The Lord’s persuasive invitations to discipleship are the common threads woven into our Scripture lessons over the past couple Sundays.
Those gracious, open invitations to be counted among Jesus’s followers immediately compel a tax collector named Matthew to quit his lucrative job raking in big bucks for his Roman bosses and to join the community of faith, and they enthusiastically spur Peter to declare Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of the Living God.
Then Jesus throws down this challenge: “If any want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
That image of cross-bearing has come to picture the burdens and challenges we carry in life. But if you leave it at that, you miss something quite profound – which is this: The Cross, and our willingness to let our everyday life be shaped by that Cross, is what makes all the difference in the world – quite literally and figuratively.
The Gospel way of the Cross demands self-sacrifice, suffering-but-eager servanthood, gracious-and-courageous loving of friend, neighbor, and stranger – attributes, qualities, and behaviors that really do hold the power and ability to make a difference and change the world. The secret sauce that enables such fertile seeds to bear so sweet a fruit is the power of the Cross to re-make and re-fashion us into new creations, dead to beliefs and behaviors of who we were, alive in the fullness of peace and grace that just is the Christ.
The sparking catalyst for such dazzling resurrection is honest repentance. And you’ve likely over the years listened attentively as pastors like me explain that honest repentance means turning your life in a different, more life-affirming direction. And yes, that’s a potent ingredient in the recipe of repentance.
Yet, after studying this morning’s lesson alone and in Wednesday Bible study, I’m now thinking that my pulpit colleagues and I have been selling you short. The additional blessing of repentance finds itself in eyes that see the world in a different light – “Kingdom Vision,” let’s call it: Eyes that recognize the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
Listen, now, with Kingdom Vision, for the Word of the Lord in these opening scenes of the Gospel of Mark, as the story of God with us continues.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:1-15)
Some years ago, I traveled to the Presbyterian seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, to attend a continuing education conference.
But what I truly learned during that study leave — the meatiest cuts of truth and understanding – came not in the classroom but on the streets of nearby New York City.
And those new understandings came because, well, I played hooky from the conference. Its line-up of speakers and program of events sounded really great when I registered, but when I got there, not so much. Early on, I realized this conference wasn’t for me.
So, the next morning, rather than head down to campus, I headed over to the Princeton Junction train station and boarded a New Jersey Transit morning commuter train bound for New York City, which laid about 90 minutes up the line. As some of you know, I’m a fan of all things railroad, so it was thrill enough just being on a commuter train bound for Penn Station in the bowels of Manhattan.
The morning weather was perfect as the train pulled away from Princeton Junction station: Warm but not hot, the sky cloudless and blue, brilliant sunshine glittering off passing Amtrak passenger trains also polishing the shiny rails of the busy Northeast Corridor. Approaching Newark and its busy airport, a huge white cargo plane on its final approach to the runaway paralleled our track as it slid down from the sky, commanding attention by sheer virtue of its grandeur as a marvel of physics, engineering, and human pluck.
Gazing out the window upon such beauty, surrounded by women and men dressed for success in crisp white shirts and Italian leather shoes, I then understood that was I part and parcel of something far-more grand – an intuition confirmed after climbing from the cavernous depths of Penn Station and onto 34th Street, snarling and seething as usual with vehicles and pedestrians, but at the same time also feeling somewhat UNusual.
What felt unusual, oddly enough, was the traffic – human and mechanical.
The traffic was gorgeous, beautiful, mesmerizing – THAT’S what wasn’t business as usual on that splendid June morning! Traffic was a beauty to see, to hear, to smell – even to feel, thumps and vibrations bubbling up through bustling ribbons of sidewalk bracketing the asphalt and concrete of the hard-working streets. To be part of all that traffic was to feel dazzlingly alive, and savoring the whole experience was breathtaking beyond the ability of the pen.
Step, after step, after step – block, upon block, upon block, 34th Street earned its reputation as the place of miracles: Rattling, and honking, and chattering with life. Dotted with people, adorned in vast color of clothes, a marvelously hued hodgepodge of faces. Bright, yellow taxis darting in and out of traffic; shops and boutiques bustling with shoppers; restaurants and delis flavoring the air; the skirt-lifting whoosh of subways running below.
