Archive for January 2021

Still Waiting for the Kingdom of God? Time’s Up.

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/24/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 1:14-20 & 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is Jesus’ announcement as he begins his ministry, a ministry that becomes public and active after the arrest of John the Baptizer.

The time is fulfilled. John has been carried away by Herod’s soldiers and locked in a dungeon. The greatest prophet of them all, the one in whom the spirit of Elijah lives again, has been removed from the field. The Way Preparer has completed his ministry; he must decrease as Christ increases. The time is fulfilled.

The kingdom of God has come near. John, and Elijah, and Moses, and all the prophets of God have prepared the way, calling us out of the shadows. And now the Light is arriving. The reign of God has come near to us.

Repent, and believe in the good news. Repentance was John’s message. Turn back from your evil ways. Turn away from all the compromises you have made with the spirit of this age and the kingdoms of this world. Repent! Experience a full life change. Prepare yourself for the coming presence and reign of God.

The ministry of John has been fulfilled. The time is fulfilled, and now it is time not only for preparation, but full participation. It is time to believe in the gospel – the victory announcement of God, proclaimed to us by Jesus in his three years of ministry, coronated on the cross, and vindicated through the power of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Believe in the gospel. Believe the news that we have received from Jesus – that God has triumphed over the power of sin and death. The battle has been won. The spiritual armies of the King of Kings will soon be arriving to judge, and heal, and reconcile all things. We must prepare ourselves.

The battle has been won. God is already victorious. The spiritual forces that have kept us in bondage have been thrown down. And the messengers of God, his prophets, his apostles, and even his own son Jesus, have raced to us as messengers. They say to us: “Don’t be fooled by the continued operation of this city you live in, that still follows the rules of the old regime! Their armies have been smashed in battle, and the true King is returning to settle accounts! Rejoice, o daughter of Zion. Behold, your king comes to you! For the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ!”

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand – even at the very gates. Repent, therefore, and believe in the victory announcement that we have proclaimed to you.

This was Jesus’ announcement to the very first disciples – Simon and Andrew, James and John. This was the victory announcement, the good news of God’s victory and coming kingdom. He said to these wide-eyed fishermen, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

These were humble men, for sure. But they had something to lose. Following Jesus meant leaving their family business behind, abandoning everything – livelihood, parents, everything that provided them with a sense of place and identity. They gave everything up to follow Jesus.

They believed the victory announcement. They believed in the gospel. They believed that the armies of God were on the march, and that the king would be returning very soon.

The early church operated under this same sense of urgency. This morning we read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he urges his fellow disciples to regard the present age as the type of order that exists in a conquered city only as a sort of inertia. The former rulers have been defeated in battle; but for a period of time, amidst the confusion, the local officials and police continue to enforce the old laws.

As followers of Jesus, as people who have believed in the gospel of God, we know that – as Paul puts it – “the present form of this world is passing away.”

We have heard and believed the victory announcement, and what a different perspective this gives us! For those who believe in the gospel, we are practically living in a different universe from the vast majority who take the present ordering of society for granted. For Paul’s hearers, this order was the Roman Empire. The power of the legions and the might of the imperial economy. The culture of honor and shame, of rulers and enslaved.

Today, we hear the victory announcement in the context of a waning American empire. We inhabit in a world that depends on the might of NATO and the World Bank, the strength of the dollar, the extractive, fossil-fuel-driven global economy. We live in a city that goes about its normal operations, unable or unwilling to see that God’s triumph has changed everything. Unwilling to repent and believe in the victory announcement.

This past month, I had some health issues that were serious enough that I went into the doctor to get checked out. I really don’t like going to the doctor, so for me to go in meant that I was pretty concerned.

This gave me an opportunity to think quite a bit about my own mortality. About the fact that, one way or another, for me, the present form of this world is most certainly passing away. Whether I live for another fifty years or another five minutes, this life doesn’t go on forever.

It got me thinking. Thinking about what really matters. Got me thinking about how much I love my children, and how I want to be here for them. How I want to raise them to be friends and followers of Jesus. 

I’ve been thinking about the work I do as a servant of the gospel here at Berkeley Friends Church. About my life’s legacy. The legacy that all of us in Berkeley Friends Church might have, when we invite our friends and neighbors to discover the good news of Jesus Christ in these days of great shaking and revealing. I’m thinking about what it looks like for us to be fishers of people.

