ESTABLISHED IN THE WILDERNESS

(Read Exodus 14:10-31, Mark 1:14-15)

“The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near you. Repent and believe the good news.” For hundreds of years Biblical scholars have pondered what words ascribe to Jesus actually came from Jesus and which were creations of the writer. Most scholars consider this proclamation in Mark’s gospel to be authentically Jesus’ and this proclamation by Jesus to be the crux of his message. Listen to it again:

“The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near you. Repent and believe the good news.”

If you think of Mark as one of Jesus’ spin doctors, this is how Mark spun the message of Jesus.

“The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near you. Repent and believe the good news.”

What does this mean?

The time is fulfilled – what’s important is now, not the future; keep your focus on the now because the time is already fulfilled.

The Kingdom of God has come near you – the fact that you’re hearing this proclamation means that the kingdom has come near you. It’s here for those who are willing to listen.

Okay, fine, so the kingdom of God has come near. What difference does that make? Well, if you’re like many of the Jews who heard Jesus proclaim this message, it makes a big difference, because there’s so much wrong with the world today – violence, injustice, greed, hatred – and we trust in God to fix all of that. So it’s a very good thing that has come near.

Ah, but the troubles of this world are not all located outside of myself; I can be violent at times. I can be unjust, bigoted, greedy, and hateful. So if I want to belong to God’s kingdom – which has come near – there are some changed that I need to make in my life. So what do I do?

Repent – you need to change the way you’re acting, which means you need to change the way you’re thinking, which you are capable of doing, because God wouldn’t deprive you of the means to your own deliverance. Jesus is pointing the way, but YOU need to take action.

Does everyone need to repent? Maybe not, but if your quick to presume that you DON’T need to repent maybe you should take some more time to think about it; there’s probably something that you ought to change.

Finally, believe the good news – Jesus has just shared the good news with you, that is, the kingdom of God is here and available to whoever wants to enter that kingdom. Jesus commissioned his disciples to spread the news.

“The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near you. Repent and believe the good news.”

That was the crux of Jesus’ message. That’s what Jesus hoped people would respond to. He wanted folks to see that a NEW LIFE was possible, a new life in God, because their old life just wasn’t working for them. And you can either repent and join the party or you can keep doing what you’re doing and live your life miserably…or at least not FULLY. BUT THE CHOICE WAS OURS: Jesus invites us into a new life.

And Jesus wasn’t just a naïve optimist; he wasn’t just singing Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” because we’re all going to heaven. Jesus was focused on the present, not the future, and he was serious about us LIVING INTO GOD’S KINGDOM. IT’S A CHOICE WE MAKE, AND IT DOESN’T REQUIRE US TO SUDDENLY BECOME PERFECT – just look at the disciples and you’d see that. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS BE WILLING TO ENTER THE KINGDOM, to take a good, hard look at the way we live our lives, identify your “issues” (and I would guess that if clinical psychologists and therapists were prevalent in Jesus’ day he would have advised us to seek that sort of help if necessary), and work to live according to the way Jesus taught us to live.

In our book discussion group, we were reading about The Lord’s Prayer, and the author was saying that Jesus created this prayer because his disciples asked him for some prayer that would identify them as “Christians,” as disciples of Jesus. And though the author suggests that Jesus was not heavily into formulaic praying – he was more the type of person to retreat into silent, private prayer for hours at a time – though Jesus may not have prescribed such a structured prayer, HE MUST HAVE THOUGH LONG AND HARD ABOUT THE PRAYER THAT HIS DISCIPLES HAD ASKED HIM FOR. And what Jesus gave them was The Lord’s Prayer.

And you should note that, in this prayer, once Jesus recognizes God’s holiness, he has us pray THY KINGDOM COME; THY WILL BE DONE ON EARTH, AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.

Now let’s think of the ramifications of those three words: THY KINGDOM COME. In Jesus’ day there were many kingdoms, and there were a few empires that ruled over different kingdoms. And your loyalty was to your king, who very often was loyal to the Emperor. And in return for your loyalty, the king was supposed to provide you with protection. Kings had armies.

But there was a couple problems with this arrangement: First, kings and kingdoms were not always GOOD; they didn’t treat people equally or fairly. Second, they were intimidating; it was expected that you do what your king told you to do, OR ELSE, and you didn’t want to find out OR ELSE was. Disobedience to your king could be lethal. In a nutshell, worldly kingdoms are not spiritual in any sense.  There may be laws that preserve order and prevent chaos, but there’s nothing else to encourage a person to seek righteousness, or to love, or to be kind or generous. This is why so many Jews in Jesus day welcomed Jesus’ news that God’s kingdom was near.

I think one of the huge weaknesses that The United States has imposed upon itself is that we have promoted ourselves as “a land of opportunity” which people interpret to mean that there is potential here for great prosperity, individual prosperity – what is known as The American Dream.

So money has become our God, and while we have laws to control how people make their money, we only need to turn on the news to hear about those who have gained money in unlawful or unethical way.

And with this focus on money, our spirituality suffers. Forget society at large; forget the people who live next to me; I should have MY way as long as I’m not hurting anyone.

And I should have a reasonable standard of living, a house, a car, a television (WITH CABLE), a microwave, and a decent choice of tasty foods all of which I can easily afford.

