One evening a couple of weeks ago, my nine-year-old daughter came into the living room with a look of both sadness and satisfaction on her face. Earlier she had taken our computer to a quiet space so that she could complete her daily lesson in Mandarin Chinese using the program, Duolingo. This is a practice she began last year, shortly after we all went into lockdown. Each evening she would announce, “its time for Mandarin,” and would go do her 10 minute lesson. She continued, never breaking her streak, for over 270 days, until that evening when she announced: “I guess I’m finished, there are no more lessons.” She had completed the entire Mandarin curriculum Duolingo had to offer.
Lily was drawn to Mandarin for her own reasons, mostly having to do with curiosity more than any practical ends. Chinese with its characters and very different grammar is a fascinating language to any English speaking mind. The more she studied, though, I think she realized something else about learning a foreign language. Its not just about new grammars and words; its about entering a different reality.
This is a point upon which much contemporary philosophy has been written. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for instance, says that the differences in languages do “not represent so many arbitrary conventions for expressing the same thought, but rather several ways for the human body to celebrate the world and finally live in it.” Different words and grammars, their shapes and sounds and expressions, open up different possibilities for the lives we might lead. To learn a new language is to learn a new mode of being.
This experience of a different tongue can also affect how we view our own language. To move between words, like moving between worlds, can alter ones perception of the options. We need this from time to time in order to renew our language and free it from the ossified expressions of the familiar. There is a need, as theologian John Milbank has put it, to make the word strange. Today we have a perfect opportunity for that work in our Gospel reading.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus offers one of the shortest and most powerful sermons ever delivered: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” For those of you who judge a sermon by its brevity (and I know you’re out there), Jesus’ proclamation is without parallel. And yet, his whole ministry could be seen as an explanation of this opening statement. It would have been radical and exciting to those who first heard it, both from Jesus himself and those later disciples who heard it in Mark’s recounting. But for those of us today, sitting back on our couches, many Sundays under our belts, this sermon is little more than a repetition of familiar cliches—the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, we need to repent, we should believe the gospel—yada, yada, yada, we’ve heard it all before. It’s time to look at the Gospel again, to make the word strange and hear it from another side, play with these words like a poet, and see if they might cough and sputter and come rushing back to life again.
The poet Scott Cairns has a series called “Adventures in New Testament Greek.” This morning I want to go on such an adventure with you, walking through a foreign landscape and looking at four terms that might bring the word of this Gospel to life once again.
The first thing Jesus mentions is time. In doing this he’s answering what scholars call one of the fundamental worldview questions: where are we? Where are we in the vast expanse of creation? Where are we in the story of God’s work to heal the world? Where are we in hope, expectation or fulfillment? To these questions Jesus answers emphatically: Peplērōtai ho kairos.
The Greek of the New Testament world contained two words for time. The first was the familiar chronos, from which we get our word chronology. This is sequential time, the sort of time that can be measured by a clock or a calendar. Marching or plodding, but always moving forward with a distinct past and present and future. But the Greeks, philosophical as they were, also had another word for time, one that figures much more prominently in the New Testament. That word is kairos, which means the right moment, the opportune time.
When Jesus says that the time has been fulfilled, he doesn’t mean that all history has come to an end, but rather that the long awaited hope of Israel has finally arrived. Whatever might be going on in the rhythms of chronos, a new reality is born in the dimension of kairos. Where are we, someone may have asked Jesus as they wandered through the countryside. His answer wasn’t Roman occupied Palestine or the year of some Emperors reign. Jesus’ answer is that we are in the opportune moment, the time that God is acting.
But opportune for what, exactly? How is God acting? Jesus answers that question with another familiar phrase: ēngiken hē basileia tou Theou. The time is fulfilled because God’s kingdom has arrived and if you want it, you can grab hold of it, for it is at hand. That is what this verb ēngiken means. Imagine Jesus the carpenter, working with chisels and mallets, saws and planes. He’s fitting a board into place in a newly built portico for a wealthy business person in the nearby metropolis of Sepphora. Where are Jesus’s tools? ēngiken, they are at hand, ready for him to grab and begin working. So it is with God’s reign. There is no more waiting; the kingdom of God is right where you can take hold of it.
How do we enter this space? Here Jesus gives us a term that in English has so much baggage its hard to salvage. “Repent,” the NRSV says. Which probably brings to mind, for most of us, images of a hellfire preacher calling on us to give up drink and dancing. What the Greek says, however, is far more interesting. What Jesus calls us to is “metanoia,” a renewing of our minds. I like how the Common English Bible more accurately translates this word: “Change your hearts and lives.” That’s what Jesus is calling us toward.
In one of his “Adventures in New Testament Greek” poems, Scott Cairns takes on this word, playfully helping us understand its meaning.
“The heart’s metanoia,” he writes,
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,
as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.”
In the time that is God’s kairos, when the kingdom is at hand, who needs sin? It’s like staying inside, bing watching Netflix while the sun is shinning and day is beautiful. Turn off the screen and get outside! Enjoy the gift of the world and leave behind all our shallow distractions. That’s what the call of repentance is like. But what can be easy when the sun is out, can be more difficult once the clouds come. The old habits, the easy addictions that we thought we’d lost, come creeping back. That’s why we need our last word.
After changing our hearts and lives with metanoia, Jesus calls on us to pisteuete en tō euangeliō. Here are two of the most stock terms of our faith: believe in the gospel. We’ve heard it a thousand times. How can we make these words strange? Trust is probably a better word for us than believe. It is less saddled with religious baggage, it speaks to what Jesus is calling us to do: Trust the good news that God is now in charge. Trust the news that transcends all the headlines: God’s reign has arrived.
This is a odd message with strange words in our world that still assumes that power is what matters and value can be calculated in dollars. We believe in progress counted in chronos and imagine God’s kingdom someplace far off, something that will come only after we die. Our goal, so often, is simply to be a decent person, rather than radically change the way we live. We trust our institutions and make charity something we do rather than embody. But strange words can help us enter a different world, one whose depths we must keep plumbing, immersing ourselves more and more deeply into this new reality. That is the call of Jesus, the herald of the Kingdom.
The night after Lily finished her final Duolingo lesson in Mandarin, she decided to start a new program in Chinese, one that would help her continue her learning. We found a course that uses various YouTube videos of movie scenes and advertisements from China. She jumped in at the intermediate level and has continued her nightly study, immersing herself not only in a new language but also a new world, so different from her own.
We would do well to do the same, learning the new language of God’s kingdom. We must study it, immerse ourselves in its cadences, try to speak it again and again until one day we find ourselves fluent. This is the work of discipleship, of changing our hearts and lives; it the task we are called to take up right now, in this kairos moment as we put our trust in the God whose reign is now among us. Amen.