"FOLLOW" - I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Texts: I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Way back almost 100 years ago (1925), a magazine called New York World celebrated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln with a cartoon. Obviously, Abraham Lincoln remains one of the greatest heroes of American culture; this was true in 1925 and it is true today. Our nation reveres Abe Lincoln. So this cartoon, celebrating his birthday, has become something of a classic.
Two Kentucky farmers are pictured, talking over a picket fence. One of the farmers asks, “Anything new happen lately?” The other responds, “Nothing much. A new baby was born over at Tom Lincoln’s place; but nothing much ever happens around here.”
We can probably bet that there were folks who said the same thing in Bethlehem on Christmas night. I can picture it; can you? Standing on the corner, outside the inn one says to another: “Anything new happen around here?” “Naw, just a baby born the other night in a stable to a young couple passing through.” (L. Sweet, A Cup of Coffee at Soul Café, p.164)
This is how we tend to think – life is what it is; . . . things are the way they are. Nothing much happens. This is it and not much changes it.
But, . . . we are called and invited to be part of another narrative, another story-line. Yes, very often we might lean against the picket fence, . . . or scroll through the news feed on Facebook, and assume “Nah, nothing much changes – life is what it is, . . .nothing new going on.”
But there IS another narrative, another story-line. Even on a weekend of a government shutdown, or women marching around the world, or partisan politics as usual – there is ANOTHER narrative.
Paul is alluding to this in our first lesson.
Mark, the gospel writer really gets at this point. Listen to the gospel text for today:
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.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Mark is the second of the gospels in the New Testament, but most scholars agree that Mark was the first gospel written, the oldest record of the life and teachings of Jesus. Matthew and Luke added more parables and stories but basically followed Mark’s stream-lined template. And in our passage today, we get right to the heart of the message, this alternative narrative that is meant to be ours. When we know and live into this alternative narrative, which includes Jesus and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, NEVER can we just say – “Naw, nothing much ever happens – this is just the way it is.” Can’t say that!
In fact, I want to lift up FIVE (5) critical elements of this alternative narrative. These five are clear, direct, and life-changing for our very lives.
First, “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God.”
You know, we often wonder if God cares about us. We often doubt that God knows us and is actually interested in where we are and what we are dealing with. Those feelings get especially intense when life gets frustrating and difficult – “is this all there is? . . . . will our children find a way? . . . Will the current crisis get sorted out? . . . Will the recent setback be the beginning of the end? . . . Will the treatment plan, . . . or the new opportunity, . . . or the suggested solution make things right again? Or are we just doomed to frustration, and worry and suffering?
Here is what Mark says as boldly and as clearly as possible – “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God.”
Galilee is a place – but more than a place – Galilee was where the real people with real problems were. Not the rich people. Not the famous people. Just people – real people with real pains and suffering. Jesus came to them – into their midst – proclaiming the good news of God. Mark, the gospel writer, will NOT let us get away with saying, “Naw, nothing new around here. . . ho hum.” Mark starts off his story by saying Jesus – the Son of God, the Savior of the world – “came to Galilee” –where the people were –“proclaiming the good news of God.” That would be good news to all our bad news. Good news to all our sad news. God is present. God is at work. We should perk up – take notice. Be engaged. There is another story – another narrative that is intended for our lives.
Then Mark, secondly, has another message – in the words that Jesus speaks – these are the FIRST words that Jesus speaks: “The time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God has come near.”
We are really good at thinking ahead, looking ahead. We are really good at anticipating and waiting some time – down the road – when things get better, when all is made right. It is rarely about “Now!” We are often inclined to put off something now – until a later time. You know how it goes, . . . When our children grow up a bit we will get back to working on our marriage. When we have a little more money we will give more away. When our lives are less busy we will be better friends, better neighbors, better disciples. When things are a little different, then we will do this or that.
Jesus says, the time is NOW – the time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. No more waiting. No more postponing. No more “when I get around to it.” There is an urgency, an immediacy to his presence and to his words. Jesus is trying to get our attention with this new narrative – God’s narrative – which applies to our lives, which is meant to be lived out in our lives, today, not later. Now.
Then, third, Jesus speaks another word: “repent.”
I wonder what connotations that word – repent - has for you. Unfortunately, like some other Christian words and phrases, this word “repent” may make us think about those people on the street with long beards, big signs, and loud voices who threaten that the world is soon coming to an end and what we need to do is “repent,” which is to name all our moral imperfections and failings (according that person), and leave them behind, and all will be well.
I am not sure that is the main message of Jesus.
