Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Heaven Come Near

ID: a 19th century engraving of Icarus, draped in a robe with wings attached as he is falling from the sky. Feathers are falling from the wings. In a text box on the right of the image, the following text is displayed: "Heaven Come Near / 21 January 2024 / Year B - Third Sunday / after Epiphany / a sermon on / Mark 1:14-20 / by Pace Warfield" with the logo in the bottom of the text box.

A Sermon on Mark 1:14-20 by Pace C. Warfield

The video of the sermon and full service can be found here.

On a balmy night in August 2018, two hours after midnight, a group of scientists, engineers, and technicians gathered in the control room of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Water hung in the air, making it feel heavy and damp. Everything seemed still. The night was so dark, clouds in the air blocking the stars and moon, very little could be seen of the world through the thick, inky night, which made the towering rocket on the launch pad that much more stark and apparent, a beaming visage against the darkness. Bright lights were cast upon the rocket, a Delta IV heavy launch vehicle, as the countdown began. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five… a giant ball of flame roars out from under the rocket, four, three, two, one, and liftoff. The heavy rocket seemed to crawl upward at first, barely moving and then faster and faster until it soared into the night sky, fiery trail behind it as it arced toward the stars.

NASA has had many successful launches in its sixty years, this one might seem no different except it carried a special payload: the Parker Solar Probe. Designed to study the outer corona of the sun, and flying at speeds of up to 430,000 miles per hour, the probe makes a highly elliptic orbit around the sun every five months or so, each time bringing it slightly closer to the sun. In its first year of operation, the solar probe became the closest human-made object to the sun in its very first heliocentric orbit. Each subsequent orbit brings it even closer to the sun. In 2021, the probe was the first ever human-made object to enter the solar corona–the outermost layer of the sun's atmosphere. By the end of this year, the probe will dive even deeper into the solar atmosphere, just four and a half million miles from the sun's surface, so close that a large coronal loop–the fiery plasma that arcs out in beautiful ovals from the surface of the sun, would be just a few hundred thousand miles below.

The Parker Solar Probe is designed to examine the atmosphere of the sun, learning about solar wind and magnetic fields. Learning about these will help scientists understand the sun's turbulent weather, making it able to be better predicted. In our increasingly technological world, where we rely on satellite technology for radio, communication, and GPS, this knowledge is vital. A large coronal ejection of plasma energy, a solar flare, can act as an electromagnetic pulse and interfere with our technology. In particularly bad solar storms, communication and navigation here on earth can be almost entirely shut down. In fact, in March of 1989, over six million people lost power for nine hours in Quebec due to a massive solar flare from the sun.

To survive this turbulent coronal weather, the Parker Solar Probe makes use of cutting edge technology to shield its delicate instruments from the sun's powerful heat, which can reach 2 million degrees Fahrenheit in the corona. Two million degrees. It's almost unimaginably hot. Flying so close to the sun is an awesome achievement, presenting humanity with a watershed moment in our understanding of the solar system and our sun which powers the life on this planet. It is also incredibly, incredibly dangerous.

You may have heard of the legend of Icarus, a figure from Greek mythology. Daedalus, Icarus' father, was an inventor. Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned in the labyrinth, a design of Daedalus' own making, by a jealous king. They could not escape by sea or land as both were heavily guarded. So Daedalus, the ingenious inventor he was, crafted wings for him and his son out of leather and lightweight metal. He bound them together with beeswax, then warned his son to follow his flight path closely as flying too close to the sea would soak the wings and make them too heavy to fly, too close to the sun and the beeswax would melt. Icarus at first heeded his father's warning, but then overcome with the joy of soaring high in the sky, he flew too close to the sun. The beeswax binding the contraption began to melt then eventually break. Icarus fell through the sky to the sea and perished. Fly too close to the sun and you will get burned.

Now to today's Gospel reading. The story picks up immediately after Jesus' baptism by John and the subsequent forty days in the wilderness. While Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, John the Baptist was arrested. John's message was one of getting ready: repent, for the kingdom of God has come near. We later find out why he was arrested: John had criticized King Herod Antipas for marrying Herodias, his brother's ex-wife. It appears that John flew too close to the sun on this one, sure, repentance is great for the common person, but start telling the ruling class that they are in need of repentance and not above the kingdom of God and you are bound to anger people. John would later be killed at the insistence of Herodias.

Jesus came out of his forty-day temptation in the wilderness to a world even more on verge of ignition than the world he left just over a month earlier. Tensions are high, the baptizer is arrested for upsetting the power structure, it is not a safe world to which Jesus is returning. And yet, fresh out of the wilderness, Jesus picks up the message where John left off: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news."

This is essentially the thesis statement of Mark's gospel. The time has been fulfilled, the hopes and dreams, the longings of a nation under foreign occupation, a people oppressed and crying out for deliverance: the time has been fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near: God is acting here and now, not in some universe lightyears away, but near to us, among us, with us. So repent, abandon the harm we do to one another, to the earth, abandon the unjust ways of the world. Believe that a new world is possible, that the time has come for deliverance, for justice, for hope, for fulfillment.

