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As we continue on in the first chapter of Mark, we move from opening scenes that included visions and the voice of God and wilderness and Satan and angels. We talked about them last week as if we were watching a minimalist play, with contrasts of light and dark and voices booming from offstage. We move from those scenes into everyday life in Galilee. We read that John has been arrested, or handed over. John has been handed over and this is a sign of suffering to come, as we’re going to hear that phrase again.
We’re at a turning point in the story. Jesus is on the move. There is a movie by Italian director Pier Paulo Pasolini made in 1964 which is actually based on the Gospel of Matthew, called “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” I want to show it to you though, to demonstrate not only the speed at which things are happening (including how quickly Jesus is walking) which is very much a feature of Mark’s gospel. There is an urgency and an immediacy about matters. Here’s the scene.
As Jesus meets the farmers, he tells them the good news. “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus approaches the fishermen and issues the invitation to them, saying nothing more than “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” “Follow me” might be better translated “Come behind me.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
If you’re familiar with this story, what I pray for us this morning is to recapture the strangeness of it. For myself, Pasolini’s scene helps here. The urgency of the message. The figure of Jesus who is both authoritative and strangely compelling. Why do we look at this story that happened over 2,000 years ago, which speaks of some fundamental truths for our everyday lives? How is this man still authoritative and compelling? Let’s ask for God’s help as we consider God’s word for us today.
Here are some good conversation starters. What is your purpose? What do you live for? What do you believe in? What is the thing that shapes, directs, and gives meaning to your life? There’s a scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan, the middle brother, is speaking to his younger brother Alyosha. Ivan is struggling with how he can believe in a benevolent, good, God when there is so much evil in the world. Ivan tells his brother, “The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth…” So what is the object of your life?
The object of my life is this man who issues the invitation “Follow me.” The purpose of my life is the good news that is proclaimed and embodied in this man who has come to Galilee and is proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus tells of what is happening. The time is fulfilled. The earth has been invaded by the divine in this person who is walking along so quickly. Jesus is not attempting to persuade or cajole or sell a message. Jesus is declaring and compelling. God’s purposes are being worked out. History is not simply an endless cycle of repeating mistakes, or an inevitable ascent or descent on humanity’s part (depending on your point of view). The kingdom of God has come near. The kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom of God is within our reach. The reign of God has come near in the person of Jesus and in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return. We’re getting ahead of ourselves I know but we read this scene in a larger context. The kingdom/reign of God is here in this man and it has yet to come in its fullness. You ask “Well is the reign of God here or is it coming?” and I reply “Yes!” What is the reign of God about? Here’s how one writer describes it in terms of what we read in the coming chapters: “ …history is not circular but linear, with a beginning, middle, and end. God started it and he will end it because he is the sovereign Lord of the universe. And the end, … is in fact a new beginning, the restoration of creation as it was intended to be. Jesus’ announcement that “the kingdom of God is close at hand” means the endgame has begun.
Jesus speaks and acts with authority. This is a tough one for us these days. We may look at claims to authority with suspicion. When I was growing up we would have CFRB on in the kitchen when I was eating breakfast. I found this ad for CFRB in an old Canadian Broadcast magazine. Ontario’s authoritative news voice! Who would dare to make such a claim now? Jesus speaks with authority. What Jesus says, he enacts. The kingdom of God is at hand. The heavens have been torn and God is on the loose in the world. His healings show how humanity is being restored; he forgives (which we’ll look at next week) to affirm that the power of sin is being broken – the power of doing wrong, the power of wrongdoing that separates us from God and from one another; his command over the wind and waves point to his ability to restore all of fallen creation. All these are postcards from the kingdom, telling people that the power of the kingdom of God or the reign of God is really present and its fullness is coming, as someone has said.
This is what is happening. Jesus is telling it. It’s good news time. It’s decision time. It’s kingdom time. “Repent and believe in the good news.” Turn with reckless abandon. Trust. Trust in him. Rest in him. Jesus is telling what’s going on and then he counsels the good and fitting and proper response to what is going on, all in 17 words! “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.”
