Sunday, January 25, 2009

Jan 25, 2009 - The Kingdom of God Is Near

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Mk 1.14-34 - “The Kingdom of God Is Near”

Now after John was handed over, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the good news of God. He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Now we’re in it. We talked last week about how Mark was letting us in on the secret, laying it all out in front of us, explaining who Jesus really is. He showed us first in his title--The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God. He showed us in the way he described John the Baptizer. He showed us through what happened after Jesus was baptized--the sky splitting apart, the Holy Spirit anointing him, God declaring, “You are my beloved Son, in you I take great delight.” But now Jesus comes back from down South where John was preaching by the river, he comes back form forty days in the desert, now he comes back proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God, the new world set right that God brings, is just now arriving--and we’re plunged into confusion. The light’s go out. We’re left with all sort of people--normal people, rich people, farmers and fishermen, beggars, prostitutes, and political power mongers--all debating and misunderstanding who Jesus is, what his message is about.

Last week I told you to hold on tightly to the clear, mountaintop glimpse of who Jesus is as we spend the next few months walking through the sometimes frantic, sometimes monotonous, sometimes lonely, sometimes harried, sometimes anonymous world where Mark tells the rest of hist story, the world that we live in.

“The time is fulfilled! The kingdom of God is just about to arrive!” Jesus announces. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s arriving right now, in Jesus, through what he does, what he says. But it’s not here all the way. We can even see that in our day. This world does not look like--does not feel like--the new world, the good world that God brings. And this is part of Mark’s and Jesus’ point. The new world cannot really begin until Jesus is handed over to the authorities, before he dies, before he is raised into the new life of God’s new world. The new world, God’s kingdom, is here and yet a lot of it is, even still, just about to arrive.
But what I’m saying here is too theological, too abstract. Jesus doesn’t come to meet us in our theology; we don’t live the new life of God’s world in our doctrinal statements. He meets us while we’re washing dishes after potluck, while we’re chasing down a rambunctious son or daughter, while we’re inputting number into a computer at work or trying to appease a cranky customer, while we’re having an awkward long distance phone conversation with a parent, when we crawl into bed and wish we weren’t quite so alone. God’s kingdom--the new world, God’s new life--is something that we need to find in our every day lives.

But what does it look like? We all know there are too many counterfeits out there! We tend to water it down to a “God is in all things,” to a hunt for the warm fuzzies or the silver lining. Or else we fixate on one part of it, turning “Love your neighbor as yourself” into a baptism for our failing attempts at world peace, or our unapologetic defense of our way of life. Sometimes we turn the promise of eternal life into a raspy-voice, finger-pointing tirade about hellfire and brimstone. But as much as I read the stories about Jesus in the New Testament, I never see him going around Galilee peddling tickets to heaven, his message was never about a washing machine in every home, a laptop for every child, or two cars in every garage. And he certainly never gave his support to the Roman government’s “peace”--their pax romana enforced by a military garrison in every major city, heavy taxes to house and feed their “peacekeepers,” and just enough entertainment--gladiators, festival days--to keep the poor too distracted to revolt. But if none of these are the new life Jesus brings, what is it? What does God’s kingdom look like?

Mark gives us a sketch of what Jesus' good news, his gospel, of the kingdom entails in the next few scenes of his narrative. Immediately after Jesus shows up in Galilee, preaching his good news, he sees two sets of fishermen at work. He first comes to Andrew and his brother Simon (who will later be nicknamed Peter) while their hand-casting a net into the sea to catch fish. Jesus comes along, and says to them, “Come along after me and I will turn you into fishers for people.” Immediately they drop their nets to follow after Jesus. The same scene plays out again a little farther up the beach. Here are two more brothers, James and John (not John the Baptizer). They fish from a boat, but it’s pulled up on the beach right now to mend the tears in their nets. Jesus calls to them. They drop the nets they’re mending in the boat, leave their father and their employees, and follow Jesus.

It’s funny. Jesus has just announced the good news, arguably the most important news the world had ever heard. The day had finally arrived. God was finally showing up to kick out the unjust oppressors, to change hearts and lives, to care for the poor, the homeless, the hungry. And what’s the first thing Mark narrates? Jesus is walking along the beach and he asks some guys to come along with him.

Now we, who have probably read the Bible a bit, maybe we even went to Sunday School as kids, we think--These are the disciples, the capital D disciples. Of course Mark wants us to know about them, of course this is an important story. I mean, Simon--that’s Peter. Isn’t he going to be the Pope one day?!?

But if we’ve really gotten what’s going on here, if we really know what the good news and the kingdom are all about, we’d feel like this couple I read about. The wife was pregnant. It’d been a long nine month pregnancy. They’d done all the classes together, baby-proofed the house--she and her husband had done all the preparation. But then the day comes, the husband’s at work, gets a phone call, rushes to the hospital. His wife is in labor. But just as she’s about to give birth, the man decides that it would be a great time to call up some buddies to go out and play some ultimate frisbee.

