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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The kingdom of God is near!

Texts:  Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 62.5-12; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20 
After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ 
These words represent Mark’s summary of Jesus’ ministry.  They are his shorthand way of summing up the whole of Jesus’ purpose and ministry in that obscure 1st century province of Rome known as Galilee.  This morning I should like to dwell for a moment on how these words might change things.  How did they change the world of Jesus’ first hearers?  How did they change the world of Mark, as he repeats them to his small, fragile, congregation around the time when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans?  And finally, how might these words change things even for us today?

So,  let’s first ask how the coming of Jesus into Galilee changed things.  That things did change, and pretty radically, is clear from the passage we read about the calling of the first disciples.  There must have been something very compelling about this young Rabbi, Jesus, something very compelling indeed!  For it was a very big deal in that time, and in that society, for young men in the prime of their working lives to leave the family business and follow a religious teacher about the countryside.  When Simon and Andrew, and James and John, leave their boats and their nets they also leave what most of their contemporaries would have regarded as their most basic obligation in life—to care for their families and assure their survival in the world.  So even though there was a precedent, in Jewish faith and story, for people to do such things, by the time of Jesus such actions were regarded as irresponsible and even immoral.  So, things changed immediately for these families when Jesus came by.  ‘Follow me,’ he said to their menfolk.  That they did so would have had an immediate impact, socially and economically. 

But we must ask ‘Why?  Why would these men in the prime of their working lives risk both their fortunes and the disapproval of their peers like that?’  According to Mark, it had rather a lot to do with who Jesus was, and the message he brought with him.  From the beginning of his gospel, Mark leaves us in no doubt that Jesus in the Messiah, the one anointed by God to set Israel free from its bondage to decay.  He comes, then, as the bearer of good news and the advance glory of the kingdom of God.  Jesus, according to Mark, is a sign in dark times that God has heard the cries of his people’s distress, and will soon put right all that has gone wrong in the world.  All that follows in the gospel confirms this reading.  By his healings, his exorcisms, by the miraculous feedings and his sacrificial death for the sins of the people, and finally by his resurrection, Jesus shows everyone that God has indeed come near to save them.  Jesus himself is that nearness.  He is the human face of God, God with his people in the form of his Son. 

So that is why the fisherman abandon themselves, all that they are worth, to follow him.  That is why they repent of the way of life they had lived up until they met Jesus; that is why they believe in the good news that he bears; that is why they leave their nets and follow him, all the way to Jerusalem and the tragedy that unfolds there.  Because in Jesus they see that God is both near them and for them, turning the world upside down for the sake of the poor, the downtrodden and for all who had become lost in the lust for wealth and power.  In Jesus they saw a light to illumine a very cruel and dark world.

And yet, as Mark is recounting all this for his congregation, the world does not feel like it has changed much at all.  In fact, for Mark’s congregation, it is difficult to see that the coming of Jesus has made any difference whatsoever.  For they are a small and fragile group of Jewish Christians who fled from Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.  It is likely that they lost their homes and their livelihoods.  It is also likely that many of their number were killed.  So now, as Mark tells his story, they are overcome with grief for what has been lost, and are full of uncertainty about the future.  Where, they ask, is Jesus now?  For there is little sign of his presence and power anywhere.

