The Kingdom of Life (pt. 1)

In this morning’s text, we follow Jesus into forbidden territory. First, Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee to Gentile country, which no good Jew would have done, if they could help it. Jesus risks becoming ceremonially unclean, and then makes sure he becomes unclean, by going near the tombs, to find a man possessed by a host of unclean spirits. The disciples, and we, follow our Lord of life into the kingdom of death, to witness together how he brings to us the kingdom of life.

1 They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2 When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” 8 For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”

9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10 And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12 The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13 He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

14 Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15 When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17 Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region. 18 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

Living in the Kingdom of Death

As we enter into the story this morning, we discover that everyone Jesus meets is living in the kingdom of death. Everyone is beset with the consequences and conditions of death – physical, emotional, spiritual, relational.

The first person we meet living in the kingdom of death is the legion-possessed man. He comes out from among the tombs, and his story is evident. The remnants of chains hang from his arms and legs, broken by his brutal strength. His body is covered in scars and open wounds, put there by his own hand, tormented by the demons within. And if that’s not terrifying enough for a group of good Jewish boys to encounter, they quickly discover that this man is more than wounded and tormented, but he is weary and terrified himself from living among the tombs and graves too long, surrounded by death and decay.

The second group we meet, very quickly after meeting the man, are the demons inside him. They are compelled out of the tombs, their natural home, to come before Jesus, by his very presence. The will of the demons is to keep this man isolated from his family, his community, his work, and fixated on death – literally – by trapping him among the tombs. When no one else could bind this man, the demons are able to bind him among the dead.

The demons belong in the kingdom of death, it is their natural environment. This is made clear in how they respond to the presence of Jesus. Jesus’ very presence means they cannot continue to control this man; they see their end in his coming. They make one last request, to not be destroyed, but only to be sent away, so they can continue torturing and killing and wounding people. They wish to live in their own kingdom of death, even after being forced to recognize the kingdom of life. Seeing a herd of pigs, a large herd, they beg to be sent into the pigs. They beg Jesus, the Lord of life, to have one last chance at ruining this community’s livelihood: 2000 pigs would have been a core percentage of the whole community’s work and wealth! The last wish of the demons is to destroy not just this man, but the whole city, trapping them in the kingdom of death.

We find out in this morning’s story that this Gentile village in Galilee is also living in the kingdom of death. A legion of demons is keeping one of their own out among the tombs to torment him and wound him and terrify him, and they have no power to free him or protect themselves. The fear and anxiety this must produce among them is the reign of the kingdom of death at work. Fear is always the first sign of living in the kingdom of death. We don’t meet the Gerasenes until after the man is restored, and the demons are gone, and the people come out to see what has happened. The story reads that they saw the man in his right mind, dressed, fully restored, and that’s when they become truly terrified. Why were the people afraid of the restored man? Wouldn’t they be happy to have him whole, and sane, and back?

Not if the power that restored him is still among them. This power freed a man from a legion of demons, yes, but in doing so, this power also cost their village the core of its livelihood, the herd of pigs. This power has shown itself as a power to free and to ruin, and such a power as that is a dangerous, unpredictable power, a terrifying power. The people beg to be rid of this power, to be rid of demons and exorcisms, and just live as they have lived, under the reign of the kingdom of death. The influence of death over them for so long has blinded them to see life at work among them.

The Arrival of the King

And that’s what Jesus’ arrival means. Jesus’ coming to this village is the coming of life into the land of the shadow of death, and that life terrifies them. This power of life at work is not a wild and undisciplined power, fickle in its work and capricious in its will. That’s what the Gerasenes missed, the Legion understood all too well, and the freed man discovered first-hand. This power to free, to restore, to revive, arrived in the person of Jesus Christ, who serves his Father in heaven for his glory.