When I consider my inevitable death, there is so little that truly matters. So much of what occupies my conscious thought melts away as transient silliness. How much money do I have? Am I successful and rewarded at my job? What will the stock market do? Does this or that person like me? How long do I get to live? None of this really matters in the light of eternity. The present form of this world is passing away.

And this is the advice Paul gives us. He says, to quote Princess Elsa from Frozen: “Let it go.”

Are you married? Don’t worry about it. Are you mourning? Don’t get too caught up in it. Are you happy? Don’t let that distract you either. Is business up or down? Don’t get too attached to it. These are not the things that really matter.

Because we live in a city that has just received the victory announcement from the true king. We have learned that the present order has been stripped of all authority. Sure, the city may continue in the status quo for a little while longer, while we wait for the king and his army to arrive from the battlefield. But anything we do in the meantime, anything we build or come to rely on in this old order, is going to be swept away. A new order is coming. It is the only thing worth investing in.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

If this present order were to come to an end this year, if the kingdom of God came with full force, would you be ready? Is your life built on the things that are eternal, or do you have a sandy foundation? 

Are your energies focused on caring for others – tending the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the broken-hearted? Is your life dedicated to sharing the victory announcement, so that everyone has the opportunity to know life – real life – as it truly is, and not missing it chasing this twilight empire that is is crumbling around us?

The early Quakers shared this sense of demanding urgency with the first disciples and the early church. George Fox wrote to his mother and father, warning them not to get lost in the froth and confusion of the present age, but to pay attention to the voice of Christ within them to lead them. He wrote to them these words, which I will sing for you:

Ye have no time, but this present time: therefore prize your time for your souls’ sake.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

We have no time but this present time. There are so many whose hearts are thirsting for the good news of Jesus. Pray that God will tender our hearts to embrace repentance, so that we will become fishers of people.

As followers of Jesus, we are co-bearers of the victory announcement. But ours is not merely the task of announcing the gospel; we are co-heirs with Jesus in enacting it. We are to become fishers of people, drawing others into the same life and power and immediacy that we have discovered. We are not merely to live in freedom from this present age that is passing away; we are to actively participate, now, in the new order that is coming. Our job is to invite others into that new age.

Because the victory is already won. Our king is already triumphant. Jesus Christ is Lord, and the kingdom of God has come near.

The church often seems very comfortable with the idea that the kingdom of God was present for three years during Jesus’ ministry, and then for the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. But after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, it seems like many of us imagine that we have returned to a world that is fundamentally unchanged – still under the administration of the same powers that nailed Jesus to the cross.

But that’s not the truth. The powers have been defeated on the battlefield of Calvary, and we await the arrival of the king.

Are we as the church of Jesus Christ waiting for another victory announcement? Are we waiting for the second coming to start living in the life, power, and kingdom of God?

That’s not what the early church taught in the streets of Jerusalem and the highways of the Roman Empire. That’s not what Paul taught the communities he founded across the ancient world. That’s not the message of the early Quakers, or any other movement of the Holy Spirit that we can point to.

Jesus’ message to us two thousand years ago is still his message to us today: 

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

It’s time to get clear on what really matters. It’s time to re-dedicate our lives to the good news of Jesus Christ. It is time to reorient – to repent – so that we can be effective fishers of people, expanding the circle of God’s love, and teaching others to follow Jesus and become fishers themselves.

We have no time but this present time. The present form of this world is passing away.

Jesus is calling – and maybe not so softly and tenderly this time – Jesus is calling us: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Why Do We Even Believe This Stuff?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/10/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:7-12, 21:23-27. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Why do we believe any of this stuff?

Really. A God who created the whole cosmos in splendid order out of chaos. A God who parted the Red Sea and spoke to Moses through the burning bush.

A God who chose the children of Abraham, the Hebrew people, to be his holy experiment, a nation that would embody and catalyze his plan to redeem humanity from our confusion and sin.

A God who spoke through the prophets and led his people with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. A God who made his presence known in the tabernacle and in the temple, and in these latter days has made himself known in the flesh and blood of his only-begotten Son, Jesus.

On what possible basis could we claim that any of these things are true? We can’t prove any of it. It’s impossible to convince a skeptic, through reason alone, that any of these stories are real. Or even that our own personal experiences of God’s presence in our life is anything more than the peculiarity of our brain chemistry.

