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A Fishy Story

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, 2/21/18. The text was Mark 1:14-20.         
                                          
Ok, I know I’m not the only one who thinks there’s something fishy about today’s gospel. Are we to really believe that these four prospective disciples would instantly drop everything and follow Jesus—and do this at night, since that’s when fishing took place to get the fish to market while they were fresh. 

Jesus came to Galilee with the message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (v. 15). This does not refer to the regular tick-rock, minutes and seconds kind of time, but God’s time—the opportune, royal time of God’s action and activity. God is getting involved.

The kingdom of God language evoked Israelite memory of a time of political independence. God’s rule would usher in an age of justice and peace according to the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 52:7). According to Mark, this kingdom is “of God.” It is a realm in which life belongs to and reflects God. Jesus’ parables suggest the hidden presence of the kingdom’s beginning. Its arrival seems both inevitable and outside of human control. 

The word translated as kingdom is complex. It does not solely refer to either the church or the afterlife, but to a life wholly transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus's Christ. It is not a place, but God’s new way of ruling a world of sinners through the Messiah/King Jesus as opposed to the old way through the law, through judging and administering justice against sinners. The bottom line is, Jesus is the king and where the king is, there is the kingdom—in heaven, in you, in me—in all of us together. 

The kingdom has come near is the refrain of Jesus—where the work of God is done among the people of God, there the kingdom of God can be found. It is the heart of Jesus’ message. This phrase located the realm of God, this defining moment and space is near. It also means that an action has now begun and is yet unfinished. Mark’s view is that the kingdom is future, but so near that it already affects the present. 

When Jesus called Simon and Andrew, they were busy fishing. They were not looking for a religious or life-altering experience. They were doing pretty well for themselves. After all, they had a good occupation, living right on the Lake of Galilee with plenty of fish to be caught. 

Then unexpectedly, there was Jesus calling to them to follow him. There was no time to think over this proposition, no invitation to take your time. Just go. This was certainly unexpected and undeserved. Here we see an epiphany that demanded an immediate response.  

They “immediately left their nets and followed [Jesus]” (v. 18). Immediately is a word Mark uses repeatedly in his gospel. It is Mark’s indication of the urgency of Christ’s call to his hearers. It appears twice in today’s reading and 27 times in Mark’s gospel, not counting all the uses of “at once.”

Now there’s a lot Mark doesn’t tell us. Were Simon and Andrew, James and John dissatisfied with their occupation?  Did they have a previous knowledge of Jesus? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we do know that there was something compelling enough in Jesus’ voice to draw them to him immediately. 

As I noted in this week’s e-ministry, Mark’s gospel is like the hurry-up offense in football when there are only two minutes remaining in the quarter of a game. This is why we stand each week for the gospel reading—so that we are on our feet, ready to follow our Lord wherever he leads us. 

The literal meaning of the word “follow” is to “come behind.” “Come behind me” may be a way of saying, “Make Jesus the most important thing in your life.” Besides the meaning of the Greek, it has a figurative meaning of being a disciple.

Jesus tells Simon and Andrew that they will fish for people. We have in early Christian imagery baptism as water, believers as water-dwellers, the net as the gospel, and the boat as the church. There was an early Christian creed, “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” The Greek for this presents the acronym which spells the Greek word for fish. The imagery of fish abounds in many ancient Christian icons and elsewhere. 

Mark tells us just a little more about James’ and John’s situation. They were well off enough to own a boat and have hired servants. At the word of Jesus, they left it all behind—the boat, their family, and the hired men! Most of us have not experienced this degree of changing our lives. 

Both sets of men immediately obeyed the call of Jesus. The could not pretend, ignore or avoid the moment. This was no time to procrastinate. They respond not with fear or flight, but with faith and trust. They believe this call is good news. They freely follow Jesus, confident of the future that is in the hands of the One who could be counted on no matter what. The new disciples have entered into a new reality where they can give themselves away in love to their neighbors, so they too may believe that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

As a second career pastor, I can imagine just a tiny bit of what these disciples experienced—our departure from Rhode Island to go to seminary wasn't nearly as sudden. We moved quite a bit—from Rhode Island to Gettysburg for two years, from Gettysburg to West Virginia for a year of internship, then back again to Gettysburg for my senior year of seminary. That wasn’t the end of the moves either—we moved from Gettysburg to Portville into a house for a short time, then from that house to another house. Since our time at Gettysburg, our most recent and last move, from Portville to Bemus Point, is the place we’ve been the longest—3 years. 

However, this pales in comparison to these disciples’ responses of sudden departures, leaving everything, to start a life on the road, relying only on the generosity of strangers and God’s providence. Jesus’ disciples had no salary, parsonage or pension—they just picked up and left the only life they’d ever known and followed Jesus. 

What would make you leave what you know and venture out in quest of something new? For my son, Christian, it was being pursued by a company that wanted him enough, that they made it inviting enough position-wise and financially, to pack up and move from Syracuse to Kansas City. 

When we fall in love and get married, it sometimes means a geographical move along with other changes in our lives. We may not want to leave our family and friends, but we are willing to do so to be with our beloved. 

This Sunday we have heard Jesus call his disciples to repent, believe and follow him. This is the same call for us as well. When Jesus calls us, our lives are immediately altered by the preaching of the word. We are to “repent, and believe in the good news” (v. 15). Repentance does not mean feeling bad or guilty. It does mean to turn around and change direction, to change one’s behavior. A whole range of feelings may accompany repentance from sorrow over past deeds to joy for new options, to confidence for finding firm ground. 

Believing in the good news is better translated “Trust in the good news.” It’s not a matter of having an opinion about the good news, but responding to a call for a radical, total, unqualified basing of our lives on the good news; a living into the good news. 

There are those times when your response is outside of your control. I vividly remember when I was in labor with my first child, Sarah. The closer I got to her being born, the more I thought that there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop this. I am going to be a parent and it is completely outside of my control. It is happening, no matter what. 

This is perhaps what it was like for the disciples in Mark. If the heavens are ripped apart, then you’d better get ready for a wild ride. This is “simultaneously freeing and terrifying. We are free to respond and yet terrified of how the future may unfold (Karoline Lewis). 

Have any of us ever experienced that sudden urgent need to respond to something we have a feeling God is calling us to? Have you heard that still, small voice? What did you do? Did you reason it away as merely a stray thought that ran through your mind? Did you ask others what they thought it meant? Or did you just simply respond and do what God told you to? 

What is God calling you to, as an individual and us to, as a church? Are you called to teach? There are openings for that. Are you called to sing? There is always a place for that. Is your call to be friendly and welcoming? We excel at that and yet there can never be too much welcome. I came across a statement while preparing my message that sums up what our response to Jesus should be, “Our task is to share a faith that is exciting enough to be contagious” (Hare).

After worship, we will recount the activities of 2017 here, at St. Timothy. Whether you are a member or not, we welcome you to stay. As author Fredrick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC). You just may find that place today.  Amen.

References

Steven E. Albertin, Sabbaththeology, Now is the Time
M. Eugene Boring, Mark, A Commentary
David Ewart, holytextures.co
Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation series
Steven Kuhl, Text Teaser for Mark 1:14-20, Epiphany 3, 2018
Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org
David Lose, workingpreacher.org
Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Mark
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com

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