When Jesus arrives, the demons are compelled to come out of the tombs and bow before Jesus in worship. Throughout the gospel stories, the demons are among the first to worship Jesus for who he truly is. This may surprise us. But we are reminded that the contest is not between two rival kingdoms, equal and opposite in power and will. In a surprising revelation, we see here that Satan’s kingdom of death is subject to Christ’s kingdom of life, subservient to it, and the demons bow down – albeit reluctantly and bitterly – before their Lord.

The demons and the Gerasene people saw and understood the power of the king at work among them, and it inspired in them only fear. The kingdom of death was still reigning over them, and the arrival of a new kingdom with new rules and new goals meant only danger and change to this village. The man who was freed, however, experienced the goodness of the king, and the joy of the kingdom of life, and it inspired in him love. We see his response is very different from the demons or the Gerasenes.

Living in the Kingdom of Life

I think it’s interesting that the story follows the demons, and the townspeople, more than the changed man. I wonder if he bowed down again, this time with a joyful and grateful worship for this gift of freedom. I wonder how his appearance changed, if his eyes softened, and his wounds were healed, and his chains disappeared. But whatever the physical change, the internal change is complete. He is freed from the demons, and freed from the kingdom of death. He sees in Jesus Christ the king of life he has been craving, and begs not for Jesus to leave him in peace, but to go with Jesus, wherever he’s going. The restored man is brought fully into the kingdom of life, and he wants to become a disciple.

But the restored man is not permitted to come with Jesus. Jesus instead sends him home, to tell his story. This man – we don’t even know his name – is the first apostle, a Gentile! The word “apostle” means “sent one,” and this man embraces that charge whole-heartedly. He doesn’t only tell his story at home, but in all of the Decapolis, the ten major Gentile cities around the Galilee region.

This is the power of transformation in Christ, of being transplanted suddenly from the kingdom of death into the kingdom of life. Some of the stories we hear about this transformation are like this: dramatic, sudden, complete. Addictions are broken in an instant; hatred and jealousy leave all at once; and the change in friends or work or lifestyle are immediate. And sometimes these people who are transformed by the gospel are the very people we would least expect. In fact, sometimes it’s the people we have had the hardest time with, the people we have been most hurt by. I wonder if that’s another reason why the Gerasenes were so afraid to have this man back. Here was a man who knew what it was like to be the home and puppet of not just one unclean spirit, but an army of them; no one can be the same after that. There’s no normal after an experience like that. And yet, Jesus sends him back to his own people precisely to tell them the story of his change, of how nothing is the same after experiencing the kingdom of life.

Transformed & Transforming

The nature of transformation is radical; the task of the transformed person is to go and transform others, to share not only the story of transformation, but also the effects of transformation, with the world! That’s the necessary order of events. We cannot be expected to transform others if we ourselves have not first been transformed. We must experience the kingdom of life, receive it, and enter into it, before we can invite others into and carry it into the world.

And we don’t do this alone! This work is our denomination’s vision for Reformed churches over the next 15 years. “Transformed & Transforming” is the work we are all called to be about, as those who have experienced the kingdom of life firsthand, and who are sent back to those still living in the kingdom of death. The Transformed & Transforming vision has three major components to it: Cultivating Transformation in Christ, Equipping Emerging Leaders, Engaging in Christ’s Kingdom Mission (repeat). These three pieces have a logic to them, a flow from one to the next that fits this morning’s story. The man experienced transformation in Christ; he was equipped and sent as a leader of transformation to his own people; and he engaged in Christ’s kingdom mission. We are called to be busy about these three works ourselves, in ways that are unique to our church family, to our history in this area, and to our local community.

We must listen, as the restored man did, to how Jesus Christ is calling us cultivate transformation in those who are still being touched by the kingdom of life. There are opportunities listed in your bulletins to grow and serve, to be transformed; take a look at those opportunities, and commit to one of them in the coming weeks.

We must listen to how Jesus is calling those of us called and equipped to be leaders, in whatever role God has given us. This vision is not age-specific. Just because you’re retired, and stepping back, does not give you an out when it comes to Christ’s call on your life. And just because you’re still in school doesn’t mean you don’t have gifts that Jesus is looking for to help build his kingdom. The youth are not the future of the church, as we often say they are. Youth are the present, as well! We are all called to lead in the unique roles God has given us.

