In Jesus’ day, the Jewish world was fractured into factions, each of which sought to usher in or live out the kingdom of God in its own way. The promised land was owned and ruled by Rome, and everybody had a take on how God might overthrow the oppressive occupation and establish the kingdom of heaven.
The Sadducees sold out theologically and collaborated with the pagan rulers for political and financial benefit. The Pharisees sought to live peaceably within the cities, in Rome but not of Rome as it were, obeying the laws of the land but seeking as diligently and rigorously as possible to apply the Mosaic law to every minute detail of life in the hopes their works might merit them deliverance. The Essenes hightailed it out to the wilderness, became hermits, embraced gnosticism, withdrew and battened down the hatches. The Zealots kept taking up arms, wanting to usher in the kingdom of God through the power of the sword.
When Jesus’ cousin grew up into this tumultuous landscape and answered YHWH’s call upon his life, he went out to the Jordan River, the historic borderline of deliverance for Israel, the line Joshua had led them across from desert wandering into the Promised Land. And when he got to the Jordan, John didn’t begin conspiring. He didn’t amass arms, begin a grassroots political campaign, urge rigorous law-keeping, or preach any of the other myriad ways his countrymen were seeking to establish the kingdom. He simply said the kingdom was at hand and if anybody wanted in he would be more than happy to dunk them in the river.
“Repent!” he called. And “Repent!” his cousin, our Lord Jesus, called after taking the reigns of John’s burgeoning kingdom community.
The way into the kingdom life is the same way out of worldly life—death. As baptism illustrates, the way into the kingdom is the way of death, burial, and resurrection.
Go to a new place, this action commands us. Leave the old one. Abandon it and its ways, its self-idolatry in the guise of spirituality.
Today’s Essenes are the gnosis-exalting hip churches and the law-exalting fundy churches, each preaching legalism of a different sort and rendering different sorts of people untouchable. They advocate withdrawal from either “church people” or “the world,” as if true kingdom enlightenment exists in an ecclesiological utopia hermetically sealed off and protected by either their cultural savvy or their cultural avoidance.
Today’s Pharisees are people like me, desperately trying to please God through our stuff, our merit, our actions, sincerely wanting to apply God’s Word to our life but always slipping down the slope of applying our life to God’s work. We trust our behavior, our church programs, our well-turned phrases. Today’s Pharisees are the promoters of the entertainment-driven, self-help preaching, program-trusting whitewashed tombs we arrogantly call churches.
Today’s Sadducees are the politicians who use churches, Christians, and the language of Scripture to achieve power. And they are the ones who help them, believing if the right man were in the right role, God would “heal our land.” They believe the kingdom of God can be spread through politics, networking, the right policies, the right strategies, the right legislation. They are the churches who sell out to celebrities and powerful personalities.
Today’s Zealots are anybody and everybody who thinks the kingdom comes with signs to be observed: elections, placards, T-shirts, debates, attendance, programs. Or worse: bombings, shootings.
All of it, idolatry. All of us, idolaters.
And Jesus says to us every day, all day, as he said all day every day then, “Repent!”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” — Matthew 16:24