“Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” –Mark 1:14-15
This is the third week after the Epiphany—the season of revelation, of seeing the unexpected. The best way to get at what’s going on in the season of Epiphany is to contrast it with Christmas. At Christmas we get to look back, as it were, with 20/20 hindsight.
We worship that little baby wrapped up and lying there in a feeding trough as though he was God in the flesh.
We proclaim that this little baby is The Anointed one of Israel—the source of the world’s hope and peace and joy.
But in Epiphany it’s as though the Church directs us to forget everything we know about Jesus, to put ourselves in the shoes of those first witnesses to his life and to ask with them “Just who is this Nazarene, anyway?”
So in Epiphany we get little snapshots of the life of Jesus: his presentation and naming in the Temple, his baptism in the Jordan and this week we turn to Jesus’ teaching ministry. They are meant to be windows into who the gospel writers said Jesus was and is. Only in Epiphany—and this is so often the case in the gospels—the question gets turned around on us:
“Who do you say that Jesus is?”
So Jesus comes on the scene, in our gospel lesson this morning, proclaiming, “The time has been fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is here.”
Now it’s important to note that of our four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), biblical scholars tell us that Mark was the first to be written down (sometime in the early 70s ad). So this proclamation in Mark 1:14 is the first words of Jesus ever to be recorded. We have no context here. This Jewish Rabbi just comes from out of nowhere and says, “It’s time!”
Well, time for what, Jesus? Tool time? Game time? Bed time? What time is it, exactly?
As it turns out, all of the first witnesses to Jesus would have understood exactly what he was talking about…well, sort of. They would have understood what Jesus was alluding to, but the claim he was making would have sounded very strange indeed.
Let me see if I can unpack that a bit. All of the first witnesses to Jesus, that is to say Jews in the first century, believed that the God of Israel was a good and just and merciful God. Just think of the Psalms: “For the Lord is good; his mercy endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations” (Ps 100:5). They also believed that this good and merciful God ruled the whole world. Again the Psalms: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). So that was their faith: Their God is a good God who ruled the whole world.
But their experience told them something different: not only, it seemed, was God not ruling the whole world, he didn’t even seem to be ruling his own people. Israel was subject to the pagan Roman emperor. But that was just the flavor of the week—before Rome it was the Macedonians. And before them it was the Persians, before them the Meads, then the Babylonians, then the Assyrians, and Egyptians. And it wasn’t just a matter of political rulership. The Romans were a violent and oppressive regime who defiled the holy Temple and put onerous tax burdens on the peasant class. (Some historians speculate that peasants in first century Palestine may have been paying 75% – 80% of their annual earnings to the Romans). And they squashed any hint of resistance with violence. The world seemed to be a place of sin, injustice, sickness, demon possession, death and violence.
Imagine how difficult it is two hold these two things together: the faith that your God is a good God who rules the world, and the experience that the world is full of sin, injustice, death and violence. Imagine the kind of tension they must have lived with.
We feel that same tension sometimes, don’t we? I mean even in our prayers later this morning we praise the holy, eternal, steadfast God of all creation.
…and our deliverance.
And then we turn right around and acknowledge that ours is a world of endanger species and fragile ecosystems.
…That the cities of the world cry out for peace from the cycle of violence that perpetuates war.
…We pray for those who flee from war, poverty and famine. And for those who suffer from natural disaster.
…We pray for those who need healing from addiction, despair and illness. And for comfort for the dying.
Which is it? Are we caught in a cycle of violence that perpetuates war? Or is God our deliverance?
This tension we feel is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—it results from try to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. We can handle the pressure for a while, but eventually something’s got to give. We either have to give up one of the beliefs, or adopt a third belief that can make sense of the other two together.
That’s just what the Jews did. They say, “If God really is good and he really does rules the whole world, then he won’t let things go on like this forever. Eventually God will intervene in human history. He’ll set things right.” This belief—that God will eventually come and clean up the mess that’s been made of the world—is what theologians call—You ready? Big fancy theological word here—eschatology. That’s a very important word if you want to understand the New Testament.
Say it with me, ready? Eschatology.
It comes from a little Greek word eschaton—it means “the end.” It’s a normal, everyday Greek word. If you go out for lunch after Church today, and there’s a long line up to the hostess’ desk, and if you were a Greek-speaking person, you would be looking for the eschaton. And it wouldn’t have anything to do with theology—you’d be looking for the end of the line. So when first century Jews talked about eschatology, they were talking about “When’s it going to end?”
