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.

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