08 March 2015

Order Matters: Kingdom, Repent, Believe.

The north shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Mark 1:9-15

Third Sunday in Lent/ 8th March 2015

I’ll cut right to the chase here this morning.  Pay attention to the order.  Look at the flow of the text.  We start at 1:9 with Jesus’ baptism by John (verses 9-11), and then we have Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (verses 12-13), followed by Jesus’s statement about the kingdom of God (verse 14-15).  Jesus leaves Galilee for the wilderness to be baptized, then he’s led deeper into the wilderness for forty days, and then Jesus returns to Galilee.  Upon his return, right after word arrived that John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus begins his public ministry.  Everything Jesus came to do is summed up in these two verses, verses 14 and 15 of chapter 1.  The life of a Jesus-follower is summed up in these two verses. 

Here they are again:  “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.’”

And it’s here, in these two verses, so simple, so profound, that we need to pay close attention to the order.  Getting the order correct is crucial.

Let’s break it down and you’ll see what I mean. 
Jesus arrives in Galilee. 
What is the first task of his ministry?  
He comes proclaiming, preaching. What is he proclaiming, preaching?  The good news. 
Whose good news?  God’s.  God’s good news.  
The euaggelion tou theou.

What is this good news that’s coming from God? Here’s what Jesus says: the time is fulfilled—peplerotai ho kairos. What time is it?  Kairos time! And what is kairos time?  Kairos is time, a kind of time. It’s a moment among many moments pregnant with possibility and opportunity.  It’s not ordinary time, common time, second after second after second, tick then tock then tick then tock forever and ever.  Kairos is not that kind of time. Jesus would have described that tick-tock understanding of time as chronos.  But there are special moments within chronos so full of meaning and significance, moments that emerge and erupt the ordinary flow of tick-tock time that are singular, when something different and new occurs, and what arrives in that moment, every other moment is forever changed.  That’s kairos time.

This new thing emerging, erupting, exploding in ordinary time in Jesus’s life, this new dimension of time Jesus would have described as kairos, which is exactly how Mark describes it.  That’s what Mark wants you and me to see here.  The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a kairotic moment and what occurred in that moment continues unabated throughout time, for all time, right down to our time, to this time.

So what erupted into time then and continues to break into our time now?  Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the kingdom.”  This is the order we need to pay close attention to. 

Kingdom. Repent. Believe.  In this order. Not: repent, believe, and then enter the kingdom of God.  Neither is it:  believe, then, repent, and then the kingdom of God will come near.  No.  Getting the order correct is crucial.  Where you begin will shape the contours of your life.  Where you begin will determine where you end up and shape how you get there.  By “there” I don’t mean heaven.  For Mark, the kingdom of God is not a synonym for “heaven.”  The kingdom or, better, the realm of God (the Greek could also accurately be translated as empire), is not “up there” or “out there” after we die.

The realm of God—God’s realm of fairness, justice and righteousness, God’s way of mercy and peace and fierce love, God’s judgment upon evil and every injustice in the world, God’s redemptive power to heal and to restore, to save and to make whole, this kingdom, this kin-dom, this realm, this empire, this sphere of benevolent influence—has come near, drawn close to us, it has erupted into the space-time continuum in the body and spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.  Our life fissures and splits open with his arrival, in this kairos time.  All that the kingdom symbolizes and means is now embodied in Jesus, in what he says, but also in what he is. God has entered into time through the Son and time is never the same again. The power of God has now been unleashed upon the world in an entirely new way in him.  This new way, as theologians say, this novum, this new thing is the good news, it is what we mean by gospel.

And because all of this is now true—the kingdom is not on the way, it’s not about to draw near, it’s here and now, right now—we need to wake up.  Wake up!  Change your life!  Change the way you think!  Change your mind, change your awareness, which is what we mean by repent; and then believe, trust in the goodness of this good news.

Kingdom. Repent. Believe. Many Christians like to switch it around by starting with repentance.  We’ve all heard countless televangelists and revivalist preachers calling for repentance as a kind of warning.  If you repent, so the message goes, change your ways, and then believe certain things about Jesus or God or the Spirit, then you’ll enter the kingdom, which often means heaven.  Many Christians think this is the order of things: Repent. Believe. Kingdom.  But that’s not what the text says.  That’s why John Calvin (1509-1564) insisted, “Repentance is not placed first…as if it were the ground of forgiveness, or as if it induced God to be begin to be gracious to us.”[1] Forgiveness is not contingent upon repentance. We can’t force God to forgive us by repenting.  Jesus arrived in the Galilee proclaiming the kingdom, because God is gracious, not because we are.

Kingdom. Repent. Believe.  Some Christians like to reverse it altogether by starting with belief.  Christians that take this approach tend to become anxious about what they believe or don’t believe, about what others believe or don’t believe, they work themselves up into a nervous state worrying about doubt creeping into their lives. They stress belief first. They say, if you first come to believe certain things about Jesus, then change your thinking and your behavior, then the kingdom will come.

The major problem with both distortions of this text, whether you start with repentance or belief, is that both of these salvation formulas are so egocentric and ego-driven.  These readings of the text make it all about us, what we can or cannot do or think or believe.  We assume that if we just perfect repentance, get our moral and theological lives in order, return to the straight and now, follow certain rules of behavior, behave like good little boys and girls, control our thoughts, then, surely, the blessing of the kingdom will fall upon us. But this is, as we all know, the royal road to continued disappointment and failure.  It doesn’t work this way.

