Our text for today is Mark 9:1. Hear what Mark reported: “And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
One biblical scholar who will remain nameless wrote: “If Jesus solemnly affirmed that some at least of his hearers would survive his prediction by one week he was uttering ridiculous bathos.” Do you think Jesus meant those things or was Jesus just plain wrong? Did he predict in a most comprehensive way that the final consummation of God’s purpose was to break upon creation in the not too distant future, literally within the lifetime of some of those witnessing that moment? Seriously, was Jesus just kidding his hearers about seeing the kingdom of God coming with power in their life times?
We’ve all got a pretty clear notion of what is a kingdom. The ‘king’ part of the expression grows from the ancient concept of kinship, tribal connections. The ‘king’ is the head of the tribe. The ‘dom’ part has some interesting connections to the idea of land that was attached to the head of the tribe’s ‘mansion’, a domain, a territory on which its proprietor holds an ancient claim. And we can all see how those ideas have developed into the modern notion of a kingdom. On the religious front the kingdom of God has often been thought to be an ethereal state over which God is the head; the sphere over which the sovereignty of God extends. Spiritualizing the idea of the Kingdom of God has had the effect of placing the claims of its dominion outside human experience and even outside of space and time. As such it is an idea which for us is alien, other worldly. Such an understanding of the kingdom of God has permitted us to discount much of what Jesus taught about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the central theme of the teachings of Jesus which involved his understanding of himself and his ministry. Mark gives us the summation: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the Gospel.’ Jesus was concerned with nothing less than the renewal of the world on the lines of God’s original purpose. He proclaimed that God was about the task of restoring creation from its sad state of degradation.
The phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’, or ‘of the heavens’ which is more common to Matthew, was developed as convent of language to solve the Jewish restriction on never having the name of God cross their lips, a violation, they believed, of the third commandment. For the Jews, whoever was either rightly or wrongly exercising the prerogative of sovereign, the real King of Israel, and later the world, is God who may and does work through deputies. The fact that evil doers sometimes seem to have triumphed and the righteous sometimes experience misery made that idea difficult to maintain. It was understood that someday, without question, one day God must assert his creative sovereignty again, and humanity longed for the coming of that ‘day’ – a day which the prophets declared would surely come.
Jesus’ fundamental message was that that day had now dawned. The signs of God’s rule are present in the words and work of Jesus. That for which the prophets and righteous people had long desired to embrace is present to see and hear. The signs of its activity are manifest; and humanity must make some response to the claims the Kingdom of God is laying on them. Jesus’ casting out demons, attested to by the demons themselves, declared that an assault had been launched on the spiritual powers of evil. Peter (Acts 10:38) declares that the healing of ‘all that were oppressed of the devil’ is the significant sign that God was with Jesus. The miracles were dramatic proclamations that the Kingdom of God has come, and as such they call forth the response of repentance and faith. In Jesus’ teaching, the parables can be described as ‘parables of the Kingdom’. The power of God is like the elemental power which forces a blade of grass through the earth toward harvest, the seed that grows into a tree, and so the Kingdom.
It is an important reminder that as presented by Jesus in his teaching and work, the Kingdom of God is God’s kingdom, not ours. It is not something we build, as in a utopia or a new social order, it is something that comes to us as a gift. It is not a disposition in the hearts of humanity, it is an act of God himself in our midst. The Kingdom’s coming provokes an unavoidable crises. Jesus came to do what the law could never accomplish – to restore God’s damaged and perverted creation to its original destiny in perfect obedience to his name. It was in the person and activity of Jesus that God’s reign has begun. Humanity’s acceptance or rejection of God’s Kingdom was inevitably expressed by their attitude to Jesus who is the embodiment of the kingly rule of God. . This was not wasted on the Pharisees and the High Priest. It was no mere technical dispute or personal quarrel that gave rise to their determination to eliminate Jesus.
In all three Gospels we find a similar verse. Luke 9:27 reads: “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Matthew 16:28 has: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Our text for today is Mark 9:1. Hear what Mark reported: “And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Do you think Jesus meant those things or was Jesus just plain wrong? Did he predict in a most comprehensive way that the final consummation of God’s purpose was to break upon creation in the not too distant future, literally within the lifetime of some of those witnessing that moment? One biblical scholar who will remain nameless wrote: “If Jesus solemnly affirmed that some at least of his hearers would survive his prediction by one week he was uttering ridiculous bathos.” Seriously, was Jesus just kidding his hearers about seeing the kingdom of God coming with power in their life times? You would certainly think so if you take most Biblical and theological scholarship seriously. The reason given for the doubtfulness of Jesus’ veracity or the text’s validity is what has been called the ‘non-arrival of the kingdom”.
You would almost think there was a conspiracy a foot. These three verses are conveniently left out of the lectionary readings and you can find very few comments on them, like they don’t exist. I think that the reason maybe that they call in question the more comfortable notion that the kingdom of God is either ethereal or other worldly. But of course the Christians weren’t the first to do this.
