Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand She said she'd like to meet a boy who looks like Elvis She walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land Just like she's walking on a wire in a circus She parks her car outside of my house Takes her clothes off Says she's close to understanding Jesus. - Counting Crows: "Round Here"
It's a great song, and a great aim - understanding Jesus. And if you understand the following two Bible verses, you're probably close to understanding Jesus, even if you don't believe in him:
"After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" Mark 1:14-15.
The time has come
The Jewish nation was small, at the crossroads of the world, sandwiched between Egypt to the southwest and Assyria and Babylon to the northeast. Only for a short period in its long history had it been really free - 900 years earlier under kings David & Solomon. But the prophets promised a time would come when God would restore the kingdom and forever rescue his people from oppression, via his anointed king, the Messiah. And so faithful Jews waited, and waited, and waited for the promised Messiah to free them, from Assyria, from Babylon, from Greece and from Rome. And they were still waiting.
Then comes Jesus's dramatic, momentous announcement that brought hope to tired hearts - "it's time!"
The kingdom of God is near
The promise was that God would rule as king, via his Messiah. The coming of the kingdom threatened to turn the world upside down. The Roman Empire proclaimed Caesar as Lord, so the coming of Jesus, the true Lord, was a challenge to the might of Rome. It was also a challenge to the Jewish religious leaders, who had developed a complex web of laws to define what it meant to be holy, and Jesus overturned all that. But it came as blessed relief for normal people who groaned under occupation, heavy taxation and the weight of the religious laws, for Jesus as Lord offered a lighter burden and hope for the future.
But Jesus had in mind a radical departure from popular expectations of a militant Messiah, and many were offended. Many people still don't get it. In the end, power and force are not God's way for us, and Jesus did not announce a kingdom that would by force drive out the Romans. Rather he brought a kingdom where the Messiah would suffer with, and for, his people, to give them new freedom, within and despite their circumstances. And this kingdom would last forever, on into the age to come.
Once, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and he read a passage from the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Everyone knew this passge referred to the promised Messiah, so "all eyes were on him". You could have heard a pin drop. And Jesus said "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:18-21)
And it wasn't just talk. When his cousin John sent messengers questioning his credentials, Jesus replied: "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (Luke 7:22-23) He was doing what Isaiah had promised.
And, to emphasise his way was one of service, not dominance, and to show how we could enter into this new kingdom, Jesus also said: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)
So Jesus, the servant king, confounded many expectations, offered great hope and threatened entrenched interests. (It is still the same.) And as we examine this short passage and unpack its meaning, we see that even Jesus's death (the servant king dies as a ransom for many) and resurrection (but the king and his kingdom will never end) are in view.
Repent and believe the good news!
Repent literally means to change one's mind - as the Apple Computer ads used to say: "Think Different!" If God is beginning to rule in a new way, each of us has to make some hard choices. Are we willing to change our minds and accept God's offer of a place among his people, or do we want to keep on going it alone? This announcement is good news to those who are willing to think again, because it brings a totally new life, but we have to believe the news and embrace it by living it out.
Jesus went on to welcome many unlikely (in his contemporaries' eyes) people into this new community of the kingdom - he forgave and restored women who had fallen foul of one-sided moral laws in a male dominated society, he included the despised tax collectors in his kingdom leading to major changes to their lives, he healed lepers and restored them to society, he even welcomed his religious foes and the occupying Romans.
And all the time he challenged his listeners to have discerning eyes, to understand what was happening, and to respond by joining him in making things new, starting with themselves. Theologian AM Hunter: "all through that ministry there rings a note of terrible urgency, as though a crisis uniquely fraught with blessing or with judgment for 'this generation' in Israel were upon them .... [we] get the impression of 'tremendous power', as of 'a great wind sweeping through Palestine' ... [challenging people] to decide on whose side of the battle they will be". And so the movement he began against all odds, grew until it had spread over all the world. True, many of his followers, and some self-serving people who came along for the ride, often misunderstood his commitment to freedom and service and perpetrated some ghastly, anti-kingdom atrocities, but the bulk of his followers have changed the world in many positive ways, and are still doing so.
He still challenges people, the irreligious and the religious, to give up on second rate goals and join him. Anyone close to understanding Jesus can join in.