Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mark 1:14-20 The City of God andthe City of Earth

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            St. Mark’s is the shortest Gospel.  Some experts say it was written before the other three.  Mark was a companion of Peter.  Church authorities tell us that he set down Peter’s teachings so that they wouldn’t be lost after the apostle died.  Mark’s Gospel moves along quickly.  It’s full of dramatic incidents and details that bring the story of Jesus to life in our minds.  One of the main ideas he puts before us is the kingdom of God.  One expert I consulted said that the kingdom of God is the most important idea in the New Testament.  Jesus brought the kingdom to earth when he was born in Bethlehem.  When he began his ministry after he was baptized, he offered the kingdom to everyone he came to – people in towns and cities, at work and in the marketplace.  He encouraged them to repent and believe in his gospel.  Later on in Mark, Jesus compared the kingdom to seed scattered on the ground that grows by itself and also to a very tiny mustard seed that grows to become the greatest of all shrubs.  The kingdom grows and grows – without human help and in spite of the obstacles we put in the way.
            Mark tells us about some of the blessings that come from God’s kingdom – healing, guidance for living, and knowledge of the truth about God.  He is righteous and holy, also loving, compassionate, and full of forgiveness.  Jesus conquered Satan on behalf of the kingdom.  The devil’s evil has no power over people who trust in God.  Believers like ourselves who live with God’s kingdom in our hearts also receive his promises about the future – steady, balanced lives full of confidence and trust while we’re on the earth now and the joys of eternity when Jesus returns in glory.
            The Kingdom of God is different from earthly kingdoms, which are only pale reflections of the one that God has established.  Earthly kingdoms lift up and bring down their rulers, while God is forever.  Earthly kingdoms are made up of important people and ordinary folks, but in God’s kingdom, the people share his privileges.  He looks on us as kings and queens under him, and when the kingdom is revealed for all to see, we will each wear crowns and there will be no subjects at all.
            Jesus wants everyone to crave his kingdom.  He told the people of his day and ours how to gain entry: repent and believe the good news.  Repentance means to be contrite before God, with sorrow in our hearts for our sins.  Repentance takes place in us every day.  Martin Luther wrote: “The old Adam in us, by daily contrition and repentance, should be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts.”
            Faith goes along with it and is not really separate.  We think of faith as having three aspects – first, we accept that the facts the Bible presents to us about our salvation are true.  Second, we attach ourselves to the facts and surrender ourselves to communion with God.  Third is confidence  – trust and certainty, total reliance on Christ, a sure hope in God of the salvation he offers us in Christ.  Jesus came into the world preaching the way to life with God.  His preaching placed men and women under the gospel, which surrounds us.  Its power touches our hearts so that we believe it, acknowledge it, tie ourselves to it with the help of the Holy Spirit, and have the confidence in it that it deserves.
            Repentance and faith keep us in the kingdom of God.  Whatever may happen in the world around us, we trust that our destiny is tied in with the heavenly city of Christ.  Whatever they may be, the events of the day interest us, but they don’t swallow us up.  Jesus came into the world with power and grace; he makes us children and heirs of his kingdom; we look forward to his coming again.  If daily happenings threaten to shake us up and disrupt our walk with God, we remember that God’s kingdom is nearby and that we are its citizens.  The king of heaven protects us from serious harm.
            Now, I want to give you an example from the early days of the church of how the kingdom of God works.  The Book of Acts tells how the gospel and the church spread through the old Roman Empire.  Later, an emperor named Constantine declared that Christianity would be the official religion of the empire.  There were constant border wars and in the year 410 barbarians from the north broke through the defenses and captured the city of Rome. It didn’t make any difference that the conquerors were Christians themselves. People everywhere were depressed and sorrowful.  Christians who had seen their faith become number one in the Empire were heart-broken.  Society had collapsed; the end of the world had arrived.  At the same time, people who held onto the old pagan ways blamed the Christian faith for the fall of Rome.  They said that Christian teaching about forgiveness and turning the other cheek had weakened the Roman character.
