Help Wanted

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
January 22, 2012

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:14-20 

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’Jesus Calls the First Disciples

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him (NRSV).

          Today’s Gospel lesson is the story of how Jesus began his public ministry and how he called his first disciples.  I suppose you could decide that all of that is something that happened long, long ago in a land far away, and that it doesn’t really have much to do with you.  But it’s a story about Jesus, the one we call our Lord and Savior.   And it’s about some of his disciples, which is what we call ourselves.  And, finally, it’s a true story, which means that in these few verses we get a glimpse of something Jesus and those first disciples actually did and said.  If someone told me a story about something my great-great-great-great grandfather did or said I would be interested.  I would sit up straight and lean in close, believing that in that story I might learn something about myself.  I think that’s what could happen here today as we take a closer look at this story from Mark’s Gospel, and I’d like to let two questions lead our investigation: 1), why did Jesus do what he did? and 2), why did the disciples do what they did?

1. Why did Jesus do what he did?

          To answer that first question, I’m going to have to back up a little, and maybe a lot.  I remember having a conversation with a World War II veteran years ago, standing outside the post office in Wingate, North Carolina, where I was living and working at the time.  We were talking about that war, and about all he and his fellow soldiers had done to protect our freedom.  He said, “If it hadn’t been for us, we’d all be speaking German now.”  And I have to admit that when he first said it I thought “Cool!” because I had studied just enough German in graduate school to pass the language requirement.  I hadn’t come anywhere close to speaking it.  And the thought that he and I might be standing in front of the post office chatting it up in German was, well…cool.  But then he said, “And there wouldn’t be an American flag up there on that flagpole; there would be a Nazi flag!”  And that didn’t seem cool at all.  Imagine living in Wingate in 1945 and watching German soldiers march into town, lower the American flag, and run the Nazi flag up the flagpole.  How would that feel?  Well, I can tell you, in German:

          Nicht so gut.

          But if you can imagine it then maybe you can imagine how it felt for the people of Jerusalem in 63 BC, when the Roman general Pompey laid siege to the city.  After three months his army broke through the wall and killed 12,000 Jews, with a minimal loss of Roman lives.  Pompey himself tromped through the temple in his muddy boots and even entered the Holy of Holies—the place where only the High Priest was allowed to go, and then only once a year.  He desecrated the temple, captured the city of Jerusalem, and incorporated Judea into the Roman Republic as a client kingdom.  At some point one of his soldiers must have lowered the flag of Judea and run the Roman flag up the flagpole.  I’m not sure what the Judean flag would have looked like—maybe it had a menorah on it—but the Roman flag probably would have been dark red with “SPQR” written on it in gold letters, an acronym that stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus—“The Senate and the People of Rome.”  And if I’m right about this, that would have been the flag flying over the post office in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth when he was growing up.  What do you think the veterans of the old wars would have talked about as they stood there, looking up at that flag?  Don’t you think they would dream of the day when someone would drive those blasted Romans out of their country, and rip down that bloody flag, and run the flag of Israel up the pole?  And don’t you think Jesus knew all that?

          Which makes what he does all the more sensational. 

          After he had been baptized by John in the Jordan, after he had seen the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him, after he had heard God say, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” after he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, after he was tempted by Satan for forty days, and after John had been arrested—after all that—Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “Time’s up.  God’s Kingdom is here.  Change your lives and believe the Message.” 

          For most of my life I think I have pictured Jesus simply walking along the back roads of Galilee, telling anyone he met along the way that the Kingdom of God had come near, and that it was time to repent and believe the good news, but now I have begun to picture it in a different way.  I have begun to picture Jesus going into the little towns of Galilee, hauling the Roman flag down the flagpole, and then—instead of hoisting up the old flag of Israel—hoisting up the new flag of God’s kingdom.  I’m not sure what it would look like, if it would have a crown on it, or the lamb of God, or the Greek letter theta—the first letter of God’s name—but I feel sure that when Jesus ran that flag up the flagpole there would be a gasp from the crowd.  I don’t mean that he did this literally, of course.  I simply mean that what he was doing was the equivalent of this.  New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was going about declaring, after the manner of someone issuing a public proclamation, that Israel’s God was at last becoming king.”[i]

          And then he adds, “Imagine what it would be like…if, without an election or any other official mechanism for changing the government, someone were to go on national radio and television and announce that there was now a new…president.  ‘From today onward,’ says the announcer, ‘we have a new [leader]!  We’re under new government!  It’s all going to be different!’  That’s not only exciting talk,” Wright says. “It’s fighting talk.  It’s treason!  It’s sedition!  By what right is this man saying this?  How does he think he’ll get away with it?  What exactly does he mean, anyway?  An announcement like this isn’t simply a proclamation.  It’s the start of a campaign.”[ii]  For people who had been under Roman rule all their lives, who had dreamed of a day when things would change, this news would have been electrifying.  Which may help us answer that second question:

