“The kingdom of God has come near.” (Mark 1:15)
The first thing they want you to know upon entering Jordan is that it is a kingdom.
The second thing they want you to know is that when you are in Jordan you are in the Holy Land, which does not know modern international boundaries.
The third thing they want you to know is that an officer of the tourism police will soon be entering the coach to make sure you have your passports; please have your passport ready to show the officer.
The fourth thing they want you to know is that the bus will be advancing through the first gate, after a period of waiting for no apparent reason. When the bus stops you are to exit it and retrieve your baggage from beneath it. You are to carry the baggage into the building you see on your left, entering through the small door. Place your baggage on the conveyor belt inside to be screened. Your baggage may be searched by hand.
The fifth thing they want you to know is that you may then carry your baggage out to a waiting area, beneath a shelter. They do not tell you that you will be profoundly glad for the shelter because even though it is October, the sun is high and hot, and you will find yourself seeking the shade. They don’t need to tell you this; you figure it out for yourself.
The sixth thing they want you to know is that you must leave your baggage beneath the shelter while you go inside to the immigration and customs office. There you will stand on line waiting for no apparent reason. Do not allow yourself to become visibly annoyed; this may not bode well for you. Wait patiently. You will have figured out that your baggage will be unattended if you leave it beneath the shelter to enter the immigration and customs office. This makes no sense – for anyone. Never mind. Arrange for a member of your group to stay with the baggage until the first person to clear immigration and customs exits the building. He or she can now watch the baggage as the first watcher goes to the end of the line, still waiting.
The seventh thing they want you to know is that when you have cleared customs and immigration you may put your baggage back beneath the bus. But you may not yet board the bus. And you may no longer stand beneath the shelter; it is nowhere near the bus’s new location. In fact, you discover that there is a new bus. The old bus that came from Israel could be trusted this far, but only this far.
In time, after waiting for no apparent reason, you are allowed to board a Jordanian bus, which comes complete with the benign presence of an officer of the Jordanian tourism police, lest…. well, lest anything should require such a benign presence.
You are pleased to discover that there are bottles of cold water on the bus, available for only a dollar. And you open one and sip the cool water, as the diesel engine roars a little bit, and the gate tilts up and open, and you begin to make your way into the kingdom.
In various airport lounges, and baggage claim areas the discussion could be heard about whether it took longer to get into or out of Israel; about whether it was better going into or out of Jordan; about which border crossing was the most efficient, which most difficult. And guesses were made as to how long it would take to accomplish the border crossing each way. It was, frankly neither a nightmare, nor a breeze for an American tourist to go either way. It was simply a chore to get into and out of the kingdom of Jordan.
It would have been worth it under any circumstances, if only to make our way to Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have been led by God to see the Promised Land that God would not permit him to enter. If Moses could manage wandering for forty years in the desert with a troublesome people to see that sight, then we could endure an hour or two of being shuffled along from one waiting area to the next, with or without our baggage.
The view from Mount Nebo is not especially impressive, although you can certainly see a long way. But you do begin to get the idea that God could be leading you someplace. You do begin to get the feeling that God has done this before: led people on tiresome journeys. You do begin to let go of the tiresomeness of the journey. And you do begin to think about where God might be leading you. You do begin to remember that the scriptures talk about a land flowing with milk and honey. You do begin to think about the Promise – about the covenant between God and his people.
Mount Nebo is not even high enough for the air to become thin – only 2700 feet or so – but you do begin to see so much more than you could see before. You can see the green stripe that follows the banks of the Jordan River. You already know that the River is a border, because you have crossed it before and you know you are going to cross it again. But now you can see where you will be going when you return. You can look behind you and see the Desert, and look ahead of you and find the River snaking its way south to the Dead Sea. And you can look off to the west, toward Jerusalem, and imagine that God is calling you there, too. You may dread for a moment the few hours of inconvenience that you already know await you at the border crossing. But that will not stop you from going.
