Week 32: What is the kingdom like?

Readings for the week: Psalm 91, Ecclesiastes, Song of SongsLuke 18-21Psalm 92-93, Listen to these passages

Opening Prayer:

 Dear Lord, thank you for this day, this week, this life. Thank you that you are looking out for me, and want the best for me, even as I often don’t even want that for myself. I get caught up in a lot of distractions and concerns, things that the world says I have to do or need to be defined by.  I get lost and then feel the weight of life crush down.  And there you are, lifting the burden, pointing the way, filling me with hope.  You love me and every day I want to love you more and more.  Be with me in the struggles of this week and be with me in the joys of this week. May I keep my focus on you, because you’re always looking out for me.  Amen.

1. Psalm 91

2. Reading through Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs

What’s best in life?  There’s all sorts of ways to answer this.  We’re given all sorts of stories and cues about how to spend our money, where we need to go, ways to spend our time.  Advertisers take advantage of this, spurring on different whispers in our head that matches what we’re seeing around us. You need this… You have to do that… You deserve it.

What does it mean to be fulfilled? That’s a slightly different question. We are great at distracting ourselves, and we’re given no end of ways to find ways to part with our money or our time.  But being fulfilled involves experiencing a deep peace.  How many can say they have that?

Those of us who are financially limited like to indulge the “If onlys…” If only I had a better car, better vacation, more space, bigger house, better friends, a church that did this or that or the other thing better. We get caught in a frenzy of the “if onlys…” and while some of these may be extravagant, others sure seem to be needs.  I need a job.  I need a place to live. I need…

But then we get lost in that, and the needs never dry up and never get altogether fulfilled. I look around and see people with very nice homes and very nice cars and seemingly put together families, and they’re caught in a frenzy still.  There’s never an end of the “if onlys…”

What’s the point of life?  That’s what the author of Ecclesiastes is wrestling with, following what was an ancient kind of literature, called “pessimistic” literature.  Life is meaningless, it’s all fate, you live, you die.  What’s the point. It sounds very negative at first. Of course, what does one expect with something called pessimistic. Why would someone even read it? Well, we are often entertained by the depressing.

It’s the art house movie of the ancient era.  The trick in reading these, and much of the Bible, is to realize that again and again, the Bible takes a popular genre of the time, but rather than going the same way, it co-opts it, and in taking the form but providing a different meaning, it co-opts the people reading it.

This book is a call to those who are trying to pursue what they think is best in life and to address those caught with a bad case of the “if onlys…” Within the pessimism is a curious optimism, a call to turn toward God, as God is the only path of fulfilment. It’s not going to be through finding identity in money, or sexuality, or a great education, or a powerful job, or partying, or lavish lifestyle.  There’s a secret to peace, and it’s walking with God.

Which makes Ecclesiastes actually evangelistic, calling people out of their paths, saying here’s a guy who has gone down all these roads, and in coming to the end, realize they don’t live up to the promises.  Turn to God.  It’s also a reminder for those of us who get caught thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, that we see all the fun folks are having and we wonder if we’ve been missing out.  Don’t turn away from the good path, the path that leads to God, because a realistic look at the world says there’s troubles in every direction, and peace is only found in walking with God.

Song of Songs is another very curious book. After going through the long lists of laws, and then histories of kings and prophets, it’s a lot like a text book, something we read for an assignment but not for fun.  It’s very ‘religious’ in a formal sense. Especially if we think religion is about those laws about what is sacred and who stands where during a special holy event. But, here’s another secret, religion isn’t just about that at all.  It includes this, but it goes back to what Ecclesiastes mentions, what is best in life? What does it mean to be fulfilled? What does it mean to be human?

Religions answer this, but there’s a lot of philosophies and approaches out there that answer this too, meaning religion is much more those movements that believe in a deity.  Whatever gives orientation in life, whatever guides a person in finding meaning or satisfaction, is really religious.  People want meaning and want wholeness.

What does this have to do with Song of Songs?  It’s another genre of story-telling, one we’re very familiar with in our era: romance.  It’s about wooing and being wooed, sharing passionate words about passionate desires.  It seems unusual only because we’ve adopted views on what a religion is supposed to be. But the God of the Bible made humanity, and the stirrings of humanity, and the wonder of love. We desire and we yearn, we seek companionship.