Jesus begins preaching this message around Galilee and soon approaches the brothers Simon and Andrew fishing on the sea. He asks them to follow him and they do. He continues his preaching around Galilee and comes across another pair of brothers, James and John, who are in their boat with their father Zebedee. Jesus calls to them and they drop their nets and follow him, leaving their father in the boat with his hired workforce. And though it's a little beyond today's story, this motley crew next goes to Capernaum, one of the larger villages on the sea of galilee. Jesus enters the synagogue and preaches his message: The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news. A man possessed by demons begins crying out to Jesus, and Jesus responds by casting the demons out, freeing the man from the torment. The crowd was amazed. He goes to Simon and Andrew's house and heals Simon's mother in law who was sick with a harsh fever. Instantly, like wildfire, news of this new preacher who can cast out demons and heal the sick spread throughout Galilee. It won't be long, as we know, before Jesus' message, like John who came before him, would make it back to the powers that be. Soon, the political and religious leaders would start to come after Jesus for his disruption of the status quo, the way that Jesus spoke with authority and refused to submit to the authority of the religious and political hierarchy, the way that Jesus spoke about a Son of Humanity who would end oppression and bring about this new kingdom of God. The way that message is a threat to power and a promise of hope to the disenfranchised and those at the margins of society. Jesus would fly too close to the sun, too, it would seem, and be crucified for it.

When I read this story, I keep getting stuck on the phrase: "the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near." I can't get it out of my head. What does it mean that the kingdom of God has come near?

I feel like we so often imagine that the kingdom of God is far away. Out there somewhere, hidden beyond the veil of clouds or in our present understanding of the universe behind the cosmic dust and dark matter. Something we can't see or understand, or at very least, maybe catch a glimpse of now and again. We feel it is intangible, hidden. It showed up 2000 years ago, sure, with Jesus. And it will come again in the far off future with the end of the world, whether through the heat death of the universe or the explosion of the sun or seven seals being opened and trumpets sounding. But that's millennia ago and millennia away. Far from here.

But no, that's not what Jesus is telling us in this story. The kingdom of God has come near. In fact, some versions of the Greek say that the kingdom of God is at hand. This potential energy, a new order for the entire world. A world where oppression shall cease, where lives are forever transformed just by passing through the corona of this kingdom, radically altered.

The Kingdom of God is filled to the brim with promise. Filled to overflowing even. It breaks through the mundane, through the hurt, the sorrow, the heartache we feel. It breaks through the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas and attempted genocide in Palestine, the Russian war in Ukraine, the Armenian genocide and the genocide in the Congo. It's like that burst of sun through the clouds, thawing up the bitter cold. The grief of heartbreak, of loss of ability, the ravages still being felt today by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The tears we have shed, hot against our face. The hurt in our hearts, in our bodies. Pain, heartbreak, illness, sorrow. Grief too profound, too deep for words. It feels like the promise of God is lightyears away. And yet, and yet… even here, even now… the kingdom of God has come near.

The Parker Solar Probe zooms through the cosmos getting nearer and nearer to the sun. Passing through the corona, the atmosphere of the sun, helping us learn about our planet, about ourselves, and about the mysteries of the universe. We, too, are like that probe, flying through the corona of God's kingdom, close enough to reach out and touch the surface. It's dangerous, it's scary at times, it burns. And yet, it teaches, it brings life, it empowers.

Whenever we speak out on behalf of the oppressed, whenever we work for justice. When we comfort each other in our grief. When laughter breaks out, or a face melts into a genuine smile, when the poor are given food and clothes and shelter. When social justice is won on behalf of marginalized communities. When power and tyrants are challenged. When these things happen, when we live out these promises in the here and now, we can experience the nearness of the kingdom of God. It is always there, always just a hair's breadth away. Always unfolding, always present, always near.

God, come near. Heaven, come near. Let's go ahead and fly close to the sun. Let it catch us on fire, fire for justice, for peace, for love. Let it melt away the coldness in our hearts so that we can truly, truly inflame the world, transforming it and us along with it into a new creation. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news." Amen.

Works Consulted
Amos, Jonathan "Nasa Mission Lines Up to 'Touch the Sun" on (29 December 2023; Accessed 20 January 2024).

NASA, " Health, Safety, and Commercial Needs" in Space Technology 5: Tomorrow's Technology Today (January 2004; Accessed 20 January 2024).

Ibid., " NASA's Parker Solar Probe Mission Launches to Touch the Sun" on, Video (12 August 2018; Accessed 20 January 2024).

Ibid., "Parker Solar Probe," Website (Accessed 20 January 2024).

Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers, "Gospel of Mark" in Women's Bible Commentary, Twentieth-Anniversary Edition, ed. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 478-492.

Williamson, Lamar, Jr. Mark, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).