There’s a message in the madness.
We’ve all seen a spinning plate act. The performer takes a saucer, mounts it on a spindle, gives it a brisk turn, and the centripetal force keeps it “magically” balanced, and steady. The busy suburban lifestyle tends to be like one of these acts. You have kids in Tae Kwon Do, ballet, soccer, and swimming. Meanwhile, your house is undergoing re-decoration or repair as you plan family vacations, improve your job performance, care for pets, and maintain your body image at the gym.
There’s even a Christian life plate in the midst of all the other plates, which we also service with maintenance spins. The more plates you’ve got spinning, the more together you look. The average suburbanite can become fairly adept at controlling all of this, like a virtual spinmeister.
Yet something always happens to upset the delicate balance of your plates. We tend to fear these chaotic upsets. If you’re spiritual, you hope to pray them away.
But crisis moments are often the very way Jesus advances us into his kingdom.
How? First, crises call for repentance (that is, metanoia, which means a change of mind).
Mark 1:14 says, “Now after John was arrested.” The arrest of John the Baptist was a crisis moment, not just for him, but for his followers, and even, it would seem, for God Himself. It looked like the divine agenda on this Earth had been arrested. But on the heels of the crisis event, “Jesus came.” Jesus came and filled the uncertain void of the moment, “proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled.’”
The time was right. We might have said, “The time is right for what!? It looks as though your timing is awful. You were supposed to keep John from being arrested, not show up afterwards!” And yet Jesus would have said, “Your idea of how things ought to happen didn’t pan out, but I have better news for you—The kingdom of God is at hand—so close it is a mere arm’s length away.”
What then, were they to do? Jesus said for them to repent, to turn–metanoia–to change their mind. Over the years God’s people had drifted until they were oriented in the direction of the religious culture, events, practices, and numb routines of Judaism, and were no longer turned to God. Because their positioning was wrong, many of them had fallen into hypocrisy and legalism. Others had lost their grip on the Scriptures, and had begun to believe pagan ideas. Jesus told them all to turn around.
In the other direction, Christ was bringing in God’s kingdom. That meant he was about to go to the cross and remove the sin barrier between humanity and God through the shedding of His own blood. He would rise from the dead, enabling the Holy Spirit to come and live in each and every believer. That would cause them to be born again, and step inside the kingdom of God (John 3:5), which would become a continuum into glory for the rest of their lives, from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18), until in a final phase, they richly entered the kingdom (2 Pet. 1:11).
If they would turn.
You see, it’s hard to arrive at the right place when you’re pointed in the wrong direction.
Still, after hearing this proclamation, some said, “I like things the way they are.” They were never going to think differently about this or that and so they kept heading on a path away from Him. Others however, turned.
Admittedly, these were unsaved Jews, but Christians are also in a similar fashion called to repent. In the Book of Revelation there’s a drum beat message of “Repent, repent, repent,” to members of churches. The Christian life is more than a single turn to God at the beginning. It’s a regular process of adjustment enabling us to enter more deeply into the kingdom. And some of this process can feel unpleasant. As Paul said to the disciples in Acts 14, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”
My immediate reaction to crisis moments is one of reluctance and resistance. I want to keep things the way they are, and I want to keep being the way I am. For instance, there was that first time I seriously didn’t like somebody in church. I’d been coasting for years on my casual, easy-going, friendly, funny style in order to get along with people, and never had to pray about disliking anyone. Until I met that guy. Then my plate started to wobble.
Our church was less than 20 people, so there was no place to hide. I needed to fix the situation. One possibility was I could change churches—a popular option, since people do it all the time to escape things they don’t like, and excuse it by claiming the Lord led them. Even better, I was in ministry, and could call it a transfer. Or, I could pretend to like the brother. Surely I could endure a few hours a week of acting, since people do it all the time, both at work and at church. Or, I could secretly vent to everyone else my frustration about the brother, not to get help, but to gain their support for my dislike of him.
