Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:14-15)
Today, we are embarking into impolite territory. Those among us who follow rules for niceties in conversation will tell you there are two topics to avoid all the time: religion & politics. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of choice but to go here because it is one of the top 6 negative perceptions that young adult outsiders have about the church. Specifically, this is the perception: “Christians are motivated primarily by politics and follow a right-wing agenda.”
I heard one of the authors of this study speak a month ago and he acknowledged the climate this survey was taken. It happened in 2006 where there was much discussion about an evangelical Christian voting bloc that voted Republican. During the last election, however, that bloc more or less vanished; those people voted for both McCain and Obama. Gabe Lyons thought that if this study was done again today, too political may not even appear on the top 6 list of negative perceptions. But there it is. So our question today is two-fold: that’s the perception; is it the reality? How does a Christian live and participate in our 21st century political system?
I’ve always found it rather humorous when people say Christian should not be involved in politics. When you flip back to the Old Testament, you see God’s people getting up into the face of the leaders of the day all the time, challenging them to get back into right relationship and right connection with God.
In one instance, King David, called the man after God’s own heart, is overcome with the love of another man’s wife. In what could only be akin to an episode of Desperate Housewives, he sleeps with her and sure enough she becomes pregnant. The King calls the husband back from war (which is where David should be by the way) and tries to set him up to sleep with his wife. The husband doesn’t because he is honorable and needs to be fighting. David then sends him to the front lines where he would certainly be killed, and he dies. I told you, Desperate Housewives. The prophet Nathan, spokesperson for God at the time, calls David out on his sin, he repents, and still retains the status of man after God’s own heart.
Now, some people will use passages in the Old Testament like this to say we should be the conscience of the state and serve in a similar capacity. Certainly the church should have played more of that role in Hitler’s Germany but only a few spoke out during the days leading up to World War II.
But before you call for us to be like Israel in the Old Testament, realize the context of Israel in the 10th century BC and America in the 21st century. Israel was a theocracy, ruled by God or at the very least, depending on your perspective, the people of God; we are a democracy ruled by the voice of the people, a very diverse lot not governed by one religion or even one value system, and when we bring our morals, values and ethics to bear on a people who do not share our view of the world we can be pegged with this perception of being only concerned with politics.
Fast forward a millennia to Jesus and his message brings definite political overtones. Jesus speaks of a kingdom and a kingdom is a political entity. When you flip to the book of Mark, you will see the story begins almost immediately with Jesus’ work in the world and is the action-movie version of Jesus’ story. Our Scripture today is the thesis statement (English/History majors) or the teaser trailer (for the rest of us) for what is to come in the book of Mark: “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15 NLT). This short passage brings a number of questions to my mind: first what is the Good News? Second, what does the Kingdom of God look like?
You may hear Christians today saying the Good News is that Jesus died for your sins and you can now go to Heaven to be with him if you enter a relationship with Christ. Is that what is meant in this passage? It may be a part but not the whole picture. Think about it this way: did Jesus go around 1st century Palestine telling people that he will die for their sins and they need to believe in him? No, he did not.
I was trained in seminary on the inductive method of Bible study, you start with the passage, the chapter, the book of the Bible first to determine its meaning, then go to other outside sources to see if they agree with you. In this passage, the Good News that Jesus brings is that the Kingdom of God is near. We are to, yes, repent of our sins but also believe the Good News of the Kingdom of God has finally come.
So what does this Kingdom look like? Well, that is what the rest of the book of Mark is for! Mark spends the rest of the story unpacking what being a citizen in God’s Kingdom would look like. The bulk of Jesus’ time is spent talking about the Kingdom of God in most of the Gospels and what our responsibilities look like. In the Kingdom of God, we find, as Jesus’ describes, that all are taken care of: the hungry are fed, the thirsty have water, people have clothing, homes, all of the basic necessities. Not only are our physical needs meet but so are our deepest spiritual needs: all of the deep relationship and companionship we look for in other areas, only to be disappointed by others, is finally met in this Kingdom that Jesus is talking about. Orphans have homes and all have everything that we need. What a place to live, right?!
John Wesley, the founder of the movement that led to the United Methodist, Nazarene, Wesleyan and other churches was a man who liked to combine, sometimes, conflicting viewpoints. Some Christians in Wesley’s day and today will focus solely on spiritual needs, like having a relationship with Christ, and others will focus totally on physical needs. Guess what Wesley does? He puts them together: it is personal (spiritual) good news and physical good news. Bringing together conflicting viewpoints – now does that have political implications?
Jesus uses the phrase “the Kingdom of God” in three ways that we will briefly explore this morning. First, as our passage hints at, the Kingdom of God is here right now.
As we look around the world today, we know the Kingdom is not here in the sense that everyone has all that they need to live. We still have 30,000 children dying each day of hunger and billions of people living on less than $1 and $2 dollars a day, not enough to get what they need. But the Kingdom because all spiritual needs can be met; the Kingdom is here because God is here and God is on our side. Did you catch that? God is here and God is on our side.
