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Is the Empire Striking Back? (Mark 1)

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 1:9–15 NRSV)

The Empire Strikes Back?

There are many kinds of kingdoms that have been announced.

All with their heralds, some wielding guns, or wielding knives, and some even wielding Death Stars, and others – like this one we’ve just read about – comes bearing nothing more than a handful of short stories, and teachings and demonstrations of love.

I don’t know about you but Jesus announcing what he calls “the kingdom of God” stretches my imagination to the breaking point.

What is “the kingdom of God” exactly?

Part of the problem is that we don’t have a lot references for Kingdoms today, besides Downtown Abbey I think we’re out of luck.

On the other hand, while we don’t have a lot of governments we call kingdoms, we do have a lot more references for the word “Empire.” There’s the Roman Empire, the Ottoman empire and the British Empire. But then there are other kinds of empires, sometimes we call them regimes, sometimes we call them by the name of their countries, sometimes they are small bands of “freedom fighters,” or “the rebels,” and sometimes they are very large geopolitical organisms. We all know there’s plenty of debate about America being the last superpower, and we are well aware of the impact of the imperialism in the 19-20th centuries.

So when Jesus says,

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Is this what he’s talking about? Is he really talking about “The Empire of God?” Is he saying, finally, “The Empire Strikes Back?”

Because I think that’s sometimes how we treat this. God has had enough with the rebellion and is finally striking back with enough blood and gore it can be easily translated into a hollywood blockbuster.

Let’s not forget one of the most infamous Empires in pop culture is of course the one guided by Lord Vader’s Death Star and the Dark Side.

In the original Star Wars there is a clash between the empire and the rebel alliance, giving us a contrast between to “kingdoms” at work.

If you’ll allow me to dig a little deeper into this metaphor: we see that Vader’s empire is not just characterized by massive amounts of weaponry and using the Force for evil, but it is also characterized by a separation. There is literally a separation between Luke and – spoiler alert – his Father Darth Vader. They are cut off from one another and that disconnection actually fuels and deepens the rivalry between them.

I think that at the heart of all Empires is a fundamental break in human relationships that is based upon this kind of separation and rivalry.

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In other words, the Empire is based on the disapproval of its sons and daughters. Again, if we look at the father and son rivalry in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Vader almost begs Luke to take up of the family business, to rule the universe with him. Doing good work to self-differentiate, Luke stands firm against the desire for parental approval and refuses both his father and the Dark Side.

To call Vader’s response “disapproving” is putting it rather mildly, as he cuts his own sons hand off which leads to Luke plummets into what looks like could be his certain death.

So if George Lucas is anywhere near right about the character of empires then I think we can say it’s not only rooted in violence, but separation and disapproval of its sons and daughters and all relationships of every kind.

Like the tree that was cut down the other day and cut into many pieces, human relationships within Empire are “cut off” not just from whoever acts as the “Father” within that system but even from one another and within themselves.

God Has Come Near…

When Jesus comes to announce a kingdom, is he announcing one like Vader’s? Or one like the Roman empire? Is the empire striking back? (This of course impacts how we read all of the rest of the Gospels.)

No, of course not.

That’s why this is good news. There is another way of living, breathing, moving, of co-existing within human relationship that isn’t predicated on separation and disapproval.

Here are three things it could be about:

The “good news” of the kingdom having come near begins first and foremost with the blessing and approval of God.

Baptism, a symbol of being cleansed or being made pure begins our reading. Jesus is washed in the Jordan river and upon rising up out of the water the Father blesses his son:

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11 NRSV)

I think this is essential to the understanding the kingdom and the “Good news.”

It shows that the kingdom is grounded in God’s approval of Jesus’ work.

If all else fails, if nothing happens, if Jesus is unable to drum up followers or his tongue gets tied and his sermons come out incoherent,

“You are my son, with you I am well pleased.”

Think about this.

No matter what happens next. No matter how things turn out. No matter who you become:

“You are my son, and I bless you.”
“You are my daughter, and I approve of you.”

It is God’s unconditional love rather than the disapproval of the Father that is basis for the good news. And what the Kingdom of God at hand looks like; everything flows from here.

So I believe that it is essential that we recognize that Jesus receives his approval from God before, not after his ministry. Otherwise, we will never be able to find within ourselves the wherewithal to love others, drum up the courage to follow Jesus toward the Cross, stand for justice, reach out a hand to an enemy, or even attempt a conversation with a stranger, if we do not first realize that our lives are grounded in the love of God the father.

Or to put it another way: We cannot hope to be like Luke Skywalker and face squarely into the Death Star unless we first trust that no matter what happens there is the force of good grounding and supporting all we do.

The kingdom of God is what it looks like to live our lives and our faith with the founding blessing of the father, rather than him coming to attack you or withhold love from you until you do what you have been told to do. Jesus is announcing that God is love and that love is already there for all of us.

There are two other pieces here that are important to draw out:

The second is that the “good news” is announced to all of creation.

There is a clear contrast between Satan’s empire of temptations, and Jesus being with the wild beasts and the angels in the desert.

The good news that is proclaimed includes the wild beasts of the fields, and the unseen powers of the cosmos. This is what is sometimes called the peaceable kingdom, where the wild animals are tamed, and there is a mystical connection between all of creation.

Wes Howard Brook says that the good news is about:

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The wilderness is the place where the reality of God’s love begins to be “re-earthed” and is solidified in Jesus. In other words it is in heartache, challenge, risk and even in the face of death that Jesus – and we – are prepared to be ministers of this love to others.

And third – After his wilderness experience Jesus is able to move out into the world to reconnect the love of God to the people of God.

The proclamation of the good news always expands rather than restricts the possibility for connection.

In the words of the (Rev. Dr.) Leroy Foster,

“The Gospel is the freedom to come back into connection as God has created and is creating us.”

God has come near to reconnect the love of God with the people of God. That is why this impacts all of creation, every aspect of life, and infiltrates every layer of being.

God is bringing everything back together. All who have been disconnected, abandoned, disapproved of, broken or discarded – God, through Jesus is gathering back together, drawing them near, and building up a beloved community to embody love in the world.

And as it says here repentance is a part of this process of letting go of the empire, of being coaxed, ever so gently, back into connection with God. To repent is to turn around from the direction you’re headed. It is to recognize that I’ve become disconnected from my true-self, from others, from creation, from the approval of the Father.

I’ve allowed myself to be shaped by the desires and the approvals of those a part of the wrong kingdom, I’ve become disconnected from the blessing of God who is the source of all truth.

So I turn. I repent. I “reconnect” to the source of all of life.

The Nurse Log

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So if in the empire, we are all trees cut down and cut off from one another, then in the kingdom of God we are more like a nurse log.

A picture of the kingdom that is not cut off, cut down, or disapproving, but it is a whole ecosystem of support, connection and transformation.

Instead, What Jesus is doing in the world is re-connecting, re-earthing, all of Creation.

The kingdom of God, whatever it is, is life-giving, generative, constantly increasing and expanding in the world. And it expands through blessing, love and building connections.

As Rumi says:

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The kingdom is about increasing life, coming back into connection, about knowing for yourself that God loves you, approves of you, and blesses you.

It is also about being willing to repent, turn back to God when we become disconnected from the source of true life.

So let’s work to be more like this nurse log in our connections.

Queries:

  • Where have we sought approval from the wrong sources?
  • Where do we need to know God’s blessing and approval in our own lives?
  • Where are we being called back into connection? How are we being call to create more connections and “increase life?”

 

Flickr Credits for Nurse Log #1 & #2.

 

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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