Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Kingdom of God: A Sermon Preached in Magheralin Parish on 5th March 2006. Mark 1:9-15

What is the Kingdom of God? We often hear those words in church, or when reading our Bibles, or as in this morning's reading, from the lips of Jesus. Yet what does it mean when he says 'The kingdom of God is near'? Is it something similar to the United Kingdom – an area of land that God rules over?

This morning we're going to think about the kingdom of God, in the past, present and future, using the words of Jesus from the reading: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”

Perhaps the best concept of the kingdom of God I have come across is that of Vaughan Roberts, following Graeme Goldsworthy, and it is this: 'God's people in God's place under God's rule and blessing'. So, for example, at the beginning of the world, we find Adam and Eve, the people of God, in the Garden of Eden, the place God put them. They are under God's rule as they obey his word to them, and as a result, they are blessed, living in Paradise with all they need for existence.

However, we all know that this situation didn't last. Adam and Eve think they can do better without God, by disobeying him. They move from being under God's rule to trying to rule themselves, rejecting God's right to make decisions for them. But this means that they are no longer God's people, and are separated from him, being removed from the garden, and that instead of blessing, they now suffer the curses of Genesis 3 – of pain and labour in tilling the ground, in the pains of childbirth, of thorns and thistles in the ground, and of family breakdown.
Things could not be worse. The kingdom is nowhere to be seen. Yet God determines to restore his kingdom, because of his great love. And this is where the Old Testament fits into the grand scheme of things.

[We see a picture of the kingdom in our other reading this morning (1 Peter 3:18-22), where Noah and his family are the people of God in the world at the time, are saved by being in God's place, the ark; under God's rule by obeying his command to come into the ark, and under God's blessing by being saved]

We see the beginning again of the kingdom, as God calls Abraham to go to a place he will be shown, called to obey, and as he obeys, he will be blessed – and all nations through him.
The children of Abraham are made into a great nation, and we see the kingdom partially, as they enter the promised land, at times obeying the word of God, and receiving his blessing in the land of milk and honey. And yet, even in this situation, there is the rejection of God as king. The people ask for a king of their own – as someone said, despite having God as king, they wanted a 'king with skin.'

The end result of this period of their history is the exile, where the Babylonians come and destroy Israel and Jerusalem, and take them into captivity. Yet even in this bleak period, the promise of the prophets is that the kingdom will come again, that firstly, a remnant will return to Israel, but secondly, and more importantly, the promise of a new creation and a new covenant for God's people. The Old Testament closes with this promise, as Malachi says 'for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in its wings... Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.' (Malachi 4:2,5).

And then silence. God's voice isn't heard afresh in Israel for about four hundred years. And yet there are many ideas of what will be coming. The people know that God has promised to send his Messiah – his anointed one – the king.

But where was he? Had God abandoned his people? After all, God had promised the Messiah, the king, would come. And yet, nothing. All the ideas about the Messiah contain the thought of delivery from Roman occupation, of Israelite domination, and of peace for the land. Some false messiahs came, who claimed they were he. They started rebellions, but were never very successful (see Acts 5 :35-39, where Gamaliel refers to the rebellions of Theudas and Judas the Galilean, both of which came to nothing).

Yet God was not slow. He was following his own time scale. God had appointed the time for Jesus to come, and nothing could make it happen early! There would be the time of waiting.
And now Jesus appears on the scene, and his first words, according to Mark, are “The time has come.” The waiting is over, God's appointed time has come. Or as one commentator puts it, 'God's hour had struck, the time to which all the Old Testament had looked forward.'

I don't know about you, but in the mornings I'm not the best at getting up. My tendency is to lie on, after the alarm has sounded (and the snooze button had been used a few times...). But what we see here is that God had 'set the alarm' and appointed the time for Jesus to come, and when the time came, then it happened.

As Paul puts it in Galatians, 'But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.' (Galatians 4:4-5)

The kingdom of God is near. So what did Jesus mean when he said those words? Was he establishing a new state or country on earth, with borders and boundaries; would Israel again come into its place among the nations?

An earthly kingdom of this sort isn't what Jesus came to build or to proclaim. Rather, the Kingdom is all about the rule of God. Using our definition from earlier, the kingdom is God's people in God's place, under God's rule and blessing. The important factor is whose kingdom it is.

Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom was near. For so long, people had rejected God's rule, by disobeying his commands, and going their own way. But now the kingdom was coming in a new way. Jesus, through his life, ministry, death and resurrection would establish the kingdom, would open the way for people to come under God's rule again.

And yet the people of Israel weren't expecting what Jesus came to do. Yes, they were looking for the Messiah, the anointed one, the king God would give them, but they thought this Messiah was going to be a great military leader, and would rule again from Jerusalem over the nation of Israel. They were expecting a new and glorious temple to be built, better than Solomon's Temple, and for the restoration of the Law as the basis of life.

