September 7, 2014
“Jesus Came Preaching”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.
17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.
20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
We begin this sermon series on the kingdom of God in Mark, a good place to start because is believed to be the first of the biographies written about Jesus, about 30 years after his death. Imagine what it was like.
Jesus had been crucified very publicly because he posed a threat to the political power of the Jewish religious leaders and was a disturber of the Pax Romana, the Roman peace.
Zealots and insurrectionists had been creating uprisings for years against their Roman oppressors, and Jesus was perceived by some to be just like them.
He comes from the north, from Galilee, which was considered to be the sticks to the southern, more conservative and more sophisticated people in Jerusalem. For its time, Galilee was multicultural. It had significant Greek and Roman populations following their respective conquests. The vast majority of the indigenous native population was poor, fishing or farming at subsistence level.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the followers of Jesus grow and spread but they are persecuted, stoned to death, and crucified. The early church gathers in homes, breaking bread together, retelling the stories about Jesus, recounting the things he said and did. And passed around these early communities is a biography of Jesus, in some ways it reads like a novella.
It is written anonymously in koine Greek, the common language and with the least sophisticated Greek we find in any of the New Testament. It was accessible, meant to be read aloud as most people were illiterate. I would encourage you to read it all the way through, it is a quick read because it is also the shortest of the biographies. It has a different feeling; it has a hushed, mysterious quality to it. Events happen quickly, and Jesus is up against great forces of evil and darkness.
The story begins immediately with John the Baptizer paving the way for Jesus. There is no birth narrative, no childhood stories, no temptation stories in the desert. In quick succession John is preaching, baptizes Jesus, Jesus goes out to the wilderness, John is arrested, literally “handed over” to the authorities, and then it all begins. Jesus comes preaching.
It is very interesting to see what Jesus’ spoken first words are in the earliest story of his life. The gospel account reads that Jesus comes back to Galilee, his homeland, proclaiming the good news of God saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The good news comes in three parts: 1) The time has been fulfilled, 2) the kingdom of God has come near, 3) repent and believe in the good news.
The time has been fulfilled. Something is beginning, something is happening, something people have been waiting for, for a long time. The Greek word for time here is kairos, which means the special moment, not repeatable, “God’s time.”
The kingdom of God has come near, it has arrived. What does that even mean? This phrase, kingdom of God, occurs 14 times in Mark’s gospel.
It points back to the traditions and stories of God’s people who believed with all their hearts that one day God would rule and his kingdom would be one of peace and justice, and evil would be wiped out.
According the prophet poet Isaiah when God ruled, all the ends of the earth would see the salvation of God.
But that “kingdom of God” phrase only appears twice in the Old Testament.
God always ruled heaven, what everyone was waiting for was God’s feet to touch the ground. So God, in Jesus Christ says, this is happening. Only if we believe that Jesus is God, does any of this make any sense, because in Jesus Christ, God’s feet were touching the ground, heaven met earth, the veil was torn, the kingdom came.
The Greek word, eggizo, to come near, can also mean to join one thing to another. Heaven and Earth are about to be joined together. Everything is about to change.
Third part of Jesus’ sermon – repent and believe in the good news. That word for repent in the Greek, metanoia, means to turn around, not spiritually or emotionally, but physically.
It implies action, literally moving in a new direction. Stop walking that way and do a complete about-face and walk in the other direction. “Repent” is part of the poetry of exile in Old Testament, something that the Israelites knew a lot about. Repenting, when in exile, meant going home.
So in other words, Jesus says, turn around and come home; God’s kingdom is home. Repentance, then, is not about feeling so bad and so sorry and promising to do better next time. It is about realizing that we are not walking toward God and we need to turn and run the other way.
Here is the remarkable thing: when Jesus preaches for the first time it is not about “God so loved the world that he gave his son that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.” The good news was not about resurrection or the forgiveness of sins or even about love. Jesus is preaching about an alternative narrative – things are not what they seem, the time has been fulfilled, things have changed, to be a Christ follower means being a part of a new kingdom, a new narrative.
Jesus walks past Peter and Andrew and James and John and says come and follow me and I will show you a different way of looking at the world, and they didn’t even know what it was but they dropped everything and left behind their families and their livelihood.
The new community, God’s kingdom would be a turn from existing social structures and traditions and culture. People of the kingdom would derive their identity not from their job or their income or their family or their education, but rather be given a new identity as followers of the way of the kingdom of God.
For Peter and Andrew and James and John, it was a decision that changed everything; you never know the moment that will change your life. What would be so compelling that they would literally let go of their nets to follow a stranger?
Blogger Janet Hunt tells the story of when she was serving in a seminary internship in Wahoo, Nebraska. She had traveled to Iowa for several days to visit her sister when an April snowstorm hit. After waiting for several days she decided to try and drive back.
She writes: “Perhaps it was just the “invincibility” of youth that had me not thinking clearly and so I kept driving. It was when I turned off the Interstate and kept driving west on Route 92, that even I had to admit I was in trouble.
By now it was dark and the drifts on either side of the road were growing higher and higher. Pretty soon the lanes themselves narrowed to the point that the few foolhardy people still on the road were left to squeeze by one another. It was so tight, in fact, that I can remember the side of my car scraping into the high drifts on my right.
Still I kept going. Until I reached the small town of Yutan and was brought to a halt by bright orange barriers which told me the road before me was closed. I was less than fifteen miles from home and apparently I could go no further. I pulled into the convenience store that was right there. I wearily walked my way inside … “ She asked the clerk for directions around the closed road.
She goes on to say, “He gave them to me… speaking the language of rural folks who have lived in a place all their lives. You know what I’m talking about: turn right at the grain elevator, go about a mile and a half and turn left at the old Smith place… you can’t miss it, they have two windmills instead of one, etc.
As he spoke I felt myself wanting to weep, knowing I would never find my way. Before he had finished though I felt a kind hand on my shoulder. It seemed this older couple had been in a few minutes before to fill their gas tank and he said he thought he recognized me coming in as he was going out.
He introduced himself and reminded me that we had met a few weeks before when I had been paying a hospital call on a friend of theirs. And then he said, ‘Come on. Follow us. We’ll get you home.’
And so I did. I climbed back into my car and followed them… never letting their tail-lights out of my sight through those unfamiliar rural roads. I followed them through twists and turns and drifts higher than my car until they turned off at the edge of town, knowing I could find my way from there. I followed them as though my life depended upon it. And perhaps it did.”
The disciples followed Jesus as if their lives depended on it. What would be so compelling that the first disciples would leave everything they knew, their livelihood, their family and their homes, to follow after Jesus as if their lives depended on it? What exactly is this kingdom of God that Jesus came preaching about? Even Jesus says in Mark that it is a mystery, and he also says that mystery has been given to us. He tells us about it through stories of mustard seeds and banquets, he tells us it belongs to little children, he tells us that when we truly understand what is means to love God and neighbor then we have come near it, and we need to be born anew to see it. If you have ever wondered if there is more to this life, you have been searching for the kingdom. Amen.