And we must listen to how Jesus is sending us out, to engage in his kingdom mission right in front of us. We do not build the kingdom; Jesus does that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God. And he is at work even now, maybe where we least expect it: among the Gentiles, the unclean, the tombs. Or maybe he’s building his kingdom of life under your very feet, if you only slow down and listen for the sound of transformation happening. We don’t always see transformation occur so suddenly, so fully; but if we learn to listen for it, we will see opportunities to work alongside Christ to help build his kingdom of life among us.

We are being transformed, brothers and sisters. Our communion with one another, our hearing the story of the kingdom told in Scripture, our living it out together in the week to come, all powered and directed by the Holy Spirit within us, all work together for our transformation. Just as we are being transformed, so we are called to offer our transformed lives to those still living under the shadow of the kingdom of death. Have courage, and go forth to be agents of the kingdom of life, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; amen.

Kingdom Seeds

Last week, we heard “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God:” that the kingdom of God is near! We saw in Mark 1 how Jesus not only proclaimed this good news, but put it into effect: Jesus cast out demons and cured diseases, clearing out the powers of sin and death in order to make room to establish his reign on earth. In this morning’s passage, Jesus teaches the crowds about this kingdom, and even more, about the character of the king. This morning, we join the crowds as we gather to Jesus, and listen for the good news of his kingdom. Let us listen to the voice of Jesus for what God is saying to Emmanuel Reformed Church, and to us individually.

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
    and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word. 15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

There are layers to this morning’s text: 1. Jesus teaching the crowds, and his disciples, about the kingdom; and 2. The farmer sowing seeds. The layers overlap. The farmer is Jesus, the seeds sown are the parables, and the soils are the crowds. If we consider the first layer, the story of the gospel, then we see that, though Jesus is telling this parable to all of them, not all of them receive it the same way.

The Soils Sown

Some among that crowd are hardened by life, tired from being constantly trampled on by kings and governors, tax collectors and soldiers, so that they are unable to receive the kingdom message that Jesus is preaching.

Some are eager enthusiasts, following the fad of the day to hear this up-and-coming rabbi Jesus’ teachings; but they have no foundation, no root-room for his teachings to germinate and grow, and the parable stirs their imagination only for a moment, but evaporates before it makes any lasting difference in their lives.

A third group in the crowds were listening to Jesus for dear life, needing to hear about this wonderful kingdom of God: in which the last are to be first; in which the mourners are to be comforted; in which the poor are to inherit the earth. But after they hear this impossible good news, they are immediately reminded that this world does not work like that: the first fight and kill and grasp to stay first at any cost; the mourners continue to mourn, often alone and forgotten in their grief; the poor receive nothing, while the rich gain more than they know what to do with.

And then there are those among the crowd, those blessed ones, who hear Jesus’ words, receive in them the message of the kingdom, and gradually but surely begin to grow and change and show the evidence of a changed life, in accordance to the message they have taken to heart. And the impossible, in-breaking kingdom of heaven takes root on earth in them.

The Incompetent Farmer

Jesus tells this parable, like all his parables, as a lesson about his kingdom, to explain further what this new reign, this new way of living, will look like. For us to hear this lesson, we need to listen again to the second layer, the story of the farmer, and listen specifically for how this strange story about an incompetent farmer can teach us about God’s incredible kingdom, and about God as our king.

The story is a simple one. Most of Jesus’ parables were simple, short, easy to remember. They were meant to stick in the hearer’s memory, to sound and resound there, pricking the imagination until it affected some kind of change, some important realization. The story of the farmer is no different. A farmer goes out to sow his seed. We aren’t told what season it is, how large his field is, whether he’s done any preparation, like tilling or weeding or clearing. A farmer goes out to sow his seed, and apparently has no idea what he’s doing. The picture we get is of a man with a bag of seed throwing it everywhere, without regard for where it lands. Some lands on the road, some on the rocks, some in the ditch with the thorns, and only some makes it where it’s supposed to go. If you saw your neighbor planting his corn like this, you would shake your head and laugh, and probably feel compelled to cross the road and explain to him how farming works.