I did several of those. Imagine the sound of plates crashing. You can’t fix an off-balance plate without bumping into other ones. Because of some clumsy “private fellowship,” I succeeded in helping someone else dislike the brother in question. Crash. When I privately gave the same spiel to another believer in our church, they sided with the brother I disliked, and got offended with me. Crash. What a mess.
There was one final option left: to repent, because the kingdom of God was at hand. I confessed my sin to Christ—my jealousy, smallness, and self-centeredness, and prayed for grace to enter more deeply into what Jesus meant when He said, “Love one another” and what Paul meant when he said, “Bear with one another.”
That was a major breakthrough for me. I felt like an insect shedding an exoskeleton. I couldn’t have hoped to grow while remaining in my old skin. My method of getting along with people through the distraction of humor and church politics had been void of the cross and the Holy Spirit.
I believe we all respond to unpleasant or threatening circumstances by trying to fix them. Of course those who are passive don’t do much, hoping instead that it will simply blow over. Yet no matter what, it doesn’t get better. Why? Because the situation was never meant to be either mastered or ignored. It’s actually an invitation into the kingdom of God through repentance and belief.
Among us there’s a lot of outstanding invitations as yet unanswered. They’ve occurred inside the context of marriages, kids, romantic relationships, church relationships, money, jobs, material items, and private thoughts and attitudes. There’s a ton of potential kingdom progress existing among us as of this moment, most of which is still waiting for response. Take account of that.
I don’t want to give the false impression that Jesus only uses bad things for our development. A crisis doesn’t always have to be something negative. It just means a time of urgency when an important decision needs to be made. The urgency itself might be positive. For instance, Mark 1:14 through 15 also shows up in Matthew chapter 4, except with additional detail:
12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Mark shows us the arrest of John (an apparent negative), and then the kingdom (a positive). But in Matthew between the arrest of John, and the kingdom, we find something additional inserted—an emphasis on a great and dawning light. Unlike Mark who adjoins a negative with a positive, the Matthew passage joins light (a positive) with the kingdom (a positive). It implies that Jesus shows up in the light of His word, and calls us to repentance and belief. He doesn’t always wait for a negative situation to come along to jar us awake, nor does He need to create one.
During the first month after becoming a Christian, I wondered what the rest of my life would look like. I had a lot of funny ideas, fantasies, plans. Then I began reading the book of Acts, and somewhere in that reading, the light of God came through its plain words and thoughts. God’s work was about sharing the gospel with others, discipling them, and living a normal church life. This impression encouraged me to repent, turn away from my strange concepts, and join God to enter what He was doing. “Learn to love what I love,” He seemed to be telling me. Some thirty-five years later, my life has been changed in incalculable ways from that small crisis experience of light in the word. God did not have to use cancer or car crashes.
Sometimes this happens in church, like the time I heard preaching about the supremacy of Christ. In those moments of listening, the incarnation of Christ, His death, His resurrection, and His ascension so eclipsed everything else that has ever happened on this planet, that history itself seemed little more than stage props. I felt deeply invited by Christ to drop my many concerns and enter a life orbiting His great redemptive work. Again, it was a crisis experience of light that did not need to be augmented with bankruptcy or break-ups.
Christ never shows up in the light of His word merely to educate us, awe us, inspire us, or impress us. He creates crisis moments where we must do something. Someway, somehow it involves our repentance and belief for deeper kingdom life. Have you ever been in a church meeting, or some other gathering where the word is being shared, and had the sensation, “Oh, I wish so-and-so were here. They should listen to this. They really need it!” Perhaps the Holy Spirit would agree and say, “That’s right, it’s terrible that they’re not here, but I moved heaven and earth to make sure you were here.” That means listen up. God doesn’t waste words. Wherever the Bible is expounded in a responsible, accurate way, the living Christ calls!
And whether it is through a rough situational bump, or the gentle nuance of light, when we answer, we experience true breakthrough.