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Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Kingdom of God has Come Near - First Sunday of Lent 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015
1st Sunday of Lent

          When John baptized Jesus and he was coming out of the water, verse 10 says, Jesus saw heaven “torn apart.”  The Greek word is ‘schizo.’  Note the English that’s derived from this – schism.  A split. 
          I wrote an Ash Wednesday sermon that I won’t get to preach this year.  Joel chapter 2 was my text.  The prophet Joel says, “Rend your heart.”  That is when we come before God in repentance, we are called to rip ourselves wide open so that all is exposed and we are shredded.  In the Gospel of John, chapter 15, Jesus uses the imagery of pruning to describe how God works in us when are doing the right thing, bearing fruit for the Kingdom.  God snips away the unproductive parts. 
          Cutting.  Ripping open.  Why are such violent images so fitting for our description of the Kingdom of God? 
          In Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers provide background information about how Jesus came to be born.  The Gospel of John reaches all the way back, before creation, to establish Jesus’ divine identity.  Mark gives us neither the miraculous birth nor the assertion of Jesus’ divinity, at least not explicitly.  Mark dives right into his life on earth. 
          And yet, Mark does not necessarily ignore who Jesus is either.  John baptized hundreds.  Only when Jesus was baptized did God rip through the Heavens to witness the event.   Only here, at Jesus’ baptism, does God add His “Amen.” 
          Some English versions understate the drama.  The New King James Version says the Heavens parted.  That’s not strong enough.  Today’s English Version says Jesus saw Heaven opening.  The Living Bible is very similar.  It is not an acceptable translation.  In other ways, The New King James, The Today’s English Version, and The Living Bible are excellent.  I only raise the point here because if you read these or another version in which Mark 1:10 says the Heavens opened, something important is missing. 
An open door can be shut.  An open jar can have the lid put back on it.  At Jesus’ baptism, he knew who he was and why he had come.  We can debate about what Jesus knew prior to this.  Did he always realize he was God in the flesh?  We can have that conversation, but the Bible does not tell us any answer.  Our arguments would stand on theological reasoning and speculation but nothing more.  We know he was fully human. 
And we know at his baptism, a significant change occurred.  After this, he was on a mission to announce the Kingdom, demonstrate life in the Kingdom, and then die so people would not have to die in their sin, but rather in his resurrection could with him enter the Kingdom.  This baptism is the turning point for Jesus and the Heavens ripping open are a key.
Something ripped cannot easily be put back together.  That’s why God had his prophet Joel tell people to rip open their hearts.  All inside us is exposed before God.  Nothing is hidden.  We are our true selves before God, every bit of beauty and strength in us, every mistake we’ve made, and every sin committed against people, against ourselves, and against God – it is all there. We are ripped open and God makes us new.  God remakes us, forgiving where it is needed, healing, comforting, and raising us so that we are who God made us to be, his children.
Before that can happen, the ripping of the heavens had to happen at Jesus’ baptism.  Whatever wall stood to block us off from access to God, a wall built out of the raw material of human sin, it had to be torn away to never again stand.  The coming of Jesus, a completely human man and at the same the true Son of God, the Holy One, is the event that draws heaven in all its holiness and earth stained by sin together.
God confirms it.  When the heavens tear open and the division between God and man is in the process of being eliminated, God comes in the form of the Holy Spirit, gently falling on God in the form of a man.  With the grace of a dove, heavenly power comes over Jesus as the Father declares, “You are my son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased” (v.11).
That same Holy Spirit immediately drives Jesus to a place of unknown death – the wilderness.  Do not be deceived by the concept of wilderness.  Some of us love getting outside, out in the woods, away from it all.  Going to the wilderness for us is an escape in which we take in God’s beauty, breathe fresh air, and unplug.  In the first century, in a desert country, the wilderness was where one went to die.  It is true the wilderness is where Moses heard his call.  And Jesus did go to remote places for prayer and alone time with his Heavenly Father.  But this desert sojourn in Mark 1 was fraught with danger. 
Mark does not give the details we get from Matthew and Luke.  He simply tells us Jesus contended with Satan and with wild animals and he immerged victorious.  When the Kingdom of God breaks loose, Satan more than people of earth realizes the threat.  Satan desires control.  More than anything he wants to be Lord.  If he can’t be the Lord, then he will draw people away from the Lord.  Satan and his demons recognize who Jesus is and what his coming means for them.  His coming opens the way for people to bask in joy and glory and freedom as we, washed in divine love, worship God. 
This is the precursor to Satan’s last defeat, his final death.  The encounter ends with angels meeting Jesus’ needs.  He comes back to Galilee and begins preaching that the Kingdom of God has come near.  However, his victory is with a cost.  John the Baptist was arrested.
In signaling the beginning of the demise of John the Baptist, the New Revised Standard Version, which I read most Sundays, translated the word by saying he was ‘arrested.’  The actual word would better be translated ‘handed over.’  Mark will use this word again in introducing the disciples.  In chapter 3, as he goes through the 12, when Mark comes to Judas Iscariot, he tells us this is the “one who betrayed him.”  That verb “betrayed” is the same as the one translated “arrested” here in 1:14.  Mark’s original readers, knowing the story, quickly caught the foreshadowing.  John was handed over.  Jesus also was handed over.  John came to a tragic end, so too would Jesus. 
This is the tension in the announcement that the Kingdom has come near.  Jesus’ declaration, “the time is fulfilled,” signals an event.  I don’t know what comes to your mind when you hear “Kingdom of God.”  Mark was not talking about a theological concept.  He did not mean something that would come in an unknown future.  When he said, “Kingdom of God,” he meant an event that had happened.  In Jesus – his life, death, and resurrection – the Kingdom has come near.
One of my favorite commentaries for any book of the Bible is on Mark and is written by David Garland of Truett Theological Seminary.  When Jesus said, “Kingdom of God,” his listeners would have had something in mind.  Mark’s readers, reading his gospel 30 years after the resurrection would also have a specific idea about the Kingdom.  Garland writes,
Many understood the arrival of the Kingdom of God to mean that God was visiting the people to bring grace and judgment, to put things right in the world, to vanquish evil and the malevolent powers, to oust the rulers of this world, to establish the kingdom of Israel, to conquer sin and eradicate sickness, and to vindicate the righteous.[i]

