Sermon: Epiphany 3B (John Lein, 1/21/2018, St. Aidan’s). Preached on Mark 1:14-20.
I have a confession: I’ve been trying to cheat on this sermon from the beginning.
It started with scheduling a preaching slot over lunch with my supervising priest. I began scanning through the lectionary for upcoming passages that would particularly inspire me. “Oh,” he said, “you get to pick your own texts now?”
A seminarian should get used to working with assigned texts rather than picking and choosing. So we picked the today’s date and then checked the lectionary. To my surprise and delight I felt like I had won the lottery. I get to preach Mark 1:15!
This passage—this verse—is special, one I’ve spent a lot of reflection on. After all, it’s the earliest recording of the first-ever proclamation of Jesus’ self-understood mission and purpose that would guide his life and all his teachings: the gospel!
Jesus came to Galilee saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
It sounds simple on the surface. The time has come, the kingdom of God is “at hand,” and in response Jesus calls for repentance and belief. Yet the layers can be complex.
So I “cheated” for the second time in preparing this sermon. I’ve had an interpretation of this verse and its context for some time. The Rev. Baker got an earful of it unasked in the middle of a seminarian interview last year. Yet when it came time to write the sermon this week I hesitated. Do I really know what I’m talking about, on this central proclamation and its object: the Kingdom? Will I present it accurately?
My go-to move is the seminary library. There are plenty of volumes on the topic and I spent the week—Tuesday through Friday—reading some of them. Here’s what I found:
For the last few centuries, scholars have been in unanimous agreement that the focus of Jesus’ life and teachings was the Kingdom of God. They have also been remarkably clear on one other thing: that nobody knows what precisely it is! Wait, let me rephrase that: there are many scholars who are absolutely convinced they alone have found the right definition and they write hundreds of pages to tell their colleagues so.
Over the last century we’ve heard that Jesus talked about the Kingdom as a prediction of soon-coming reestablishment of the earth after the final judgement and therefore he was mistaken. Others say that the anticipated Kingdom is embodied now in the Church. Others say that the Kingdom was and is Jesus, and that in his life the old world ended and the new has begun to be fulfilled. Popularly, most preachers have either focused on the kingdom as a synonym for an afterlife heaven, or on the fulfillment of the kingdom as the Social Gospel. Some deny Jesus ever taught in this predictive sense while others are obsessed with predictions of the still-coming end times.
So again I had sought control and failed. As of 8 pm last night I had plenty of notes and new theories lodged into my brain but not a single line of a sermon written.
From the beginning this one verse, even this phrase “the kingdom of God,” was my focus. Yet the setting is important, as much as we can gather from Mark and other sources.
It begins with Joshua—Yehshua in Aramaic—a common name. He’s from an impoverished and oppressed region of the powerful Roman empire called Galilee, from a disreputable little town called Nazareth. He’s a day laborer, most likely illiterate and uneducated by the standards of the scholarly class, speaking only Aramaic, and apparently estranged from his family. He’s sought out a charismatic and popular teacher known as John the Baptizer, and as this story begins he’s about 30 years old.
John has been living out to the wilderness beyond the Jordan River to reenact the entry into the Promised Land through water immersion. Unlike the elaborate purity cleansing rituals near the Temple, these are in muddy waters. Jesus wades out into those same waters and submerges below the churned-up surface under John’s rough hand. As Jesus emerged spluttering, he saw the heavens being rent apart and the Spirit descending as a dove. A heavenly voice said: “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I have delighted.”
This revelatory experience changed everything. In Mark’s rough and rapid text, Jesus immediately is cast out into the wilderness for 40 days, is tempted by the Accuser, and lives with the beasts until his old mentor John is imprisoned. Jesus returns to Galilee, announcing his good tidings, and then immediately calling disciples who immediately drop everything—their families, livelihoods, possessions—to follow him.
So what did Jesus see in that moment, what did he go on to teach, that 2,000 years ago started a movement that has taken over a third of our world?
Ever since a brief three generations of undivided kingship a millenia previous, and through all the wars and exiles since, this phrase summed up all the hopes of the Israelites: both of a reestablished political regime and a restored relationship with their God.