The same is true back then. I’m sure farming looked very different 2000 years ago, but any sensible farmer would have known what soil was good soil, ready for the seed, and sure to produce a harvest. This farmer seems totally unconcerned with this, but sows abundantly, generously, prodigally. And then the farmer considers his work finished: no fertilizing, no cultivating, no watering, no weeding. The farmer trusts that the seeds will grow without supervision.

But if we consider that Jesus is teaching the crowds about himself, that Jesus is the farmer, this makes a bit more sense: Jesus continues to teach everywhere, to everyone, whether they are prepared to listen and respond or not, whether they are hostile to his message or accepting. Jesus is the farmer, sowing the message of the kingdom without regard for the condition of his audience. And Jesus doesn’t follow up with anyone, nervously micromanaging the gospel. Jesus trusts that the message will work by God’s power to change the hearts of those with ears to hear.

But this parable is about more than how the good news spreads. This parable is ultimately about the character of the king, and his kingdom. Recklessly scattering seed is foolish in a farmer, but Jesus uses that image to teach us about the prodigal abundance of our king. Our King is sowing his kingdom at all times, wildly, recklessly, abundantly, so that every moment is laden with seed-like potential to bear the kingdom, if only the seed takes root and bears fruit.

And this is the key of the parable. This is the point that the story hinges on as it turns from simple story to kingdom announcement. Jesus asks at the end of his story: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Jesus calls those of us who are able to listen, to make room for the seed of the kingdom to take root and grow and bear the fruit of the kingdom in the world. Jesus knows the different “soils” of this world, then and today. Some are hardened, some are eager but fickle, some are desperate but distracted, and only some are truly ready to hear. We come to Jesus to hear the good news, here in worship each week, or in our personal devotions, but we are often unable to really listen and really receive what he says as good news. The reality of our lives, the harshness of our worlds, or the distractions around us, resist and drown out the message of God as King come to earth.

And still, the good news for us in this parable is the image of a farmer sowing seed everywhere, indiscriminately. Every moment, even those moments choked with thorns and laden with stones are moments in which the kingdom is being sown, stretching its roots, and bursting forth. We may think it foolish to sow without a guarantee of a harvest, but that is the foolishness of our God and King. God sends his kingdom, and his own Son, Jesus Christ, into the world who turned from their Creator and King for their own futile kingdoms, and no longer recognize him. Into the unprepared and unyielding world, God’s kingdom comes, and it seems to take no hold. The world continues as it will, thorns and rocks and roads in tact. The kingdom seeds fall on all kinds of soil, and still our King, Jesus Christ, reigns in absolute confidence.

Soils Become Seeds, Seeds Become Sowers

And the message still resounds: “The kingdom of God is near!” Even though the message of the king falls on such unyielding, un-accepting ears, the kingdom of God grows in secret, takes root in season, and sprouts up in surprising places. The kingdom of God is made near, when even a single the kingdom seed takes root, grows, and produces a harvest. This is how the Church has persisted for thousands of years in a world that either hates and resists it, or tempts it away from its true purpose. This is how the kingdom is revealed in our midst, when even the most unyielding of people, the rockiest, thorniest heart, discovers within it the seed of the good news, that a new kingdom has come to earth, accepts that seed, and allows it to bear its fruit in his or her life. That’s the power of the seed: a slow, gradual, hidden power to grow, and to produce a harvest.