The warm, late-spring day made everybody a celebrity: Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians; perhaps differently gendered, or differently abled; tall and short; muscular and skinny; friend and foe – every last one of them a celebrity in his, her, or their own ways. Their presence of communal movement making even the litter, and clamor, and turmoil of it all a kind of marvelous phenomenon unto itself.
Construction all around clanged and banged, encircling like an arena of assembly, as I made my way up Seventh Avenue toward Times Square. A pile of building materials provided a hard-but-practical urban hammock for a wino, a bum, stretched out on his back in the sun like an alpine meadow splayed out before him and he was made of money.
In manicured courtyards and soaring atriums of large office buildings, workers had left the fluorescent confines of their work cubicles to enjoy lunch on benches, shaded by trees and sprinkled with flowing fountains.
Some in the migratory crowd of hungry midday diners were dressed to kill. Other sported jeans and sneakers – the young and the old, more than a few sporting tattoos – some in places that don’t seem all that tattoo-able, or pierce-able, daylight flooding down in torrents upon them all. And upon the green plants and tender saplings growing in stature as filters of air and providers of peace.
On a corner of the Garment District, a large, white-make-up’ed, red-noze’d man in a clown costume authoritatively stretched as long as a noodle a thin, tubular yellow balloon he’d pulled from an oversized pocket of his clown plants. He nonchalantly filled the balloon with the exhalation of his lungs, then deftly twisted it, squeakily, into a dove of peace, which he handed to the bug-eyed youngster and his equally mesmerized parents who’d hopped off their tour bus to take in his big-city sight.
In some ways, the sensuous experiences of my day of delinquency from Princeton seminary were like a dream.
And, at the same time, in other ways, as if I had just awakened from a dream.
Never before had a city, to me anyway, felt so real, so genuine, so teaming with life, so expressive of hope and different possibility.
That afternoon, much to my delight, as I walked the west edge of Central Park, near the Dakota Apartments that former Beatle John Lennon once called home, a striking, middle-aged woman of color approached me going the other way on the narrow, residential sidewalk. As she passed, she spoke: “Jesus loves you.”
Really, that’s what she said: “Jesus loves you,” just like that – in the same everyday voice with which you’d say “good morning,” or “have a nice day,” or “tell your folks I says hi.”
So caught off guard was I, that it wasn’t until after she disappeared into the crowd, when I finally wrapped my overwhelmed head around what she had said, and I wondered if I could possibly ever find her again, to thank her. If ever I could pick out in the crowd her handsome face, and could catch up with her, then I’d surely say “yes.” Yes! If I believe anything worth believing in this broken and fearful world, I believe precisely that: Jesus loves me. Jesus loves you. Jesus loves the whole doomed, damned lot of us.”
For the rest of my daylong adventure in the City, the streets I plied were paved with gold and trimmed with silver. Nothing was different. Yet everything was different. The city and its environs were changed, transformed, transfigured. I was changed, transformed, transfigured – as much as the Jesus-loves-you lady had been changed, transformed, transfigured.
It was a new Big Apple coming down out of heaven adorned, as the book of Revelation would affirm, like a bride prepared for her husband.
Other equally ancient words of revelation quickened my pace and lifted by spirits: “The dwelling of God is with men, women, and children. The Lord will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. There’ll be no more mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things will have passed away.”
At least that’s what I saw, and what I felt, if only for a moment.
If only for a moment, it was not the world as it sadly and sinfully is that I saw, but instead the world as it might be – as something deep within that the world and its temporary inhabitants want it to be, and are preparing it to be, the way in darkness a seed prepares for growth, or the way in a kitchen cabinet a wrinkled, old potato sprouts a tender, new shoot, or the way in bread that leaven causes flour and water to rise.
