By Joy LaPrade
I had never heard of Shopkins until Kathryn brought some home from school. They are tiny little plastic figurines, just the right size to fit in a 6-year-old’s hand. They seem to be random household objects with faces on them: a dress, a shoe, even a hot dog — complete with eyes and a mouth.
These strange little toys, however, recently provided me with a beautiful perspective on the gospel.
It was a rainy morning and Kathryn had her five Shopkins on the floor, playing a make-believe game. They were all getting ready to go to the ball together. Preparations were going smoothly until some uninvited guests arrived: Spiderman and Venom, in their Lego minifigurine form. Jonah wanted to play with his big sister.
The Shopkins, however, would have none of it. Instead of letting the Legos enter the story, Kathryn cast Spiderman and Venom as villains, and her toys ran away screaming.
Jonah pleaded with Kathryn to let him play with her, but she refused. There was no room in her imaginary game for two more players.
I stepped in at this point and encouraged Jonah to play on his own. It had been a morning full of bickering and tears, and I was tired of playing referee. In discouragement and frustration, I prayed that God would grant them the ability to see each other not as rivals, but as teammates, to truly be brother and sister.
I was upstairs about a half hour later, and I heard them pass by my door, whispering and planning some imaginary quest. I heard Kathryn encourage her brother: “Come on, buddy, let’s go see if we can find it!”
They were together now, both inside the same game, inhabiting the same story.
It was a gift of grace, and also, I came to see, an act and rehearsal of the gospel.
Playing alone with her Shopkins, Kathryn had ruled sovereignly over a world of her own making. She controlled the game; told her own story.
To allow Jonah into this would require a surrender of power.
She saw quite clearly what we as parents so often fail to recognize. Why am I repeatedly surprised and exasperated by my children’s inability to just get along?
Playing nicely together is no minor accomplishment. These are rival kingdoms coming together. War and bloodshed is inevitable unless territory is surrendered.
This, too, is what the Pharisees and Sadducees saw with tragic clarity, as recounted in Acts.
Their violent reaction to the name of Jesus might seem odd to us, who are accustomed to thinking of the gospel as a set of propositions we may choose to believe, ignore or reject in the privacy of our own minds. There’s no need to kill anyone.
But the Jews understood the gospel better than we do.
They heard its implicit threat. The claim of Jesus as Messiah was an invasion of their kingdom, their sphere of influence and control. Up until now the power was theirs; they had directed the story as they pleased.
In their position of authority within the temple, they were waiting on the salvation of Israel, and the power and glory they would receive when the Messiah came.
But Christ himself, and then his apostles, declared that salvation for the Jews was not by might nor by power, but through weakness and service, through suffering and death.
The Sanhedrin were unwilling to surrender the power they had already acquired. They could not acknowledge their guilt and unrighteousness. They wanted to come to God as laborers who had earned their wages, not as beggars dependent on another’s charity.
In Acts 7, they heard Stephen’s account of the gospel for exactly what it was. This was no invitation to believe, but a proclamation that their reign had ended. The Messiah had arrived, and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.
It is no wonder they were so overcome with rage, grinding their teeth and covering their ears. Stephen’s martyrdom was their futile attempt to fight against the Lord who had invaded their realm.
Sadly, though they saw the truth of the gospel, they were blind to the true nature of the King.
Jesus comes into our world as conqueror, but only to do the necessary work of overthrowing Satan and the sin in our hearts.
He is no dictator, seeking power for his own advantage, or demanding we conform to a role we don’t want to play.
While we were greedily, anxiously ruling over petty kingdoms, he invaded our false and hollow make-believe.
And this loss of control over our story is in fact his welcome into a better one, into the one true Story. We do surrender our power, but through this weakness we are invited to reign with the true King.
We are conquered and brought into the Kingdom of the one who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but who set aside his sovereignty and took on weakness, who surrendered his life and bore our sin.
He set aside the perfection of his Story so that we might be welcomed in: to as many as believed in him, he gave the right to become children of God.
This is the shocking beauty of the gospel. That the arrival of this conquering Lord, the overthrow of all our self-made kingdoms, is at the same time a gentle and humble invitation: Come be with me, and know the delight of a Son beloved by his Father.
It is the invitation we must hear again and again, for in our struggle with sin we daily attempt to return to our imaginary kingdoms, to build our hope on foundations of sand.
Yet he speaks his welcome every day to our anxious hearts. And in his overflowing grace he will make his invitation as often as we have need, until the day we hear — at last! — “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”