writers have woven together to tell us the story of Jesus. The first plot line is that in Jesus, Israel’s story is made complete, because in Jesus, Israel’s exile has finally come to an end. The second plot line is that in Jesus, God has come to be with us. Though, Jesus is not just any God come to us. Jesus is Israel’s God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The third plot line is that in Jesus, God’s renewed people are being launched into a ministry of new creation. While we might refer to God’s renewed people as the church, it is important that we remember that the church was not to be understood as a replacement for Israel, instead, God’s renewed people is meant to include Jew and Gentile alike. Finally, we come to our fourth plot line which focuses our attention on the first thing that Jesus said when he began his ministry, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
As I said, one of the very first things that Jesus did was announce that the Kingdom of God was at hand. This announcement was a direct challenge to Caesar’s kingdom. It was also a direct challenge to every other kingdom as well, present and future. Jesus told us to seek first God’s Kingdom which means that all other kingdoms come second. This is an aspect of the gospels that is often overlooked, which is why, in every generation we have struggled to understand our allegiance to the Kingdom of God and our allegiance to the country in which we find ourselves, at least it is has been our struggle since the 4th century when Constantine became a Christian. When Emperor Constantine became a Christian, the church became the state religion. In other words, the church suddenly found itself with power, and has resisted any efforts of giving it up ever since.
The birth narratives of Luke and Matthew set the groundwork for the clash of kingdoms. In Luke we see that Caesar has called for a census, demonstrating that he is the one in charge. At the same time, Mary and Joseph, descendants of King David, are getting ready to welcome their child into the world. This child will be recognized as the true King, as evidenced by the announcement of the angels to the shepherds and the visit of the wise men. It is the visit of the wise men that will instill panic in the heart of Herod, the puppet king of Israel.
It is Herod’s response to the visit of the wise men that reveals the modus operandi of earthly kingdoms to use violence and force to hold onto power and keep the people in line. This issue will come up in Mark’s Gospel when James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ left and right when he comes into his glory. Jesus tells James and John that grasping for power and lording it over others is not what his Kingdom is all about. Jesus redefines the idea of power and how it is to be used as he turns his face towards Jerusalem in order to take up the cross, teaching the disciples that real power is to be a servant and to give one’s life as a ransom for others.
Knowing that this is how Jesus understands his Kingdom gives us insight into the conversations that Jesus has with Pontius Pilate in John’s gospel. While Pilate goes on and on with threats of violence and death, again the characteristic of early kingdoms, Jesus quietly takes up the cross and shows that his Kingdom is not like earthly Kingdoms. Jesus’ Kingdom is about love and sacrifice, about forgiveness and reconciliation. It is into this Kingdom that Jesus invites all of his followers, challenging us to live out this Kingdom reality as we seek first Jesus’ Kingdom.