Mark 1: 14-20
Good morning and grace and peace. Third Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany already, last Sunday of January! And 32nd Day of the expanded season of Christmas—time to feed the partridge and water the pear tree! After our brief excursion last Sunday into the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel we return now (and continuing for a few more weeks) to the first chapter of St. Mark—and today Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the gathering of those who will be his first Disciples.
If we try to harmonize what we read in Mark two weeks ago and then what we read in St. John last Sunday we would seem to have at least a general sense of things. We last caught a glimpse of Jesus in Luke’s gospel at the age of 13 or so visiting Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph and amazing the elders in the Temple. From then on Jesus has apparently a private life in the quiet Galilean village of Nazareth. Some have pictured him working as a carpenter or builder alongside Joseph. Some have pictured Joseph and Jesus together in a workshop at home—or perhaps they would walk a few miles to work on one of the many large construction projects in the new port city of Caesarea Maritima, which had been developed some years before by Herod the Great. In any event Jesus must have been a bright student in the local synagogue--as he would demonstrate later in life in his extensive and deep teaching of the scriptures.
But then Jesus learned that his kinsman, now known as John the Baptizer, had become the prophetic leader of a movement calling the Jewish people away from their accommodation with the political and social and cultural patterns of the occupying Romans and their collaborators--and what we might just in general call Mediterranean Hellenism. A culture that was in the main secular rather than religious, characterized by a focus on money and sex, violent entertainment, bread and circuses. In a way that made the establishment deeply uncomfortable he is calling the Jewish people to repentance of their association with and collaboration with the forces of this occupying, alien culture—calling them to a renewed spirit of holiness, and obedience to the scriptures. So Jesus comes down to the Jordan, joins the crowd around John, is baptized—and of course as we read two weeks ago with the dramatic moment of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, the voice at this anointing, “this is my beloved son.” John tells us that in the next couple of days after the baptism John the Baptist introduced several of his followers to Jesus in these somewhat strange words, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and that when they heard this they then went to see him, and then told others about him.
Mark tells us that soon after the baptism Jesus left the crowds around John for a while and went on a personal and solitary journey of reflection and prayer and discernment and what we might call vocational testing out in the wilderness—40 days of struggle with the temptations of the enemy and of clarifying and strengthening his resolve for the work ahead.
After that interval Jesus heads back home to the Galilee, where as we read this morning he hears that John the Baptist has been arrested. That news gets him into action, and he goes out and begins what is called his time of “Public Ministry.” His first sermon is concise enough to fit into the 144 characters of a Twitter post: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Clearly building on the urgent message that Matthew tells us had been John the Baptist’s core announcement, “”Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Not a new message for Jesus, but continuing the trajectory, building on a foundation. What we were waiting for, has come to pass.
Jesus then travels around the villages of the area and seeks out some of those John the Baptist followers whom he had met at the Jordan and enlists them to join him. That’s where we are in Mark today. Their former leader imprisoned, some of John the Baptist’s ardent disciples are back home and at their work fishing in the Sea of Galilee, wondering what will come next, whether the soldiers are likely to come for them next . . . whether God was really at work in John . . . whether there really was some larger purpose and meaning to it all.
So they had taken a great risk to go down to John, who said his ministry was to fulfill the prophetic vocation, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” And now here Jesus reaches out to them with those memorable words from the King James: “come after me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” As soon as they hear his call they know the answer to all their questions, the gears mesh, it all comes together, and from that moment at the seashore they follow him out into the wide world, in what we know will become the journey of their lives—and of our lives. Andrew and Peter, James and John.
I would say that what always strikes me about this moment in Mark is the clarity and the sharpness of this transition. A sudden pivot. A turn in a new direction. 180 degrees. Whatever it was that Peter and Andrew had seen in Jesus a few months before at the Jordan. Whatever it was that they made of what John the Baptist had said. Something so powerful in the word that Mark uses here about their decision. One of Mark’s distinctive and favorite adverbs, recurring again and again. “Immediately.” Immediately they left their nets. Not even taking the time to finish cleaning them and put them back in the boats for later use. They just let them drop where they are. And the same for James and John. I always picture their father Zebedee looking up with astonishment. “Where are you going, boys? We haven’t finished yet!”
I’ve always been fascinated by stories about these kinds of sudden turns in the road. A friend of mine back in the late 1970’s who had been living and working in Philadelphia. Where he had lived his whole life. He was at a holiday party with friends, when as sometimes happened back in the 1970’s he discovered that he had run out of cigarettes. He excused himself, told his girlfriend that he was going out, put on his coat, and headed down to a store a couple of blocks away. After making his purchase he didn’t feel so much like going back to the party, so he thought he’d take a walk. He was mulling over his life I guess in some general way, I guess, but as he walked it got colder, so he got on a bus, and soon found himself at the bus station. Where he got off the bus, walked into the station, went upstairs, and bought himself a ticket for Greyhound to California that was leaving in 20 minutes. “I really hadn’t thought it out at all,” he told me. “I just knew in that moment that it was what I needed to do.”
Anyway. I haven’t had anything in my life quite in that pattern, I don’t think, but certainly moments of sudden insight and decision. Falling in love, like that. Susy is here, so I’ll blush. I guess we all probably have stories like this. Unexpected turns in the road.
For St. Paul on the Road to Damascus there was a burst of light in the sky and a thundering supernatural voice. For me, as many of you have heard the story, not quite so dramatic. I recall a moment coming down the stairs of the Moffitt Undergraduate Library at Cal, in the winter of 1973, my junior year. I had been thinking about things for a while, big questions. Meaning of life kinds of things. Reading, taking classes, long hours of conversation in Telegraph Avenue coffee houses. Philosophy, politics, history, different kinds of religious and spiritual things. Even slipping in over at St. Mark’s across Bancroft Way from the Harmon Gym on an occasional Sunday morning for Choral Morning Prayer and one of George Tittmann’s wild, scholarly, convoluted, poetic 35-minute sermons. Obviously something was going on. I knew that, but I wasn’t really sure what. Quietly working its way, from the outside in. Then there was this one particular day when I was on the third floor of the library headed down, I was clearly in my own mind a skeptic and an agnostic, full of questions, despite and perhaps in some ways because of all the years of Sunday School and Acolyting and Youth Group and all the rest. But somehow, and it is simply a mystery to me, by the time I hit the ground floor that afternoon I had heard Jesus say my name and I knew who he was, and I had said yes. All without missing a step. Don’t think I even slowed down. Immediately. It wasn’t exactly “come after me and fish for people,” but in many ways I think now that maybe that’s what I had heard.
In the gospels this happens in so many ways. It happens for all of us in so many different ways. Not just one template, one pattern for the conversion of life into a relationship with Christ Jesus. How in the midst of lives lived for ourselves we suddenly can hear as we never heard before, with the ears of the heart, and can be transformed by him, meeting him, and given new direction and new purpose. Whatever “fishing by the sea” might mean for us today, and however we might hear the invitation to a life lived with Jesus.
Just picturing ourselves there this morning, by the lake. Tending our nets. Minding our own business. And then to hear his voice. Opening our eyes and ears, and in the imagination of our minds and our hearts to see ourselves dropping those nets, and standing up, and walking with him from that day forward. As if it all were all happening here and now, today.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.