January 5, 2020

“The Kingdom of God Has Come Near”

Mark 1:14-39

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

January 5, 2019


Happy New Year!  2019 ended with a bang for me.  I spent four days and three nights with preteens and teenagers at the Winter Youth Camp.  I was the oldest one at camp, and I felt my age.  I don’t remember having that much energy when I was that age.  Youth and chaperones from Makiki Christian, Kahului Union, Manoa Valley Churches and Hawaii Kai UCC gathered to learn about God’s overflowing love for them and how that love is meant to flow out of them and into the world.  


Thank you for your support for this camp.  You gave generously through our Chili Fundraiser in November and you prayed, making it possible for 40 of us to spend time away at Camp Erdman on the North Shore.


One of the things that truly impressed me during camp was the way that the youth related to each other.  There were a number of first-time campers as well as those who had attended many previous camps.  A lot of the high schoolers had met each other at previous camps and were happy to see each other again.  The middle schoolers found each other and played a lot of tag together.  Even though the age span was big, the youth related well, treating each other like sisters and brothers.  All campers were included in all activities.  Whenever there was someone who looked like they were sitting on the edge, they were invited to join with others in a game or conversation.  I didn’t hear of any drama or conflicts.  A lot of love was shown at camp, even to this old lady.


As I reflected on camp and today’s Scripture reading, I realized that camp was a taste of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed in his ministry:  “The time has come.  The kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!” (v. 15).


Today’s reading is about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (v. 14).  What precedes this verse is the ministry of John the Baptizer, whose mission was to prepare the way for the Lord.  Jesus presented himself to John to be baptized, and heard God say to him, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  And then Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Spirit for forty days.


John was put in prison, effectively ending his mission, and Jesus’ ministry began.  “The time has come.  The kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!” (v. 15).


The good news is that the kingdom of God has come near.  The kingdom of God is not geographically bound, but is wherever God is acknowledged as sovereign.  It is wherever and whenever people worship and live in the ways of God.  The kingdom of God is most present, most visible in the person of Jesus Christ.  Wherever he went, Jesus taught about and lived the kingdom of God.  Mark illustrates for us what the kingdom of God is all about in the stories that follow Jesus’ announcement.


The first thing we are told about the kingdom of God is that it is not meant to be experienced alone.  We are called into community when the kingdom of God is manifest among us.  The first thing that Jesus did was call disciples to follow him.  We usually read the story of Jesus calling Simon and Andrew, then James and John and think about our calls to be disciples of Jesus.  How did Jesus invite us to follow him?  We reflect on the cost of following Jesus, as the four fishermen gave up their livelihoods to follow him.


But there is also in this story the idea that they were not being called to an exclusive group that would start and end with the four fishermen alone.  Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, “Come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people” (v. 17).  More people would be invited to join in this movement.


Aren’t we always looking for ways to invite others to come to worship or join our service or enjoy our fellowship activities?  We know that what we experience when we take part in the life of our church is not meant to be kept to ourselves. 


Jesus knew he couldn’t carry out his mission without the help and company of disciples.  Even though he chose only 12 men to be his inner-circle disciples, many others came along with them.  And after his resurrection and ascension, the apostles took the gospel to the world, fished for people and invited many others to be part of the kingdom of God. That’s why we, here in Hawaii, on the opposite side of the world from Galilee, are now part of the universal Church. The kingdom of God is meant for all people to take part in with others.  The kingdom of God is not meant to be a solitary or individualistic experience.  The kingdom of God is meant to be lived in community.


That’s why camps can be so formative for young people’s spiritual lives.  They are intensive, immersive experiences of Christian community that teach us what being church together looks like.  Basic rules for camp were given:  Don’t go here or there; stay together; follow the schedule, etc.  But the overarching rule to love God and our neighbor was the one we lived by.  Jesus calls us to follow him in community.


The next two stories in our reading reveal that when the kingdom of God is present, God’s creation and order are restored.  Jesus went to the synagogue to teach, and an impure spirit that inhabited a man cried out, apparently upset with Jesus’ authoritative teaching.  The spirit was cast out, and word spread in the community about Jesus’ power and authority.