But our modern debate over “kingdom” is nothing new. Various books of the Hebrew Bible argued for obedience to God’s commands to convince God to restore the kingdom while others focused on care of the marginalized and poor. The school of the Sadducees and Temple priests sought to perform proper worship ritual according to the written Torah, and the lay revival movement of the Pharisees taught people to live in compliance through their oral interpretative traditions. The Essenes focused on extreme holiness and purity rituals, withdrawing out into desert compounds like very strict monks.
Others were less spiritual in their aims. The Herodians sought power and wealth by allying with the Romans while the Zealots became assassins and warriors attempting military overthrow.
It was into this ongoing conversation that Jesus emerged with a unique answer: the kingdom is here. Even in this short sentence there are four concepts easy to miss in translation.
The “time” which he proclaimed as fulfilled is not chronological time, the Greek chronos but what is called kairos—a word rich in meaning, something we have no English equivalent for, signifying a pivotal eternal event which is to be seized at the appropriate moment. This moment has been filled to overflowing, and is within grasp of his audience.
Jesus then calls for a response of “repentance” and belief. Translating the Greek metanoia into English as repentance has been described as "an extraordinary mistranslation," "a linguistic and theological tragedy," and "the worst translation in the New Testament." Rather than sorrow or remorse, it is a plea to change one’s mind to the depth of a reorientation and inward transformation which expresses itself in outward action. Jesus is announcing his proclamation as an alternative to other routes of the kingdom, and asking for followers to commit their allegiance, pistos, which is often translated “belief.”
Another way of saying this might be:
“The eternal moment is fully charged;
the reign of God has drawn near to us.
“See with your deepest being, reorient your life to this truth;
now place your trust in this joyful proclamation!”
Jesus is walking into the middle of this centuries-long debate about what his community can do to get God to return and establish the kingdom. And his answer is: stop trying: God is already here, the kingdom has come to us, but you need to see it, believe it, and act in fidelity to this good news in order to be consciously part of it! He then set out on his itinerant mission, preaching the gospel and calling people into experiencing glimpses of the life of the kingdom through healing, partying, and feeding.
See, trust, and act.
Scholar and priest Bruce Chilton writes, “Like the prophets, Jesus taught his hearers how to see the Kingdom, as well as how to act on the basis of what they saw.” It is a matter of vision, of perceiving God’s justice in the present and anticipating its complete emergence in the future AND it is a matter of ethics, of what we will do to make God’s will work. A power exerted within human beings—vision and practice. A flowing process of shaping humanity that we are called to immerse ourselves into.
In Luke we read Jesus saying, “The Kingdom does not come as something one observes, Nor will persons say, ‘Look: Here it is’ or ‘There it is’ for look: The Kingdom of God is within you.” And the Gospel of Thomas records that his disciples said to him, "When will the kingdom come?" and he responded "It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it."
The fact that I’m preaching in front you today, with a sermon, is due to two things: first: a late night and early morning of typing and second: a last-minute acceptance that what I’ve been given is enough, for now at least. I have a glimpse of something that makes my heart soar, something I don’t need to work to earn, and I need to trust in this even if I don’t always fully understand it.
What we are all looking for, the wholeness and healing promised in this gospel, is not something we need to obtain from the outside but an internal revelation and trust. God is within us, calling us to see that our feeling of disconnection from life, love and the divine is an illusion and to act on that unveiling. It is freely offered, but the invitation must be accepted in order to take effect. The radiance of God is no longer centered in the Temple as Jesus’ contemporaries often thought, but shines out from every transformed heart.
This is not something that can be achieved through force of will or action alone. We cannot grasp the kingdom through intellect and study alone, as I am often guilty of attempting, nor does it come from good deeds alone: it is a gift of the Spirit. The revelation of the kingdom already existing in our hearts is something we seek through spiritual practices, through community, through meditation and in ways beyond reasoning and logic.
Today as we join together again in reenacting Jesus’ favorite symbol of the kingdom, the meal of Thanksgiving, let us renew our observation of this present reality in our hearts and those around us, trust in its power, and then set out again in our world as reflections of that glory.