“The Time Is Fulfilled”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (NRSV)
“The time is fulfilled…the Kingdom of God has come near.”
We hear those words through ears conditioned by 2000 years of Christian tradition. First century Jews heard those words through theologically-conditioned ears, as well. However, foundering beneath the weight of Roman rule, Jews of Jesus’ day expected and even craved God’s kingdom to be a renewal and extension of David’s reign. They expected the messiah to set things right through military means. Those expectations made their culture a kind of petri dish for would-be messiahs. Men waving swords and claiming to be God’s Anointed popped up everywhere, and one after another faded into oblivion through either irrelevance or execution.
John the Baptist himself had to deflect the hopeful projections of messiah hunters. Don’t look at me, he said. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.”
Of all unlikely people, a carpenter from Nazareth shows up and begins to live a life of remarkable authority. His authority is so utterly different from the people’s expectations, though, that they only begin to imagine that Jesus could be the messiah when their concrete experiences of him begin to resurrect their spiritual memory. In particular they remember Isaiah who said: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist…The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” (Selected verses from Isaiah 11:1-6)
Mark identifies John as the voice crying out in the wilderness. He describes the coming of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. And he shows us wild beasts surrounding Jesus during his forty days of temptation. Through all this, Mark shapes the remembrance of Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant who says, The time is fulfilled.
And remember, Jesus takes years to mature into and to earn credibility as God’s offered messiah of reconciling love rather than an oppressed or a privileged people’s desired messiah of military might. For his part, though, Mark jumps straight into these connections. For him there is no reflective “What Child Is This,” no soppy “Away in a Manger,” not even any rousing “Joy to the World.” The earliest gospel writer begins his telling of the Good News not with the joyous celebrations of Christmas, but with the rigorous self-examination of Lent.
The idea of time being “fulfilled” captures a lot of attention. Unfortunately, many people and groups associate God’s fulfillment of time with the end of time. Consumed with fear, trusting only violence, and motivated by extremely narrow world views, militant groups like the Taliban and the Oath Keepers continually grab headlines with their willingness to destroy almost anything or anyone they consider in their way. As different as such groups are ideologically, their tactics and effects are much the same. The authoritarian order they seek to create inevitably devolves into conflict, and even into chaos, because such order serves only their group. And it’s into that very dis-order that God continues to call people of faith to embody, to demonstrate, to live the reconciling love of Christ.
As Christians, we enter lives of transformational love through the Lenten discipline of repentance. To have any authority or credibility for addressing the ills around us, we have to begin by confessing the brokenness and incompleteness within us individually and within our institutions.
The very word repentance conjures up a variety of images. It evokes all manner of reactions. For many, repentance means turning from all those “bad things” sinners do. And while repentance can certainly apply to individual transgressions, biblical repentance refers to a community’s corporate turn from the overall conditions that make them feel defeated by or beholden to the seductive and destructive powers lying behind every Caesar and every Jezebel. To live inside the notion that, come what may, love will prevail in this world requires more than intellectual assent. It requires a courageous turn away from violence, greed, and fear, and a steadfast turn toward gratitude, hospitality, and justice.
Because pride and certainty are among the costs of taking up our cross and following Jesus, disciples may struggle with feelings of infidelity to groups with which they identify. But neither nationality, nor denomination, nor even goodness is the point. The point of Jesus’ call to repentance is that time is in its fullness. Even now, when anxiety and despair overflow, now is the time to choose to live according to the redeeming and humbling demands of his love.
The imperative of repentance is far more comprehensive and urgent than anyone’s need to be good so that I go to heaven when I die. Caesar and Jezebel have no problem with that kind of self-serving religion because it creates pliable subjects who are easy to influence through systems of rewards and threats. What worldly kings and princes don’t want is people who intentionally, consistently, and fearlessly acknowledge the kingdom of God as a present reality, because when they do that, they’ll do more to love their enemies than to kill them. They’ll become gadflies for justice. Their primary concerns will lie in loving God, loving neighbor, serving the poor and the outcast, and caring for the earth. That’s what a life of repentance looks like. That’s what it means to be a child of God.
“You are my Son [You are my Daughter], the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Can you hear God saying that to you? Can you embrace the timely good news of God’s radical, unconditional love for you? It can be hard to hear God’s words as words spoken directly to us. Maybe we lack confidence that we’re worth loving. Maybe we’ve even given up on love. It sounds so sentimental, how can it affect real change? Or maybe it’s hard because we know that acknowledging our own Belovedness of God means acknowledging the God-Belovedness of every other human being, even, and perhaps especially, the Belovedness of those people whom we fear, envy, or just plain don’t like.
That’s the thing about the love of Jesus, though: Only when it we humbly and gratefully share his love do we fully receive it.
If you still want to find some sort of Lenten discipline, then for the next forty days—and beyond—try greeting everyone you meet with what my dad called “ThankGodfulness.” Thank God for each person, and ask yourself, what is the most loving response to this God-imaged human being right now, in the fullness of this moment. To live our days in gracious, truth-telling love and gratitude for one another and for the creation is to live in love and gratitude for God. It is to live in the kingdom of God, which, thanks to Easter, is no longer simply “near,” but ever-present and real, even if still hidden and mysterious.
Friends, we cannot wait to live as God’s beloved children.
The time is fulfilled. The time is now.