Jesus makes the invitation. The kingdom of God is not a solo project. As Jesus walks along the lake he sees two sets of brothers. Simon and Andrew. James and John. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” We don’t know what kind of day it was. We don’t know how the four felt about fishing, apart from the fact that James and John were in a family business (“Zeb and Sons”) big enough to have employees. We do know this. For Andrew and Peter and James and John, being in the presence of Jesus meant a change. We heard the line last week about the heavens being torn and a new situation coming about in the person of Jesus. We were reminded of the line from Isaiah who cried out “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” A cry of “We can’t go on like this.” A cry of “I can’t go on like this.” A needful cry. I need this Jesus and my need is all I need to possess for Jesus to say “Welcome to the kingdom, get behind me.” Come after me. Are you ready shoes? Start walking. We’ll walk together.
Jesus will make us something else. Jesus will pull us up out of the water. He’s the fisherman par excellence. If you follow him, he’s the one who pulled you up out of the water. “I am going to turn you into something else,” says Jesus. Jesus doesn’t look only at who we are, you see, he looks at who we will become – in the same way a sculptor looks at a block of marble (and we can be pretty tough to chip away at) and sees not a block of marble but the beautiful sculpture that will result. In the same way that someone who carves wood sees not simply a block of wood, but the beautiful carving that is hidden in that ordinary block of wood. Jesus looks at Peter and sees not simply a man who fishes. Jesus sees a man who is going to preach a sermon one day and people are going to be cut to the heart say “What should we do?” Peter will tell them repent (turn) and be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit of God and those who welcome his message will be baptized and that day about three thousand persons will be added. Jesus looks at Peter and sees the man who will preach the first sermon to a group of Gentiles in the home of an Italian centurion named Cornelius – because everyone is welcome in this kingdom. Jesus sees a man who will be put to death for his following of Christ on a hill in Rome as church tradition has it.
All it takes from us is dropping our nets and following. If you’ve been following Jesus for any length of time, who has God made you, who is God making you, who will God make you? I had no idea at 20 years of age who God would make me at 30, 40, 50. I wouldn’t have believed it. Check with my friends or my dear family. “I will make you fishers of people,” says Jesus, living out and telling of the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God and inviting people into new life. Inviting people to hear the call. Follow me. Come up out of the water and learn what it means to walk on dry land (and I know fish die when they’re taken out of water but Jesus does talk about following him as a kind of death, though you can only take the fish analogy so far and we’ll talk about this in our small groups no doubt). Come up out of the water and find out what it means to live. The following is the thing. The disciples here are our examples and they continue to be throughout the Gospel of Mark. Their following is never in doubt. Lord make us such people. They will be slow to understand, quick to criticize, quick to pride. Their words will not match their following. We are heartened as we are slow to understand, quick to criticize and quick to pride. Our words at times do not match our following. But their following is never in doubt. It’s never in question. It’s never impugned.
I want to speak to those who wouldn’t consider themselves as having made a decision to follow Jesus like these four men. Here’s the good news – the kingdom of God is within reach. Follow him. What are you living for? Maybe it’s stale. Maybe it’s meaningless. Maybe lines like “Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold” have taken on new meaning. This talk of the insufficiency of the status quo might be resonating. This talk of “I/we can’t go on like this” maybe resonating. Get behind this man who is striding alongside the lake. Don’t delay. You may think “I need more faith first.” Don’t delay. Let your following inform your faith, God will work that out. You may think “I don’t have all the answers to my questions.” Neither do I and I have been following Christ for over 40 years. We don’t even know where this Gospel of Mark ends remember. We don’t know everything, but we know the one who does. Don’t think that you need to do a cost/benefit analysis or make a pro/con list. Human reason alone would never get us behind, Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this story “a stumbling block to natural reason.” How could they just up and go? How could they not? They didn’t know what following Christ would involve, what it would cost. In their follow they found life, even in death. You wouldn’t make this stuff up, you really wouldn’t. Bonhoeffer went on, “It gives no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. It is not a cause which human calculation might deem worthy of our devotion.” The story simply describes a call and a response. Let your response be today “God I’m lost and I need You. I want to follow this man and I want to start now. Forgive me and make me who you would have me be.”
You may be a follower of Christ who has been spending too much time in your boat, too much time with your nets. What are you living for? Where does your loyalty lie? Has your discipleship “degenerated into a preoccupation with things like nets and boats” and hired men and women? Take up the call to follow in a renewed way.
For those whose follow is strong and sure, keep walking. Keep on inviting others into the walk by what we do and what we say, as God continues to shape us into the people he would have us be. From wherever we approach the story this morning, may each and every one of us put ourselves into the scene I’m going to end with, coming behind the man who we’ve gone back to Galilee to meet. May this be true for each and every one of us. Amen