Oh and did I mention security? I want to be safe to live my life in style to which I have become accustomed, so I will support a strong military to protect my way of life. And voila: I am a citizen of a superpower known as the United States of America.

And what we have seen, when we buy into this America dream of prosperity, is that there is always resentment for the new folks who migrate here to enjoy the same prosperity that WE renjoy. And so we build walls – literally or figuratively – and we start treating the outsiders as ‘invaders,’ as ‘enemies’, as ‘undesirables.’ We paint them as gangsters, rapist, and drug dealers to justify our inhospitality.

And we start doing truly evil things in the sight of God. We separate mothers from their children and fail to reunite them. We treat asylum seekers as criminals. Far from welcoming the stranger, we driver the stranger away.

Things were actually worse in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. According to Scripture the native Egyptians had become so fearful of the growth of the immigrant community that they ordered the killing of non-native Egyptian baby boys. It was precisely this abomination that inspired an Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and it’s clear from the Old Testament writings that this inspiration came from God.

Last week we looked at Moses’ calling: God tells him, “I have seen the suffering of my people, and I will deliver them…with your help.”  The title of last week’s sermon was “Entrusted by God;” God trusts us to work with God to bring about God’s plan…or God’s kingdom if you like.

And who are God’s people? Not the ones seeking personal prosperity at the expense of others; those are the Egyptians. No, God’s chosen are the ones who are victimized by those who are so concerned about their personal prosperity that they would dehumanize others.

And it stands to reason, that if the oppressed and the downtrodden are God’s people, God does not approve of those who oppress or enslave others in any way. God is one who AFFIRMS  the oppressed and the downtrodden,  who shows compassion for them, BUT WHO, NONETHELESS, MUST TAKE ACTION TO GAIN THEIR FREEDOM, AND WHO, HAVING GAINED THEIR FREEDOM, MUST SHOW COMPASSION FOR THE STRANGER…

“FOR YOU YOURSELVES WERE STRANGERS IN EGYPT” God reminds them again and again.

SO IN THIS FANTASTIC STORY OF THE ISRAELITES CROSSING THROUGH THE RED SEA, WE WITNESS THE BIRTH OF A NEW KIND OF NATION, A NEW KIND OF KINGDOM, A KINGDOM OF A COMPASSIONATE GOD.

Both our Old Testament lesson and our New Testament lesson describe THE BIRTH OF THIS KINGDOM OF GOD.

One thing that the Jewish people have proved to the world over the past three thousand years is that OUR IDENTITY IS NOT DETERMINED BY OUR NATIONALITY BUT BY THE WILL OF GOD.

IT WAS GOD WHO WILLED ISRAEL INTO EXISTENCE, AND EVEN IF ISRAEL CEASED TO BE A NATION, THE JEWS WOULD CONTINUE TO BE A PEOPLE, DEFINED BY A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD.

God as Savior

God as Deliverer

And most importantly, GOD AS MORAL PARADIGM. GOD AS WHAT IS ULTIMATELY RIGHT.

AND WE, AS JEWS, ARE CHILDREN OF GOD, NOT OF ISRAEL, NOT OF MOSES, BUT OF GOD.

You know, in the Jew’s three thousand plus year history, Israel has existed as a whole nation probably around 200 years. From 1948 till now is 71 years. The United Kingdom of Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon is estimated to have lasted about 120 years. The Maccabean rule was only over a part of Judea, but even if you counted that as independence it only lasted about fifty years, so we’re talking around 240 years, and that’s not taking into account civil uprising within the nation, so it makes me wonder if Israel could ever be called a JEWISH nation if the Jews are truly the people of God.

BECAUSE GOD’S KINGDOM TRANSCENDS NATIONHOOD.

There are some who have boldly proclaimed that The United States is a Christian nation, and I would beg to differ. While I remain proud of many of the principles upon which this nation was founded, I would say that the United States has USED Christianity to advance its economic agenda rather than promote Christian principles. I’ve already made reference to how we have treated the strangers at our southern border; I haven’t even brought up how we discriminate against people of non-European descent (though we used to discriminate when the only pool of immigrants WAS European). I haven’t brought up our own experience with slavery, a time when we denied that those of African descent were in fact HUMAN, and I dare say that those of European descent still look down their noses at those of African or Asian descent.

I’m not speaking for all Americans: I know there are many who truly celebrate the stranger. Let me say that again. There are many who CELEBRATE THE STRANGER. That means that they overcome their fear of the strange, and they start to see it as God’s creation. They start to see beauty in diversity. They start to see all creation as emanating from one loving and present God.

And so their lives are changed. They’ve overcome their fear of the strange, and rather than eradicate it they’ve come to celebrate it. And as they rejoice in the presence of the strange, they befriend the strange, and the celebration grows.

And perhaps the reason they have succeeded in embracing the stranger is because they can see themselves as the stranger.

“You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I think it helps to see ourselves as strangers in this world, as a people who have crossed the Red Sea to a new sort of life in which God is our center, God is our king. GOD HAS ESTABLISHED US IN THE WILDERNESS, and as God’s people we are not bound to any other kingdom or any nation or any empire.

 

We are in this world, but we are not of this world. We are a people, established by God in the wilderness, and led by God through the wilderness. And as long as we are led by God, it really doesn’t matter where we are in this world, what country we dwell in, what passport we carry. We are God’s, and his kingdom has come upon us.

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