In fact, Jesus did come to make things right and to judge and extend grace.  But a lot would have to occur that people did not anticipate or want whether it was his day or Mark’s day or ours.   The Kingdom would grow within a world overrun by sin.  Jesus’ peers thought that Kingdom meant the rule of Israel.  Mark’s readers thought Kingdom meant the rule of the church.  Today, the prevalent thought is of a disembodied Heaven.  We imagine a faraway place where we get whatever we want.  None of these images is the Kingdom Jesus was announcing. 
If we want a sense of what Jesus meant when he said that the Kingdom has come near, we need to read the Gospels and pay close attention to his interactions with people.  He welcomed the humble, knocked the proud off the pedestals on which they stood, and he healed wounded hearts.  Yes, he performed miracle healings, but the lasting affect came when he turned people to God.  The Kingdom is not the rule of Israel or the rule of the church or a faraway Heaven where our wildest dreams come true.  The Kingdom is much better than that.  It is the rule of God.
In Jesus, that Kingdom is near to us right now.  The heavens that ripped open have not been repaired or replaced.  Humans are invited to access to God because Jesus has come.  The divide that separated God’s realm from ours is now gone because Jesus has come.  Sin has lost its power, death has been defeated, and Satan has been shrunk, reduced to slinking around in the shadows because Jesus has come.
Yet, there is still tension even now.  John the Baptist was handed over.  Jesus was handed over.  And we who have been filled with His Holy Spirit and thus seen the approaching eternal Kingdom know that the final fulfillment has not yet come.  We live between the then and the not yet, between the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost and the final fulfillment.  In this in between time, the Kingdom of God overlaps with the world utterly corrupted in sin.
Mark’s purpose in his gospel is to show his readers all the implications in the reality of Jesus.  Jesus says, “Repent.”  That means turn.  Turn from the world of sin.  Turn from a world in which terrorists kidnap journalists and make a public showing of their execution.  Turn from a world in which dental students are murdered in parking disputes.  Turn from a world in which adultery is so common many just kind of accept it.  Turn from a world in which sex, a beautiful expression of love between a husband and wife, is used as a marketing tool that plays on viewers’ lusts and lack of meaningful relationships.  Repent of letting this world define us.
Repentance does not mean we pretend the problems of the world have magically disappeared.  It means we are not defined by those problems.  We are defined by who we are in Christ.  We confront evil as it is manifest in violence, death, greed, and sexual sin and in a thousand other ways.  We confront evil with the grace and love of Jesus.  We turn from it and to Him.  We are defined by who are in Him.
The message can be summed up this way.  Jesus’ coming was so dramatic, Heaven was ripped apart, evil recoiled and tried to fire back (the desert temptations, the death of John the Baptist, and manifestations of evil today), but God wins and to be in on God’s victory, we need to be pointed toward Him as we know Him in Jesus Christ.  This Lenten season, find specific changes in your life that you can make to reorient yourself so you are turned away from sin and corruption and turned toward Jesus. 
One excellent way of doing this is participation in communion.  The broken bread and the cup, Jesus broken body and shed blood, remind us of our own sins and what it cost him to take those sins away.  As we makes ourselves ready for receiving the elements, consider your life. What needs to be confessed for your repentance to be complete?  What changes need to happen so that you are fully directed toward Jesus and he defines your life, your work, your relationships, everything?
We will pray in silence for a few moments.  In this time ponder what turning will look like in your life.  God has come.  He has come for you.  Will you turn to Him?  This question bears out for people who have been lifelong Christians and for those who have never given themselves to Jesus.  Will you turn to Him this morning?
We will pray in silence.  Then sing.  Then have communion.  If you would like someone to pray with you during the silence and singing, we will have folks at the back and at the front.  You can come.

[i] D. Garland (1996), Zondervan Publishing House (Grand Rapids), p.60

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