“The Signs of the Kingdom” a sermon on Mark 1:14-39 by Rev Richard Keith on 19 August 2018.
We live in a fast paced modern world. Time is short. We have things to do and people to see. And so much to do that we don’t know if we’re coming or going. So in this fast paced world, our communication must be fast and short. We’ve become used to three word slogans, snappy catch phrases text message abbreviations, and social media posts with 140 characters or less. LOL. BRB. We used to put up with 30 minute sermons but now speakers have to get right to the point to make their message brief and memorable.
How would Jesus go in such a fast paced world? What is his message in a nutshell? How would he tweet his message. Maybe, Be Nice or Else. It’s short, yes, but not quite right. Maybe, Treat others the way you want to be treated. Now that’s a bit closer. It is at least something that Jesus actually said. But you have to admit it’s only one part of his message rather than a good summary of his whole message.
So we’re lucky that Mark himself gives a summary for Jesus’ message. We are told in Mark 1 verse 14 that after John the Baptist was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. He said,
The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.
Notice the links between Jesus’ message and ministry and John the Baptist’s. Jesus didn’t want to compete with John or to overlap with him. Instead, he waited until John had run his course. Not until John was silenced in prison, did Jesus raise his own voice in public. John had done well as the support act, but it was time for headliner to begin.
Notice also that both John’s and Jesus’ message contained a summons to change. Repent. Change your mind. Turn around. “Go back. You are going the wrong way.” That’s a scary sign. It’s scary enough when you see it on the other side of the freeway. But it’s even scarier when it’s right in front of you. Repent. It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a word from the Lord without any apologies. This is how our God addresses us with no “please”s or “pardon me”s. It is a call to action. To stop our willful selfishness and to place our lives in our Creator’s hands to do his will. I’m not saying that Jesus doesn’t accept us as we are. But accepting us as we are is the first step to changing who we are.
There was, however, one fundamental difference between John’s and Jesus’ message. John came with a message of judgment. John said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near,” but he meant that the Lord is coming to judge. The axe is laid at the root of the tree. The Lord is coming with his winnowing fork to sift the hearts of men. That’s a message of judgment.
But Jesus came with a message of blessing. He said the same words as John, but for Jesus it did not mean that the Lord was coming, but that the Lord had arrived. It wasn’t the warning of future judgment, but the promise of present salvation. It was good news. Glad tidings. Gospel. Yes, it would also bring judgment. Yes, it would divide the community, even families.. But only as the bright light of Jesus’ blessing forced those who loved darkness into hiding from its glare.
Repent, Jesus said, and believe the good news. It is a summons to stop believing the lies that the world is trying to teach us. That evil will have the last say. That we are prisoners trapped in the consequences of our past choices and actions. That brokenness and despair is our only destiny. That there is no hope of healing or wholeness. And that God is helpless watching on. All these are lies, because in Jesus the Lord has arrived and his kingdom is near.
The first sign of the kingdom is the creation of a community. It reminds us that the mission of Jesus isn’t just a program that we have to sign up to. But it is a new family that we are invited to join and to be a part of.
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. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
Here we see the authority of Jesus. But we don’t really know what was going on in Simon and Andrew’s lives. What they were thinking. What made them open to Jesus’ invitation. We don’t know. We only know that the Lord walked by and told them to follow him.
With this, Jesus called them to become his disciples. A disciple is a student, an apprentice. While the crowds came and went, Jesus’ disciples were to stay with him, travel with him, watch him, listen to him and to learn from him in private. It was on the job training. What they were to learn was to become disciple-making disciples. Not just a student. But a student who learned in order to recruit and inspire and to teach others to be disciple-making disciples as well. They were to be fishers of men. It was a metaphor taken from their profession. Not in the sense that they would trap and consume people by the institution of the church. But that they would lure them with the truth and bait them with the gospel and gather them into the community of disciples as well.
Not only did Jesus call them with the authority of the Lord, but they responded. They answered the call. They left their nets. They left their jobs and followed Jesus. Because when the Lord calls, people answer.
Our church is a direct descendant of that first community, of Jesus and four fishermen. We are their distant great great grandchildren. It reminds us that the church is more than just a social club, something we are a part of, even if we never turn up or participate. Like I’m a member of the RSL club whether I use their facilities or not as long as I pay my annual membership. Nor is the church just a school, with a teacher and lots of students who come to learn. I’m not just a teacher. Like Jesus I’m here to make disciples. And like Jesus I’m here to make disciples who make disciples. And that’s what you are here to learn. Not just to get a spiritual high from the singing and a bit of a pep talk. But to hear the voice of the Lord Jesus calling through his Word, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And when the Lord calls, his people respond. This is the first sign of the kingdom, the community created to join in the mission of Jesus.
The second sign of the kingdom is Jesus’ miracles of healing.
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.
Words like Sabbath and synagogue remind us that Jesus and his disciples weren’t Christians. They were Jews. Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. He came to fulfil God’s promises in the Jewish Scriptures. He came as a member of Abraham’s family and fully immersed himself in that nation and culture. Just like he had joined the queue of his fellow Jews to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus was the lion of the tribe of Judah. He was the branch that grew from the stump of David. They were Jews. It is just the wonderful grace of God that non-Jews like us have been included in the kingdom.
