January 21, 2018, Reading the Signs – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The sun rose at 7:30 this morning. Tomorrow, it will rise at 7:29, a whole minute sooner. We might not notice such a small change if we weren’t out there checking our clocks every morning, but minute by minute, here in dark, cold, snowy Norwood, New York, we are gaining light every day. Outside, and all around us, whether we can see it or not, whether we notice it or not, the world is slowly responding to the changing season, from the sappy depths of trees to all the furry animals who are getting ready to begin the process of shedding their thick coat of winter fur as the sleeker fur grows in. Inside of us, too, our bodies are slowly adjusting to the growing light, preparing for a new rhythm of waking and sleeping, keeping us in sync with the lengthening days. Even the genetic makeup of our blood cells is different from winter to spring, changing at the turning of the season from a denser, winter blend of immune responders, to the fat-burning, body-building, water-retaining hormones of our summer blood cells.
In one little verse today, Mark gives us the substance of what Jesus was teaching as he traveled from village to village. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaimed. “Repent, and believe in the Good News!” If we had been there, sitting on a grassy hill or standing on the shore of the sea of Galilee, listening, we would have heard the words of Jesus with our own ears, in our own familiar language. We would have heard his tone of voice and seen his expression as he spoke. And I’m sure he told stories, illustrating the meaning of his words with the things we know, things of the world around us.
It’s a great gift to us that we have these words recorded for us to read all these hundreds of years later. But it’s also a special challenge for us, I think, reading Jesus’ words as they have been written down and translated for us. And particularly, it is a challenge for us to hear them with fresh ears when we have heard these words so many times before: about the kingdom, and repentance, and the Good News. There is a great danger, always, when we read the Bible, for the life-giving words of Jesus to become just a formula that we can rattle off, like e=mc2, without real understanding, or at least without our knowledge making that journey from our heads down to our hearts and into our hands where we put it into practice.
So today I want to concentrate on just that one verse; I want us to listen with fresh ears, as it were, to the real meaning of what Jesus was announcing to the people of Galilee. And as it turns out, Jesus began by proclaiming the coming of a new season. There are several different Greek words for time, but the word Jesus uses when he says that the time is fulfilled, is the word that means “season”or “appointed time”. A change is coming, he’s telling us, a new season. Something altogether new is happening. The time is right, and like the lengthening of days at the approach of spring nothing can stop its coming. It’s happening. And it’s happening now.
That’s how Jesus announced the drawing-near of the kingdom of God. Its coming is unstoppable, but it’s also a very different way of thinking about kingdoms than we are used to. When we think of kingdoms we generally think of political powers and geographical boundaries and nationalism, everything that goes with the kingdoms of this world. But whenever Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, it wasn’t like that at all. Jesus described the kingdom as something that grows. The kingdom of God, he once said, is like a tiny seed that a man plants in his garden and it grows greater than all the other plants, offering shelter for all the birds of the air. Another time, Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman kneads into her lump of bread dough, that spreads through the whole loaf to make it rise. And yet another time, Jesus told us that the kingdom is like a pearl of immense value that a man found in a field, and that man sold everything he had to possess it.
The unstoppable coming of God’s kingdom, then, isn’t anything like human kingdoms who come storming in with their armies and their trumpets and a great, menacing show of power. It’s much, much more like that minute by minute approach of spring we are experiencing right now, lengthening the days slowly but surely, sometimes without our even noticing – but bringing about the transformation of the whole natural world in its coming.
And because the kingdom is drawing near to us, Jesus gives us two commands: “Repent!” and “Believe!” But again, those are words that we have a tendency to misunderstand because we have heard them so many times. Religions have all too often used the word “repentance” as a way of proclaiming judgment or condemnation on people. To repent, we often hear, is to feel badly about our behavior, to stop doing bad things and to start trying to do good things. We have made repentance into a legal matter. But the word Jesus used is not about following rules; it’s about change, about changing direction in the way we think as well as in the way we act.
To repent at the coming of a new season, as Jesus calls it, would be like getting up in the morning, not focused any longer on continuing to survive the long siege of winter, but changing both our outlook and our actions in anticipation of the coming of spring. Because believing doesn’t mean agreeing to certain doctrines; it means choosing to trust, living by faith: believing in the coming of spring means starting the seeds, watching the weather, anticipating the melting of the snow with an eye to getting our hands in the earth. It means trusting that today there will be more light than there was yesterday, and tomorrow there will be still more. It means expecting new life rather than just preserving the old life.
And just like the coming of spring, with the drawing-near of God’s kingdom we can see the change coming. We see the transforming effects of the kingdom outside of us, in the lives of people we know who have been transformed by the presence of God in their lives; in the way things like grace and forgiveness and compassion are able to transform even the most terrible darkness and suffering in the world; in people whose lives are illuminated by the kingdom, like Martin Luther King Jr., and Pope Francis, and Mother Theresa. But we can also see the transforming effects of the kingdom inside of us when we look back over our lives and see how God has given us understanding and patience and the ability to love and forgive – maybe not perfectly yet, but in growing measure, bit by bit, day by day.
And all that is why Jesus’ message is called Good News, which is what the word “gospel” means. The coming of the kingdom of God is neither more nor less than the arrival at long, long last of the season of life after so many centuries of waiting in the darkness and coldness of our sin and fear and uncertainty. We see its coming by faith, as ever since the birth of Jesus, minute by minute, the light of God grows in our world. And in faith we change the way we live and the way we think, planting the seeds of love and hope and kindness even where the soil still looks awfully hard and frost-covered, because we believe, we trust that warmth and light are surely coming to bring life. That is the joyous news that Jesus proclaimed to the people in Galilee, and that is the joyous news that he also proclaims to us today.