Nothing Jesus says in the rest of Mark’s Gospel is as important as His words this Sunday (Mk 1: 12-15): "This is the time of fulfillment, the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news."

Not only are those His first public words, but they also set the theme for His entire ministry, death and resurrection. Unless we understand what they mean for Him and His original listeners, there’s no sense reading the rest of Mark’s Gospel, nor any of the other three Gospels.

Most religions revolve around people’s hope in the future. We Christians, for instance, trust that we’ll get to heaven someday; that our actions here on earth have some effect in eternity; that we can change the future by what we do or don’t do in the present.

Sign of hope

There are no references to eternity in the first reading (Gen 9: 8-15). Yet hope in God’s working in the future is the basis for the covenant Yahweh makes with Noah and His family. Because the flood survivors are willing to enter into an agreement with Yahweh, their future is much more secure; at least, they no longer have to worry about another world-destroying flood. Every time they see a rainbow, they’re reminded of that better future.

That religious emphasis on the future makes Jesus’ proclamation about God’s kingdom unique. He’s not talking about the future. He’s concerned only with the here and now: "the time of fulfillment."

"God’s kingdom" is a familiar concept to Jesus’ audience. It’s how they referred to God’s working in their lives in a tangible way — a way in which they could feel, sense and benefit from God’s presence. Of course, most people employed the phrase only when they were talking about something that was going to happen in the future, sort of parallel to our idiom, "When my ship comes in." For instance, they’d say, "It’ll be a great day when God’s kingdom comes among us."

What makes Jesus’ use of the concept different is His belief that God’s already working here among us. We don’t have to do anything to make God’s kingdom happen. It’s already here at hand, so close you can reach out and touch it. According to Jesus, the problem isn’t getting God to work; it’s getting people to recognize how God’s already working.

Change in us

That’s why "repentance" is essential. To experience God among us, we must undergo a complete change in our value system. What we once thought important we must downgrade; what we once thought insignificant we must emphasize. Only by stressing what others ignore will we surface how God is currently affecting our lives. The "good news" Jesus wants His followers to believe isn’t news about the future, but about the present.

Though the second reading (I Peter 3: 18-22) presents us with a theology that Jesus is the one who, by His death and resurrection, makes God present to us in a saving way, the historical Jesus never seems to have recognized that dimension of His life and ministry.

In the past, I’ve mentioned the late Rudolf Bultmann’s insightful statement: "After Jesus’s death and resurrection, the preacher became the preached." Those words succinctly describe the famous Scripture scholar’s belief that, before Jesus’ death and resurrection, He simply preached about God’s working in our lives. After His death and resurrection, His followers started to preach about His being God working in our lives, as the author of I Peter does. Jesus, who once delivered the message, eventually becomes the message.

Mark offers us a glimpse of the "pre-preached" Jesus: the person who encouraged those around Him to change enough to notice God around them. If they hadn’t experienced this initial insight, Jesus’ followers would never have been able to notice God in Him.