You may have noticed how journalists carefully followed Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William, when Catherine was pregnant. The journalists analysed every sentence spoken, the slight movement of Catherine’s hand across the ‘baby bump’, and even what the Duchess wore in order to glean a bit more information about the yet-to-be-born royal baby. A magazine journal thought it had a scoop when it published an article saying that twins were about to be added to the royal family. A TV presenter announced that the royal baby would be a princess because the Duchess wore a pink coat. Really! Are we supposed to believe such trashy news?
Today we hear from the gospel writer, Mark. He records the first words from Jesus after his baptism. Mark says this is “Good News from God”. We wait with expectation. What will Jesus say? Will he say something eloquent, wise, deep and meaningful? Will everyone gasp and swoon as he speaks this glad announcement from God? To paraphrase, he says, “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is within reach, so turn your life around and get on board”. Is that all? I checked Matthew and Luke and they don’t even have this much. Not really a grand entrance. The heavens didn’t open to reveal the Messiah as prophesied. No “Tada, here I am after centuries of waiting; the messiah you’ve been waiting for”. No three cheers from the crowd.
In fact, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, but he never stops to define what he means.
So let’s talk about kingdoms in general for a minute. If I asked around the room what images come to mind when one thinks of the word ‘kingdom’, I believe we would get quite a few different responses. Some might think of the kingdoms of fairy tales, others, the ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ type of kingdoms, and others, like myself, who enjoy medieval history might have a much darker image of kingdoms with heartless kings, greedy nobles, poverty and disease. The word is surrounded with a lot of baggage.
If I had the time I would take you on a study through the Old Testament to understand the rule of God, his kingdom and how the concept of the kingship took on messianic and futuristic qualities. The kingship of God doesn’t carry with it any of the negative authoritarian, oppressive, implications of Israel’s past kings. This Old Testament understanding of Kingdom of God included hope, joy, peace, a new beginning, a new king, a new Israel and the great feeling of coming home.
I’m going to use the word ‘culture’ to explain God’s kingdom. Now that might seem a strange word to use, but let me explain using the following example.
There was a couple who had three lovely granddaughters, whose mother was French. Her parents live in a small, pretty French village in the Loire Valley. When they visited them, they had to forget about their own culture and the way they did things and totally immerse themselves in everything that is French: speaking only the French language, preparing food the French way, how it is eaten the French way, including how you break, not cut, your baguettes, the way an aperitif is served before dinner, the way you eat your evening meal over several hours with several courses and wine to suit each one, and eating only one type of food at a time – not mixing everything together as is the custom in Australia.
You see, culture is us. Culture is who we are and how we do things, and what we value and stand for. Culture shapes the way we behave, what we say. It shapes our whole life.
I think you might understand why I chose the word ‘culture’ to explain the impact of Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is here. Jesus is announcing that with the coming of God’s kingdom there is a culture shift. Now is the time to abandon (repent, turn away from) the values of the culture of this world and get on board. It’s time to immerse yourself in God’s new culture, God’s new way of living, a new way of looking at the past, present and future, God’s new values of hope, love, forgiveness, compassion, boldness, and so on. To be immersed in the culture of God is major change in a person’s life.
The disciples Jesus called that day along the shore of Lake Galilee heard Jesus say simply, “Come with me”. “Come with me and turn away from the culture, the lifestyle that is focussed on yourselves, your sinfulness. Come with me and turn away from the culture of this world with all its distractions and self-centredness that drives a wedge between you and God, and get on board God’s culture; God’s new way of living that changes the way you think about the world and others, the way you see nature, the people around you and yourself, the way you interact with the pain and hurt and suffering in the community around you. Come and get on board with this radical new turnaround”.
As we heard in the anecdote about getting to know the French culture, it takes a while to be fully immersed in a culture that is a radical shift from what we are accustomed. That day along the shore of Lake Galilee, the disciples made the first big step getting on board with the new culture of the Kingdom of God. It took a while for them to fully realise what this meant – it took them the next 3 years and the rest of their lives. Mark records the beginning of their new journey – “At once they left their nets and went with him” (v18).
So what has all this to say to us today? I dare say many of you have you been participants in the church for many years, maybe a lifetime, others a shorter time but no less dedicated. That doesn’t matter. It’s easy to take for granted the Kingdom of God and the radical shift this brings into our lives. It’s easy to miss this culture change, because that part of our inner nature that constantly urges us to become self-focussed, inward looking, putting me-first, stating I-want-my-way, gradually and unnoticeably takes over. In actual fact, without us even realising it, a coup takes place – a culture other than the Kingdom of God takes over; we adopt ways and values that we realise are all wrong. We might have been on board once, but somewhere along the way we’ve got off.
Throughout Paul’s letters he urges his readers to follow the way of Jesus not the ways of the world. You see, as Christians we live in a situation of constant tension between what is God’s way and what is the way of our own desires and the world. As people who follow Christ, who live in the culture of the Kingdom of God, as those who have been baptised in Christ and put on the nature and characteristics of Jesus – his love and compassion, his gentleness and forgiveness, his patience and self-giving, his focus on the needs of others before his own needs – as we live in this kind of atmosphere and culture this will often bring us into a conflict with ourselves and also with the values and acceptable standards of the people around us, many of whom we know and love dearly. Being “in Christ” is a tough call. Getting on board with the culture of the Kingdom of God is a real challenge.
Let’s hear from the apostle Paul. He says, “Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” (Rom 12:2) or as he says in Ephesians, “Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” (Eph. 5:1,2).
In Philippians he says, “All I want to know is Christ”. Paul is talking about a Christianity that’s not just in our heads but influences and affects and infects everything in our lives. Not one corner of our being is to be left untouched by the “new thing” that Jesus brings into our lives. We are to be totally immersed, soaked, saturated in the culture of the Kingdom of God. Paul often talks about becoming more and more “like Christ”.
Coming up on our calendars is Australia Day – a day when we celebrate the good things about our country, and without a doubt, we have so much to be happy about and to thank God. There are many good things to celebrate in our Aussie culture. But let’s not be so patriotic that we don’t see that Australian culture will put us in conflict with the culture of the Kingdom of God. Being “in Christ”, “bearing the image of Christ”, being “like Christ” is a challenge in our modern world. It’s easier to blend into our Aussie culture and accept even what we know goes against our calling to be “like Christ”.
We know that the apostle Paul struggled within himself about how well he followed Christ’s way. He said that he knew what was the right thing to do, but for some reason he kept on doing the wrong thing. That sounds very familiar doesn’t it? And like Paul, we know that in the Kingdom of God we find the forgiveness and newness that Christ has won for us.
The world, our nation, needs you and me to be “like Christ”. Which culture do we allow to shape our hearts, minds, attitudes, lifestyles, relationships with people nearby and faraway—and not the least with God himself? What is it that forms our identity – is it the culture of the world or is it the mind of Christ? The Kingdom of God, the culture of God, has come to you. Christ is in you; you are in Christ! Amen.