Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany 2018.1.21
Jonah 3.1-5,10; I Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20
The best adverts have the most memorable straplines. There are dozens of these phrases that immediately call to mind a product or service.
If you’re feeling peckish and want a little something on toast you may think Beanz Meanz Heinz. However, beware if you accompany this with Pringles, because ‘once you pop you can’t stop’. The more carnivorous might prefer a pepperami – it’s a bit of an animal. And if the high salt content of these foods makes you thirsty, wash it down with a Castlemaine beer, especially if you’re Australian because you don’t give a XXXX for anything else.
All these items can be procured in Tesco, where ‘every little helps’ or Sainsburys where you can (apparently) ‘live well for less’. Should you get to one of these shops and find your wallet empty, never fear, you can put the bill on your flexible friend, the Access credit card.
To get to the shops you might don your Nike trainers – just do it – or get into a vehicle, which will make you jealous if ‘the car in front is a Toyota’. Transport was so much simpler in the 1950s, when everyone went to work on an egg.
Jesus had a strapline too. ‘After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”’
The kingdom of God has come near. These are the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark’s gospel. They are meant to be both the introduction to his message and a summary of its content. As his ministry develops, Jesus keeps coming back to the idea of the kingdom of God. We read it throughout his teaching. And as Christians we pray for its arrival – daily I hope: thy will be done, thy kingdom come. This notion of the Kingdom of God is the central organising principle of Jesus’ thought. But what did he mean by it?
God’s Kingdom cannot be a place. Jesus was not a political revolutionary – even if some mistook him as such, those who longed for an end to Roman oppression and the return of a God-anointed ruler like King David. But on occasions when Jesus had opportunity to foment political unrest – most especially on Palm Sunday – he was reticent. He arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey not a charger because, as he told Pontius Pilate later in the week, My Kingdom is not of this world.
If the kingdom of God is not a place then it must be a concept, an idea – vision and values stuff. Its about the rule of God – the circumstances in which the almighty reigns in the lives of men and women. This kingdom is not an institution requiring territory or government. It is a spiritual reality. As such it cuts across national, social and cultural boundaries. Cecil Spring-Rice spoke of this kingdom as ‘another’ country.
We may not count her armies, we cannot see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
So the Kingdom is found when God rules within us. For this reason it is intimately bound up with what Jesus goes on to say: ‘the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ When people repent – turn to a new life with God – and believe – accept his invitation to loving personal relationship – then the reign of God becomes real. When this happens, again in the words of Cecil Spring-Rice, ‘soul by soul and silently, her shining bounds increase’.
So the Kingdom is a message and the message is about people reconciled with God. But for God to reign in human hearts, humans must also be reconciled with one another. The healing of the vertical relationship with God requires us to pursue good ‘horizontal’ relationships with other people. We may not always achieve them but we must pursue them. This facet of the Kingdom is not just an idea that Jesus proclaimed: it is a concrete reality that he effected. This is where the miracles come in. For example, the leper in Mark chapter 1 and the woman with a haemorrhage in Mark chapter 5 were not just sick. Under ancient Jewish purity laws both were excluded from polite society, shunned because of their perceived impurity. By restoring them to health, Jesus was also restoring them to social acceptability. These miracles literally expanded the boundaries of God’s people, a new Israel, drawing in those who were once outside.
So the kingdom of God is a concept which takes concrete expression in harmonious relationships and communities. In Spring-Rice’s last line we are told, ‘her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.’ The healing of our vertical relationship with God is thus integrally connected with the healing of horizontal relationships with other people – an image which (for the pictorially minded) conveniently forms a cross. Its on the cross that we see the most supreme in-breaking of the Kingdom: Jesus reaching his arms wide to embrace his brothers and sisters and pointing heaven-wards to his repair of the breach caused by our sinful self-centredness.
This morning’s gospel is in two halves. The message which Jesus proclaimed drew a positive response from those who heard it: Simon and Andrew, James and John. There are at least three points worth noting from the summons of these earliest disciples.
Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult
Of our life’s wild restless sea,
day by day his sweet voice soundeth,
saying, ‘Christian, follow me’:
The kingdom of God is challenge and choice:
believe the good news, repent and rejoice!
That’s what St Paul was saying in the epistle text read by Christopher. Paul thought that Jesus was coming back soon – a week next Wednesday or something like that – the time has grown short, the present form of this world is passing away, so make a definitive choice now.
Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom in his own age and foresaw it continuing in the life of the Church. And yet the world is not perfect. We still do not yet see God’s reign in all its fulness. This tension is embedded at the heart of Jesus’ strapline. The kingdom of God has come near – in the older English bibles we read the more evocative ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. The Greek word behind these phases is wonderfully, deliberately, enigmatic: hggiken – it’s the third person perfect of the verb ‘to draw near’. Jesus literally says that the kingdom of God is in a state of having drawn near. It has come very close but it has stopped moving. The mission of Jesus and his Church (us) makes the kingdom as real as its going to get – but the completion of that movement will have to wait for the end of time.
The Vicar’s verbosity has been worse than normal this morning. So let me leave you with RS Thomas, a poet whose incisiveness distilled the most profound truths into just a few lines. One of his very best poems, ‘The Kingdom’, catches everything about the paradoxical and transformative nature of Jesus’ strapline, his message and his mission:
It’s a long way off but inside [… poem copyright – please look it up!]