Buried beneath the surface of all the dirt, and noise, and crime, and poverty, and pollution, of that terrifying and intimidating big city, I glimpsed something of the treasure that waits to make it a holy city – a city where all humans – all humans – dwell in love and peace, with each other and with God, and where the only tears that flow are tears of joy and reunion.
“The Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus announces in Mark’s Gospel. And for a little while, on that sunny, crystal-blue-skied day, it was so.
A fellow Presbyterian pastor and theologian, Frederick Buechner, enjoyed an experience similar to mine. And here’s how he makes sense of it all:
All over the world, you can hear it stirring, if you stop to listen. Good things are happening in, through, and because of all sorts of people. No, they speak not with a single voice, these varied people. None has yet to emerge as their leader. They rather are divided into many groups, pulling in many different directions – sometimes, unfortunately, in polar opposite directions.
Some are pressing for an end to war. Some are pressing for women’s rights, or reproductive rights; some for civil rights, or gay rights, or simply human rights. Some are concerned primarily with world hunger, or local hunger, or with the way we are little by little, bit by bit, decision by decision, destroying our oceans and rain forests, wielding the same devasting force of indifference and denial that poisons the air we breathe and the water we drink.
Lots of different people are saying lots of different things, and the bat-craziness in some of those myriad voices is off-putting, maybe even offensive or frightening, surely a lot of it faithless, and potentially lethal. Talking points over which to argue suffer no supply-chain shortages.
But at their best – when you and I are at our best, we arise by profound impulses with descriptors like sanity, tolerance, compassion, reconciliation, empathy, forgiveness, restoration, hope, and justice. Those fiery impulses of heaven have, thanks to the Holy Spirit, always been part of the human heart – sometimes more on display than others, but they seem to be welling up into the world with new power and might in our age, now even as the forces of darkness are welling up with seemingly new power and always-deadly might in our age now, too.
That’s the bright side, the glad and hopeful side, of what Jesus means when he declares “the time is fulfilled.” Jesus announces that the time is both right and ripe.
Humanly speaking, if we have any chance to survive, it’ll be men and women acting out of those deep impulses from the Kingdom of God who’ll save the day. By no means will they themselves bring about the Kingdom of God. God and God alone brings about the Kingdom of God. Not even the most noble and selfless of human impulses will ever fully establish the Kingdom of God.
But there is something we can do and must do, Jesus says, and that is repent – not feeling sorry about or for yourself, or wallowing in self-loathing, and unhealthy habits, and destructive behaviors, but repent as in turning around your life a full 180 degrees, turning your life on a thin dime in such Christ-like directions as to undergo a complete change of mind, heart, soul, and direction that lets you see life with wholly different eyes – Kingdom Eyes.
To individuals, to cities and towns, to nations and their leaders, the voice of Jesus is hoarse from repetition: Turn away from madness, ignorance, cruelty, idolatry, shallowness, and blindness. Turn toward tolerance, compassion, sanity, reconciliation, empathy, forgiveness, restoration, hope, and justice – all those heavenly impulses and desires that dwell within you, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, who dwells richly and abides strongly in the hearts of God’s people in Christ.
We cannot make the Kingdom of God happen, but we can be kinder to each other.
We can be kinder to ourselves. We can drive back the darkness a little. We can make green places within ourselves and among ourselves where the Lord can make his Kingdom happen: In changed and transfigured communities. In those people of every color, class, and condition, picnicking together with their noon sandwiches..
In the clown and the child. In sunlight that makes a superstar of everybody in those teeming streets, rushing trains, and descending jumbo jets.
In the bum napping like a millionaire atop piled bags of construction cement, beautiful traffic surging all around, the way beautiful things still do surge, in those holy places that lie deep within us all.
Turn that way. Everybody. While there is still time, Jesus says. Pray for the Kingdom. Watch for its signs. Live as one of its signs – though it is here already, because there are moments when it almost is.
And thus ancient words continue lifting our plea: Come, Lord Jesus.
Amen, and come, Lord Jesus!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, June 12, 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” It is adapted from a sermon by Frederick Buechner and informed by scholarship and commentary by Pheme Perkins.