Monday, December 6, 2010

Broad Shoulders

One of the most popular biblical texts at Christmas time is Isaiah 9:6-7.

From the Old Testament, these verses show up on seasonal greeting cards and in pastors' sermons and even provide a slice of Handel's Messiah. The words "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given" offer tremendous hope and speak of God's greatest gift to the world, Jesus.

But another line in that passage is quite intriguing. It says "and the government shall be upon his shoulder". In these days of strong, populist anti-government sentiment, that phrase really grabs your attention. Politicians and legislators and leaders of all political parties as well as the executive branch are widely distrusted and seen as incapable of effecting wise, effective leadership right now. Confusion and division and inertia abounds. Polls suggest that very few people have confidence in what's coming out of Washington, and similar feelings seem to exist among citizens of other nations about their governing authorities. What does it mean, then, for the ancient prophet to predict that the government shall rest on the shoulders of Christ? What could that portend?

Obviously the main point here is the kingship of Jesus. All of scripture develops that idea. He is referred to as "king of kings and lord of lords" and the apostle Paul, in Philippians 2, affirms that everyone eventually will recognize Christ's authority and yield to it. All of the threads of biblical teaching appear to indicate that Jesus began to establish his kingdom when he came to earth centuries ago. At present he reigns, invisibly and often imperceptibly, through acts of divine providence and through the workings of the Holy Spirit in and on the hearts of people. Both Old and New Testaments, in various ways, promise that one day Christ will return to this world for a second time and his kingdom will ultimately triumph over the nations and be fully manifest to all. According to texts like Isaiah 9:7 and 11:1-10 his victorious, eternal reign will be marked by peace, justice, integrity, and prosperity. Evil and inequities and war and deception will all be banished. So will poverty and racism and crime.

It's pretty clear from scripture that even now Jesus is at work behind the scenes on the world stage impacting the affairs of nations, leading everything to a final conclusion. We may see only chaos or tangled lines but Christ is slowly and surely weaving out his design for restoration and healing for this bruised and battered planet. History will have an endpoint. Good will win. Imagine how different this world would be today if it looked to him in submission and obedience. The halls and chambers on Capitol Hill would have a refreshing new tone if Jesus was in charge. North Korea and Iran would no longer be worrisome. The pundits and media talking heads would have vastly new and positive topics to discuss.

Of course this business of the government being on his shoulder has a bearing on the Church, too, whether we're speaking of the worldwide fellowship of true believers or local assemblies. This insight reminds us that the Church belongs to him. Members don't own it, he does. Members can't really build it, only he can. Check Matthew 16:18 on that. We can't take credit for successes. That goes to him. Ephesians 3:20-21 is emphatic here. Surely this idea should warn us about trying to run the church. A man named Diotrephes in 3 John was strongly rebuked about that. Jesus is the head of the Church. Individual Christians should work hard in it, doing their very best to share the Gospel and develop new believers and reach out in all kinds of people-helping ministries, but when all is said and done, we must look to Christ for guidance and strength and leave the results in his hands.We ought not be endlessly pushing for new rules and policies that choke out the missional vitalty of the church and quench the Spirit's moving among us. We shouldn't plot and maneuver and scheme to attain power in our congregations but should have servant hearts under the leadership of Jesus. How many church fights and splits could be avoided if we remembered that? How much burnout among parishioners could be prevented if we realized that we're not responsible for the harvest, just the planting?

And certainly this conviction that the government shall be placed on Christ's shoulders has implications for our personal lives, too. So many of us are control freaks. We tend to be worry warts. We obsess over a lot of stuff. We have to learn sooner or later the value of letting go. You know what I'm talking about:our adult children sometimes make decisions we can't understand or friends may verbally wound us and not even seem to notice or the aging process slows us down and wears us out and holds us back or prolonged illness in the family robs our joy or some folks just don't like us regardless of how hard we try to please them or unresolved sibling rivalry rears its ugly head or lack of financial resources keeps us from doing some of the things we'd like to do. Sometimes we feel helpless. We want things to go our way, to be just right. That's an echo from Eden and a hint of Heaven but we're caught in the in-between and so we get anxious and uptight and often angry at the circumstances we face. In this present fallen world, there are some things we'll not be able to change.Many times we fret over things that end up not happening. We stress out over stuff that's none of our business or we get bogged down in other people's junk.

Like Peter in John 21:20-22 we need to be reminded not to get overly worked up over things we're concerned about needlessly. Like Paul in Philippians 4:12 and 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 we have to learn the secret of contentment and trust, regardless of our situation. Jesus talked in Matthew 6 about stopping foolish worry. The ancient sufferer got to the place in Job 13:15 where he could have confidence in God however dark his problems were.

Our Lord has strong, broad shoulders. He can handle our burdens and fears and doubts and longings. He is sovereign and is using the bits and pieces of our lives, both good and bad, to develop us and mold us.He knows what he's doing! Our part is to yield to him, opening up our clenched hands and releasing control to his authority.Our task is to learn what his commands are by studying the Bible, and then obeying. With that comes incredible peace. After all, it's not about our image but rather his image being formed in us. Turning over our messed up lives to him in a new birth is the beginning point of a journeythat will find us repeatedly surrendering matters to him and that winds up at that moment when we breathe our last and commit our spirit to him in death and enter into the eternal adventure awaiting us beyond.

The picture of a child being carried on the shoulders of his big, strong dad is apt here. Ah, the exhiliration, the freedom, the sense of relaxed abandon, and that awesome view!