            What a mess!  Would church and society pull themselves together?  No single person   could solve the problem on his or her own, but one man made a contribution that Christians today still take seriously.  St. Augustine said that the viciousness and corruption of Rome’s leaders, not Christian teaching on forgiveness, was responsible for the fall of the Empire.  Many Romans had departed from the moral standards the founders of their society had set down, people who praised the virtue of forgiveness and taught that it was better to overlook injuries than to nurse grudges.  There was nothing in Christian teaching, he pointed out, that forbade citizens from paying taxes or fighting wars or serving the state enthusiastically.  He said Christians were the best citizens because the virtues they practiced helped to make the Empire strong and prosperous.  Christians are still the best citizens today. 
            Augustine consoled Christians who grieved over the fall of the Empire by telling the history of two kingdoms or two cities – the city of man and the city of God. Cain, the first-born son of Adam and Eve, founded the city of man.  Abel, the brother he killed out of envy, belonged to the city of God.  Every earthly kingdom is bound to fall, Augustine said, because it is based on sin, its people turn away from God.  The city of man worships false, wicked, proud gods – like money and power, say, while the true God inspires mankind with love and the desire to become members of his kingdom.  The two cities came into being because of two kinds of love.  Worldly society grows from a selfish love that dares to despise even God, whereas the city of God is filled with the kind of love that is ready even to trample on itself.  People in the city of man boast that they can get along by themselves; they seek the praise of men, both rulers and people are governed by the lust to dominate.  People in the city of God rely on the Lord.  All its citizens serve one another in charity, whether they have the responsibilities of office or serve modestly in obedience.
            The kingdom of saints doesn’t live by merely human wisdom but by a spirit that worships the true God and lives for the reward of holiness, which is that God may be all in all.  Augustine said that a shadow of this eternal, heavenly city has been cast on the earth, and this shadow is the church, which we rightly call the kingdom of God.
            The heavenly city and the earthly city have been intermingled and intertwined since the beginning of history and will be mixed together until the end of time.  The earthly city has made false gods for itself, based on its heart’s desire, out of any sources at all, including human beings – we may think of glamorous people in our day who claim the devotion of their followers, while the kingdom of God is a mere pilgrim on the earth which the true God created to be a sacrifice to him.
            Both cities make use of material things; the ills of everyday life strike them both.  They differ in what they believe in, what they hope for, and what they love.  Moreover, the heavenly city is under God’s protection.
            Augustine said that God made the universe with one purpose in mind – to create a holy society that will reach its fulfillment in heaven.  All of God’s actions point to this goal.  His rule over his kingdom explains the smallest event that happens in our lives.  He is drawing folks who trust him toward the heavenly city that is coming, where we will have an uninterrupted vision of God. The sting of life will be nothing more than a harmless memory.  No evil will touch us in heaven; no good will be out of reach.  Our lives will be one long hymn of praise extolling God, who will be all in all.  There will be no more weariness and no need.  We will spend all our energy on praise.  When we get to heaven, we will have the eternal stillness of rest in which we will see that God is God.  “Then we will be filled with him,” Augustine said, “when we will be all in all.  On that day, we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise, for this is to be the end without end of all our living, the kingdom without end, the real goal of our present lives.”
            So we live in two places at once,  southern Ontario and the great world around us, with all its strong points and weak points; we also live by faith in the kingdom of God, into which our  Savior calls us.  We take part in the events of everyday life with courage and faith, because we are children of God and citizens if his kingdom, of which the church is the earthly form.  Jesus renews us in the church.  Tired spirits grow young again in God’s kingdom.  Seeking minds find certainty and vigor.  Jesus gives us all the blessings of his kingdom; he promises to keep us in his city.  What a wonderful blessing.  All praise to God.  In his name we rejoice.  AMEN.
The peace of God which passes all understanding your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

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