The good news is not about you.  It’s not about what you can or cannot do to enter the kingdom.  It’s not about you and me trying to earn our salvation.  It’s not about us. We can’t usher in the kingdom of God. We can’t work toward it.  We can’t manipulate God with our “good” behavior, as if that would get God to open the doors and let us in the kingdom.   But, you might be asking, isn’t that what Jesus wants from us?  Isn’t this what God wants from us, perfection?  Isn’t that why Jesus came to die to deal with our sin, to judge our waywardness, to take our sin on a cross? Doesn’t Jesus expect a particular ethic from his followers?  Of course—which brings me back to the text.

The ethic God requires flows from understanding the kingdom.

Kingdom. Repent. Believe.  The kingdom comes first.  It’s a gift.  It’s an act of grace.  It’s given. And it has already arrived.  It’s already here, in Christ.  Right now.  What Jesus wants first from us is not our best intentions but for us to know in our hearts and minds that God is gracious, to know God’s justice, mercy, peace, and wholeness, to know that something new and beautiful and wondrous and redemptive has been born and is being reborn in us because of him. 

And when this awareness overwhelms us, when we are overcome by this grace, when we come to this consciousness, when we experience God in precisely this way, repentance, metanoia, will follow, it will happen, and we will come believe in the good news and trust in the good news because we know that it’s good. This awareness of the kingdom yields repentance, it changes our minds, and it informs what we believe, and, ultimately, it compels us to follow him, it moves our bodies and our feet and we move or march or act.  “And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:16-18).  I suspect that this is the reason why the disciples were able to respond so quickly to Jesus’ invitation to follow him.  They saw a different world before them, with new possibilities found in him.  Because they caught of a glimpse of that vision, the left everything and followed him.

Jesus offered them a vision of God’s kingdom. And he came preaching to help us to see it too.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1928-1968) saw it.  Had a glimpse of the kingdom.  That’s what he saw from the mountaintop.  He saw God’s vision for the world.  He saw where the kingdom would lead us. 

And all the people who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they saw it too.  That’s why they could march and walk and suffer and even die.  It’s the kingdom vision that calls us—and it’s the vision that changes us and invites us to repent from former ways and believe in the possibilities of a different narrative.  The visions calls us to act or to walk or to march or to work or to prayer.  It calls us to come alive.  And when the vision emerges, when kairos breaks into chronos, and we attempt to move toward that vision we should expect resistance against us, we should anticipate an enormous struggle against God’s kingdom.  And when that happens we need to go back and remember the vision because, as President Barak Obama said yesterday in Selma, “We know the march is not over yet.”[2]         

I agree with Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and writer, when he says, “Jesus is much more concerned about shaking your foundations, giving you an utterly alternative self image, world image, and God image, and thus reframing your entire reality.”[3]  The good news—this kingdom message embodied in Jesus—is all about “regrounding, reshaping and redirecting you from your core.” And it’s not really good news unless it’s doing all of this for us and to us.  Without transformation at the core level, religion or faith is essentially ego-driven and ego-centric.  The faith becomes something we “use” for our own ends and purposes, something we “do” in order to get something out of God or the church or our neighbor.  The Christian life unfortunately becomes all about doing, “repenting,” or believing or trying to belief certain things about God or Jesus or the Spirit.  The faith experience becomes consumed with a desire to try harder, be a better Christian, a better person, a better mother or father or son or daughter or spouse or partner.  No wonder people get disappointed and frustrated.

Why do we focus on “repent” and miss the reference to the kingdom?  We hear repent as: try harder. Work harder, be kinder, be more giving, more forgiving, more peaceful, less anxious, more accepting, more loving, be a better mother, father, spouse or partner, a better son or daughter…you know the drill, you know those internal messages in your head.  You also know, for the most part, they’re not effective.  Change can occur, but deep, lasting change never really occurs this way.  And all of these aspirations are important, but the Christian life is about so much more.

Jesus’ ministry didn’t start with repent and it didn’t start with belief, it started with the kingdom message, the proclamation of the good news erupting into the world.  Think of the good news as geyser welling up from the depths and showering down upon us with grace upon grace.  We can’t cause the geyser to well up from the depths.  We’re not called to measure or “understand” the whys and the wherefores of the geyser or try to maintain its pressure or determine when and where it erupts the surface of our lives.  Instead, we are called to acknowledge its presence and force, we are called to allow it happen—because it is happening—and then allow it to wash over our lives and rain down upon us.  We need to surrender to it.  Allow it to happen.  Be grateful for it, rejoice in it, celebrate it.  You can’t cause the water to pour down upon you, you can’t make the geyser to its thing, it is done unto you. (see Luke 1:38).  This is what Richard Rohr describes as a “deep allowing.”

Allow the kingdom to wash over you.  
Receive the good news. 
Allow Jesus’ words to wash over you.  
Allow God’s love to overwhelm you. 
Allow God’s justice to convict you.  
Allow God’s grace to shake your foundations. 
Yield to it, again and again and again.  
When this occurs and every time it occurs we change, 
we are changed, metanoia happens, almost naturally.  
Think about it: 
how could we not change after an encounter with God?  Repentance flows from the transforming experience, 
and then we believe 
and trust 
and rest in the goodness of God’s kingdom.  
We give our lives over to it.  
Leaving our nets behind, we follow.

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke in Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
[2] The full text of President Obama’s speech in Selma maybe found here.
[3] Richard Rohr, “Lent Is About Transformation.” 

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