Wembley Downs Uniting Church
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Reflection (Elaine Ledgerwood) 27.1.2008
Well, it was Australia Day yesterday, how was it? [Get some feedback about what various people were doing on the day – fireworks, BBQ, beach etc – interrupted with a person coming in with a flag and claiming the land for the ‘kingdom of God’]

‘Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.’ It’s how Jesus started his ministry using almost the exact same words as John had. Over the years there have been so many interpretations of this one little phrase. I am reminded of the Far-side cartoon of a flea carrying a placard ‘Repent – the end of the dog is nigh.’ For me, this one phrase conjures up an image of a person on a soap box preaching at all who pass by. But there’s one slight difference: these images all speak of the concept of the end of the world and not the coming kingdom of God.

‘Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.’ This was preached 2,000 years ago and if we look out the windows, we still do not see the kingdom of God. In Jewish-Christian dialogue it is often said that the reason why Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah is that they do not see the signs of the reign of God in the world. If God is still not ruling the world, is it possible that Jesus got it so wrong?

In my current research about suffering and hope, much of this has included views on what is meant by the phrase the ‘kingdom of God.’ Where is God when the poor of South America are exploited by the rich and are murdered or ‘disappear’ as a threat to the community against anyone who would stand up for their rights? Yet the liberation theologians of South America point out that where the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and the oppressed go free, there glimpses of the reign of God is seen.

This freedom from economic, physical or social oppression is central to the life of Jesus and here at the start of his ministry, we see his later work foreshadowed in the simple statement that the ‘kingdom of God has come near.’ Unfortunately since the era of Constantine in the fourth century, this aspect of Christianity has been swept under the carpet by those who would use it to reinforce the status quo. As I reflected on this reading it reminded me of the creeds of the Church through the ages. The Nicean creed, for example, reduces the life of Jesus to a full stop. He was ‘born of the virgin Mary. Suffered under Pontus Pilate…’ If this is all we have to say about the life of Jesus, then redemption is reduced to a magical effect of the crucifixion. Yet, as theologians from many persuasions point out, the death of Jesus is nothing but the inevitable consequence of living out the kingdom of God. Had Jesus preached a purely spiritual redemption, then the authorities would not have wanted him killed. Instead his life of acceptance of the outcast and challenge to the self-righteous bought him enemies from those who stood to gain from the status quo.

Of course there will always be those who tell Christians to keep their religion out of politics. We heard plenty of this last year with the election campaign. There are those who see religion as a purely spiritual domain. But there is no such thing as neutrality in the way religion connects with the world. If it is not actively engaged in enacting the kingdom of God for all people, then it is actively supporting the status quo, which all too often is nothing but an anti-kingdom. We saw the danger of this attitude most clearly during the Second World War, when the mainstream church argued that given the ancient doctrine of ‘two worlds’ (i.e. that of God and that of fallen humanity’), the church, which was seen to belong to the world of God had nothing to say about the affairs of the latter. Yet, as we hear again and again in the gospel stories, Jesus preached good news to the poor and this would not be good news if it did not make a difference in their lives.

In our exploration of this phrase we have so far left out one key word: repent. This word has been used in the proclamation of the prophets throughout the ages and it is little wonder that it appears at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Like the phrase ‘the kingdom of God,’ repentance too has been spiritualised and misused by the church once it became dominant in society. Repentance is about turning from the values of the world to the values of God’s reign; it is about looking towards the future rather than a guilt-trip about the past. It is when we re-vision the past that we are about to see the alternative future and hence in our prayers of confession, we lament the systematic sins found in our society.

As I draw these reflections to a close, I would like to make one more point. At the start of his ministry, we see Jesus preaching the message of the kingdom of God not to the rich, but to the poor. In calling the disciples he invites them to leave behind the word’s values of family, security and social location to engage in the life of a wandering teacher. Perhaps it is easier for these fishermen to leave their livelihoods that involved hard work and little reward that it would be for the rich and powerful, yet they still have ties of social obligation that would pressure them to look after aging parents or other members of their communities.

After today’s readings comes the Sermon on the Mount, wherein Jesus describes more fully what it means for the kingdom of God to be at hand. As we reflect on what it means for the reign of God to be near to us in our contemporary world, I invite you to listen to the words of this most famous sermon.

Read Matt: 4:23-5:16
27 January 2008

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands