Wednesday, July 01, 2009

First Light

Mk. 1:14-20; 1 Cor. 7:29-31[1]

There aren’t too many things that Bible Scholars all agree on. That’s just as true of Jesus as any other subject of biblical study. But one thing about which pretty much all Bible Scholars agree is that the theme of Jesus’ “gospel” was that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Now, of course, they don’t all agree about the significance of that message, but they do agree that’s what Jesus preached.

I find it strange that most people these days, if you asked them if the kingdom of God is here, would say no. In fact, I had some seminary students who did a research project on “the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching,” and as a part of their research they did a survey of random people asking them that very question. And everyone they met answered the same thing—no, the kingdom of God is not here. I guess that’s why there’s such a strange silence in the church about the kingdom of God.

Part of the problem, as I’ve mentioned before, is that we just don’t get the whole “kingdom” bit. For us, a “kingdom” is a place where people suffer the injustice of having their basic civil rights denied them. Kings are tyrants who enrich themselves at the expense of their people. Kings exploit, they oppress, they enslave. But the “kingdom of God” has nothing to do with that. According to the Hebrew prophets, when the “kingdom of God” comes the whole world will follow God’s compassionate justice and everyone will enjoy life the way it was intended to be.

Jesus’ announcement of the good news that God is already working to redeem this world took place initially amid contradictory indicators. Like being “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mark 1:13). And like John the Baptizer being arrested and ultimately executed by Herod Antipas (Mark 1:14; cf. Mark 6:27). And if you took the time to read the whole gospel of Mark, you would notice “how quickly the powers of evil are mounted against Jesus.” [2]

All was not right with the world when Jesus made his announcement, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” There were plenty of indications that the world was dominated by other kingdoms in that day. There was plenty of evidence to suggest that the notion that God had entered this world definitively to make all things new was a pipe dream.

We have the same problem today. Our faith still rests on the good news that in Jesus the Christ “the kingdom of God” has come—that God has entered this world definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.[3] And yet, if you look around, it’s probably much easier to see signs of the other kingdoms that dominate our world than to notice the signs of God’s kingdom. That might lead one to think that if the kingdom of God really was present during Jesus’ day, it must have disappeared somewhere along the way.

But there are signs of God’s kingdom in our world if we have eyes to see them. Take for example a person like Nelson Mandela. He resolutely stood against the power of an oppressive system, maintaining hope in the midst of despair, never giving in to bitterness but freely forgiving his oppressors.

Or we could think about Henri Nouwen. He was a catholic priest and university professor who gave up his academic career to work with mentally handicapped people. He lived his whole life with the pain of isolation, a pain that was inflicted initially by his own family. But in the midst of his loss, he found a capacity for joy that few in this world ever attain. And out of his pain and loss, he shared his joy with the rest of us in his writings, which will forever continue to encourage and inspire those of us looking for signs of God’s kingdom.

Or we could think about Mother Teresa, a woman who for 45 years offered love to those who are loveless. In a very real sense, she brought life from death time and time again as she and her sisters of charity served the crippled, the blind, the lepers, refugees, and victims of all kinds of natural disasters, not only in Calcutta but throughout the world.

I guess if you think of the “kingdom of God” exclusively in terms of a future world where all things are set right and all people are enabled to live the life they were intended to live, it would be easy to miss the signs of what God is doing in our world today. But the “kingdom” that Jesus announced as “the gospel of God” is one that is already among us.[4] When asked about this, Jesus himself pointed to the “signs” of the kingdom: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5).[5] It is the good news that we celebrate during this season of Epiphany: in Jesus the Christ God has entered this world definitively to set everything right. And God is still working among us to make all things new.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/25/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Paul S. Berge, "The Beginning of the Good News: The Epiphany Gospels in Mark and John," Word & World 17(Winter, 1997), 97-98.

[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 460-61: “in and with” Jesus as the “Bearer of God’s good news,” the kingdom came “in hidden but very real form.”

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 95-96: “The gospel is not a utopian description of some far-off future. It is the daybreak of this future in the pardoning, promising word that sets people free.” He continues, “God’s present, liberating and healing activity points beyond itself to the kingdom of freedom and salvation. But through God’s lordship, the coming kingdom already throws its light ahead of itself into this history of struggle.”

[5] Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 460.

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