I just checked to make sure, and it turns out that there has never been a President from West Virginia. By saying that, I probably didn’t shock anyone. West Virginia is one of the states in the Union that has a reputation—deserving or not—for being a backwater region. If it’s political power you’re looking for, you travel to Washington, D.C.; if it’s economic success, you go to New York City; if it’s cultural clout, you make your way to Hollywood. You don’t go to West Virginia.
Not unless you’re trying to pull a Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t begin his earthly ministry in an advantageous place. “Now after John was arrested,” Mark relates, “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God” (1:14). Galilee was sort of the West Virginia of Jesus’ day. If you were a Jew, and you wanted to make something of yourself, you didn’t go to Galilee; you went to Jerusalem. To the Jews, Jerusalem was New York City, Hollywood, and Washington, D.C. all rolled up into one. It was the political, cultural, economic, and religious capital of Judea. That’s where people would have been looking for a Messiah—not in Galilee. (Though they should have been.)
So, right from the outset, we see that Jesus is rather unconventional. He’s not what the Jews are looking for in a divinely anointed king. In fact, he’s not what anyone is looking for in a king. It’s horribly disconcerting when our expectations are set on a Savior whose first public move is to reject those expectations. Jesus is an unconventional man with an unconventional message, summarized by these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (v 15).
Just like John, Jesus calls everyone to repent—to reject the old way of thinking and living and to accept the new kingdom that is about to break into the world. When he says, “The time is fulfilled,” he’s declaring that his arrival is the fulfillment of history. All of human history has been building to this point; it all has meaning, and that meaning is found in Jesus. Each and every event, no matter how small, has driven the world toward the arrival of this man. Century by century and minute by minute, his appearance has been orchestrated by the Lord of history. Yes, every moment of our lives is infused with careful intent by our Creator, as we wait for the full glory of his kingdom to appear. Even now, everything finds its purpose in Jesus (Romans 11:36).
Jesus declares that a paradigm shift is about to take place, and the world will never be the same; God’s kingdom has drawn near. But what is this kingdom? Who is its king? Certainly, the Jews of Jesus’ day have expectations that the Messiah would drive out the Roman empire and set up a new Jewish kingdom, following in the footsteps of David his ancestor. Perhaps the unconventional arrival of this Galilean preacher is the first clue that God may have different plans. The Jews are right in believing that the Messiah will be their king, but how can this man be their king? Is this how God has chosen to intervene when his people are suffering? Jesus seems to think so—he believes that his appearance has brought God’s new kingdom near. The whole world order is about to be turned upside down; the old kingdom is about to wither away. Things are about to change—fast—and Jesus presents his audience with a choice. Either keep living like you’ve always lived, or change your life immediately in response to this new reality! Jesus isn’t concerned whether his gospel is relevant to his listeners; he pleads for his listeners to be relevant to his gospel.
This question of relevance is one you will have to face today. God’s kingdom has not fully arrived yet, but his triumph is inevitable. For far too long, we have focused ourselves on understanding and manipulating and growing comfortable in the way our society works. We have looked for success as defined by American values and ideals; we have placed our hope in our self-invented dreams and ambitions; we have knotted ourselves into the fabric of the American culture. But all of this will be swept away when the new kingdom is fully and finally established. This is bad news for those who cling to the old kingdom, and the greatest news possible for those who have let it go. All of history is bent toward its King, and when he appears, he will sweep away every illusion of control that we cling to. Jesus is not conventional, and he loves his people too much to befriend their conventional ambitions.