This coming weekend at Eastbrook Church we began a seven-week preaching series entitled “Power in Preparation,” drawn from Matthew, chapters 2-4. This is the second part of our longer journey through the Gospel of Matthew, building upon “Family Tree.”
This series explores Jesus’ preparation for ministry from His journey to Egypt as a child refugee to the wilderness before His ministry began. Looking at Jesus’ preparation for ministry reveals ways in which God prepares us in our own lives. Just as there were ways Jesus had to get ready for His work, so, too, there are hidden aspects of our lives that are incredibly significant for who we become and what we do.
You can also join in with a daily devotionalfor this series here.
This week, I am sharing some spiritual practices for reflecting on the previous year and stepping forward into the new year.
Stepping Forward with Focus
Just as we look back at the previous year gone by with thanksgiving, lament, and repentance, it is important to step forward into the coming year in a personally engaged and meaningful way.
First, let me encourage us to step forward into the new year with focus. Psalm 63 is a beloved psalm reflecting both our need for God and the power of right focus upon God.
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)
The psalmist is apparently in a difficult time, an important moment, but it is clear that the psalmist is stepping forward into that moment with focus on God.
Some will say that the most important thing we can do is to put “first things first.” As we step into this year, there is nothing more important – nothing that should more truly be a first thing – than God Himself. Our focus must be on Him.
Jesus also emphasized this when He said:
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Entering into the new year, we must consider how to keep our focus on God. We need to consider what it looks like to prioritize relationship with God in the midst of all the relationships in our lives. We want to establish some specific ways to do that this year that more than a resolution, but is a prioritization of the Living God in our live.
A good question to ask ourselves is: what is one thing I will do to prioritize life with God this year?
When Jesus proclaims that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), He draws upon a powerful idea that pervades the Hebrew Scriptures and history. There was an expectation in the Hebrew Scriptures that God’s kingdom would catastrophically break into the world. The Scriptures described a figure—the Messiah or Son of Man—who would inaugurate God’s kingdom and bring renewal and change to earth. But even as He proclaimed the kingdom’s arrival, Jesus also offered a radically different understanding of what the kingdom was all about.
To help us understand that, let me offer a quick overview of four other approaches to the hope of God’s kingdom that were prominent in Jesus’ day. I am drawing upon the helpful summary of these approaches in Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s book The True Story of the Whole World.
The Pharisees – The Pharisees were a religious group deeply concerned about compromising with culture. Because of this they advocated for strong religious separation from pagan corruption and radical obedience to God’s Word. They worked within the existing religious structures, the synagogues, to urge the people to influence culture by being different. The wanted to bring the kingdom by forceful separation.
The Essenes – Like the Pharisees, a second group had a similar desire to be different from the culture but took a very different approach to that. The Essenes withdrew from society, forsaking even the existing religious structures to form entirely separate communities centered on God. It is likely that the area of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was an Essene community. The wanted to bring the kingdom through withdrawal.
The Zealots – A third group, the Zealots, were furious with the Roman occupation of God’s land. Like the Pharisees, the Zealots called for radical obedience to God’s Word, but took it to another level. They promoted violent revolution against Rome. While the Zealots were not really one organized movement, these groups took their religious commitment frightfully seriously, sparking revolutionary movements against Rome that eventually led to reprisals from Rome, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. They wanted to bring the kingdom by violence.
The Sadducees – A fourth group was known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were largely a priestly group responsible for the maintenance of the Temple. They held positions of power with great influence under the Roman occupation, but often made politically compromises with the occupying forces of Rome in order to stabilize the country and maintain their power. They sought to bring hope and God’s kingdom through compromise.
Each of these groups wanted to bring in the hope of God’s kingdom, but they took different approaches toward making that happen: forceful separation, withdrawal, violence, or compromise. Jesus’ approach is distinct from all of these. So let’s examine first what it is that Jesus declares and then what it is that Jesus does.
First, in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus declares that He is the One who fulfills God’s promises in the prophets – the One who is to come and usher in the kingdom. After reading in His hometown synagogue from Isaiah 61, which speaks of the arrival of God’s kingdom, Jesus boldly declares:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
And when Jesus begins His public ministry, as we have already read in Mark 1:15, He says:
“The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
This is a bold proclamation—a declaration that something new has come. The only response to such a thing is to repent; that is, turn around, pay attention, and respond to this new reality.
To those holding various other views, such as the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Sadducees, Jesus essentially says, “Turn away from your current approach. God is doing something new in Me. Turn from your old ways of bringing in God’s kingdom and follow after Me and My way.” Yes, repentance is a turning from sin, but it is also a turning from alternate ways of living and alternate philosophies.
In a world that offers all sorts of philosophies of life, Jesus says there is one philosophy that truly brings in God’s kingdom and reflects God’s kingdom and it only comes from and in Him.
 Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The True Story of the Whole World: Finding your place in the biblical drama (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2009), 102-103.
The prophet Daniel speaks of both judgment and hope to a people exiled in foreign kingdoms. His prophetic oracles are situated within the exile in Babylon and the following Persian kingdoms.
In chapter 2, Daniel offers an interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a giant statue made of different materials that is eventually struck by a giant rock that destroys it. Daniel tells of how one earthly kingdom will supplant another, tracing events we know from history after Daniel’s time. However, the culmination of Daniel’s interpretation—the stone that destroys this statue of kingdoms—he says represents God’s kingdom. These are his exact words:
“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” (Daniel 2:44)
The theme of the vision is the humbling of earthly rulers because God is king and only God’s kingdom will endure through time, as it eventually supplants all other kingdoms.
Later in the book, in chapter 7, Daniel has a vision that has many similarities to this vision from Daniel 2. This time, however, the kings and kingdoms of earth are represented as ghoulish beasts that afflict the earth. Amidst this vision of terrifying vision, Daniel has a theophany—a vision of God—which puts perspective on the passing kingdoms of earth. In Daniel’s vision of God, there is a unique element, which connects with the messianic expectations of Isaiah:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)
This Son of Man figure surpasses all the earthly kings and kingdoms, even rising in victory over all the competing kingdoms that bring pain and corruption upon the earth. The Son of Man is the One who brings true hope, healing, and the kingdom of God upon earth. He is our hope, not the passing kings and kingdoms of earth.
Here are five recommendations I’d like to offer for followers of Jesus Christ on Election Day here in the US.
Pray – We know as believers that God works through prayer (James 5:16). We know that our calling includes praying for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We know that our nation is facing many challenges that are not only difficult to overcome but may even appear insurmountable. We know there is a great need for people to turn back to God and His ways at numerous levels. Because of these things, we should pray that our nation will be awakened with a need for God, that the elections will be guided by God, that safety and peace will reign on this day and days to come, and that all the candidates up for public office will be strengthened by God regardless of their political party.
Think Biblically – As followers of Christ we must always filter our actions through the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures. We must let God’s truth both correct and encourage us, even as it renews our minds (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Romans 12:1-2). We must remember that Jesus is our King and our allegiance is first and foremost to His kingdom. The kingdom of God is bigger than any political party. The kingdom calls us to value human life as made in the image of God from before birth through the end of our days. The kingdom of God calls us toward stewardship of the environment as created by God and stewardship of finances as a gift from God. The kingdom of God calls us to care for the forgotten, the poor, prisoners, widows, orphans, and foreigners in our midst. The kingdom of God calls for truth where truth is disregarded and moral order amidst disordered lives and relationships. The kingdom of God is marked by grace, truth, righteousness, and justice. As we face into this election day, we must think biblically as we wrestle with the issues before us.
Vote – It is a huge privilege in our country to have a voice in the political process. So many of my friends from around the world do not have this privilege where they live. They have little to no voice in the political process. This is similar to the first century church, which did not experience anything like this during their lifetimes under the Roman Empire. One aspect of Paul’s instructions about our relationship to governing authorities in Romans 13 is to exercise our right to vote. I encourage every follower of Jesus to take up this privilege.
Maintain Perspective – In the coming days, there will be some of us whose candidate wins and some of us whose candidate loses. For those whose candidate wins, we may be tempted to believe this victory is the answer for our country. For those whose candidate loses, we may be tempted to believe this outcome is the worst reality for our country. Without downplaying the good or bad realities, we must maintain perspective on all of this. The prophet Daniel shows us how to do this. After being ripped from his homeland and launched into exile, Daniel witnessed many kings and kingdoms rising and falling over the course of his life. God gave Daniel a vision of even more changes yet to come in the future. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must maintain clear perspective that our hopes are not tied to a candidate, policy, country, or kingdom. All of these will come and go. There is only one “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28).
Love One Another – Scripture affirms again and again that we are called as followers of Christ to love one another and stand in unity (1 John 4:11; Philippians 4:1-2). Jesus Himself said that people would know we are His disciples if we love one another (John 13:34-35). Amidst one of the most divided times in our lives, as believers in Christ we most choose a different way. We must stand together as one in ways that those around us, divided by so many different political philosophies and party allegiances, cannot. Let us put on love, which binds all things together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14) so that, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we might uphold the unity forged through the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus Christ.