The Kingdom of God Enters Enemy Territory

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“After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Sometimes the best way to learn something is to just start doing it.

That’s the premise behind language immersion, a technique used in bilingual education. Unlike more traditional programs, where the language is taught simply as a subject to be learned, language immersion focuses more on the second language being a tool which is used to immerse the student completely within a variety of subjects. Research has shown that language immersion provides students with overall greater language comprehension and production of the second language in a native-like manner, with greater understanding of the underlying culture as well. It’s one thing to study a language for one class period each day for a year or so. It is something else when it is experienced throughout the day, every day in different fields and settings for a few years.

The same is true for faith—it something more “caught than taught.”

Whether we like it or not, Christianity can unfortunately sometimes be reduced to a body of teachings. It may be covered in Catechism class or explored in Bible study, but it too often remains a matter of intellectual study. And when Christianity is merely a matter of doctrine, then faith becomes a matter of knowledge, a series of academic exercises, and God’s people are reduced to students going to school for an hour or two, one day a week at best.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus pushes us outside the classroom and into the world. He invites us to see faith as an immersion experience that forms us as disciples as we follow our Lord.

Mark sets the scene. He tells us John the Baptist has been imprisoned, a result of prophecy colliding with politics in Galilee. We find out later from Mark (6:17) that Herod Antipas, the ruling authority in Galilee, had John arrested because he had the temerity to criticize the king’s marriage to Herodias. Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great. Her present husband, Herod Antipas, was a son of Herod the Great. Her ex-husband, Philip, was also a son of Herod the Great. In other words, both of Herodias’ husbands were also her uncles.

That’s not to say, King Herod is happy with his decision—he’s afraid of John. And he doesn’t feel all that secure in his position. He’s no son of David, no legitimate heir to the throne. Truth be told, he’s not even an Israelite. And Rome has never recognized him as “king” of anything—not even the backwater region of Galilee. He’s just another puppet governor who serves at the pleasure of Caesar. So he can’t let John the Baptist stir the people up. What John preaches is all true of course, and John preaches it not to foment rebellion but rather to call Herod to repentance. But a king just can’t have critics like that speaking inconvenient truths, so he’s put him behind bars. But how will the people react? John obviously is quite popular. Will the people rise up or will they just accept the arrest of John?

To make matters worse for Herod, a man arrives in Galilee and starts proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s time for a new kingdom, says Jesus of Nazareth, and generally, a different kingdom means a different king. It sounds like the rallying cry for an insurrection, as if Jesus’ next sermon is going to be, “Let’s get rid of King Herod, so that God might rule over us instead.” And if the multitudes that love John the Baptist decide to rally behind this Jesus, then Herod could have a serious problem on his hands.

You can bet that all of Galilee, both foe and friend, are hanging on to Jesus’ words. If this Kingdom of God is at hand, then how will it come about? So, Jesus tells them. He says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Huh. It’s not your usual revolutionary speech. It’s not “take up your arms, draw your swords, and prepare for battle.” It’s “repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repent—by the grace of God, turn from your sin. Believe in the Gospel—believe the Good News that the long-promised King has come to save you from your sin.

Every kingdom has enemies, and this new Kingdom is no different. But the enemies of this Kingdom that Jesus proclaims are not Herod or Pilate or Caesar. The enemies of this Kingdom are sin and death and devil. Sin and death and devil are not going to be defeated with swords and rebellion against human rulers. They’re going to be defeated by the shedding of the Savior’s blood on the cross. In this new Kingdom, Herod is not the enemy nor the competition. Herod is a ruler of an entirely different kingdom, and this Savior comes to redeem him, too.

Now, a king needs to have followers; and having proclaimed that this new Kingdom has come, Jesus begins to recruit. He doesn’t go after Roman soldiers, temple guards, or other trained killers. He goes for fishermen. He picks up Simon and Andrew, James and John. He’ll get a few more, like a tax-collector along the way, but His “army” consists of 12 men who generally get little respect and possess no advanced fighting skills. When one of them takes out a sword and cuts off an ear, Jesus tells him, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:53). No, if the Kingdom of God is about believing the Gospel, it doesn’t need an army. It needs mouths—mouths to speak the Gospel. Like fishermen, Jesus disciples are expected to draw others into the Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel.

There’s one more consideration—a king is nothing without a territory. But Herod doesn’t need to worry, this is a different Kingdom: it doesn’t have a set location. This Kingdom moves around. Wherever the King is, that’s where the Kingdom is. A Kingdom of repentance and faith doesn’t require land because it’s not about crops, water, steel, or other material things. Why, someone can conceivably be a penitent who believes in the Gospel, and still serve faithfully in the palace of King Herod. In fact, St. Luke lists “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager” as one of the faithful women who provided for Jesus’s ministry out of their own means (8:3).