We live in an age and a culture that denies anything beyond the material, anything we can’t measure with repeatable experiments, according to the scientific method. We live in a time thoroughly hostile to the living God of the Hebrew people, of Jesus and the early Church.

So why bother? Why not go with the flow? Why not accept the spirit of our age, and assume that the stories of our faith are at best interesting myths, but ones which we must now abandon in favor of the new mythology of a supposedly objective, data driven worldview?

In the days before Jesus entered into his ministry, there was a man named John. John was preaching in the wilderness, wearing strange clothing that associated him with the prophet Elijah – the great prophet who the Jewish people expected would pave the way for the coming of the anointed one, the Christ.

John was teaching in the wilderness. In the desert. Down by the Jordan river, on the boundary of Israel. The place where the Hebrews entered the Promised Land so many generations ago. He stood there, inviting anyone who wanted to join him on the edge, the new holy frontier. Anyone who wanted to come and prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom.

John practiced a ritual of immersion in water – baptism – which most of the Christian church practices as an initiation rite today. The purpose of this ritual was to invite and symbolize repentance. A turning towards God and his kingdom, away from the corrupt and blinded ways of this world. Baptism was about dying to sin and confusion, and entering a new life immersed in God’s power and authority.

John didn’t make this stuff up. John didn’t invent the cleansing ritual of baptism. We know that the Essenes, and other Jewish groups were practicing similar rites as part of their communities. John didn’t invent the proclamation of repentance and preparation for God’s kingdom. He stood in a long line of prophets who were making straight the way of the Lord, calling the people of Israel away from injustice and idolatry and towards the kingdom of God.

None of this was new. The people knew what it meant that John dressed like Elijah. They understood the symbolism when he offered them immersion in the Jordan. They knew what it meant when John preached a fiery message of repentance and preparation for the coming judgment of God. They knew this was their story, from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Samuel and Elijah and all the prophets – there was a consistency, and a building – a growing in truth that God had been affecting in the people of Israel for a thousand years. They knew this story.

So it wasn’t really a question of whether they believed these things on a theoretical, intellectual level. It was a matter of whether they were ready to materially change their lives and embrace the immanence of the coming kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”

A lot of people came out to see John in the wilderness of the Jordan Valley. People came out for different reasons. Some folks were drawn out of curiosity. Others out of fear, sensing that the Day of the Lord was at hand. Others were there because they wanted to see a renewal of Israel, and a new monarchy established. Still others must have come because of their own awareness of their sin and need for God’s mercy.

And then there were, it seems, some folks who came as spiritual tourists.

That’s clearly how John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out for baptism. When John saw them coming, he didn’t welcome them with open arms like he did the common people who came seeking forgiveness and life transformation. No, he basically cusses them out! If John were speaking today, I imagine him saying, “You bunch of water logged rats! Did somebody tell you the ship was sinking and you thought you could just jump into my lifeboat?”

This is when it becomes clear what John’s baptism is really about. It’s not just another “religious experience” to be sampled by the elite religious people coming down from Jerusalem. John’s baptism wasn’t a spiritual elixir to be consumed by just anyone. This baptism was a sign of radical life change and preparation for the kingdom. John would not allow it to be divorced from its real meaning and purpose.

John had no time for these high society religious tourists, slumming it at the tent revival. He tells them, “You came here looking for a show, but God is demanding a show from you – a show of repentance, a show of a renewed life, a show of justice! And if you can’t manage that, if you’re too self-centered and spiritually dead to respond to God’s call, even being children of Abraham can’t save you.”

Because these holy rollers, they thought that God’s favor was their birthright. They thought that, simply because of who they were and where they were born, that God had wonderful plans for their life. But John is saying, “God is not a hostage to your pedigree. Remember how God almost started over with Moses in the desert?  If this generation continues with its corruption and idolatry, God can raise up new children to Abraham.”

So why do we believe this stuff? Why are we Christians? It’s a lot of crazy ideas, isn’t it, when you really step back and look at it?

Well, it matters not only that we believe, but how we believe it. Because, like the religious leaders in John’s day, we can believe all the stories and the rules and rituals. That’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. But what we need is the baptism. We need immersion into God’s story. It has to transform us, so that we can truly participate in it, and not merely “believe” in a shallow intellectual sense – or even worse, wear our religion as a cultural identity that makes us feel superior to others.

