The Kingdom and the Cross

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

–Matthew 4:17

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 1:12-15

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

–Luke 4:14-21

The season of Lent is about repentance, but let’s be very clear about what that means. Repentance is not just “feeling sorry.” It’s not just feeling a little bit of moral guilt when you think about the way you’ve behaved badly or hurt other people.

Repentance is a turning back. Repentance is rejection of idolatry–of placing other loves above God. Repentance is renouncing the Devil who lures us into Sin and Death, and who rules a world founded on accusation, rivalry, violence, and empire.

Sin is personal, but it is also structural, systemic, and cosmic. Sin is why we harbor racial prejudice in our hearts–and it’s also why we have erected systems that oppress our neighbors in the name of our own security, and then turn around and justify the system by highlighting our neighbors’ real or perceived moral failings. Sin is why a woman may choose to abort her child in the womb–and it’s also why we as a society have failed to respond to the single mother’s fearful cry for financial support in the face of pregnancy, and instead lean on the self-righteous rhetoric of personal responsibility.

Sin infects not only our hearts, but also the very fabric of our universe. To repent is to object to the false foundations upon which our physical, economic, political, social, and spiritual world is built.

The flip side of “turning back” on this world is “turning toward” another world. But what exactly is it that we are invited to turn to?

The Bible teaches us that our universe was created to be a Temple for the Triune God, with human beings as little images that reflected God’s Love and Justice into Creation, and that reflected Creation’s praises and delight back to God. But we poisoned ourselves and Creation with sin, prostrated ourselves before dark powers, and cut ourselves off from God. So the rest of the Bible’s narrative is God’s continuous plan to cleanse the world of sin, to defeat evil and death, and to reconcile the world back to Himself.

He begins by calling Abraham the Chaldean, from whom He raises up a nation, Israel. Israel is to be God’s “Son,” whose behavior and devotion will teach the world who God is–a God of Justice, Healing, Love, and Mercy. By learning who God is, humankind will be restored to be who we were meant to be.

But Israel falls into the exact same sin and corruption that all human beings succumb to, even though it was meant to be a nation set apart. Through the centuries, God preserves a faithful remnant that sees itself as the “true Israel,” whose faithfulness stands in for the nation as a whole.

But even that remnant cannot stave off punishment for Israel’s sin, and the nation is subject to conquest and exile. In one vivid scene in Ezekiel, God’s presence lifts off from the Temple and departs the city of Jerusalem before the Babylonians invade and conquer.

Throughout the period of Exile, the Jewish prophets long for God to hold to His promise and “restore Zion.” They believe that once they can return to their nation, God’s project of saving the world through Israel can get back on track. This time, the remaining people of Judah can be the nation of justice and mercy Israel was always meant to be.

But even restored Judah cannot escape the never-ending cycle of corruption and sin. The returned exiles are still under foreign rule–first under the Persians, then the Greeks and the Syrians, and finally by the Romans. And through it all, there remains a sense that even though the exiles have returned to their homeland, God’s presence has still not returned.

This is why New Testament scholar NT Wright believes that the priests rebuked in Malachi 1 are bored–they don’t believe that God is present in the Temple:

A son honors his father, and servants their master. If then I am a father, where is the honor due me? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food on my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. 

And that’s also why the prophet Malachi promises that there will come a day when the Lord will return to His Temple. First, he will send a messenger, and then the Lord Himself will arrive to refine Israel and get His Project of Restoration back on track:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? 

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Malachi 3:1-4.

Mark partially quotes Malachi 3 when he speaks of John the Baptist:

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark 1:2-4.

John the Baptist is the messenger who prepares the way for the Lord. Jesus is the Lord’s presence Himself. After his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness, where he faces three temptations. By triumphing over the Devil in these three temptations, Jesus proves that he is the true Israel, the Son who mediates God’s presence and image to the world.

After the period in the wilderness, Jesus hears of the arrest of John the Baptist, and begins to preach his Gospel:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark 1:15.

As the new Joshua, Jesus cleanses the land of sin, pollution, and idolatry. But unlike Joshua, he does not do so through a new war of conquest–he does so by forgiving sin, driving out demons, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry.

As he and his disciples (he chooses 12, to symbolize that he is founding a New Israel around himself) travel throughout Galilee and Judea, they found small Jesus-communities that live according to his teaching. And the summary of his teaching can be found in the Sermon on the Mount.

Through his ministry, Jesus is enacting and embodying the Kingdom of God. He cleanses the land to clear the ground for his building of a new human society, a society that is centered around love and trust in the Father. This society will care for the poor, will be peacemakers, will not retaliate, will honor marriage, will not lie, will not judge, and will love enemies. This society will be the light of the world–a city on a hill–that shows to the world the nature of God.

It is worth emphasizing here–the Kingdom of God is not the rule of some abstract, distant, tyrannical god. The Kingdom of God is the sovereign and liberating rule of the God revealed in Jesus Christ–this is precisely why it is good news!

We live in a time distrustful of any would-be authorities; we have seen too many examples of failed and abusive leaders to put our trust in those who seek power. And human history is replete with examples of how even the well-meaning come to exercise their power poorly and selfishly.

But the God revealed in Jesus Christ is altogether different. This God is not a petty tyrant, but a gracious Father whose heart burns in anger when He sees the injustice in the world. This God is not a selfish king, but a good shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.

For at the center of the Kingdom is the Cross. There can be no separation between the two; they are inextricably linked and bound up in one another.

At the Cross, we see the very heart of God. To turn to the Kingdom of this God is to turn toward love–fiery love, pursuing love, love that sacrifices and does not count the cost. We are not talking about the insipid love that says “you’re okay and I’m okay, no need to change.” We are talking about the fierce love that will not rest until it sees me beautified, glorified, cleansed of filth and clothed in truth. We are talking about the relentless love that itself bears my burden, pays the price, and enters into battle to free me.

Lent is a time for us to focus our attention in turning away from the lesser idols that we live in service to, and to turn toward the loving Savior who suffered on the Cross to usher us into the Kingdom.

If we are to turn toward our Savior, we must understand and obey his message. We cannot separate the Cross and the Kingdom–we cannot separate sin and social justice. For Jesus, the Cross is the doorway into the Kingdom, and the Kingdom is the way of the Cross.

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan for a new humanity, freed from sin, the Devil, and death, and able to reflect God’s image back into Creation once again. This is the good news of the Crucified and Risen King.

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