Mark’s gospel can be seen as an extended sermon, a sermon in the form of a story of narrative, which has been specifically designed to answer his community’s questions and suggest a way forward.  In answer to the question ‘Why has God suffered us to lose so much by the hand of our enemies?’ Mark answers:  ‘You are followers of Jesus.  Jesus did not shrink even from death at the hands of his enemies.  You have lost almost everything, some even their lives, but you have not lost all.  You have not lost God, the only source of life and health and happiness.’  For Mark answered the related question of where Christ had gone in this way:  ‘In Jesus the reign of God came near, but it has not yet arrived.  Yet, we carry the promise of that coming with us—in the memory of Christ and his teaching, in the values we live by in our community, and in the ritual of the Eucharist, by which we believe Christ continues to feed us for the pilgrimage of faith.  So let us recall, dear brothers and sisters, that while Christ has not yet come in all the fullness of his kingdom, he has yet given us a portion of his Spirit to sustain us.  Christ is with us, thenBut not in a form that we can possess and manipulate for our own pragmatic ends.  He is with us as his resurrected self:  the promise of a future that is gift, not possession.’  And finally, in answer, to the question about what they should do now, Mark says this:  ‘My beloved people, let us go to Galilee where Christ once walked amongst us.  Let us establish ourselves there as refugees and start to rebuild our lives.  But let us do so after the pattern of the community that Christ formed with his disciples.  Let us believe that the risen Christ will do so again, let us ask him to so form our community in the values of the kingdom that we, ourselves, will become a light for the world, even as Jesus was.  So then, let us become Christ’s body, in whom the very Spirit of Christ is at work.  Let us make repentance, faith and the following of Christ our life’s work and vocation.’  With these, any many other words, Mark encouraged his fragile community.

But now we must turn to what difference all this might make to our own lives, our own world, if any.  For we are not fishermen by the sea of Galilee, and we are not (at least not in this particular congregation) a community of refugees.  Still, we are a Christian community.  By our baptism, the risen Christ melded us into himself, into his life, his death, and his resurrection, that we might no longer live the futile life of those who imagine they can live without God.  We are called to pursue, instead, the risen life of Christ, and to do it communally, in concert with the sisters and brothers God has given us in faith.  In this community at Boronia, we are called to be so possessed by the Spirit of Christ, so vulnerable to his work in us, that his life and vitality becomes evident to all, overflowing with compassion, giving and thanksgiving. We are called, in short, to become 'fishers of people', witnesses to the freedom Christ brings in our families and communities. So, you see, the call of Jesus to those first disciples was not only for them.  Nor was it only for Mark’s little community.  It is also for us.  We, too, are called by Jesus to repent, to believe in the good news of God’s deliverance, and to follow Christ in all his ways.

To repent means to let go of anything in your life that gets in the way of your devotion to Christ.  When Paul tells the Corinthians to live as though their present circumstances were of little account, he does so believing that their devotion to comfort and convenience is misguided.  He does so believing that their present circumstances are not absolute, are not God, and are therefore passing away into nothingness.  What matters, he says to them and to us, is the coming kingdom and its ways.  For it is the kingdom, and not our present comfort or convenience, that is permanent.  So live according to the kingdom and its values, live as though the kingdom was already here, in all its fullness.  Repent of all that prevents you from doing so, put it aside in favour of your faith in the coming kingdom, where the rich will no longer be rich and the poor will no longer be poor.  For the kingdom comes not to destroy us utterly, not to take away all that is of lasting value or significance.  On the contrary, the kingdom is the arrival of God’s deliverance.  It comes to restore our lost equilibrium and peace.  It comes to resuscitate our flagging spirits, sucked dry, as they are, by the vanity of the present world system. 

And if you are unsure about how to go about all this, if you feel so entangled in your present circumstances that you can see no way out, take heed of Christ’s call to the disciples, “Follow me.”  To follow Christ is to learn his story and his ways, and order your life to imitate or ‘echo’ his.  In the early church, people were taught how to do this when they were preparing for baptism.  Our own Uniting Church, however, has tended to assume that people will learn the way of Christ my osmosis, or by some mysterious appearing of such things in the brain.  No matter.  If you want to respond to Christ’s call, you can.  Christ calls you whether you are young or old, healthy or ill, bright or (how should I put it), a few pennies short of a full quid.  What is important in following him, you see, is not your own capacities, but his.  ‘When Christ calls us,’ wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘he calls us to die.’  To die to our own plans and to live by his; to die to our own powers, and live by his; to die to our own pattern of life, and live as though the free gift of the kingdom were all that really mattered.

And so I conclude where I always conclude.  What will you do with this call from Christ?  Will you respond with your whole heart and soul and strength, or will you hedge your bets? 

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