When is it going to end?
Now let me be clear. They were not talking about the end of the world. Eschatology is not about people going up to heaven and the physical word coming to an end. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that it is. That’s not a biblical picture. The biblical picture is not one of people going up, but of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven and of God restoring the creation. Read Revelation 21 and 22. God doesn’t want to destroy the world—God created the word, and then he looked out at the whole thing and said it’s good, good, good, good, good, very good. It would be an embarrassment for God to destroy the world, like a manufacture having to recall a car back to the factory. Eschatology is not about the end of the world, it’s about the end of sin, injustice, oppression, sickness, demon possession, death, and violence. When will the good God who rules the world, step in and clean up this mess?
When is it going to end?
And so first century Jews thought that you could divide history is tow basic segments. There was the time in which they were currently living, called “This Present Evil Age.” This Present Evil Age was characterized by Israel being ruled over by some foreign regime, by evil, injustice, violence and death.
But there was a day coming—what the Old Testament calls “The Day of the Lord”—in which the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, would come and overthrow the Romans (or whatever regime was oppressing Israel at the time) and create a society characterized by righteous, justice and peace. And he would thereby usher in “The New Age,” or what the gospel writes often call “the kingdom of God.” Now again, don’t think of the kingdom of God as someplace else, where people go to get away from the world. The kingdom of God is about God’s ruling and reining right here among us. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Those two lines say the same thing. God’s kingdom coming means his will being done right here on earth, the same as it is in heaven. So the kingdom of God is about God putting a stop to oppression and violence.
When is it going to end?
When will God finally rule a world of righteousness and peace and abundant life?
When will we see The Day of the Lord?
When will it be time?
So now we can see how the first witnesses to Jesus would have understood his teaching, and why it would have seemed so strange, so weird, so…almost…stupid. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is here.”
You can almost hear someone speaking up. “Wait, Jesus, could you repeat that. I must have misheard you. I thought you said ‘the kingdom of God is here.’ But you couldn’t have meant that, Jesus, I mean look around: the Romans are still here, the Temple has been defiled, we are treated unjustly and oppressed, the world is filled with sickness and violence. What do you mean the kingdom of God is here?”
What a strange thing to say—the kingdom of God is here already.
This is what biblical scholars call realized eschatology, the belief that, somehow, in the person and work of Jesus, the end is already upon us—right here in the middle of history—that the kingdom of God has, in some sense, already come.
And this seems to be what Jesus is teaching: “I know, I know, the evidence looks mixed. But I’m telling you that the time has come. The kingdom is here…now…it’s among you…it is in you.”
In fact, this is what Jesus’ whole teaching and ministry seems to be about. Just look at the rest of Mark’s gospel: In 1:21 Jesus heals a man of demon possession.
In 1:29 he heals the sick.
In 1:40, Jesus encounters a leper. Now leprosy is a skin disorder. It’s not in any way contagious, but in the culture of first century Judaism, if you have it you are considered unclean. Therefore, you cannot worship in the Temple. You cannot shop in the market, use public restrooms or public fountains. If you’re thinking Jim Crow laws of the 1960’s, that’s probably about right. Except that, by the strictest interpretation of the law, a leper could be stoned to death even for just touching another human being. Lepers could not even eat at the table with their own families. Lepers were complete social outcasts.
So Jesus is teaching one day, probably in the market, when this leper comes running up to him. Remember, this man risked his life—if he had even bumped into someone else, he could have been sentenced to death. But what does a man like this have to live for, anyway? So he runs through the crowd, falls down on his knees at Jesus’ feet and says “Master, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Now we know that Jesus can heal someone without having to touch them. Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus meets a Roman Centurion on the road and from there heals the man’s daughter who is at home. But to this leper Jesus says “I am willing,” and then he reaches out and touches the man.
Can you image?
This is probably the first meaningful touch from another human being that this man has felt in years. The healing must have seemed anti-climatic.
You see what Jesus is doing? He is beginning to deal with those things that we said characterize This Present Evil Age: demon possession, sickness and injustice.
And we’re still in chapter one.
There’s a wonderful story in chapter two about a quadriplegic. Not many opportunities in the ancient world for someone like that. Can’t get a job, can’t get around. His friends have to do everything for him. So when they hear that there’s a healer in town, they take their friend to meet Jesus.
But there’s a problem: The house Jesus is teaching in is packed…standing room only…they can’t even get in the door. That doesn’t stop these guys, though. They climb to the roof and start to dig a hole in it to lower their friend through.
Now we know that Jesus was homeless, so someone else must have invited him to teach in their home. And presumably if you’ve invited Jesus to speak at your home, you want to hear what he has to say. So we can probably guess that the owner of this home was standing in the living room beside Jesus when…
…little bits of his ceiling started to fall down one their heads.
Now image you’re the paraplegic, laying on your back, staring up at the man whose roof you friends just dug through. And you can’t go anywhere.
Then Jesus looks down at the guy and says something which seems to me a little insensitive. He says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now if I’m this guy I’m thinkin’ “Jesus, I appreciate the gesture and I understand you’re into this whole religious thing, but right now I’d like for someone to deal with my leg situation so that I can get out of here before that guy realizes what my friends just did to his house.”
That, at least, would be a reaction I could understand. But the text tells us that when the Sadducees hear this they got angry. Why would anyone get angry about forgiveness? Isn’t that a good thing?
Well, how do you receive forgiveness of sins if you are a Jew in first century? You go to the Temple, right? You have sacrifices made on your behalf. And by the first century this was big business. And the Sadducees run it. And get kick-backs on the Temple fees. So if someone can go around proclaiming forgiveness of sin outside the Temple, they’re Sadducees are out of a job! So they say “Listen here, buddy, nobody forgives sins but God alone,” (meaning nobody forgives sins except in our building…on our schedule…by our prescription…and with our price tag).
So Jesus asks the question: “Okay, which is easier, for me to tell this man his sins are forgiven? Or for me to tell him”…“Get up! Take up you mat and go home.” And the paraplegic gets up and walks out of the room.
In chapter five Jesus is on a boat with his disciples when a great storm comes and threatens to capsize them. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus is asleep on the back of the boat. So the disciples go and wake him up: “Jesus, how could you be sleeping through this? You don’t care if we die out here? Why don’t you do something?” So Jesus gets up, looks out over the sea, and says what most English Bibles translate as “Peace, be still.”
Actually what he says is phimoō—shut up!
And suddenly the waves stop crashing over the ship and the winds die down.
The disciples are amazed. “Even the wind and the waves obey him.”
You see what they’re saying? Somehow, through this man, God’s will is being executed over the earth, just like it is in heaven. The kingdom has come.
Makes you want to ask though, doesn’t it, “Why don’t you calm the storms in my life?”
I think what Jesus is trying to get at is this: In some strange sense, there seems to be an overlap in the ages. The Day of the Lord was not the might fell swoop so many had expected. So it’s true that this Present Evil Age is still a reality that exists all around us. But it’s also true that in the person of and work of Jesus the kingdom of God has in some sense already come. More importantly, there is a day coming when This Present Evil Age will finally come to an end—when cowardice and fear and murder and sexually perversion and idolatry and lies will all be burned away like sulfur, as the book of Revelation says. And when the kingdom of God will fully realized at last. We will see the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.
…A city whose gates will never be shut, for they fear no evil.
…A city where God will reign forever and ever, and he will make his dwelling place among us.
…Where there will be no more death.
…Where there will be no more pain.
…And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For those former things will have passed away.
…And, behold, he will make all things new.
But for now it seems that we are living in the time in between these times. Or what C. S. Lewis calls “the already and not yet.” For the kingdom of God has, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, in some sense, already come. But still This Present Evil Age has not yet passed away.
The already, and the not yet.
And the thing we must never forget for life in between the time is this: Don’t judge by appearances.
Yes, I know, the evidence looks mixed. Of course it does. This Present Evil Age still persists. But, friends, I’m here today to announce that the old regime of violence and oppression, of sickness and death, of sadness and loss—it is getting tired, and soon it will lie down to rest. But dawn is breaking upon the kingdom of God and soon we shall walk in the light of its new day.
So do not judge only by what you can see.
Yes, there are many who are sick and dying. But many are healed.
Yes, our world is full of injustice and oppression. But many find freedom.
Yes, we are plagued by sin. But there is forgiveness.
Yes, there are storms in our lives. But even the waves obey our Lord.
So don’t judge by appearances.
For the time has come.
The kingdom of God is here.