As Jesus is explaining the parable to his disciples afterward, he tells them that the seeds are the word. We hear this, and I think we often take it to mean that we are the soils. And that’s certainly part of this story. But it struck me as I was reading this this week that as Jesus explains the soils, he doesn’t say that some people are like the path, or like the rocks, or like the thorns. Jesus says that people are like the seed. At first, I do think we are the soil, hearing the message and receiving it. But the call to soil is to sit there. Jesus can’t call soil to clear itself, to move its own stones, to burn its own thorns, or to become good. Dirt is dirt. Dirt is static, it’s passive, it cannot act.

But Jesus says we are like seeds. The seeds of the kingdom are planted in us, and then we become the kingdom seeds in our world. And so the call to his disciples, to those who hear the parable, the Word, and understand it, and take it to heart, is to be seeds. Seeds cannot choose where they are sown. They cannot pick themselves up and put themselves in better soil. Seeds have a pretty straightforward itinerary. At the beginning, they are to enter and be immersed in the soil where they are sown, to become buried and hidden in that soil. And then they are to wait attentively, to respond to the soil and the season and the inner compulsion it senses to burst open and take root. And as the seed draws in its nutrients from the soil in secret, it begins to put forth it stalk, reaching up and out during the growing season. And then, in the fullness of time, the seed-come-plant bears it fruit until harvest.

We who have received the good news have been placed in our soils by the hand of God; we don’t have much control over our families, or personalities, or even maybe where we live or work. And yet the call to us is not to simply sit there. The work of a seed is not extravagant, or explosive, or extraordinary. The work of a seed is to grow in secret, to germinate in season, to become rooted in the place where we are planted. We are called to grow up, as well: to grow into maturity and strength, and to bear good fruit in season.

We were talking about this last week in our sermon discussion class, that the Christian’s life is one of service and activity, but in seasons. The colors here in front of church are teaching tools help us see and sense these seasons. It’s been white up here for the last several weeks: white is the color of celebration, of joy and victory. We see white here on our major holidays: Christmas, Easter, All Saints’ Day. Before that we saw purple: purple is the color of preparation and repentance; we see purple during Advent and Lent. This morning we see green: green reminds us to grow and bear fruit of good works and service for the kingdom. There’s a pattern to our seasons: purple, white, green. Repent, Celebrate, Grow and serve. These are a tool to help us sense the seasons in which we are to dig deeper into the soil, to rest and get ready, and to grow.

This is the parable, not of the soils, but of the Sower, and of his seeds. God in Christ came not only to die for our sins and save us for eternal life – the gospel is not less than that, but there is more! The gospel of God the Sower is that he came in Christ to establish his reign on earth, to begin the kingdom work on earth. This kingdom didn’t begin with war and ruin and conquest, totally demolishing what was in order to build what will be. No, Jesus says our King is like a farmer, sowing the seeds of his kingdom into the mess of the world, abundantly, foolishly, confidently, because he trusts that seeds will do what seeds are called to do: take root, grow, and bear fruit. As God’s kingdom takes root in us, it takes root in the world around us. This is how “the Kingdom of God is near.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear this good news.

The Kingdom of God Is Near!

This morning we begin a new sermon series on the Gospel of Mark. Mark wrote his gospel as a record of the disciple Peter’s experiences with Jesus. Like Peter, Mark’s gospel is a hot-headed, impulsive read: everything happens immediately, one event after another, dramatically. Where Matthew and Luke and John begin their gospel accounts of the life and work of Jesus with his birth, and his lineage, Mark begins his gospel abruptly, just before Jesus begins his 3-year ministry on earth.

If we turn to Mark 1:1, this is what we read:

“The Beginning of the Good News”

What is this “good news”? When we share the good news, it’s usually some form of the story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for us; but the good news that Mark is telling is worded a little differently. In this morning’s text, we’ll hear Jesus proclaiming “the Good News of God”: that “The Kingdom of God is Near!” So which is it? Is it the Kingdom of God come near? Or Jesus Christ’s saving work? The answer, as it often is, is both! Jesus Christ’s arrival is the beginning of his saving work, the first steps on his journey to the cross; his arrival also marks the beginning of his reign on earth as the true king of the universe. The Good News we treasure is not merely a message, but the messenger himself, the person of Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh.