The essence of the word and invitation here is less about our moral imperfections. It has to do with the direction of our lives. A better word, in modern understanding, might be “change directions,” or “alter course in your life.”
Maybe this is what Jesus means – don’t just go through life. Go through life loving God and loving others. Don’t just move through your days; move through your days trying to make the world better. Don’t worry about what the future holds, know Who holds your future. Don’t just think of yourselves, think of others, serve others. Don’t just go to work, work for justice; spread kindness. Don’t just come to church, seek to grow as a disciple who lives closer and closer to God, closer and closer to God’s purposes in the world. Don’t just give a little; give yourself, give your heart, your life.
See – that is what Jesus is saying – change your life. This is what Jesus keeps urging from us. Keep growing, keep becoming. Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, saying “the kingdom of God is at hand;” change your life: love God, love others, Trust God, be kind. Worship God – serve God. This is the narrative in which we live.
Then, fourth, he says, “and believe in the gospel.”
One of my favorite lines in all the Bible comes from a panic-stricken man whose son was very ill. The man asked Jesus to heal his boy. Jesus said to him, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” The man said, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
We are all somewhat like that man. We believe . . . but unbelief is always lurking.
But be sure to hear this: believing is NOT about saying the right words, or achieving some level of quantitative belief along the way. Believing is NOT meant to be a grade – and we have to get to 70% or we fail. When Jesus says “believe in the gospel,” it has more to do with the inclinations of our hearts, the direction and orientation of our lives, than some amount of doctrine we can recite or the creeds that we claim.
If I say to you, “I believe in you” it means I have confidence in you as a person, a colleague, a friend. I open my heart and life to you because you can be trusted.
So, when Jesus says, “believe in the gospel,” I think he is saying trust your life to God. You can. It will give you life and light. Trust your life to God because life is full of heartache and hardship. But we can trust God who will never let us go – even though illness comes, or our loved one departs this life, or the stresses and worries mount, or we do not know what the future holds. Jesus says, “believe in the gospel” – God is present always; God is at work in every situation. Nothing can separate us from God’ love. Believe in the gospel. God is on the scene, your scene. God is at work. God will carry us through. It is not about a quantity or what we know or recite. It is about trusting God and striving to trust God more and more. Believe in the gospel. This intends to be transformative for us, for everything about us.
And then finally, fifth, Jesus says one more thing. He says this to Simon and Andrew: “follow me.” He said this to two brothers, James and John: “follow me.” And immediately, the dropped their nets and followed. And he says it to us: “FOLLOW.”
This is where this alternative narrative to our complex and ho-hum world really matters. It matters what we do. We are invited to FOLLOW - follow Jesus – to take a step, and keep taking steps that carry us away from the selfish, narrow confines of our lives to the big, engaging world of living and serving God each day in ways that bring about the certain coming of God’s kingdom. We are invited to leave behind more and more the safe arenas in which we live and venture forward in faith and devotion, partnering with God in God’s help, healing, joy, and justice in the world.
In 2003, archaeologists digging around in Israel, in the ruins of Masada, found a seed...a date seed...in a container in those ruins...a seed that would be about 2000 year old. One of the researchers on that project planted the seed...not really expecting anything to happen. But having finally landed in good soil...that 2000 year old seed sprouted . . . and within a couple of years, was a plant...some 3 feet tall. That’s one patient seed.
If you think about it . . the one seed that God keeps working on, that Jesus keeps nurturing, that the church is still sowing, . . . . is a 2000 year old story. Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news, saying the time is now, change your life, trust in God, be about FOLLOWING – loving and serving in the ways of Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. . . . with a new truth, a new story-line, a different narrative than the one who are usually urged to live by. That seed intends to lead to a new way, and a new life, and LIFE. Those first disciples met and heard Jesus, and immediately dropped their nets and followed.
And the story kept going, especially when Jesus rose from the grave, showing that love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death, grace is stronger than greed, and hope stronger than despair. Jesus’ story keeps on. And Jesus keeps calling us. Jesus keeps hoping that a 2000 year-old seed will take root in our lives, in our community, and we FOLLOW, and partner with God to bring about the fullness of God’s reign on earth. This is our calling.
This whole movement that started with such humble beginnings, has grown far beyond anyone’s wildest expectation. But that seed...that gospel...that Christ...still seeks to take root in every human heart...ours included. Let’s keep opening our hearts and lives to this wonderful narrative. We can trust God. We can serve God.
May it be so, today, tomorrow, forever. And may God’s reign emerge in us and through us. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: You came – you come – proclaiming the good news, O God. By your Spirit, grow your seed in us. We seek to follow Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday Worship on January 21, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.