Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Kingdom of God
In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.
On December 7, 2014 we will celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Mark:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and Saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."
The following sermon was first published in The Clown in the Belfry and later in Secrets in the Dark.
I always get the feeling as I read the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark that he is in a terrible rush, that he can't wait to reach the place where he feels the Gospel really begins. He says absolutely nothing about how Jesus was born. He gets through the baptism in no time Bat. He barely mentions the temptation in the wilderness. And only then, after racing through those first fourteen verses, does he get where he seems to have been racing to--the real beginning as he sees it--and that is the opening words of Jesus himself. Up to that point it has all gone so fast that hardly anybody except John the Baptist knows who Jesus really is yet, just as it might be said that most of the time hardly any of us knows who Jesus really is yet either.
He is destined to have a greater impact on the next two thousand years of human history than anybody else in history--we know that now--but here at the beginning of Mark nobody knows it yet. Not a single syllable has escaped his lips yet, as Mark tells it. The ant lays down her crumb to listen. The very stars in the sky hold their breath. Nobody in the world knows what Jesus is going to say yet, and maybe it's worthwhile pretending we don't know either--pretending we've never heard him yet ourselves, which may be closer to the truth than we think.
"The time is fulfilled," he says, "and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." That is how he launches the gospel--his first recorded words. There is a kind of breathlessness in those three short, urgent sentences. The question is, what do they urgently mean to us who know them so well that we hardly hear them anymore? If they mean anything to us at all, urgent or otherwise, what in God's name is it?
At least there is no great mystery about what "the time is fulfilled" means, I think. "The time is fulfilled" means the time is up. That is the dark side of it anyway, saving the bright side of it till later. It means that it is possible we are living in the last days. There was a time when you could laugh that kind of message off if you saw some bearded crazy parading through the city streets with it painted on a sandwich board, but you have to be crazy yourself to laugh at it in our nuclear age. The world is still a powder keg and the danger of the so-called war on terrorism recklessly spreading even farther and more disastrously may not be the worst of it. There is AIDS. There are drugs, and more to the point the darkness of our time that makes people seek escape in drugs. There is the slow poisoning of what we call "the environment" of all things, as if with that antiseptic term we can conceal from ourselves that what we are really poisoning is home, is here, is us.
It is no wonder that the books and newspapers we read, the movies and TV we watch, are obsessed with the dark and demonic, are full of death and violence. It is as if the reason we wallow in them is that they help us keep our minds off the real death, the real violence. And God knows the Christian faith has its darkness and demons too, so discredited by religious crooks and phonies, so distorted for political purposes, and in thousands of respectable pulpits proclaimed so blandly and shallowly and without passion, that you wonder sometimes not only if it will survive but if it even deserves to survive. As a character in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters puts it, "If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."
In other words, a lot of the kinds of things that happen at the ends of civilizations are happening today in our civilization, and there are moments when it is hard to avoid feeling not only that our time is up, but that it is high time for our time to be up. That we're ready to fall from the branch like overripe fruit under the weight of our own decay. Something like that, I think, is the shadow side of what Jesus means when he says that the time is fulfilled.
If he meant that the world was literally coming to an end back there in the first century A.D., then insofar as he was a human, he was humanly wrong. But if he meant that the world is always coming to an end, if he meant that we carry within us the seeds of our own destruction no less than the Roman and Jewish worlds of his day carried them within them, if he meant that in the long run we are always in danger of one way or another destroying ourselves utterly, then of course he was absolutely fight.
But Jesus says something else too. Thank God for that. He says our time is up, but he also says that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom of God is so close we can almost reach out our hands and touch it. It is so close that sometimes it almost reaches out and takes us by the hand. The Kingdom of God, that is. Not a human kingdom. Not Saddam Hussein's kingdom, not Bush's kingdom, not Osama bin Laden's kingdom. Not any of the kingdoms that worry like us about counting calories while hundreds of thousands starve to death. Bur God's Kingdom. Jesus says it is the Kingdom of God that is at hand. If anybody else said it, we would hoot him off the stage. But it is Jesus who says it. Even people who don't believe in him can't quite hoot him off the stage. Even people who have long since written him off can't help listening to him.