Notice that Jesus didn’t go to the synagogue to heal. It wasn’t high on his priorities. It wasn’t the first item on his agenda. He went to teach. Jesus had a message. Jesus had good news. And the people who listened to him recognised his authority. He didn’t teach them like their scribes and their teachers of the law who quoted rabbi so and so and rabbi such and such. Instead, Jesus taught them as the Lord who had a word to speak to his people.
Jesus didn’t go there that day to heal, but the opportunity came while he was there. A man with an evil spirit cried 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?”
One of the keys to understanding Mark’s Gospel is that half of it is about who Jesus is. It’s not just about where he went and what he did, but it’s also about his character and nature. The introduction to the Gospel called him the Christ, the Son of God. The voice from heaven called him, “my son whom I love.” Even the evil spirits knew him. He is the Holy One of God. Only the poor simple human beings, even the disciples, didn’t know who he was or what he came to do. Their misunderstanding challenges us to challenge our own misunderstandings of Jesus.
But Jesus wasn’t interested in a character reference from a demon. Because that’s what it was. The poor man wasn’t suffering from a mental illness, like depression or anxiety or multiple personality disorder. His life had been infested by an evil spiritual being that had a life that was independent of him but that had come into him. And ruined his life with all kind of harm. We are quick to call demon possession what we don’t understand. So when real evil comes we are blind to it.
“Be quiet!” Jesus said to the evil spirit. “Come out of him.” It was the voice of authority again. Because creatures, even evil creatures, just couldn’t help doing exactly what Jesus said. They were helpless before the word of the Lord. The demon left him and the people were all amazed. “He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him,” they said.
It wasn’t what Jesus had gone to do, but it was also no coincidence. Because the miracles weren’t just good deeds done by a powerful man. They were signs of the kingdom. They were symptoms of the presence of the Lord. They were hints, indications, evidence that the Lord was among his people, righting wrongs, healing wounds, restoring what had been broken. The kingdom of evil had invaded God’s good world and left destruction and harm wherever its armies have marched. The earth was cursed by darkness and despair. Please, believe me. Evil is real. Every day we breathe its foul fumes. It leaves discord and damage and dread. And worse, human beings have joined the rebellion. They wound and maim and accuse and blame each other as if they had been made for darkness rather than light. The demon possessed man in Mark’s Gospel was just a symptom of our demon possessed world.
But in Jesus of Nazareth the kingdom of God launched its counter attack to retake what had been stolen and to bless what had been cursed. As the prophet Isaiah said in chapter 61,
The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, to comfort all who mourn, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
The miracles of Jesus aren’t just examples of him showing off. They aren’t just proofs that he was from God and that he was God. They are signs of the healing work of salvation. Just like the blossom tree budding on my front lawn. It isn’t spring. Not yet. But it is the sign of the coming of spring. In the same way, the miracles of Jesus are the signs of the presence of the kingdom of God. That the kingdom of evil is doomed and that the same Spirit that was at work in Jesus will turn our ashes into a crown of beauty and will turn our spirit of despair into a garment of praise. That he will take all our broken pieces and make us whole.
Like I said, Jesus didn’t go anywhere to heal. But it is no coincidence that the healings happened. Jesus had been anointed by the Spirit and wherever Jesus went he left people better. It is the promise that he will make us better too. Because we all struggle with our own brokenness, with the wounds of abuse, or with the burdens of guilt. We all long for restoration and for renewal. Not just for the chance to start off new, but to become new, to be restored to our true selves, to the me that I am supposed to be. The miracles of Jesus are the promise that that longing can be fulfilled in and only in him. In fact, not only can be fulfilled, but will be fulfilled. The miracles of Jesus aren’t yet the full bloom of the kingdom of God. In this life our hearts still ache for that home of righteousness in the presence of God where every tear will be wiped away. But they are the budding of that kingdom, promising that God’s spring is coming and his blessing will blossom in our lives.
The third sign of the kingdom is Jesus’ mission. It came the morning after a hectic day. After casting out the demon in the synagogue. Jesus went to lunch at Simon and Andrew’s house only to find Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Jesus went there for lunch, not to heal her, but of course, he left her better.
By that evening news of his healings had spread and the whole town came out with their sick and lame and demon possessed. We are only 34 verses into the Gospel of Mark, but you have to admit that Jesus’ popularity is going through the roof. Today Capernaum. Tomorrow the world.
Except that that is not what happened. The next day, Simon and his friends couldn’t find Jesus anywhere. They were all fishermen. They were used to getting up early. But Jesus had got up even earlier. They looked through the house. They looked through the town. They didn’t find him for hours, until they found him praying in a secluded place. “Teacher,” he complained, “everyone is looking for you!” Meaning, “Come back to Capernaum, we’ve got appointments for a hundred healings already lined up for you.”
Jesus simply replied, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Not to heal. Although he would never say no to those in need. Not to draw a crowd. Although crowds would always gather wherever he went. No to make a fuss, although a fuss usually ended up happening. But to preach. To bring the message of the kingdom. Which in a nutshell is this: The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news. Whatever good may happen, whatever other blessing would come, it all served this purpose, to summon women and men out of this present darkness and into the kingdom of God.
We are the community that has inherited Jesus’ mission today. And so the church may be the source of all kinds of good. Hospitals. Education. Pastoral care. Feeding the hungry. Giving shelter to the homeless. Giving money to struggling farmers. All of it good and wise and noble. But they must all serve our true purpose, to continue the mission of Jesus. To hear his call to repent. To hear his summons to stop believing the lies and start believing the gospel. To hear his command to follow him and to become disciples who make disciples.