These too can easily be co-opted, with society trying to take these desires and make them into their own gods, to somehow give us meaning and identity and purpose. They don’t do that, but that doesn’t mean treating them like old time religion has done, which is to cut it out, stomp it down, bury it deep. We’re not called to suppress, we’re called to be transformed, and that reflects in how we can even celebrate in romance.

Of course, another view, is that Song of Songs is really about God’s relationship with the people.  If that sounds outlandish, the kind of romance language is found throughout the Bible. God doesn’t just love, he woos. God isn’t just a judge, he’s a husband treating his wife well. That leads to expressions of jealousy, which isn’t a word used in legal proceedings, it’s an emotion of violated desire.

I think this interpretation is also true. We’re given a story of validated and developed desire that gives us an insight into both God and ourselves, so that rather than being co-opted by the world, we can live transformed lives that celebrates all that God has done and is doing.  Because God so loves us…

3. Reading Through Luke 18-21

What does God value? There’s no end of ways people answer this and like to tell other people what to think and what to do. Some people are self-appointed hall monitors in life, telling people where to stand, when to sit, who to be.  It’s a very restricted vision of life, but comes out of sense of trying to keep people from going wrong. The trouble is that even those people who do all the right things, in all the right ways, at all the right times, in all the right places, can still be lost.  They think they know what God wants, but they don’t even know what it means to be human.

What does it mean to be human? That’s the key question, isn’t it?  All sorts of answer are out there, some from formally called religions and some from informal religions that would be shocked at that label but are certainly providing an orienting philosophy for living life.

What matters? Who matters?

At the heart of these chapters in Luke is Jesus sharing what God cares about and what it means to be human. It’s not about doing or getting or achieving. It’s not a list. It’s a relationship, and that’s why those who have nothing to lose get it or those who haven’t yet gotten caught in the patterns of the world get it.

The rich young ruler thinks its about achieving or doing or having, but it’s about finding meaning in God first, and he can’t do that.

Kids can believe because they don’t have an identity committed to something else yet, so are free to follow. Those of us who are older have this constant challenge in front of us: where do we find meaning? Where do we find value? How do we judge others?

Jesus strikes at the question of human identity and human meaning, giving a call to people to find their life in God, to gauge others by how God loves them, to live in a new way, a transformed way, that embraces life in light of the values of God’s kingdom.

God is at work, and while the powers of the world still have control over parts of our lives, we shouldn’t expect them to give us meaning or give us hope.

Even religious leaders can lead us astray!  People can use all sorts of right sounding language to lead people in wrong directions. People use religion, use politics, use the law, use education, use wealth, for their own power and privilege. God is calling us to live in a new way, a way of community with God and with others, loving and valuing each other.

This may seem foolish or idealistic. And it may even seem counterproductive as things get bad and then get worse in this world.  But, the God who freed the people from Egypt (remember reading about that?!) isn’t done working. We have to be careful, we have to be watchful, we have to make sure we’re not co-opted by the world’s stories or the temptations that promise satisfaction but cause division or brokenness.

These chapters give us cues on what matters and encourages us to keep at it, because Jesus is God among us, and shows us who God is and shows us what it really means to be human. If anyone tells you different, don’t believe it, because they don’t have authority over life itself.

4. Psalm 92-93


5. Respond

If you’ve fallen behind in the readings or haven’t started yet, don’t worry.  Reading the Bible isn’t a limited time offer. Jump in this week, and catch up with what you’ve missed in future years.

I highly encourage you to share your thoughts with others in your family, or immediate community. Talk about this stuff! 

Since I sometimes feel lonely, share your thoughts in the comment section.

Talking about your thoughts and questions is a very important part of the reading goal. Writing out our thoughts can help us remember what we read and keep our minds on the passage.

It helps to share as we learn from each other.

Our questions or confusion can bring us together, as we highlight what others may have missed or address what a lot of us are also wondering.   Don’t feel like you have to say or write a lot, or feel pressure to be profound. Respond with honesty and openness.

Just jump right in where you’re at, knowing that Christ invites you to respond without pressure or anxiety. It’s a journey not a performance.