Jesus, in establishing the new kingdom, does fulfil these promises, but not in the way the Jews expected them to be fulfilled. If you can imagine a father a century ago, who promises his young son a horse on his twenty-first birthday. But in the meantime, cars are invented, and the son receives a car instead. The promise has been fulfilled, but in a way not expected beforehand. To have talked about cars before they had been invented would have been impossible for the son to understand, and in the same way, God's promises to the Israelites were in terms they could understand.

So God's kingdom was near, or at hand. How was this so? Well, if the kingdom is all about God's people in God's place, under God's rule and blessing, where can we see this while Jesus walked on earth? Jesus is described as the 'new Adam' (Romans 5), the start of the new creation. So while Jesus is God, he is also fully human, and as such, was the beginning of the kingdom, being God's people. Jesus is also God's place, as he is God, and describes his body as the 'temple' in John 2, as he tells the Jews 'Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days' (John 2:19). Jesus is where God now dwells with his people.

Jesus also lives under God's rule. In many places, we are told that Jesus was sinless, that he obeyed the full Law, and fulfilled the demands of the Law. Indeed, Jesus is the King, and through his life and death, he brings about the means for his rule over us, as he defeats sin and death, and wins the blessings of forgiveness and life for us.

Therefore, Jesus could indeed say that 'the kingdom of God is near'. And while the incident we're looking at comes from the beginning of his life, his whole ministry is about the kingdom. Through his life, he paves the way for us to come under God's rule and blessing.

He was beginning to call a new people to be the people of God – not based on nationality, but open to all peoples, to live under God's rule, in obeying his Word, and to enjoy God's blessings, through having their sins forgiven, and the promise of eternal life. But where would God's place be? No longer would it be a geographical place, but rather, he would rule in his peoples' hearts, as he dwells in us through his Holy Spirit.

So now that we have established that Jesus has fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the coming kingdom, and has proclaimed that kingdom, what should our response be? Two thousand years later, the kingdom of God still grows, as more people submit to Jesus as Lord. And how can we become part of the kingdom?

Jesus himself tells us, in the final part of verse 15. “Repent and believe the good news.” This is how we can join the kingdom, but both elements are essential. We must both repent, and believe.

Repentance is all about a change of heart, a change of direction. We have all gone our own way, and made our own decisions. But we need to repent, to turn away from our sins, and the things that hold us back. For example, if I set out tonight to go back to Dublin, but instead went onto the A1 and started driving towards Belfast, then I would be in a bad way, and wouldn't make it to Dublin. And if Alan, who I give a lift to says to me, should you not be going the other way? Then I have a choice, either to admit my mistake, and turn around and go the right way, or else continue on in my error, and say, no, this is the way I want to go... but it won't bring me to my proper destination.

If we have been going our own way, in doing wrong things, then we need to hear the call of Jesus to turn away from those things, to repent.

Or think of it this way. God's kingdom is all about his rule. But each of us has taken God's place by putting ourselves on the throne of our hearts. We have tried to make our own decisions, to do whatever we wanted. Repentance is therefore us getting off the throne of our hearts, and submitting to God's rule.

But the second command clarifies it even more. Because if repentance is turning away from our sin and our own way, then faith, belief, is turning towards Christ. We are called to 'believe the good news'. The good news, the gospel is there before us today. Jesus has brought in the kingdom, and offers us the blessings of forgiven sin. And all we have to do is believe in the news, to accept it, and build our life on it.

This message of turning away from sin, and turning towards Jesus isn't unique to the teaching of Jesus. We find Paul describing the same thing in his sermon to the Ephesian elders: 'I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.' (Acts 20:21).

[We find the same ideas in the Baptism service, where the candidates or their sponsors are asked: 'Do you reject the devil and all proud rebellion against God? Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?' The three questions of rejection and repentance are then followed by three questions of faith: 'Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? Do you submit to Christ as Lord? Do you come to Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life?']

One day the kingdom will be brought to completion, when Jesus returns to earth as judge and king. He will bring in the new heavens and the new earth, and God will dwell with his people, as we find in the later parts of Revelation. As Vaughan Roberts writes, 'The promises of the kingdom will all be completely fulfilled at the end of time. God's people will consist of all those, from every nation, who trust Christ. They will be united together in God's place, the new creation and new Jerusalem, which is the new temple. And they will all submit to God's rule and therefore know his perfect blessing. The throne of God and of the Lamb is right at the centre of everything, and from it, a river flows, bringing life and prosperity to everyone.' (based on Revelation 22:1-2).

We have heard the message of the kingdom, and have the choice – to continue in our own way and reject God's right to rule over us; or we can turn from our sins, and believe the good news, accepting what Jesus has done for us, and finding his blessing as we accept his rule in our hearts.

Let's hear those words of Jesus one more time, and then we'll have some silence before we pray.

'The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.'

Prayer: Lord God, we confess that we have not obeyed you as we should. We have gone our own way, and sinned. We repent, and turn back to you in faith. Forgive us our sins, and reign in our hearts as Saviour and Lord. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

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