Good morning, Friends!
This sure has been a challenging week! The hurricane made a big mess in a lot of parts of the community. The wind and the rain itself was pretty scary. How many of you all lost power? Anyone still have their power off?
How many had trees down or branches down near your house?
How many had roof damage? How many had water come into the house, either through the roof or through the basement?
How many had to miss work because your place of work was closed? How many of you were injured by the storm? That’s good! No injuries.
When we think about the storm, were any of you impressed by the awesome power of it all? Was there anything we could do to stop the wind, or stop the rain? It’s a sobering thought. We human beings like to think that we’re in control of our environment. Last week showed us that some things are totally beyond our control.
How many of you looked at the news since the hurricane? Did you see those pictures of total devastation, in places along the Florida coast? Miles and miles of homes and businesses, just gone. Whole trains overturned and lying like pick-up sticks. Cars stacked up on top of cars. Waterfronts totally devastated.
Compared with what happened to folks in some other places, we got off light here. It could have been much worse.
I know a lot of people prayed for safety, during the storm. I just hope that we continue to pray, for all the people who were hurt worse and need help.
And I hope we remember, for a long time to come, how small we felt this week, in comparison to the storm. And remember that God is greater and even more powerful than that storm we all saw. When we say that God is great, that really means something!
A few weeks ago at our Wednesday night Bible study, we finished up the Old Testament and we started looking at the gospels. We started out with the gospel of Mark, which is the shortest of the four gospels. Mark is also very blunt and short-spoken. Mark’s favorite word is immediately. Mark is always in a hurry – he gets right to the point.
Mark doesn’t have any version of the Christmas story. No background. Nothing about Jesus’ ancestry or family. Jesus just shows up, and he gets right to work.
Before Jesus there was a guy named John – John the Baptist, to prepare people to hear Jesus’ message. John said, “There’s someone coming after me, who is even more powerful than I am! He’s so much greater, I’m not worthy even to bow down and untie his sandals. I’m baptizing you with water, but he’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
A lot of powerful people didn’t like John. He called a spade a spade. He didn’t care who was offended by his plain speaking. They arrested John, and put him in prison, to silence him. That’s where we get started this morning. Listen to what it says:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
– Mark 1:14-15
I’ve got one simple question to ask you this morning. People talk a lot about Jesus. We’ve got hymnals full of songs. We get libraries full of books. There are dozens of different churches, and all kinds of different ideas. But what did Jesus himself really say?
When I was a boy, I thought I wanted to be a carpenter. I like building things. I like measuring wood, and cutting pieces and making them all fit together.
But when you build, you need to have a foundation. It needs to be solid, and usually the foundation has to be the same size as your building, or maybe even bigger.
If you were building a pyramid, you’d build it like this, with the bottom wider than the top. Wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t built your pyramid like that, with a tiny point on the bottom and wide on the top!Why not? Well, it wouldn’t be stable. It wouldn’t stay standing. It would fall over.
When I look at the religious landscape in our generation, it feels to me like that upside-down pyramid. There’s huge piles of different ideas, huge numbers of books, huge church structures and all this history, and people saying it has to be this way.
It feels ridiculously top-heavy to me. What’s the foundation? What do people think is holding it all up? If you try to build without a broad, solid foundation, it’s all going to fall down. You won’t have to wait long.
The foundation, for me, is the awe we have for God. That’s where we begin. If we feel that we’re in control of everything, it just takes one storm to change that perception. God is greater than anything we can imagine. God is deeper, and wider, and older, and more universal, than any of our lives, or anything we can think or do or say.
The foundation, for me, is the life and words of Jesus. All that other stuff may be interesting, but without Jesus, it wouldn’t be here. Get it straight!
When Jesus came, he did things that no one else could do. He healed people. He fed the hungry crowds. He forgave people. He made God’s word accessible. Anyone could understand what Jesus had to say. Ordinary people – farmers and fishermen, women and men, could get what he was saying and take it to heart.
So now I’m going to ask you all again, what did Jesus really say?
When we looked at today’s reading at our Wednesday night Bible study, we saw that Jesus said four things. Four things. Can you help me identify what they are?
First, he said, “The time has come.”
“You’ve been waiting for a long time,” Jesus said, “but the waiting time is over. If you’ve been asking yourself when God is going to show up, it’s today. If it seems like you’ve been waiting all your life, the curtain just went up, the ship has arrived, the long wait is over.”
That was an important message then, and it’s an important message now. Many people think they have to wait – to hear God’s word, to accept God’s welcome, to see what God is up to. “Well,” said Jesus, “it’s today. God’s time is now. It’s always been now. The day of the Lord is always today.”
People who are waiting for God to show up – a new King David, the Second Coming, the Rapture, whatever – they’re missing the point. God’s day is today. There is no better time to hear the good news!
The second thing Jesus said was, “The kingdom of God is near.”
Jesus didn’t see God as being distant or far away. God isn’t someplace up in heaven. Heaven is right next to us. Heaven is always trying to break through into our world, into this safe little world that we create.
Jesus saw God’s glory all the time. Not just a glorious sunrise or a beautiful field of flowers. Jesus saw the glory of God in daily things.
The kingdom of God – the place where God is in charge, where God’s vision guides everything, the place where hatred is forgotten, where violence is renounced, that place is as close as this.
