7th November 2021, Third Sunday before Advent
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503219101)
Hebrews 9:24-28 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503219165
Mark 1:14-20 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503219236
The next few weeks leading up to Advent Sunday and the start of a new church year, are called the Kingdom Season. In Greek (the language of the Gospels and Letters) the word typically translated as kingdom is βασιλεία/ basileia. Whilst the word can be translated as kingdom, it can equally be translated as sovereignty, rule, authority or reign. I prefer these alternatives partly because they are not gender specific, but also because they are not familiar and therefore make us think about what is being meant.
We only have part of the story of Jonah, but enough to understand its message. This reading has been specifically chosen for the season when we are reflecting on the theme of rule or sovereignty, but who is the ruler of Nineveh? What is the nature of the authority that holds sway in this city? Is there a human ruler? One is not mentioned. Rather it is God’s rule that ultimately prevails – even if here it does so by dint of threat.
It is interesting that in this story God expects a prophet to preach not only to those people who saw themselves as God’s people, but also to those who might have other ‘gods’. In God’s eyes they are all God’s people, worthy of God’s concern and love. That to me says two things that are important about God’s ‘kingdom’, God’s reign. First where God reigns, where God’s rule prevails, there is always scope for repentance and a fresh start. Second, God’s rule is there to benefit those who acknowledge God as their God and those who do not: God’s love and concern is for everyone – and that includes I believe, our flora and fauna brethren too. Indeed why would that love and concern not extend to all that God has created?
As this Sunday occurs in the middle of the COP26 global climate conference we might pause and reflect whether this passage from Jonah might be a direct message to us today. If we are familiar with the whole story, we will know that God had judged the behaviour of the people of Nineveh as having fallen short of the mark, such that they were in imminent threat of total destruction. Does that not echo our situation today? Will we respond with similar alacrity, repenting of the wrong of our past ways of life and eager to live a reformed life that will protect us from annihilation?
As noted previously, the writer of Hebrews focuses on the tabernacle, and its customs and custodians, (rather than the later temple) as the earthly and imperfect model of what is God’s intention for the world. The tabernacle in Exodus was certainly the earthly place where God resided – and in Ancient Greek, basileia means a royal palace. The tabernacle is an earthly token representing God’s kingdom/ rule/ reign. And so it is that the sanctuary/ the palace that Jesus enters is not earthly but heavenly. Jesus has opened the way to a heavenly rule, an era – or rather an eternity – in which God reigns. The assurance of sins forgiven, has already been given by Jesus; now we await that time when Jesus will save us by establishing God’s reign as a universal given.
So to Mark’s gospel with its clarion call.
‘The time is completed and the reign of God is approaching. Revise your thinking and trust in the good news.’
How do we respond to that message? Are we ready to rethink the way we live in terms of God’s ways, God’s rule? Are we willing to trust in the good news that Jesus brings rather than the news told by our politicians, by financiers and economists, by business leaders and advertisers, by trend setters and Instagram? Could we with alacrity leave behind our previous way of living, our previous mode of employment and simply follow the example, the teaching of Jesus?
That I think is the challenge of the ‘kingdom season’ rather than it being a season when we imagine that in the future there may be a wonderful kingdom of peace and light. What might the fulfilment of this season look like?