1/21/2024

“Celebrity Sightings: Jesus Came to Galilee”

Celebrity Sightings: “Jesus Came to Galilee”

First Baptist Richmond, January 21, 2024

Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, 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.”

As part of my research for this sermon series I’ve been asking people about their celebrity sightings. Last week someone told me that he once spent five hours with Gene Kelly, the famous dancer and actor. Kathy Rock told me that her first babysitter was Willie Shoemaker, the jockey. But last week’s winner was my friend Randy Ashcraft who told me that when he was a pastor in Seneca, South Carolina, he had to drive to Atlanta to visit a church member who was in the hospital. On the way back he had a little time to kill and stopped by a race track called Road Atlanta. Randy’s always been a bit of a car fanatic, but he’d never been to this particular track. He stopped by the office and asked if he could take a look and they said, “Help yourself. The Bob Sharp racing team is out there doing a few laps.” So Randy walked out to the track, watched a car going around and around (because that’s what they do), but eventually this car pulled over, the driver got out, took off his helmet, and there stood Paul Newman.

Yes. That Paul Newman: the actor. I wonder how many of you in this room who would be willing to raise your hand and admit that you once had a crush on Paul Newman because a lot of people did. He had those gorgeous blue eyes and that easy, infectious grin. I remember him from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You may remember him from Cool Hand Luke or the Color of Money, or

Winning (where he learned to drive race cars), but almost anyone of a certain age will remember Paul Newman. Randy did. He could hardly believe his eyes. He said Paul walked over and asked, “Who are you?” and Randy said, “I’m nobody. I’m a Baptist preacher from Seneca, South Carolina.” Paul said, “I’ve heard of Seneca.” They made small talk for a few minutes and then Paul moved on but Randy has never forgotten it. When I asked him if he had ever seen a celebrity that story leaped into his mouth even though it took place more than thirty years ago.

But let’s go back even further. Let’s go back 2,000 years to this morning’s Gospel lesson, which begins with the news that “after John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee.” If you’re just tuning in to this series you might need to know that I’m talking about John the Baptist, who was a celebrity in his own right. Jesus once said that among those born of women no one was greater than John. He had his own following and it was considerable. Some people thought that he might be the Messiah. But after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, and after he was tempted in the wilderness, and after John was arrested by Herod, Jesus came to Galilee, and as I’ve said before, Jesus is, arguably, the most famous person who has ever lived.

Although at that point no one knew it.

Jesus came from humble origins. If you know anything about him at all you know that he grew up in the little town of Nazareth, in Galilee—the son of a carpenter. We don’t know for sure, but some have suggested that when his father died Jesus took over the family business and worked in relative obscurity until he was about thirty years old. That’s when he went to be baptized by John in the Jordan. After that he came back to Galilee, but not to Nazareth. It doesn’t say so in this morning’s reading but Jesus went to Capernaum to begin his ministry and there’s a reason: Capernaum was strategic. In one sense it was just a little fishing

village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but in another sense it was the crossroads of the ancient world. A road called the Via Maris (“the way of the sea”) ran right through Capernaum, and if you were traveling from Asia to Africa, or from Africa to Asia, that’s the way you would go. The Via Maris was the primary route between one continent and another, and if you had a message that you were trying to get out there, this would be one of the best places in the world to do it. As they say in the real estate business: “Location, location, location!”

I’ve often pictured Jesus setting up a soapbox by the side of the road, climbing up on it, and beginning to preach: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!” But this time around I’m picturing something a little more dramatic: Jesus, going to the courthouse in the center of town; bringing down the flag of the Roman Empire and running up the flag of God’s Kingdom. And then, once a crowd had gathered, announcing that “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news!” Because his message is not only theological; it is also political.

On Tuesday morning of last week I was getting ready to write the email I send out to the people who use my website. Did you know I have a website? It’s called A Sermon for Every Sunday and it’s a collection of video sermons by America’s best preachers for every Sunday of the Christian year. I started it nearly ten years ago to help churches that didn’t have or couldn’t afford a regular preacher. I thought the fifteen people who gathered for worship in one of those churches could sing some hymns, say some prayers, read some Scripture and then, when it was time for the sermon, just push a button and there would be one of America’s best preachers up there on the screen. But through the years I’ve

developed a kind of rapport with the people who use these sermons. I send them a weekly email to tell them what’s coming up. Last Tuesday I told them this:

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It’s the day after the Iowa Caucus.

I’ve been reading the news (which I don’t always do), and found myself disheartened by a headline that read: “A Raw Contest of Two Aged Men.”

Is that what we’re in for this year? A deeply divided electorate and a bitter, bloody boxing match between a couple of octogenarians? And those of us who preach, when we stand in the pulpit will we once again face a politically polarized congregation that wants to know which side we’re on, one that listens for coded language in every sentence, looking for an excuse to storm out of the room?

Reading the news makes my heart heavy. Reading the Gospel, on the other hand, gives me hope.

