Text: Mark 1:1-20 (baptism of Jesus, temptation, call of first disciples)
“The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand!” These are the very first words spoken by Jesus as he begins his ministry in Galilee.
They are bold words; words that could get one in trouble; and they do.
Jesus’ first public words — at least according to Mark, the earliest Gospel writer — are political. He proclaims a new kingdom, one that will replace the slavery, exploitation and brutality of the kingdoms of his time.
Of course, his phrase the kingdom of God has been interpreted in other ways over the years. Fifteen years after Mark, Matthew copies Mark to write a second gospel. In it, Matthew changes Mark’s phrase “kingdom of God” to “kingdom of heaven,” perhaps to avoid using the word “God,” which Matthew feels is blasphemous; and perhaps to soften the political challenge presented by Jesus to King Herod in Jerusalem and the Emperor in Rome.
Some see the kingdom of God as a purely spiritual idea, one that points to “pie in the sky when you die by and by” to use the lyric written by union activist Joe Hill in 1911.
But Jesus’ first followers take his phrase more concretely. Once Jesus leaves his ministry in Galilee to go to Jerusalem, his followers proclaim him as the Christ or King, one who will regain the throne of David in Jerusalem and restore Israel to its ancient glory as a powerful, slave-holding monarchy in the Middle East.
I can understand the political expectations of the first followers of Jesus — people like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, whom Jesus calls in today’s reading. Their only experiences of kingdom have been ones led by powerful and ruthless men. In their ancient past, as told in the Bible, the tribal god YHWH was both god and king, until the Prophet Samuel reluctantly anointed the first two human kings of their tribe– Saul and David.
When his first followers proclaim Jesus as the Christ, they harken back both to David and to the time before David when YHWH conducted wars on behalf of the Hebrew people and acted as their earthly benefactor, judge, and executioner.
But as Jesus continues his ministry in the months after his baptism, he makes it clear that his kingdom will not be like either YHWH’s or King David’s. While starting from his own people — the Jews of Galilee and Judea — Jesus expands his love to include all people. His kingdom is not just for one tribe or nation, but for all of humanity.
Further, when Jesus accepts the title of Christ or King, he says that he is a king who will be betrayed, arrested, and executed; a fate he shares with all who follow him (Mark 8). He also says that we will be raised to new life, but he leaves the details of this new life vague.
St. Paul makes clear where the new life in Christ the King lies — within the heart of every pilgrim. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but it is Christ that lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Jesus says something similar in Luke 17: “the kingdom of God is within you.”
This is a radical reversal of the ordinary notion of kingdom. In ancient history, political sovereignty rested with a tribal or national monarch (a king, Caesar, czar, emperor, or kaiser). In modern democracies, sovereignty rests either with a figure-head monarch or an elected President.
In contrast to this, Jesus and Paul say that in God’s reign, the king rules from the hearts of all people. This is a notion of power that is not only international. It is also radically distributed. “Power to the people,” Jesus and Paul say, and not just power to choose a new policy or new ruler, but to rule collectively as a united humanity from the thrones in every heart.
The kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus says. To me, this means that we are called to collectively take the power that is our God-given birthright; and to build a world that is beyond nation, one in which each person is sovereign — a world where no one lords it over others, whether in family settings, in a nation, or on the world stage.
Two thousand years after Jesus’ bold words, we are far from this reality. In too many families, husbands still lord it over their wives. In too many countries, presidents still lord it over their suffering subjects. In too much of the world, state effort is wasted on protecting against invasion or waging war to conquer and exploit other nations.
But the dream of Jesus and Paul continues to live on and to grow. It was evident here in Edmonton and around the world yesterday with the second annual Woman’s March — and congratulations to our own Paula Kirman for taking a central role in organizing Edmonton’s march again this year. It is evident in the #metoo and #timesup movements against sexual assault, harassment and misconduct. These movements grew this year in the wake of the ascension a year ago yesterday of an admitted sexual predator to the most powerful political post in the world — the “a-house in the white-hole” as I have started calling the 45th U.S. President.
Their dream is evident in global efforts to help refugees, bring peace to warring people, increase understanding between people of different languages, races, and religions, and create more sustainable economies that could preserve oceans, atmosphere, and natural habitats.
In the face of voices that call us to retreat to tribe and nation, to oppress women and sexual minorities, and to shut out refugees — even when these voices come from church pulpits — Jesus calls us to proclaim the radical, human, and distributed sovereignty of the reign of God.
Jesus says it is time to choose a new king.
I choose the Christ, a monarch who reigns in each of our hearts, who doesn’t care what colour, gender or religion our neighbours are, and who shows us that the same sovereign Christ is evident in everyone we meet.
Time’s up. The kingdom of God has come near, and we are called to choose our king. May we all receive the Grace to choose Christ, a king whom we can see in every baby, every senior, and every neighbour.
The time for sovereign presidents and kings is over. The time for the distributed reign of Christ has drawn nigh.
Thanks be to God.