Jesus then healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and many others came to the house seeking healing.  Because of Jesus’ presence and ministry to the people, evil spirits and illness are cast out, and people are restored to health and wholeness.  We see that Jesus’ authority in teaching is unique and is validated by his power to cast out spirits and heal.  People would pay attention to what he had to say because it was backed up by his actions.


Today we are the hands and feet of Jesus as the Body of Christ.  And when we bring healing and wholeness to others through our care and our prayers, those actions back up our message, our preaching about God and God’s love for the world.  The kingdom of God is present when we minister in Jesus’ name to bring love and healing to those who are sick and alienated from others and from God.  


The final story in our reading today encourages us to keep our focus clear: proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus got up early to spend some time alone in prayer.  It was an important part of his day—the best part of waking up for Jesus was not a cup of coffee, but spending time in prayer, communicating with his heavenly Father.  I believe that his prayer times helped him to keep very clear his focus on preaching the gospel.  The disciples came looking for Jesus, saying, “Everyone is looking for you!” (v. 37).  Come on, now, the people are getting restless waiting for you to come and heal all those you didn’t get to heal last night.  Your popularity numbers are sky high, and will continue to grow as you heal more people.  Let’s get going!


Jesus didn’t seem to care about healing more people—not because he didn’t care about those left with illnesses and demons, but because healing wasn’t the point of his mission, and he wasn’t interested in meeting others’ expectations or in becoming more popular.  Healing helped make people aware of the presence of God, but it wasn’t the point of Jesus’ ministry.  So he didn’t need to go back to Capernaum to continue healing.  His main thing was to preach, to proclaim the gospel to all the world.  So he told his disciples, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also.  That is why I have come” (v. 38).


The people in Simon, Andrew, James and John’s town had already got the message the previous day.  The disciples may have wanted to stay in their hometown, where it was comfortable for them.  They may have had a bias toward making sure their neighbors and friends all got healed.  But Jesus wasn’t interested in playing it safe and staying in familiar surroundings.  Many other people in nearby villages in Galilee also needed to hear the gospel, paired with healings and exorcisms, so they too would repent and believe.  So Jesus moved on.


These are the things we learn about the kingdom of God in today’s reading:  First, the kingdom of God is meant to be lived and experienced in community, with others.  Second, the presence of the kingdom of God restores God’s creation to health and wholeness, having been rid of evil spirits and illness.  And third, the kingdom of God requires us to keep focused on proclaiming the gospel.  That focus can be found and maintained in our prayer life with God.


As we read through the gospel of Mark this year, I encourage you to keep an eye out for signs of the presence of the kingdom of God wherever Jesus goes.  See how he manages others’ expectations of him, and keeps his eyes focused on his mission to proclaim the kingdom of God.  And look out for signs of the kingdom of God in your life, in the world around you.


As I continue to reflect on our Winter Youth Camp, I see how it did manifest the kingdom of God for the four days we were together.  A community was created among the campers and chaperones.  We played, worshipped, ate, slept and prayed together.  We have stories about our mealtimes and the creative games that we played.  Two chaperones, Uncle Les and Aunty Cheryl quietly and constantly made sure the snack table was always filled.  They set up all the ingredients and equipment for making s’mores at the campfire, and they made hot water every night for folks who wanted to eat Cup Noodle for snack.  Other chaperones tended to campers who were feeling a little sick, making sure they got extra rest, and taking the temperatures of those who were feeling a little warm.  Thankfully, the campers were mostly run down rather than really sick and were able to recover and return to all the activities after a few extra hours of sleep.


But the main thing we wanted all the campers to know—youth and chaperones alike—was that they were deeply loved by God, and having recognized and experienced this, to allow that love overflow to others.  It was gratifying to hear this message was received when everyone was invited to share reflections about camp.  Over and over I heard campers say that they learned God loved them.  Over and over I heard them say that they wanted to share God’s love with others.  The kingdom of God was indeed present at Winter Youth Camp.  And the kingdom of God is present in our lives, if we would look for it and take part in making it manifest.


Jesus came to preach the good news of God’s presence and power over all creation.  As he ministered and made visible the kingdom of God, we too have been blessed to do the same.  We have been called together as a community of faith to experience the love of God and to share it with others.  We too are called to keep our focus on the gospel and sharing it.  Let’s make visible the kingdom of God that has come near.  Let’s let God’s love overflow into our community and world.