Sermon Text: Mark 1:14-20 [3rd Sunday after Epiphany, Series B]
After five years of autumn in Evansville, I have learned not to procrastinate when it comes to raking up leaves. When I first moved here, I thought I might have several dry weekends after the last major drop of leaves to rake our lawns. Wrong! I think every autumn we have been here, the last major drop of leaves occurs with a rainstorm that mats down a thick carpet of dead leaves, and which is nearly impossible to rake up. If I leave them there, they never dry out in winter, and the lawn grows poorly in the spring. So this year, I raked the leaves immediately when they fell, and I got most of them–with the assistance of our three daughters–before the late autumn rains arrived.
Procrastination is not a good habit in temporal life, but it can be absolutely disastrous when it comes to matters of eternal life. There are many people in this country–and around the world–who know the teaching of Jesus and the Christian church, but they don’t take it seriously or act on it. They think they can wait till the end of their life to think about their eternal destiny and “get things right with God.” But suddenly death catches them unawares, like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable (Luke 12:13-21). Or in many cases, they have disbelieved in the Gospel for so long that in old age they cannot believe. It is not that God won’t let them have faith. Their own stubborn will is the problem, because as we age we get more stubborn.
Our Gospel lesson this morning has a message that is the cure for this sort of spiritual procrastination. The message is in verse 15, where Jesus said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” This three-part message was the same as that proclaimed by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1), and it was continued by Jesus after John was imprisoned.
What does this three-part message mean? The first part is “the time has come.” This can be more precisely translated as “The due time is fulfilled NOW.” It refers to the expectation of the people of Israel for a coming time when the promises of God to the patriarchs and the prophecies from the prophets would be fulfilled. John the Baptist and Jesus were telling the people that the fulfillment of all those Old Testament prophecies was happening THEN and THERE. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus told the people “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
Let’s skip to the third part. The third part of the three–part message is “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The grammatical structure of this statement indicates that it can be more precisely translated as “You have been ready and waiting for this. Now is the time to act! Do it! Don’t wait any longer!” There is an immediacy in John the Baptist’ and Jesus’ commands to “repent” and “believe.” In other words, “Do it now, while it is in the forefront of your mind, and you understand what the Gospel means! Don’t put it off till later! Don’t procrastinate!” The whole Gospel of Mark is filled with this sense of immediacy. He frequently uses the Greek term “euthus” which is translated into English as “immediately.”
The second part of the three-part message explains why immediacy is not only advisable, but REQUIRED. It states “the kingdom of God is near.” What is this “kingdom of God”? What does it means to say it is “near”? The “kingdom of God” is a primary theme in the preaching and teaching of Jesus. You find that theme throughout the Gospels, most memorably in the parables about the kingdom of God.
Why did Jesus spend so much time and energy teaching his disciples about the “kingdom of God”? It was because it is a kingdom unlike any other, and it is easy to confuse God’s kingdom with earthly kingdoms.
The most obvious confusion in the history of the Christian church is the earthly kingdom ruled over by the popes in Rome, also known today as the Roman Catholic church. They teach that to be a member of God’s kingdom, you have to submit to the authority of the pope, who they claim is God’s vicar–or viceroy–here on earth.
A less obvious confusion, but no less influential, is the notion of the “kingdom of God” taught by Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher. They taught that the “kingdom of God” are all those people who are fair-minded-and-good citizens, and who promote liberty, equality, brotherhood, and other human rights for people around the world. This is the essential teaching of the Liberal Protestants and is not really all that different from the philosophy of many political parties in America and Europe.
What did Jesus mean by the phrase “kingdom of God”? The Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains it this way:
The writings of our theologians have profitably illumined this whole question of the distinction between Christ’s kingdom and a political kingdom. Christ’s kingdom is spiritual; it is the knowledge of God in the heart, the fear of God and faith, [and] the beginning of eternal righteousness and eternal life. At the same time, it lets us make use of outward use of the legitimate political ordinances of the nation in which we live, just as it lets us make use of medicine or architecture, food, drink, or air. The Gospel does not introduce any new laws about the civil estate, but commands us to obey the existing laws, whether they were formulated by heathen or by others, and in this obedience to practice love. (Apology XVI, 2-3; (Tappert, 222-223).
The Large Catechism of Martin Luther also explains this well:
What is the kingdom of God? Answer: Simply what we learned in the Creed, namely, that God sent his Son, Christ our Lord, into the world to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil and to bring us to himself and rule us as a king of righteousness, life, and salvation against sin, death, and an evil conscience. To this end he also gave his Holy Spirit to teach us this through his holy Word and to enlighten and strengthen us in faith by his power. . . . God’s kingdom comes to us in two ways: first, it comes here, in time, through the Word and faith, and secondly, in eternity, it comes through the final revelation. (Large Catechism, 3rd part, 51, 53; Tappert, 426-427).
This last sentence from Luther explains what it means to say that the “kingdom of God is NEAR.” It is HERE [point down], but also THERE [point up]. It is NOW [point to watch], but also THEN, that is, when you die or at the end of the world when Christ returns.
This is where the problem of procrastination comes in. Many nominal Christians, or those with some interest in the faith, think that the “kingdom of God” is only THERE and THEN. They think they can wait until they get closer in time to their death, or to Jesus’ return, before making up their mind about Jesus or taking the Gospel seriously. They don’t realize that the kingdom of God is HERE and NOW. They think it is way far away, because they can’t see God, his angels, or his abode in heaven. But Jesus says that God’s kingdom is NEAR, though not simply HERE.
Another way of explaining this is to say that God’s kingdom has influence in the HERE and NOW, but that the devil’s kingdom, human kingdoms, the world and your sinful flesh also have influence. God’s rule over the human heart is not absolute, because even Christians are sinners–though they are seen by God as saints for the sake of Christ and his work of salvation. Another way of saying this is that the believer in Christ is both a sinner and a saint–but the unbeliever is sadly only a sinner!
Why do you, and others, need to repent and believe in the Gospel NOW? Because the kingdom of God is NEAR, in the HERE and NOW, and if you or they procrastinate, it may be too late to change when they finally see Christ coming in judgment. That is a chance not worth taking!
In Jesus, our blessed Savior’s name. Amen.
(some exegetical and translation details are from: James W. Voelz, Mark 1:1-8:26, Concordia Commentary Series [St Louis: CPH, 2013], 144-155).