“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus’ first words in Mark define the King and the Kingdom. Contrary Herod’s fears and the hopes of Herod’s enemies, this new Kingdom is not about conquering Herod and Caesar. It’s about conquering sin, death, and devil for all people, Herod and Caesar included. It’s not about gathering soldiers, wealth, power, or land. It’s about forgiving sins and giving eternal salvation.

Throughout the Gospels, you see that King Jesus going about the establishment of His Kingdom. He does not fight, but He speaks. He works wonders and heals; but He doesn’t say, “Now you owe Me a favor that I’ll call in later,” but rather, “Follow Me, because I have more to give.” He feeds five thousand miraculously; but He doesn’t use food as leverage to field an army. In fact, when they try to make Him a king like all the other kings of the earth, He refuses and goes on His way. Significantly, a Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus does so, and He doesn’t require the centurion to switch alliances and renounce Caesar. Instead, Jesus would have the centurion be a Roman soldier and a penitent Christian at the same time.

This is a completely different King and a completely different Kingdom. He is no threat to Herod or Caesar. On the contrary, He tells people to pay their taxes to Herod and Caesar. In fact, the more people follow Jesus, the better citizens they will be for Herod and Caesar both. For they will be penitent Christians who submit to human authorities and acknowledge that they are placed there by God.

It’s so tragically ironic, then, that Jesus is crucified for being this different King. His crown on earth is made of thorns, and His throne is a cross. The accusation above His head on the cross declares Him worthy of death because He is the King of the Jews. He’s crucified on the orders of a reluctant Pilate. In fact, when Pilate interrogates Jesus, Jesus tells Pilate that Pilate has authority to rule only because He has given it to him; and then Jesus submits to Pilate’s rule and allows Himself to be killed. This is a remarkably different kind of King indeed.

If all this doesn’t set the Kingdom of God apart, this certainly does: Jesus’ death is not a defeat. It is His victory. By His death, He defeats sin and death and devil. By His sacrifice, He has salvation for all who repent and believe in the Gospel: the Gospel that God forgives them for the sake of Jesus.

With John placed in prison, Galilee was no longer a safe place for prophets. Into that unsafe space, Jesus comes, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Notice how Jesus does not retreat. In the face of political and cultural opposition, Jesus does not go off to a different part of the country. He does not begin His service where it might be calmer. He does not retreat to a place where He will be accepted. No, Jesus comes into the land that imprisons prophets and publicly begins to call His disciples there.

I find great comfort in this action of Jesus. Jesus is not threatened by political or cultural opposition. He engages it. He does this because He knows that, ultimately, He will triumph over it. After He has been killed and placed in a tomb, He will rise and reveal that His Kingdom is not of this world. His Kingdom is of God: Eternal and indestructible. Jesus rules overall. He can enter any hostile territory and claim people as His own, giving them life that is everlasting.

This is comforting for us because we have seen how our cultural setting has become hostile toward Christianity. We are not being put to death like Christians in other parts of the world, but we are publicly mocked for our beliefs on TV, censored in social media, and demonized by our more vocal critics. It makes one nervous. How can I enter into that world and live as a believer? Christianity is much easier if I just reduce it to a teaching I know and something I do for an hour or two on Sunday. But Jesus comes to us today and reminds us that He has the power to make disciples in the midst of conflict and suffering.

In doing this, Jesus does not gather those who might make His mission easier. That is, He does not gather soldiers to defend Him or wise men to explain Him or social influencers to persuade others to receive Him. No. Instead, He calls fisherman who are casting and mending their nets. “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.” God makes disciples from ordinary people. It is not our gifts or our talents or our work that make us disciples but God’s work on our behalf. In Baptism, God immerses us in the death and resurrection of His Son and claims us as His own. We are now disciples, called by Jesus to follow Him.

Notice how, as we follow, Jesus forms us. These fishermen would write Gospels. They would testify before tribunals. It would take time, but God would work and shape them into the witnesses the world needs. In Christianity, we learn by doing. When we follow Jesus, we are changed. The places where we work become holy. Our lives are opportunities for others to encounter our God. Christianity becomes “personal” as we walk with Jesus into His world.

By God’s grace, discipleship is an immersion experience. In Baptism, God immerses you into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not a part of your life is separated from Him. You are completely, totally, wholly His. And He leads you, as His disciples, into enemy territory to reclaim His fallen world, proclaiming His Word: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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