The Kingdom of God? Time after time Jesus tries to drum into our heads what he means by it. He heaps parable upon parable like a madman. He tries shouting it. He tries whispering it. The Kingdom of God is like a treasure, like a pearl, like a seed buried in the ground. It is like a great feast that everybody is invited to and nobody wants to attend.
What he seems to be saying is that the Kingdom of God is the time, or a time beyond time, when it will no longer be humans in their lunacy who are in charge of the world but God in his mercy who will be in charge of the world. It's the time above all else for wild rejoicing--like getting out of jail, like being cured of cancer, like finally, at long last, coming home. And it is at hand, Jesus says.
Can we take such a message seriously, knowing all that we know and having seen all that we've seen? Can we take it any more seriously than the Land of Oz? It's not so hard to believe in a day of wrath and a last judgment-just read the newspapers--but is the Kingdom of God any more than a good dream? Has anybody ever seen it--if not the full glory of it, then at least a glimpse of it off in the shimmering distance somewhere?
It was a couple of springs ago. I was driving into New York City from New Jersey on one of those crowded, fast-moving turnpikes you enter it by. It was very warm. There was brilliant sunshine, and the cars glittered in it as they went tearing by. The sky was cloudless and blue. Around Newark a huge silver plane traveling in the same direction as I was made its descent in a slow diagonal and touched down soft as a bird on the airstrip just a few hundred yards away from me as I went driving by. I had music on the radio, but I didn't need it. The day made its own music-the hot spring sun and the hum of the road, the roar of the great trucks passing and of my own engine, the hum of my own thoughts. When I came out of the Lincoln Tunnel, the city was snarled and seething with traffic as usual; but at the same time there was something about it that was not usual.
It was gorgeous traffic, it was beautiful traffic--that's what was not usual. It was a beauty to see, to hear, to smell, even to be part of It was so dazzlingly alive it all but took my breath away. It rattled and honked and chattered with life--the people, the colors of their clothes, the marvelous hodgepodge of their faces, all of it; the taxis, the shops, the blinding sidewalks. The spring day made everybody a celebrity--blacks, whites, Hispanics, every last one of them. It made even the litter and clamor and turmoil of it a kind of miracle.
There was construction going on as I inched my way east along Fifty-Fourth Street, and some wino, some bum, was stretched out on his back in the sun on a pile of lumber as if it was an alpine meadow he was stretched out on and he was made of money. From the garage where I left the car, I continued my way on foot. In the high-ceilinged public atrium on the ground floor of a large office building there were people on benches eating their sandwiches. Some of them were dressed to kill. Some of them were in jeans and sneakers. There were young ones and old ones. Daylight was flooding in on them, and there were green plants growing and a sense of deep peace as they ate their lunches mostly in silence. A big man in a clown costume and whiteface took out a tubular yellow balloon big around as a noodle, blew it up, and twisted it squeakily into a dove of peace, which he handed to the bug-eyed child watching him. I am not making this up. It all happened.
In some ways it was like a dream and in other ways as if I had woken up from a dream. I had the feeling that I had never seen the city so real before in all my life. I was walking along Central Park South near Columbus Circle at the foot of the park when a middle-aged black woman came toward me going the other way. Just as she passed me, she spoke. What she said was, "Jesus loves you." That is what she said: "Jesus loves you," just like that. She said it in as everyday a voice as if she had been saying good morning, and I was so caught off guard that it wasn't till she was lost in the crowd that I realized what she had said and wondered if I could possibly ever find her again and thank her, if I could ever catch up with her and say, "Yes. If I believe anything worth believing in this whole world, I believe that. He loves me. He loves you. He loves the whole doomed, damned pack of us."
For the rest of the way I was going, the streets I walked on were paved with gold. Nothing was different. Everything was different. The city was transfigured. I was transfigured. It was a new New York coming down out of heaven adorned like a bride prepared for her husband. "The dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.... He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:3-4). That is the city that for a moment I saw.
For a moment it was not the world as it is that I saw but the world as it might be, as something deep within the world wants to be and is preparing to be, the way in darkness a seed prepares for growth, the way leaven works in bread.