Believing is a full-body experience. When we truly believe the gospel, we bear fruit worthy of repentance. When we find ourselves willingly brought under God’s authority, we become true children of Abraham.

It’s about authority. That’s why we believe all this stuff. Stuff we can’t prove. Things that don’t make any sense when taken out of the context of our faith and our long, long, long walk with God from the days of Abraham forward. We walk in the way of Jesus because we have become convinced that the story is true. In the words of Han Solo in Episode VII: “It’s true. All of it.”

We discover that authority in the baptism, in the immersion into Christ’s life, teaching, and death. We discover the authority by walking it. We find ourselves caught up in the authority of God when the same Spirit breathes in us who breathed in John, saying “prepare the way of the Lord!”

In our culture, we don’t talk about authority very much. In some circles it’s almost a taboo subject, because we really don’t like the idea that anyone can tell us what to do. That’s what freedom is, right? That deep knowing, down in your gall bladder, that no one is steering your life except for you?

We tend to shy away from talking about authority. But in the culture that Jesus inhabited, in the culture of the near-Eastern ancient world, authority was a very important concept. For the ancients, the whole cosmos was very explicitly hierarchical, and what you could do was based on where you stood in the great chain of being, and what authority had been delegated to you from above. Slaves could act because their lords commanded. Free men operated under the direction of their superiors. Rulers responded to other, more powerful rulers, and ultimately to the gods.

For Jesus and his contemporary Jews, of course, the ultimate authority was the God of Abraham, the God who once spoke through the bush, then in the tabernacle, and now resided in the Temple at Jerusalem.

And so when Jesus arrived in the Temple, disrupting the commerce that was going on there, the chief priests and elders of the people immediately questioned Jesus’ authority. “Who gave you permission to do this?” they demanded. “What gives you the right to come in and cause this uproar? Who are you to challenge the priests and elders of Israel? Our authority comes from God through Abraham and Moses!”

And Jesus answers them in a very interesting, very rabbinical way: He asks a counter-question. He says, “I’ll tell you what, gentlemen. I’ll tell you by what authority I’m doing all these things. But first, riddle me this: What was the source of John’s authority? Was his baptism from heaven, or of human origin?”

Now, as we heard this morning, the religious leaders didn’t want to engage Jesus on this, because either way they answered they ended up losing the argument. So this was a really brilliant response on Jesus’ part. But it wasn’t a mere rhetorical dodge. Jesus’ question was also an answer. With his question, Jesus identifies his ministry as an outgrowth of John’s. Jesus’ authority comes from the same source as John’s. John’s baptism came from God, and so does Jesus’ ministry.

This is something about the Christian religion that never ceases to blow my mind: Even Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, fully inhabited the story. He didn’t take any short cuts. Jesus was baptized into the narrative of Israel. He was swimming in the stream of the prophets. He was living in the authority of the Spirit, specifically as expressed through Moses and Elijah. He submitted himself to baptism by John in the river Jordan. He entered into the story completely.

Jesus brought the law and the prophets to completion, but he also stood within their authority. And now, we receive all those riches through Jesus, through the apostles, through the church down through the ages. Because we are walking in the path and authority of this story.

I want to invite us to sit with this question of authority. This query of the chief priests and the elders, I want to pose it to us as a community in the risen Jesus:

“By what authority are we doing these things, and who gave us this authority?”

What is the power that we stand in? What is the story that we inhabit? Whose people are we?

It’s only through this story, this power, this living authority of God in our lives that we can enter the kingdom. It is only through the authority of Moses, the authority of the prophets, and Jesus the ultimate prophet, that we can embrace the life of repentance and transformation that John the Baptist calls us to.

We didn’t make this stuff up. We stand in a line of authority, coming down from Jesus through his church – the prophets, shepherds, and saints who have paved the way for our own participation in the faith.

We didn’t make this stuff up, and that’s why we can trust it. Because the gospel is not wish fulfillment. It is not the will to power. It’s not a human fantasy. It is the heart of God. It is the truth that relativizes all our delusions and brings us to the end of ourselves.

We didn’t make this stuff up, because our authority is the same as John’s and Jesus’. Our authority is the power of God.

This morning, we stand together in the story. We stand together under God’s authority. We proclaim the gospel, together with Jesus and John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”