Based on a lecture of R. Yochanan Zweig, Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld tries to help his readers to learn positive lessons from negative experiences. He writes that throughout history the Jews have arguably been the most oppressed minority to have ever existed. “At the same time,” he wrote, “we constantly yearn and pray for the arrival of the Messiah. When he arrives, he will right the wrongs of the world. He will gather the exiled Jewish People, re-establish King David’s dynasty, rebuild the Temple, and unite the world in recognition and service of G-d. But perhaps even more significantly for us, all the nations will become subservient to Israel. The Jews will at last be recognized as G-d’s chosen nation and will receive due credit for their devotion and perseverance throughout so many centuries of injustice and persecution. And the enemies of the Jews, who have had the upper hand for so long, will face the full brunt of the L-rd’s wrath. The open anti-Semites will be decimated and destroyed, never to be heard of again. The covert bigots will be exposed and humiliated; they will cower before us in pathetic terror. Centuries of long-forgotten and un-avenged injustices perpetrated against every Jew will be out in the open and compensated to the fullest. G-d has not forgotten a single tear or drop of Jewish blood. The Messiah will have a lot of scores to settle. (We agonize today over trifling compensation for Holocaust survivors or their descendants. Believe me, the world ain’t seen *nothing* yet! And that’s a promise!)”
Before the end of his statement Rabbi Rosenfeld softens his rhetoric somewhat but what occurred to me as I read it was its similarity with much of Christian millenarianism; that the coming of the Messiah is all about settling scores, avenging acts of humiliation, injustice and persecution, releasing the Lord’s wrath on the oppressors and oh, yes, the fact that we end up on top. It sounds like little brother’s threat to the neighborhood bully that when his big bother comes it’ll be curtains for him. Of course, God never abdicated his rule. It is that with the coming of Jesus that the Kingdom of God becomes a present reality in a whole new way.
Could it be that, like the Jews before us, it isn’t that the Messiah hasn’t come at all, it is that we haven’t had the eyes, or ears, or heart to perceive it, much less to respond to its demands? Maybe we’ve been looking for the train at the wrong station, the plane at the wrong airport, the message on the wrong website?
An American Quaker, Job Scott (1751-1793 wrote: Thus the Jews, even while they were expecting Christ’s coming, knew him not when he came…Just so are thousands now mistaken as to the dignity and origin of God’s Spirit in them; they think it is man, a part of his nature and being; whereas it is of the very life, power and substance of God. Its descent is as truly from heaven as was that of the Lord Jesus. He came in that low mean and ordinary appearance as to outward show and accommodations, teaching us thereby not to despise the day of small things, nor to overlook the littleness of the motions of divine life in our own souls.
An English Friend, Horace Pointing (1946) wrote of the Kingdom: “(The reward of Christian living) is not merely aesthetic satisfactions. The soul, hungry for God, is fed. Life itself takes on new meaning. Thus it is that we break from the confines of the prisons we have build about ourselves. Thus it is we are brought into the freedom of the Kingdom of God which, every day, through the wide world, is being realized in the hearts of men.” We have this from William Dewsbury, a 17th century Friend: “And this I declare to all the inhabitants in England and all that dwell upon the earth, that God alone is the Teacher of His people and hath given to everyone a measure of grace, which is the light that comes from Christ, that checks and reproves for sin, in the secrets of the heart and conscience; and all that wait in that light which comes from Christ – which is the free grace of God – for the power of Jesus Christ to destroy sin and to guide them in obedience to the Light, so shall they come to know the only true God and Father of Light, in Christ Jesus who is the Way to Him. George Fox, in a letter penned in 1673 wrote: “They that receive the Lord’s Power must…not look…for his Kingdom without, like a company of Pharisees, “Lo here, lo there” (Luke 17:21) but as Christ, the Power of God, is known within, as Christ said, “The Kingdom of heaven is within”. As they come to feel it there, they shall know the shakings, “earthquakes”, wars and rumors” ….
Maybe our idea of the kingdom of God is much closer to an earlier Jewish understanding, than we had thought, that the kingdom is to be a kingdom of priests, a Holy People and as such God’s kingdom comes to fruition through the faithful obedience of Christ’s followers. Again, George Fox pleaded: “O Friends, let Righteousness flow amongst you all, Truth and equity, uprightness and holiness, which becomes the house of God. Live in the holy order of the Life, Spirit and Power of the everlasting God. Keep in the Faith that works by Love, that purifies your hearts, the mystery of which is held in a pure conscience….”
Jesus came to restore to its original destiny God’s damaged and perverted creation. It is by our acceptance or rejection of the Spirit of Christ within us through which God’s kingdom continues its work. It is truly good news, God’s kingdom has come, it is within you and among us, we need only to live in and through it!