Buried beneath the surface of all the dirt and noise and crime and poverty and pollution of that terrifying city, I glimpsed the treasure that waits to make it a holy city--a city where human beings dwell in love and peace with each other and with God and where the only tears there are are tears of joy and reunion. Jesus said that as soon as the fig tree "becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that [the Son of man] is near, at the very gates" (Matt. 24:32-33). For a few very brief and enormously moving minutes that day, the city itself became tender, put out leaves, and I knew beyond all doubt that more than summer was near, that something extraordinary was at the gates, something extraordinary was at least at the gates inside me. "The kingdom of God is within you"--or "among you"--Jesus said (Luke 17:21), and for a little while it was so.
All over the world you can hear it stirring if you stop to listen, I think. Good things are happening in and through all sorts of people. They don't speak with a single voice, these people. No one person has emerged yet as their leader. They are divided into many groups pulling in many different directions. Some are pressing for an end to the war. Some are pressing for women's rights, some for civil rights, or gay rights, or human rights. Some are concerned primarily with world hunger or with the way we are little by little destroying the oceans, the rain forests, the air we breathe. There are lots of different people saying lots of different things, and some of them put us off with their craziness and there are lots of points to argue with them about, but at their best they seem to be acting out of a single profound impulse, which is best described with words like tolerance, compassion, sanity, hope, justice. It is an impulse that has always been part of the human heart, but it seems to be welling up into the world with new power in our age now even as the forces of darkness are welling up with new power in our age now too. That is the bright side, I think, the glad and hopeful side, of what Jesus means by "The time is fulfilled." He means the time is ripe.
Humanly speaking, if we have any chance to survive, I suspect it is men and women who act out of that deep impulse who are our chance. By no means will they themselves bring about the Kingdom of God. It is God alone who brings about his Kingdom. Even with the best will in the world and out of our noblest impulses, we can't do that. But there is something that we can do and must do, Jesus says, and that is repent. Biblically speaking, to repent doesn't mean to feel sorry about, to regret. It means to turn, to turn around 180 degrees. It means to undergo a complete change of mind, heart, direction. To individuals and to nations both, Jesus says the same thing. Turn away from madness, cruelty, shallowness, blindness. Turn toward that tolerance, compassion, sanity, hope, justice that we all have in us at our best.
We cannot make the Kingdom of God happen, but we can put out leaves as it draws near. We can be kind to each other. We can be kind to ourselves. We can drive back the darkness a little. We can make green places within ourselves and among ourselves where God can make his Kingdom happen. That transfigured city. Those people of every color, class, condition, eating their sandwiches together in that quiet place. The clown and the child. The sunlight that made everybody in those teeming streets a superstar. The bum napping like a millionaire on his pile of two-by-fours. The beautiful traffic surging all around me and the beautiful things that I could feel surging inside myself, in that holy place that is inside all of us. Turn that way. Everybody. While there is still time. Pray for the Kingdom. Watch for signs of it. Live as though it is here already because there are moments when it almost is, such as those moments in Tiananmen Square before the massacre started when the students were gentle and the soldiers were gentle and something so holy and human was trying to happen there that it was hard to see pictures of it without having tears come to your eyes.
And "Believe in the gospel." That's the last of those first words that Jesus speaks. Believe in the good news. Believe in what that black woman said. Hurrying along Central Park South, she didn't even stop as she said it. It was as if she didn't have time to stop. She said it on the run the way Mark's Gospel says it. "Jesus loves you," she said. It was a corny thing for her to say, of course. Embarrassing. A screwball thing to blurt out to a total stranger on a crowded sidewalk. But, "Jesus loves you." She said it anyway. And that is the good news of the gospel, exactly that.
The power that is in Jesus, and before which all other powers on earth and in heaven give way, the power that holds all things in existence from the sparrow's eye to the farthest star, is above all else a loving power. That means we are loved even in our lostness. That means we are precious, every one of us, even as we pass on the street without so much as noticing each other's faces. Every city is precious. The world is precious. Someday the precious time will be up for each of us. But the Kingdom of God is at hand. Nothing is different and everything is different. It reaches out to each of our precious hands while there's still time.
Repent and believe in the gospel, Jesus says. Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is gooder than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all.
Amen, and come, Lord Jesus.