We can so easily listen to other voices around us, or own voice, that tell us we have done things so wrong God cannot possible love us anymore. We can feel so alone that there is no God out there period. God cannot be on our side. Jesus’ message is good news: God is here and God is on our side. God wants to be close to us, to give us all that we lack, and sent Jesus to bring the Good News that indeed the Kingdom has come! What you thought was impossible before is not because God is here and on our side. Impossible is not what it used to be.
Jesus also describes the Kingdom of God in the sense of what could be. What would it be like for everyone’s spiritual and physical needs to be met? What about all of the physical & spiritual needs of all 7 billion people on earth? Jesus paints a picture of the Kingdom through the Gospels where all have what they need and we are to be inspired by those stories to try to work and to bring this Kingdom Jesus describes about. Those miracles that Jesus performs? Those are snapshots of what life in the Kingdom is like. The Kingdom even comes about through small acts that lots of people do together to make a huge difference.
We find some pretty serious political tension here because Christians are citizens of two kingdoms: God’s and this world’s. Some people work to bring about Jesus’ kingdom through political means and can ruffle feathers especially when we don’t agree on how to feed the hungry or take care of the least among us. Some Christians believe only churches should do that work while others think the government should be taking the lead on it. Others work through their churches, go on mission trips, help with service projects, to take care of those who have been orphaned, for example.
Some churches though do not understand the rules of the Kingdom of earth and have gotten into trouble recently. Take a look at this.
We have to work within political systems to bring about the change we like to see. While I think their hearts were in the right place, they were not being smart about helping these orphans. Jesus tells his followers to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents. This would be a case were some more snake wisdom, street smarts, would have been handy.
Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as right now, as a present possible, and a future reality. Because of the state of the world, with sin and evil fully present in it, Christians for ages have said the Kingdom will only come in full when Christ returns. When that happens, all will truly have all their spiritual and physical needs met. This does not mean we do not try to make it happen. Christians have disagreed about the order: when our house is in order, Christ will come back or we get the world to a certain point, then Jesus will come to finish the rest. I tend to be in the group that believes we do all that we can & must do all to help but because sin and evil are a reality, Jesus will have to take us the extra step to truly bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.
Did you know, if you are a regular church-goer, you pray this future reality, a political prayer regularly? In the Lord’s Prayer, that we will pray in just a few minutes together, says “Thy Kingdom come.” That is a reference to the future reality of God reigning, replacing all our current political authority with the just and loving and true hand of God in all things. Who knew we were such a political lot!
Jesus paints the picture of the Kingdom, having political implications, so now the question is now before us: how do Christians do politics in the 21st century? Remember the perception: “Christians are motivated only by politics and have a right-wing agenda.” I hope you know there are Christians in both political parties, working not just their party’s political agenda but their understanding of Jesus’ kingdom.
I do believe both parties need deeply committed Christians that are not working solely out of a Democratic or Republican platform but one that comes out of the Gospels. We need to be involved and we need to vote. We also need to stay constantly aware of whose ideology, whose values, are shaping us; we need to make sure it is the ideology of Jesus, of the Bible, and not of the Democratic or Republican party.
Realize, though, that we are all not going to agree on how to solve the problems facing us. We are not always going to vote the same way and yet we are all still Christian. I have always been disturbed by churches that hand out voting guides because I don’t believe that is a church’s or a pastor’s role. My job is not tell you how to vote or who to vote for but teach you how to think, how we might apply the Word today and believe you have the intelligence to sort out who to and what to vote for. I have faith in you.
I think the church should be the place where we can have civil discussion and discourse from all sides of an issue. When is the last time you heard a church discuss stem cell research, homosexuality, abortion or some other hot topic of today? Not taking a stance but really trying to listen to everybody, to show what civil discussion looks like because we are severely lacking in popular culture and in politics.
But conversation & education isn’t all of it. Dave Mitchell has a quote outside his office that says this (I didn’t edit the language so just take it easy): Education is moving from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty. Faith is moving from thoughtful uncertainty to the willingness to act. Might the church conversation lead to creative ways to solve seemingly intractable problems in our world? I heard the story of one church in Sioux Falls who tackled the issue of abortion, of being pro-life, in a creative way.
A few years ago, South Dakotas was again facing a vote on the legality of abortion. Millions of dollars was sunk into the campaign on both sides, which some Christians on both sides fully support and have good reasons to, while there are others like me that are left wondering what else could be done with the millions we spend on campaigns. A Baptist church in Sioux Falls felt very strongly about being pro-life but instead of rallying people to vote, they cancelled their Wednesday program at the church, sending people into the community. They begin a backpack food program and send computer labs into schools that didn’t have them. Then, amazingly, they sold the land they planned to use to expand their building and gave it to families to pay to adopt 10 children. At an average rate of $30,000 per adoption, that church gave $300,000 back to their people so 10 children who did not have homes, now do.
Friends, I don’t know about you but whenever I hear that story I say yes, that’s it. That is what the kingdom is about, that is what Jesus meant: we live simply, individually and as a church, so others can truly and fully live. As someone who was adopted, this Kingdom-story moves me.
May we be a people that declares loudly that God is here and on our side, may we work to bring Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom about, and may we continually pray for ‘thy kingdom’ to come. Let’s do it now…