This is what we understand the phrase “good news” to mean. We hear the words “good news” often in church, or the word “gospel,” which means Good News, and we know they point specifically to Jesus. But is that what Mark’s readers know is meant by “good news”? Mark is writing down Peter’s account of his time with Jesus on earth, and Peter writes to the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire, tired from Roman oppression. To a nation conquered by Rome, an announcement of “the Good News” would have meant something entirely different.

When Rome conquered another nation and added it to its empire, it would announce this to the people of that nation by spreading messengers throughout the nation, with announcements reading something like, “The Good News of Julius Caesar, the son of god.” In Roman thinking, the Caesar was a god himself, a son of the gods. According to Rome, it was good news for these small, backwoods nations to be a part of Rome’s greatness. And, in fact, many countries were willing to receive Roman rule, because it meant benefiting from the “Pax Romana,” the Roman Peace, with Roman education, resources, and protection. Unfortunately, Roman rule also meant the loss of some of their national/cultural identity, a host of foreign governors and soldiers, and of course, taxes. For the Jews, in particular, Roman occupation was a great burden, rather than “good news.”

And Mark starts his Gospel the same way that these announcements of Roman occupation began: “the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark knows that his readers have heard this same wording before, but Mark isn’t talking about Rome, or Caesar, but about a Jewish Rabbi. Mark is establishing the contest between two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world, and its rulers, and the kingdom of God, come to earth. Mark depicts Jesus as the conquering emperor, returning to his world to restore it to himself.

Mark’s Gospel is the beginning of the announcement of God’s kingdom on earth. This morning’s passage is the account of how Jesus begins to establish his reign as king. We begin reading at Mark, chapter 1, verse 14:

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.

19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

In this morning’s text, we not only hear the announcement of God’s kingdom on earth; we see Jesus Christ enacting his reign. The good news of Jesus Christ is not like the good news of Rome, that some foreign emperor now rules here from a distance, through his officials, in name only. The good news of Jesus Christ, is that the king of heaven and earth, of angels and stars and mountains and oceans, walks among us himself, and is actively removing all opposition to his reign.

The Coming Kingdom Displayed

Jesus Christ announces his kingdom on earth, and proceeds to establish his kingdom, demonstrating his reign as king to everyone. His first act is to call to himself disciples: Simon, Andrew, James, and John, ordinary fishermen. He tells these men, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” These young men are busy with the trade they know, and here a strange men comes and calls them to work they do not understand. What is a fisher of men? Men are not caught, or sold? What business is this? And yet, these men leave their nets, their boats, their callings, their competence, because Jesus called them. These men sense in Jesus the promise of more, the hope of some grand work beginning, and they choose to leave what they know to be a part of it.

And these men are not disappointed. The very next act of Jesus is to enter the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath, and to teach the people of Capernaum. Each week, like we do here, the Jewish people would go to the synagogue to hear read the scrolls of their Bible, what we call the Old Testament, and to hear the Rabbi or teacher explain the Word of God. Jesus is given that opportunity, because he is recognized as a great Teacher already. And the people listening are amazed at his authority, his wisdom, his understanding.

And as Jesus is teaching the people, a man possessed by an evil spirit is unable to hear the Word of God any longer, and bursts out: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” This evil spirit, listening from within this man, is drawn out like a poison by the authority of Jesus’ teaching, and shows itself to all present. This spirit had its own way with this man for who knows how long, but the arrival of the true king, the Holy One of God, means that all other kingdoms are challenged, and must give way to the one true king, and his kingdom.

The demon recognizes Jesus’ true identity, and exposes him before all the people. Jesus tells him to be silent, and casts him out of the afflicted man. Why would Jesus want to keep his identity a secret? Why are the demons forbidden to reveal him as the son of God, the king of the universe? Jesus needs a level of anonymity, of secrecy, if he is to preach the good news of his kingdom in peace, and travel freely. If the word gets out about who he is, and what he can do, then his ministry and movement will be hindered. The demon leaves the men, and all are amazed by this. Word spreads throughout the region of Galilee about this new Rabbi, this teacher who has authority and power.