From Mount Nebo you get back onto your bus, and as you listen to the Arabic-tinged lilt of the tour guide’s accent, you hear that you are returning to the capital city of the kingdom: Amman. And he reminds you that in the biblical era, Amman was one of the cities of the so-called Decapolis, and in those days the city was known by a familiar-sounding name; the city was known as Philadelphia. And you may think to yourself that the capital of this kingdom you are now in was once Philadelphia, although you realize you are mixing up time and languages and cultures.
Philadelphia was the southernmost city of the Decapolis, and the one closest to Jerusalem. And for some irrational reason this thought brings a momentary warmth to your heart. And you think that if you can look west from that ancient Philadelphia and almost see Jerusalem, then maybe it is not so silly to face east from this new Philadelphia and dream about the distant view to Jerusalem. And even though it’s the wrong kingdom, it is helpful somehow, to be reminded of the idea of a kingdom.
The first thing on the lips of Jesus in the first Gospel, written by our patron, St. Mark, is this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” Every year on this day we hear those words of Jesus as we give thanks for our life together as a community of faith. But do we remember the kingdom of God? Do we believe in the kingdom of God? De we trust that the kingdom of God has come near?
The first thing I want you to know tonight is that you are in a kingdom, for tonight the kingdom of God has come near, once again.
The second thing I want you to know is that from where I stand, this new Philadelphia is a holy land in which God’s power has been revealed before and where God’s power is at work even now.
The third thing I want you to know is that the gift of the saints is a benign and loving presence that links one generation of believers to another, and although we might never need to call on them, it is good to know of that benign and loving presence of the saints, which includes Saint Mark as well as other saints that maybe only you know, maybe only ever were sainted by you.
The fourth thing I want you to know is that as we make our way on our spiritual journey in life, not infrequently there are periods of waiting around for no apparent reason. This waiting will make it seem as though you are not actually going anywhere, as though you are stuck where you are. It will make it seem as though there is not actually anyplace for you to go. But do not be fooled by the waiting, and do not be put off by it. Do not expect to learn why you must wait, just get used to the idea that on this journey, from time to time, you will have to wait for no apparent reason. But remember, God actually has someplace for you to go.
The fifth thing I want you to know is that sometimes the journey of faith is a lot more like a border crossing into and out of Jordan than it is like a tour through the Holy Land. Some of the stops will make no sense, and you will be grateful for nothing but the shade – if there is any. At least be grateful for the shade – if there is any.
The sixth think I want you to know is that most people do better on their journey with God when they make it with other people. This is why we gather into communities. Sometimes someone has to watch the baggage while others go to get their passports stamped. Sometimes we need to switch places. Sometimes you need to lean on someone as you walk uphill. Sometimes you need to borrow money. Sometimes you have food you want to share. Sometimes it’s gin. The journey to the kingdom is better in community.
The seventh thing I want you to know is that although the kingdom of God has come near, it is sometimes still far distant. This is a mystery. The bus is ready to go, but you may not board it; and when you are at last allowed to board the bus, they may not let it depart for reasons unknown to you and me. This feels nothing like the kingdom of God; how can the kingdom have come near. You have travelled all this way and you feel nothing, you see nothing, you have learned nothing, except to sit and wait on this bus.
And then the microphone comes on, and an Arabic-tinged lilting accent whispers into it, as the Desert begins to roll past the windows: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
So many of us have forgotten where we are going. It is so easy to forget there is a kingdom, and that God is calling us to it, that God is constantly bringing us near to it, or bringing it near to us – whatever it is precisely that God does; I don’t know which.
Why are you here? What are you doing? What do you believe? How much have you forgotten? Does any of this make sense? Does God hear your prayers? Does he ever answer them? The way you want them to be answered? What are you afraid of? Will the fear ever go away? Why won’t the pain go away? Why isn’t life fair? Are you worthy of the love of God? Do you care? Why are you here? What are you doing?
The first thing I want you to know is that you are in a kingdom.
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
Now, where were we?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia