Hancock Church Sermon – Rev. Paul Shupe – September 1, 2013 – Mark 1:14-15



“At Hand”

       Now after John 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; repent, and believe in the good news.’  According to Mark, these are the first words out of the mouth of Jesus when he began to teach and heal and minister among the people in Galilee.  They are weighted to with expectation.   The time is fulfilled, he said, meaning that the time of waiting for God to move once more in the course of human events had come to an end.  It was not a radically new notion.  Israel had seen before that there are times when the times were full, when the days of what had been were over, and the days for something new were beginning.  When God heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt and called Moses to do something about it, the times were fulfilled.  When God heard the lament of the exiles and readied a pathway home for them in the wilderness, the times were fulfilled.

So when Jesus appeared and said that the days were full, his hearers knew that he was saying that God was doing something again, that the time of oppression and suffering was once more coming to a close.  The kingdom of God, Jesus went on, is at hand.  Now the kingdom of God was and is a phrase that speaks of the glorious fulfillment of God’s purposes on the earth that God called into being and declared to be good.  Sometimes it gets depicted as heaven, a grand utopia at the end of time when all the powers of evil and death have been banished from the earth.  Perhaps Jesus meant it that way, but if so, he was pretty well proven to be wrong.  2000 years of human history have followed, sometimes happy and pleasant and joyful, but sometimes filled almost to the brim with evil and with death.  But the word often rendered “kingdom” can also mean “reign” or “rule”; not a static reality like a heavenly kingdom, but more an affirmation of the possibilities of God’s world walking in harmony with God’s deepest realities: love and peace and mercy and hope.  The reign of God does not necessarily describe a place, as a way of being, a way of living in this time and in this place.  Perhaps Jesus meant it this way: that the time had come to live in harmony with God’s desires for your life and for the world, and that it was going to be possible to do so.

This is why I say that these words are weighted with expectation.  Something new is happening, Jesus was saying.  The old ways are over, the new ways are coming, and those who can hear can participate in those new ways.  And how do we join in?  Repent, he said, and believe in the Good News.  Repent.  A word that does not mean groveling in the dust and bemoaning what unworthy wretches we have been because we love to sin and thumb our noses at God’s ways.  No.  Repent in its simplest definition means simply to “turn” to change direction, to stop doing what we’ve always done, and do something else instead.  Repent, believe in the Good News, he said.  Now I know that there are a lot of good and faithful Christian people who will tell you that the most important thing about being a Christian is to believe that Jesus died for your sins, and to accept him as your personal Lord and savior.  Well I’m not here this morning to argue against that particular teaching, though I think it’s only a part of the story.  What I am doing this morning is simply pointing out that this was not what Jesus was teaching in Galilee.  He wasn’t telling them about his death.  Wasn’t judging their sin and telling them that he was going to have to die for it.  This may be true, but it wasn’t the Good News he was talking about here.

What I think Jesus had in mind is this: the Good News is that God is drawing near, is as near as your hand, and that you can change, the world can change, can turn from the old ways of oppression and death and embrace instead the ways of love and peace and hope and mercy.  That’s the Good News that Jesus had in mind, I think.  The times were changing, God is moving, and we can do differently than we have.  We hear a simple teaching like that, and we have to become expectant.  We have to expect that we have the opportunity to change, because God is drawing near, and that we can embrace this nearness as new life for all.

This past week the nation has cast at least part of our attention on remembering a great moment in our history: the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  There, on the front steps of the Lincoln Memorial one of the great prophets delivered his best-remembered speech.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke eloquently of his dream, our dream, of a world not divided by race or skin color, but one in which people of all races, and all faiths, could live together in freedom and with dignity.  We remember the image: “I have a dream!”

But before King told us of his dream, he told us that the times were fulfilled.  People of color were tired of waiting for the crumbs of freedom to fall from white tables.  The promises of the Declaration of Independence could be, should be, must be, will be kept: all people are created equal, and must be treated as such.  The times, he said, were filled, and the 250,000 marchers on the mall with him roared in agreement.  Only then did he tell them that the reign of God was drawing near, was at hand, that a new world was a-coming along.  Only then did he tell them of his dream, rooted in the great prophetic utterances of thousands of years before, with justice flowing down like rivers and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  Only then did he describe the new world that he saw, with children at play together, men (which included women for him) working together, a society of freedom and justice and comfort for all.

And he called us to repent.  To turn from the paths we’d been on, to walk on the same public streets together, to ride the same trains together, to eat in the same restaurants together, to worship the same God together.  He called us to repent, to turn, to change, to move in a new way, and to believe that it was possible, to believe in the Good News of a world defined not by skin color but by moral character.  It was a moment brimming with expectation.

Did it come to pass?  Barack Obama is President of the United States; a black man in the White House suggests progress.  And yet, Trayvon Martin is dead, and more than 800,000 African American men are in prison, suggesting that we have more work to do.

But listen, because this is not the issue at hand.  The point of this sermon is not that Jesus spoke in this way once a long time ago, and that Martin trusted his words half a century ago, and that we’ve made some progress in the intervening years.  No.  The point of this sermon is not that the times were once fulfilled.  The Good News I’m proclaiming to you today is that the times are always fulfilled.  That God is always trying, always about to do a new thing.  That we can become a part of God’s new thing just anytime we want to, choosing to turn away from the old paths that keep us chained, and walking instead in the light of love and peace and hope and mercy.  That’s the point.  The reign of God is at hand.  Here.  Now.  Today.  We can turn, and walk toward a bright new world.  We can love, we can make peace, we can speak of hope, we can extend mercy.  We can live lives brimming with expectation, for God still speaks, still moves, and still calls us to walk in new paths.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.