After worship, Jesus goes with his disciples to Peter’s house, like we will today, for Sunday dinner. They find Peter’s mother-in-law ill in bed, with a fever. Jesus’s message about the kingdom of God on earth extends even here, to this woman’s sick-bed, and he heals her, in order to demonstrate his power as the king that was promised. She is healed and restored, and immediately gets busy making the meal and serving them. Consider her response for a moment: here in her house is this strange man, for whom her son-in-law has left his work as a fisherman and his family and his home, in her house for the Sabbath dinner; and this man, as soon as he arrives, heals her from her fever, in her own home. Jesus has disrupted everything about her daughter’s family by calling Peter to follow him, and yet he has demonstrated to them all that he is worthy of being followed. She welcomes Jesus and serves him.

And the gossip about Jesus – this carpenter’s son from Nazareth, who teaches with authority and casts out demons and heals diseases – this gossip spreads so quickly that when Sabbath ends at sundown, the whole village bring their sick, their injured, and their demon-possessed to Peter’s home, for Jesus to heal them and cast out the demons. The Sabbath is a day of rest, and they let Jesus celebrate the holy day of rest before asking him to work miracle after miracle. And he does. This Sabbath day, this day of rest, has turned into a day of miracles, because God’s kingdom has come to earth, and nothing will stand in the way of the king. At the coming of the king, all are brought into the true Sabbath rest from the reign of sin and sickness and death.

The King Continues

And we read that very early the next morning, before the sun is up, and more people can come to him with their sick to be healed and demon-possessed to be set free, the king leaves, and he finds a quiet place to pray. After the stresses and demands of ministry, he withdraws from the people he cares for in order to be with his Father in heaven, to be restored for continued ministry, and to receive wisdom and direction for what to do next.

While Jesus is praying, more and more people are gathering outside Peter’s house, waiting for this king to begin his business of healing and casting out demons for the day. The disciples do not know where Jesus is, and finally cannot wait any longer without anything to tell their neighbors and friends. They go off in search of Jesus, and find him at prayer. They explain the work that is waiting for him. The kingdom of God is not yet fully realized in Capernaum, people are still living in the kingdom of death and sin. But Jesus is not concerned with bringing his kingdom and its good news to only one village; Jesus must preach this good news throughout the whole region. So he leads them elsewhere, to other villages and towns and cities, to continue to spread the message of God’s reign on earth. And wherever he goes, he demonstrates the kingdom’s arrival by healing and casting out demons.

Is the Coming Kingdom Still Near?

So what significance does this morning’s text have for us here this morning? What does the proclamation of God’s kingdom come mean for our lives now, millennia after this story takes place. And what proof do we have that God’s kingdom is still here? It’s been 2000-some years, and it doesn’t look like God is King right now. The world continues to fall apart, faster than ever. Is God really King here, now? We have found ways to do without kings. We Americans overthrew ours because we felt we could govern ourselves better. We have civil liberties, and rights, and freedoms here that a king would take away from us. We have found our own ways to treat and cure our diseases, and to psychologize our demons into manageable issues. What need do we have for God’s kingdom? I know these seem like strange questions to ask from the pulpit, but I want us all to really consider, as we begin reading through Mark together, whether the good news of this new King and his kingdom is really good news for us. Or are we, like the demon in this morning’s story, afraid of what this king Jesus will demand from us, take away from us.

The good news of God’s kingdom on earth does not always sound like good news to us who are used to having full-reign over our own kingdoms. We do not look for miracles anymore because we rely on the resources we have at our own disposal. We, at least we in the Western, developed world, have even come to understand that there are no such things as miracles, that such dramatic events as healings and demons and even prayer cannot exist as such, that what is real is what we can see and touch and prove. The world, according to our modern, scientific understanding, is purely material. Miracles like these belong to primitive superstitions.