In this Sunday’s lesson Jesus speaks (for the first time in the Gospel of Mark), and what he says is this: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In stark contrast to our battle-weary, deeply divided, Disunited States of America, is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom: of what the world will look like when God finally has God’s way. I asked my colleagues to picture it in last week’s staff meeting. I said, “Imagine that tomorrow morning you wake up and find that God’s kingdom has come, like a blanket of fresh snow on our beleaguered nation. What would be different?” They closed their eyes and thought about it for a minute, but then they began to say, “No child would go to bed hungry.” “The hospitals would be empty.” “Strangers would greet one another as friends.” “There wouldn’t be any trash on the streets.” Once they got started they couldn’t stop dreaming

about how things will be when God’s kingdom comes.

That’s why Jesus calls this good news, and although I have to remind myself sometimes, that’s what I get to preach. This Sunday I will stand in the pulpit knowing that a “raw contest between two aged men” is not our only option. There is this other thing—this glorious Kingdom—just waiting to be ushered in. And maybe, if we spend our time on that instead of politics, it will come before November.i

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I think that’s the way Jesus announced the Good News of God’s coming kingdom: not so much as a rival to the Kingdom of Rome, but as an entirely different reality. When he had time to flesh out his vision later he said: “The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed. It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep. It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market. It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the dad who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son. It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified. It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham. It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever.”ii

Suppose that Jesus didn’t preach only one sermon in Capernaum, but that day after day he brought down the flag of Rome and hoisted the flag of the Kingdom, that day after day he told the gathered crowds what the world would be like when God finally had God’s way. Don’t you think Peter and Andrew, James and John, might have had the opportunity to hear him preach? Don’t you think the

seeds of the Kingdom might have already begun to take root in them when Jesus walked along the seashore that day and called them to follow? It’s hard to make sense of this story otherwise. It’s hard to believe that a complete stranger would walk along the seashore, call you, and you would immediately follow. I suppose it’s possible. There may be someone you’ve heard of or seen on television for whom you would drop everything. But it makes more sense to me that these first disciples had had a chance to hear Jesus, and that they liked what they heard, and when he called them to follow they were willing to drop everything for his sake, and for the sake of the coming Kingdom.

Because that’s how it happens still.

I got to visit with Brent Walker a couple of weeks ago. For years Brent served as the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, DC. The Baptist Joint Committee is a kind of a watchdog organization that does it’s best to maintain the separation between church and state. That’s important work, and it’s an important committee, and for all those years he was the Executive Director I thought of Brent as a kind of celebrity.

But I got to know him when we were in graduate school together at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. We ran together from time to time. Brent was known on that campus for several reasons: 1) he had given up a partnership at the most prestigious law firm in Tampa, Florida, in order to come to seminary, 2) he drove a brand-new black Volvo sedan, with tan leather interior—nobody else at seminary had a car that nice, and 3) most of the women on campus simply referred to him as “the gorgeous lawyer” (move over, Paul Newman). Brent came down from DC for Elmer West’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago and we got to talk at the reception. I don’t know what kind of car he

drove but the women in the room assured me that he is still gorgeous.

We talked about his life before seminary, and there was someone there who knew about Tampa and knew about Brent’s previous law firm. “You were a partner there?!” they said. “Oh, my gosh! You had it made. Why would you ever leave that?” And that seemed like an interesting question. I said to Brent, “You know, I’d love to hear that whole story someday, of what moved you to leave that glamorous life behind and come to Southern” (because I promise you that when Brent left Southern he wasn’t driving the latest model sedan. Christy used to say that seminary was “the great equalizer”). We didn’t talk so much about his actual call, but we did talk about whether or not it had been worth it. “Do you ever regret leaving that life behind?” I asked. “Are you sorry that you did it?” And Brent said, “Not for a minute.”

My guess is that while he was sitting in the pews at Bayshore Baptist Church in Tampa all those years ago he kept hearing about Jesus, and about this incredible kingdom where the least will be great and the last will be first. That at some point he became convinced that a life of striving for more and more material gain would leave him empty, and that what he wanted was a life full of meaning and purpose. My guess is that when he told his wife he was thinking about leaving the law firm and going to seminary she told him he was crazy, but eventually realized that the only way Brent could be Brent was to follow his heart. And so she followed him, and recently they celebrated 52 years of marriage.

“If you could do it all over again,” I asked, “would you do it differently?” and Brent said, “Not at all.” At some point he had been willing to drop everything to follow Jesus, and Jesus had not disappointed him. What about you? Some of you have been sitting on the pew of a Baptist church for a long time. You’ve heard the

preacher talk about the Kingdom of God. You’ve heard Jesus call you to drop whatever else you may be doing and follow him. Are you ready? Is it time? In just a moment we’re going to sing our closing hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” For some of you it will be testimony—the story of your life. For others it will be an invitation—a chance to leave behind anything that would keep you from it,

And follow him.

—Jim Somerville © 2024