What Mark tells us here is not what we should expect to hear. But he pulls this bait and switch for a reason. See, the first thing that we need to know about this kingdom is that it draws us together into community--we could even say into a new family. After all, Simon and Andrew, James and John are brothers, and James and John leave their father to follow and learn from someone else. Just how important this communal, togetherness aspect is shows up by the prominence of place Mark give it in his story. And it makes sense, too, when we think of how God worked in the Old Testament, how he singled out a people for himself, miraculously helping Sarah and Abraham get pregnant with Isaac, miraculously making a place in Egypt for Joseph and the rest of Jacob’s sons, Abraham’s great-grandsons, during a time of horrible famine.

But this community is not an end in itself. Jesus says, “Come along after me, and I will turn you into fishers for people.” If Jesus hadn’t said this, we could be happy, sitting in these comfy couches, eating a bowl of soup at potluck, slapping each on the back and telling funny stories about back when. But he calls us into kingdom-community, into togetherness with a purpose. We are to be people-fishers. We are to cast our nets out into our relationships, trying to draw people into God’s life, trying to pull people out of the raging sea of hectic, dead-end counting down the days until they die and into the boat of God’s new life.

We’re not going to focus on it tonight--we don’t have time--but the scene where Jesus goes to Peter’s house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law shows us that our community is not only supposed to be a place of commitment and mission, it’s also to be a place of healing. Whenever Jesus is alone with his followers in Mark--at a meal or in a boat or in a house--it’s like a codeword for the church, that what Jesus is doing with the disciples in the story is the same sort of thing that should be going on in our churches. And inside the house, inside the church, we are healed from the brokenness that’s killing us and healed for the purpose of serving God and serving each other.

Mark tells us one more important thing about what God’s new world and new life look like. Not only does the good news draw us into a mission-oriented community, a family with a purpose. It also draws us into conflict.

This comes out in the next scene. Jesus goe to synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath. His new followers come with him. And he begins to teach. Mark doesn’t quote exactly what Jesus says, but he’s already given us the basic content of the message back in verses 14 and 15--The time is fulfilled and God’s kingdom is near. Repent and believe the good news. The people there are initially dumbfounded. Jesus is telling them that what they’ve always wanted is now just about to get here. He’s not debating about dates or how we should live while we wait for God to finally act. They’ve all heard that before from the religious experts. Jesus is saying, “Get ready! Here it comes!”

But while they’re standing around at a loss for words, unsure whether to shout for joy or tear their clothes in mourning and repentance or to write Jesus off as just another charlatan revolutionary, a voice cries out, “What do you want with us, Jesus the Nazarene! Have you come to destroy us! I know who you are--the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, “Silence! Come out of him!” And despite the demon’s protests, it’s writhing and screaming, it must come out.

God’s new life, God’s new world, the kingdom Jesus proclaims, is good--it’s so good. It means peace--deep and profound--it means plenty, it means health and justice and right relationships. It means joy--real joy. It means life recreated, created new to be what it was supposed to be from the beginning. It’s the kind of good life that everything we call good now is only a shadow of or a cheap imitation.

But this world, this place where we live, even our own hearts, are not neutral ground. We’re not just waiting for this good news to show up. We’ve been handed over to sin, we’ve been signed over to the devil, the demonic powers, to the systems and practices of evil that run through all our societies, from our quietest thoughts to the engines of war machines and the ring of the stock market bell. This old order of things--this order of death--screams in protest when Life himself appears. It fights back.

So when Jesus begins to share the good news, a man possessed by an unclean spirit jumps up, yelling, “What do you want with us, Jesus?” And this is the place where Jesus brings his new friends. When we follow Jesus, we follow him into a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred fight with darkness. Yes, with the secret sins we harbor in our souls, but even more with the demonic powers and evil structures that use whatever means possible to keep people bound up within them. They will trap them in lies, they will crush them with violence, poverty, addiction. They will flash tv screens, computer screens, hundred dollar bills, pornography--whatever they can to keep people from hearing and responding to Jesus’ message. When that fails, evil and the devil will attack us, trying to cripple us emotionally, physically, snaring us in sex or pride or with alcohol or the promise of a better life if we just cut corners or work harder. They’ll beat us up, throw us in prison, hang us at the end of a rope. We follow Jesus into a war.

But we’re called into it together, and when Jesus commands, when his life comes, evil can not resist. He casts it out, exorcises it, claims the territory of our souls for himself. This the mission Jesus has called us together for. We are in a life and death struggle to pull people out the chaotic, destructive, frantic sea of dying and darkness and into Jesus’ community, into his new life. He call us to shut Satan’s kingdom down.

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