Jesus said that God was a close to us as our neighbor, as close as the person sitting right next to us. If you look into the eyes of little child, Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. If you meet someone who is grieving, if you meet someone who has lost everything, if you meet someone who’s broken-hearted, and you help them, the kingdom of God just came very close to you.
The kingdom is hungering to be a better person. The kingdom is forgiving people from your heart when they hurt you, not holding the hurt against them, but starting over.
The kingdom is the shepherd looking for the one lost sheep, and finding it. The kingdom is reaching out to the person who is untouchable and cast out from the community. The kingdom of God is praying and healing. It’s turning all the things we think we know upside-down.
And it’s very near. It’s physically close, and it’s close in time, and it’s a heartbeat away from exploding into our world. Every day, we have a chance to see the kingdom of God, if we look for it. We can accept the kingdom of God, a hundred times over.
God can be found anywhere and everywhere. There is no place on earth, no place in our heart, no place in the whole creation, where God can’t enter in.
The kingdom of God is very near, Jesus said. And we can spend our whole life discovering it and learning about it.
What’s the third thing Jesus said?
First thing, the time has come.
Second thing, the kingdom of God is very near.
Third thing, repent.
Can somebody tell me, what does repentance mean? It literally means, to turn around.
A lot of people think that repentance means to feel bad. Even preachers and Christians who ought to know better make this mistake! Repentance means turning around.
It’s like you’re driving down the road, thinking you’re going some place you want to go, and you realize you’re going the wrong way.
Now, I know a lot of people (guys especially fall into this!) who are stubborn. They just keep on driving on. They’re convinced that they can make this road work for them. “If I just go a little farther, I can get there. I didn’t make a mistake! I don’t need a map! Don’t tell me what do to! I’ll just follow my own sense of direction.”
Have you ever been in a car with somebody like that? Have you ever done that yourself? You’re lost, you know you’re lost, you know you just made a wrong turn, you know you’re going to feel stupid about it later. But you keep on going, that same wrong way.
Sometimes, the only thing to do is to admit you’re going the wrong way, and turn around, and go back.
I know a lot of people who waste years of their lives going the wrong way. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich and powerful. It doesn’t matter if they’re educated. They’re going the wrong way.
It could mean that they’re just wasting their time. It could mean that they’re hurting the people who care about them and love them. It could mean that they’re making enemies all the time, or turning people away because of the way they talk and act.
Going the wrong way can mean habits and behaviors and addictions that are destroying our health. It can mean things that harm our children, or their future. You know what I’m talking about. You can come up with your own examples, in your own life.
What really stands out to me, when I read about all the things Jesus said and did, was that he didn’t try to make people feel bad. He didn’t give them a hard time. He just said, “Turn around. If you’re on a road that leads to death, don’t go there. Turn around.”
The road to life, Jesus said, the road to God’s kingdom, almost always involves turning around some part of ourselves.
And although some people need to make one big about-face and head back the right way, the Christian life involves a lot of repentance. We make a lot of wrong choices. And the only way to get back going the right way, is to turn back, again and again.
Our cousins the Shakers had a song about this. You’ve all heard the song, Simple Gifts?
“Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free,
Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right!”
Turning back, the Shakers recognized, is a way of life. We are always turning back, because we all make mistakes every day. And society around us pulls us into dead ends and wrong directions and pathways that promise us good things but are really roads to death itself.
We all make mistakes. The important thing is to turn back.
OK, first thing, the time is now.
Second thing, the kingdom of God is very near.
Third thing, make a habit of turning back.
Anybody remember what the fourth thing was?
Jesus said, “Believe the good news!”
Let’s take the last part first. The good news is everything we’ve been talking about. It’s realizing how great God is, and how much God cares for us. The good news is all the things that Jesus taught and did.
The good news is about real truth, and not make-believe. It’s about setting things straight, and putting everything in the world back into its right place. The good news is that God forgives us. God is all about mercy. If you’re afraid of being punished, you haven’t heard the good news yet!
The good news is that it’s not complicated. Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. It can be tough to do, but it’s not hard to understand.
The good news is that Jesus came as a humble Savior. He washed the feet of his friends. He was willing to enter into any home. A lot of people never learn about Jesus’ humility.
The good news is that death isn’t the last word. The first word, and the last word, is life. Jesus shows us the way to a life that never ends. Really.
Now, that word believe.
Most people think that believe means some kind of intellectual understanding. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in Jesus’ day, the word for believe actually meant trust. You can go through the whole gospel and substitute the word trust, every time you read the word believe, and you’ll be much closer to the real meaning.
Believing the good news means trusting that all this is true, and taking the very next step, whatever it is, even if you can’t see it.
When you were kids, did you ever play the game of wearing a blindfold, and letting someone lead you around by the hand for a while? We sometimes called that game a trust walk.
It takes a lot of trust in the other person who’s leading you. You trust that they’re not going to trip you, or lead you into a mud puddle, or make you fall down. That’s what believing the good news is like. It’s holding out your hand, and taking a trust walk with God.
That is what the Christian life is all about. Today is the day. The kingdom of God is very near. Turn your life around. And take a trust walk with Jesus, trusting that what he says is the best news we’re ever going to hear.
That is what Jesus said.
And all the people said, Amen.