And yet the king comes into this world he created and loved, to rescue his people from their bondage to their own kingdoms, their own false understanding, their own self-reliance. I invite us to reconsider this morning how Jesus Christ is not doing anything new in this morning’s text, but is doing what he has always been doing from before the beginning of the world. We read in Scripture that everything that was made came into being through God’s Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has been the agent of creation – and re-creation – forever. When he comes in the flesh, he sees that the work of creation must still continue, that we are all subject to the reign of death over us. As we continue reading through Mark over the next months, we will read more miracle stories, and when we do, don’t think of these as isolated lightning strikes of God’s work from outside the world, against the laws of nature, but as the dramatic continuation of the work that God has always been doing to sustain and preserve and restore life to his creation.

And his kingdom has endured all these years, if sometimes in secret. Just like in this morning’s text, God in his wisdom has continued his reign on earth even when it seemed most like there was no one on the throne. The last century of terrible, world-destroying wars passed without any divine intervention, and yet underneath all of the political turmoil and violence, God worked to sustain and preserve his creation through the brave acts of his agents, the Church. In fact, many of the first great scientists and inventors and doctors innovated cures and discoveries in order to better understand God’s creation and help sustain and preserve life in his name. The century before, the world was dominated by European empires that captured and sold other peoples as slaves, and yet in the midst of all the injustice and atrocity, groups of Christians banded together to end the slave trade and care for those who were enslaved.

God has called us out from the world, which still seems to be so dominated by sin and death, and has shown us that he sits on the throne forever, and sent his own Son Jesus Christ, to demonstrate visibly and decisively that there is a King at work in the world. God has also called us, like the disciples 2000 years ago, to be agents of that kingdom, to work in creative and life-giving ways to advance his kingdom where we live. We may not understand what that means, just like the disciples were probably confused about what fishing for people looked like, but let us respond to God’s call in obedience, and in excitement, because each of us has been chosen to be a part of God’s great work in the world. Let us discover what work God has for us, through prayer and by following our Lord and King, Jesus Christ.

New Year, New Resolve

With the new year, fresh energy and renewed interest in self-discipline and self-improvement always come. January 1 came with the perennial commitments to working out, eating healthy, watching less TV, and reading more. I also woke up to January 1 with a counter full of leftover Christmas cookies, a fridge full of soda, a wintry day begging to be enjoyed from inside with hot chocolate, and a shelf full of new superhero movies begging to be watched from my pajamas. Inertia is a powerful force.

And this blog has been an incredible source of accountability and incentive to write regularly, to read deeply, to continue. The last few months I have focused on my new call as a solo pastor, and have chosen to let this be one of the commitments that goes in order to commit fully to my work as a pastor. The last three months have been incredibly rewarding, and exciting, and challenging, and with this new year’s arrival, I recognize that my blogging has been a source of re-creation for me, a place where I can develop and hone my thinking, share my reading, and continue to grow in the gifts that God has given me. Blogging is an essential part of my rule of life, my program of life-giving spiritual disciplines. So is reading.

So, knowing this is aspirational, I have set the personal goal to read 35 books this year. And in order to continue learning what I need to know for ministry, I picked out books in a few major categories: worship & preaching, mission, leadership, Reformed faith and practice, and personal devotions.

shelf2Worship

worship

Mission

mission

Leadership

leadership

Reformed Faith and Practice

reformed

Personal Devotions

Last year I set out – ambitiously – to read 45 books, and I managed it: partially because I was finishing up seminary, and reading was a great deal of my workload, and partially because I discovered the public library’s comic book shelf, and those apparently count as books now. I reined the goal back for this year, and I recognize that 35 is still an ambitious goal, but my hope is that aiming high means I strive high. And posting this here is my way of giving myself accountability.

I will most likely quote and comment on what I’m reading here, hopefully fairly regularly, so stay tuned. Thanks! and Happy New Year!