In the gospel we return to the very beginning of Jesus ministry, to that pivotal and life changing spiritual experience of the presence of God, that he experienced at his baptism.
This was the very start of Jesus public ministry, but he didn’t just go straight out, he first had to discern what this experience meant and how he would allow this experience to form him and mould his message to the world.
So he retreated to the wilderness to meditate on what had happened to him and so he could discern what direction his life would now take and what would constitute the content of his message. Mark says he was tempted to use this profound experience not for good but for ill.
Mark’s original description of this episode is terse. So terse that both Matthew and Luke felt the need to elaborate and come up with stories of temptations or testing. The time in the wilderness – the highly symbolic forty days – recalls the time of testing for the Jewish people in the wilderness – before reaching the promised land.
How he was going to use this experience is made clear in the last verse. He says “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news”.
His central message to mankind after his experience of God and his time of testing and discernment is that the Kingdom of God has come near – and this is the good news.
His message to us is that God is near, much nearer than you imagine. Notice he didn’t say, “I am the son of God, begotten, not made”. He didn’t say “I will be crucified for the sins of the world”. He didn’t say “believe all I tell you and you will go to heaven”. His essential message to the Jewish people was.” The Kingdom of God is at hand”.
To unpack Christianity we need to unpack that phrase the “Kingdom of God”. Jesus did an awful lot of the unpacking for us of course. We know that the content of the good news of the Kingdom is Love, and in fact always was. All of the law and the prophets is about love of God and love of neighbour. And love begets justice, the great preoccupation of the prophets who like Jesus were trying to reform Judaism by getting people to return to the straight path. We know that the good news of the Kingdom involves a new close relationship to God, who Jesus called Father. That wasn’t entirely new. Rabbis before had also referred to God as Father but nevertheless Jesus was a part of the Jewish spiritual tradition that saw God as up close and personal.
We also know that for Jesus the forgiveness of God did not need the mediation or sacrifices of the priests in the temple. He followed John the Baptist on that one. We forget how radical John was in baptising and forgiving sins quite apart from the Temple. In fact the other reading set for today, 1 Peter 3: 18-22 proclaims a message of endless forgiveness that stretches backwards in time. According to Peter, in a dramatic symbolic flourish, he writes that all the people who were drowned in the flood in the time of Noah are also forgiven!
Perhaps it might help to state the obvious here, but sometimes it helps to say it out loud. Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew – he was born a Jew and died a Jew and never renounced Judaism but his message to the Jewish people was that they had to repent – to turn back – to the spirit of Judaism, to find what was already there but had been corrupted. For Jesus the Jewish religion was no longer bearing the fruit of the Kingdom, it had withered and died.
So the good news of the Kingdom of God is premised on a deep relationship with God whose essential nature and character is love, a love which incorporates Justice for all, a love which is endlessly forgiving.
Love, relationship, Justice, forgiveness. These are all bound up in that phrase the Kingdom of God.
These together are “the way”. Repentance is turning around and re-finding that way. To follow Jesus on the way is to find and live out love, justice and forgiveness, but was all predicated, as Jesus’ own enlightenment was, on an encounter with God and knowing his presence within him.
How we encounter God is the thing. This entire service is designed for people to be able to encounter God – to see him revealed in bread, wine, and each other and in ourselves, which is the meaning of us all eating a shared meal together. We can encounter God in nature, we can encounter God in silence.
I think it is meaningful that Jesus retreated to a deserted place for a long period, and during his ministry often retreated to a lonely place to be by himself with God. We are not good at being silent. We are not good at listening, and waiting to be prompted. We need to work at it, to practise it. In silence we have direct communion with God. One of the more popular modern hymns is Be still for the presence of the Lord, but the question I want to leave you with is, how often do we actually do it?