Off and on over the years I have gotten addicted to various puzzles, computer games and the like. If you’re like me, I think you’ll find that you will get particularly hooked when you feel that you almost have one solved, but not quite. I find myself saying, “I’ll try just one more thing, and then I’ll quit.” And when that doesn’t quite work, just one more try, just one more try . . . until it’s 3 a.m.
A sense of nearness can motivate us to keep trying. It can also be painful. It is much worse to lose a lottery by just one number than by many. Or to miss a train by just seconds, rather than half an hour. Often in life we experience a sense of aching nearness. The more we want something and the closer it seems, the more we ache for it.
Jesus was someone who was overwhelmed by just such a sense of aching nearness. His utter conviction that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near inspired in him a burning desire to communicate that sense of nearness to others. This, I believe, is the source of the impatience and frustration that sometimes leaks out in the Gospel stories. “How foolish you are,” he says, “and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” [Luke 24:25 NRSV] I can imagine him thinking to himself, “It is so-o-o near, so near, why can’t they wake up and see it?”
Today I am beginning a series of sermons on the sayings of Jesus, starting with Mark 1:15. “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has become near; repent and believe the good news.” [NRSV] This is the first saying recorded in the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars hold to be the first of the Gospels to be written. So it makes sense to start here. More importantly, this saying both opens and summarizes the teaching of Jesus.
The keynote of Jesus’ teaching is precisely the nearness of the kingdom of God. What then is the kingdom of God, the reign of heaven on earth? It is based on reconciliation. It is a place of justice in peace. The kingdom of heaven on earth is a place where we need not worry or be suspicious of each other. In the kingdom of heaven on earth, all live in grateful service to God and useful service to each other. For Jesus, this way of life was so close he could taste it.
This short saying is so central to the understanding of the Gospel that it is helpful to take it almost word by word.
“The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has become near.” The verbs in the Greek are present perfect, a fact which is obscured to a greater or lesser degree in English translations. A closer translation would be “the time has been filled, the kingdom of God has neared.” Note the subtle difference between this and saying “the time is filled, the kingdom is near.” The present perfects are more dynamic. They suggest that the time has gotten more and more full, that the kingdom has gotten nearer and nearer.
“Repent!” In contemporary English this word implies regret. It is usually to feel bad about something you are doing or have done, and to resolve not to do it any more. This is an essential part of repentance, but the biblical concept goes far beyond this narrow focus. The word “repentance” comes from Latin and means to think again, to rethink. In a similar but deeper vein, the Greek word is “metanoia.” “Meta” implies transformation as in metaphor or metamorphosis. “Noia” refers to our thought structure, the way we conceptualize the world and our place in it. Not just to regret or to rethink, but to transform our minds, to change our world view. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the usual equivalent for repentance is “teshuva.” This comes from a verb meaning to turn around. When we realize we have gone down the wrong path, what do we do? We turn around. Jesus is bidding us to transform our thinking and to turn our lives around accordingly. Ultimately repentance is a matter of acknowledging what it is that is holding us back from living the life of heaven on earth, and resolving to overcome those obstacles.
“Believe.” In our present usage, to believe is often construed as having an opinion. Belief in the biblical sense is much more active. The Greek verb is related to a noun which means trust and to believe is to put your trust in something. The vogue for fire-walking a few years ago can serve as an illustration. If you think that a person can walk on live coals without getting burned, that is an opinion. Those who confidently stepped out and onto the hot coals believed.
“The good news.” This is what the very word “Gospel” means if you take it back to Old English: “God”, good, plus “spell” news.
Taken all together, we hear in this saying an accelerating sense of nearness, of good possibility, and a call to personal transformation.
The kingdom of heaven on earth is within our grasp. It is that near. This is the good news. In our story from Genesis, Jacob in the midst of a dangerous journey lies down to sleep and sees in a dream angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Upon awaking he says, “Truly God is in this place and I never knew it.” Jacob had the wake up experience that Jesus is urging upon all of us. How joyfully blessed are the moments when we realize that God has been with us all along, when we too say “God is in this place and I never knew it!” How great the benefit to our spiritual lives when we hold on to that sense of nearness!
I ask you to reflect: What does the deepest, the purest, the most truly loving part of your heart long for? How would you most love to live on this earth with your fellow human beings? What is the promised land for you? What is kingdom of heaven on earth? And furthermore, can you discern what holds you back from leading this life? Can you see what “repentance,” that is, what personal transformation you are being called to undertake?
What is the life that your heart most deeply longs for? If you think that life is far, far away, you have no reason to get off the couch. But if you can hold on to a sense of its aching nearness, nothing will hold you back. The time for waiting has been filled up. The kingdom of God has neared. Repent, and put your trust in the good news!