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Sunday 4th Dec 2016; Advent 2
If you or I met John the Baptist in the street — a man with a leather belt holding on his camel hide tunic, with honey and grasshoppers stuck in his beard, and calling out ‘repent!’—we would probably assume he was mad, stoned, or both. And we would likely give him a wide berth.
But the people of his time had a different reaction. We know, even from sources outside the Bible, that he had a large following. Which is why, when he announced to Israel that it was not him, but Jesus who had arrived as the fulfilment of Israel’s hope, it caused such a stir.
And today’s gospel reading contains some words that capture the essence of John’s message.
‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’’
If we’re tempted to dismiss these words as the ravings of some kind of desert lunatic, we need to be careful. For when, in the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ preaching message is summarized, these are the words used:
‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’’
The exact same words.
And so while the ministries of John and Jesus were in many ways very different, these words point to a strong similarity. They both saw that the Kingdom of Heaven was near.
Now we might wonder what this could mean. For surely God is already in charge. So aren’t we all already living within the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’?
Many people – even many Christians – assume something like that. That everything that happens in this world must be part of God’s divine plan, and therefore have his approval in some sense.
Yet these words suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven is something quite different from what you see around you. That this world, for all its many good things, is not the way it’s meant to be. We know this, in our hearts, when we see injustice, or sickness and death.
So this is a message that says, right away, that there is something wrong with things as they are now. And they are words that promise the arrival of something that will heal things, and make them right.
That ‘something’ is introduced as a ‘Kingdom’.
Now all those who heard John’s preaching knew about Kingdoms. For as Jewish people, they knew their history was largely about how their hopes and dreams had been shattered by their terrible kings. With King David as a notable exception, the reality is that the monarchy for Israel was a serious disaster.
Not only did the Kings of Israel lead the people of God into silly foreign policy decisions, but they also allowed injustice to flourish, and worst of all, led their people away from their God.
So in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah when Isaiah speaks of the ‘stump of Jesse’, he’s acknowledging that the monarchy has failed – and been cut down.
All that’s left is a stump, and a distant hope that another Kingdom would some day grow from that stump. One that would bring peace to a bruised and battered people.
Fast forward to the time of John the Baptist. That hope still lives. And there are a couple of Kings around: King Herod, ruling the local area; and Tiberius Caesar, ruling the Roman Empire.
But no serious Jewish person would find it easy to believe that either of these awful characters represented the Kingdom of God.
So they still hoped. They hoped for a coming Kingdom that would overthrow the unjust Kingdoms of the world, and restore things to their intended order and purpose.
Now this might not seem very relevant to us. Whether we like our politicians or not, they’re not exactly Herod or Tiberius. We basically live very free lives.
But oppression comes in many forms.
I heard of a young person the other day whose mother is an ice addict and prostitute, and whose father is violent, and who has never known a family life that is not characterised by without serious violence and dysfunction. Sure, that kid lives with the same political freedoms you and I do, but you couldn’t say they’re really free.
Even the many of us who are more fortunate can find our spirits ensnared and crippled by subtler things. Things in this world, or in our own hearts, that entangle and dominate us. Forms of oppression that keep us from being the people God wants us to be.
Even now, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, there is, alongside Christianity, another, parallel religion, gearing up for a busy time of year and competing for our attention.
You see it in the tinsel, the advertising, the sales, the jingles on the radio station.
This other religion is the Kingdom of This Age, and it’s a domain of distorted priorities. And we will see again this year try to turn a festival of deep mystery and wonder and joy, into a wearying, wallet-emptying, soul crushing carnival of exhausting misery for many people.
The Kingdom of This Age includes the Provinces of Rampant Commercialism. Life-Sapping Addiction. Destructive Individualism. Social dysfunction
This Kingdom always promises life and freedom. But it always delivers enslavement. It chews up our money, and drains away our energy, and steals our joy. And as it insidiously creeps into our lives, we tell ourselves we are free, we are masters of our own fate, we are making our own decisions.
Well we might be making our own decisions. But we’re doing so within a shrunken and distorted view about what is really good for us and our world.
Into Israel’s context of broken dreams and political oppression, and into the messed up Kingdoms of our own time, the voice of John the Baptist speaks words of hope. Yes, this world is a messed up place, but ‘the Kingdom of heaven is near.’
What does this mean for us?
Imagine you are living in Berlin in 1945. Better still, imagine you’ve been part of the Nazi state – say, a mid-level public servant. And you know that it’s all about to come to an end.
The Brits and Americans are invading from the west. The Russians are invading from the east. You really have 2 choices.
You can cling to your position, continuing to believe that the Third Reich is the way of the future. Or you can come to terms with a new reality, and cast yourself on the mercy of a new leadership.
That seems to be what John is suggesting. Liberation is coming, but you need to make peace with the liberator if you want to share in the good days ahead.
The change will be difficult, and probably humiliating. But under the circumstances, it’s the best thing to do. And it’s the right thing to do.
And this is why the one, clear implication that both John, and later, Jesus, seem to draw about the coming Kingdom of Heaven, is that what it means for us, is that we change sides. Align ourselves with a Kingdom that is not here, but will soon come.
Or to use John’ word, ‘repent’.
Repenting here isn’t just turning away from little individual vices. It’s much deeper than that. It’s recognizing that the kingdom of this age is completely wrong.
For Jesus comes and tells us that up is down, and black is white. That enemies are to be loved. That the humble will be lifted up. That the poor, the grieving and the persecuted are blessed. But the proud and powerful will be brought low.
There’s no better proof that up is down, and black is white, than the moment when the gospels show Jesus being crowned as the new king.
For when Jesus is finally acknowledged as a king, it’s with words of mockery. His crown, when he receives it, is a crown of thorns. When he surveys his kingdom, it’s from the vantage point of a cross. And it’s through an agonizing death that life re-enters the world.
This is nothing like we’ve ever known, or could know, by looking at the Kingdom of This Age.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not here. But although just about everyone who has a stake in the way things are, will try to convince us not to think about this, John is right: it is very near.
And just like a bonfire, you don’t have to be in it to feel it. It is close enough to cause the old reality to start to melt and bend and break, as lives respond to the call to repent. And when it comes fully it will burn away all the sin and injustice that had brought so much grief upon the people.
And so while we wait, we pray, ‘Your kingdom come.’
Injustices and evil will continue to occur. The Kingdom of Herod would kill John. The Kingdom of Rome would crucify Jesus.
But in these acts, the kingdoms of this age would show their weakness and insecurity. For in the life of Jesus, a new Kingdom had truly drawn near. And in his death, that Kingdom had achieved its greatest victory.
And in the age to come, that victory will be not just believed, but also seen.
Thanks be to God!