2. Why did the disciples do what they did?

          Mark says that, “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And 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” (Mark 1:16-20, NRSV).  Why did they leave their nets immediately?  Why did they follow Jesus?  I think I have always assumed that it was because there was something about him that convinced them he was the Son of God.  Maybe he really did have a halo over his head, just like the artists picture him.  Or maybe he spoke with the kind of authority that made it impossible for them to say no (like when my mother used to call me by my full name).  But maybe there is a simpler explanation, and maybe it is that the disciples already knew Jesus, and already knew what he was up to. 

          In John’s Gospel Andrew is introduced as a disciple of John the Baptist.  He is with him there at the Jordan where John is baptizing.  But when he meets Jesus he begins to follow him.  After he has spent some time with him he goes and finds his brother Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah!” (you may recall that it is Jesus who gives Simon his new name, Cephas, which is translated as Peter).  So, on the next day, when Jesus decides to go to Galilee and calls Philip, who then goes and finds Nathanael, it is not impossible to imagine that Peter and Andrew and Philip and Nathanael all go to Galilee with him.  And it is not impossible to imagine that all of them believe he is the Messiah.  Things get a little fuzzy after that.  I’m not sure how Peter and Andrew ended up fishing while Jesus was going around proclaiming the coming kingdom.  I don’t know what happened to Philip and Nathanael.  But can we at least admit the possibility that when Jesus showed up on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, calling Peter and Andrew, James and John, to follow, they weren’t meeting him for the first time, that they knew full well who he was and what he was up to and that that’s why they dropped their nets and followed?

          N. T. Wright says that Jesus was starting a campaign, but if he was we need to be clear about what kind of campaign it was.  It wasn’t like the spectacle we’ve been watching in the last few months, with politicians racing around the country trying to drum up support.  “But,” says Wright, “[Jesus] believed that he was indeed launching God’s kingdom campaign.  He was the one in whose presence, work, and teaching Israel’s God was indeed becoming king.”  In that sense Wright says he was “much more like a rebel leader within a modern tyranny, setting up an alternative government, establishing his rule, making things happen in a new way.  He chooses twelve of his closest followers and seems to set them apart as special associates.  For anyone with eyes to see, this says clearly that he is reconstituting God’s people Israel around himself.  Israel hadn’t had twelve tribes since the eighth century BC…but some of the prophets had spoken of the day when all the tribes would be gathered again.  Jesus’ choice of the twelve seems to indicate, symbolically, that this is how he wanted his work to be seen.  This is a campaign.  It’s a rebel movement, a risky movement…”[iii]  And it is what Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, James and John, to join him in.

          That changes the story for me.  Instead of picturing Jesus walking along the seashore with a halo over his head, asking some fishermen to help him convince people to believe in him so that when they die they can go to heaven, I picture him launching a campaign, a risky, rebel movement to bring in God’s kingdom in all its power and glory, on earth as it is in heaven.  And if Peter and Andrew, James and John, are the kind of people I think they are, they would be eager to join that kind of campaign.  So Jesus doesn’t have to do a lot of explaining.  He simply says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  

I have to confess I don’t really care for that language.  I’ve done some fishing.  I know what you do to fish—you catch them, clean them, cook them, and eat them.  I don’t want to do that to people.  But whatever else Jesus had in mind when he said it he seems to mean, “Right now the full focus of your attention, of your vocation, is on fish.  Let me invite you to turn the full focus of your attention on people.  Let them become your vocation.  Come and join me in this campaign.  Come and be a part of what I’m doing.”  And as if they had been waiting their whole lives for an invitation like that, the disciples drop their nets and follow. 

Which brings me to us.

        Do you ever get that feeling that there has to be more to life than what you’re doing?  Do you ever find yourself going through the motions, watching the clock and waiting for the day to end?  What if someone came along with a dream so big and so beautiful that you knew in a second you could spend the rest of your life trying to make it come true?  And then what if he said, “Come, follow me”?  Isn’t there the slightest chance that you would do it, that you would—like those first disciples—drop everything and follow?  I hope so, because Jesus is still at work in the world.  He is still campaigning for the Kingdom of God.  And he is looking for people just like you who will help him do what he has it in mind to do—run the flag of God’s kingdom up the flagpole, and bring heaven to earth right here, right now.  How about it? 

        Are you in?  Or are you out?

—Jim Somerville, 2012

[i] N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: a New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p. 67.

[ii] Ibid., p. 69.

[iii] Ibid., p. 85.


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