Epiphany 3, January 22, 2006
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.
NO LOOKING BACK !
Jesus really messes around with your life! We frequently speak as though he gives it sense and meaning – and, of course, he does that, too!
Bur first of all he messes around with you no end! The four disciples mentioned in today’s text could attest to that.
After his baptism and John the Baptizer’s arrest, according to Mark, Jesus starts roaming the towns and villages, the hills and valleys of Galilee with a simple message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” At first glance that may not seem too terribly unsettling, but, trust me, it really is!
THE MAKING OF KINGDOMS
After all, what is a kingdom without a king? We usually think of kingdoms geographically, but there are more invisible kingdoms than there are visible ones. In fact, there are as many kingdoms as there are people, for each of us is trying to be king of our own kingdom. Sometimes that does involve space, but more often it involves the control of our lives in other ways. All of us live in our own kingdom, as it were, and we either are trying to carve out a larger kingdom or else we are busily trying to protect the kingdom we have. It may be the power we sense at our disposal. It may be the respect we want from others. It may be the wealth we feel so necessary if we are to feel secure. It may be the control we exercise in this or that arena of our lives. But everywhere we are exerting our efforts to seize or maintain or enlarge the arena of the kingdom we perceive to be our own.
Now, mind you, some of that isn’t all bad in itself. After all, one should have self-respect and there is nothing wrong with an appropriate stewardship of life in any or all of those areas we have mentioned. The problem comes when we make our kingdoms so “final,” so “ultimate,” so “absolute” that they become held as though by “divine right.” They are made, sustained and expanded at the expense of others. We adamantly “hold our ground” against all assaults on this kingdom we claim as our own “divine right.” Other kingdoms come into conflict with ours, try to move in on our kingdom. They infer that our kingdom’s boundaries should be moved in the interests of their own kingdom. We go to great lengths … often extreme lengths … to defend the kingdom we have so diligently made for ourselves.
That usually occurs in subtle ways, of course. Someone pushes around on you. Rarely is it physical, but you experience it as very real. You sense that someone is trying to move in too close to your kingdom and threatening its borders. Sometimes you feel that your kingdom is hemmed in by rules and regulations established by others at work, in your home, in your neighborhood, in the civic arena, or even in friendship circles. It is no wonder that wars take place among nations when we realize in how many ways our own personal kingdoms come under assault and the lengths we will go to protect them . . . and even to enlarge them so that our “inner boundaries” are secure.
Ah, yes, those kingdoms are all around us, pressing on us, attempting to gain inroads into our own kingdom. So we struggle to maintain our own territory and shove on the territory of others. This is ever so sophisticated most of the time. Rarely are these efforts overt, plain to see, clear to the eye. But in ever so many ways this push and shove is perpetually taking place among us all. We all strive to be kings, because kingdoms require kings!
Simon and Andrew, James and John, also had their kingdoms. They were simple enough kingdoms: A few boats, perhaps, a decent business, a good place in their community. But it was enough. Kingdoms do not have to be large to be satisfactory. They were at peace with their place in the world.
THEN HERE COMES JESUS MESSING UP ALL THOSE KINGDOMS
Then all at once – out of nowhere, it seems – Jesus came telling everyone who would listen that all those kingdoms were shams. “Turn away from them,” he said. “They will all cave in. One kingdom eats another kingdom alive. They collide with one another. They are all empty shells that will crumble and vanish with time. Don’t put your time and energy into kingdoms like that!” “Repent!” was the simple word he used, but the word meant to turn away from such foolishness.
“Surely everybody longs for something better than that!” he said. Well, what he said was, “The time is fulfilled,” but it meant that a critical moment was at hand that would fill out all the waiting and longing that had been part of the human condition throughout the ages. Prophets of old had looked forward to this moment through many centuries. Their lives were so filled with the Spirit of God that they had longed and hungered for more than what was at hand. They were sure that God had more to say and do than anything they could quite put into words or comprehend at the moment. They were preachers to their time. They never stopped uttering words that cried out for deliverance from this never-ending competition of empty kingdoms through the ages. “Quit your foolish attempts at building your own kingdoms and look forward to God’s kingdom,” they thundered. “If you do that, it will change the very way you live!” they said. Jesus said, “Now everything they ever longed for or about which they have spoken is coming to a head and is about to be seen in a fully visible presence. Those who long for it will now have it come so near that they will be overwhelmed.” “The kingdom of God is at hand,” is the way he said it in compressed form.
It is important to remember again that kingdoms are not necessarily geographic, but are defined by the king who creates and / or presides over the kingdom. So Jesus is not telling them that God is about to re-arrange national boundaries, carving out a particular piece of land for divine rulership. Jesus is, in fact, telling them that the King is coming into their midst with a kingdom of quite another sort, and all who would “believe in the gospel – the good news of this King coming among them” would find through him a citizenship in the kingdom that supercedes all those little kingdoms we create for ourselves as we arrange and enforce and enjoy the control that we feel the need to exercise over the geographical or emotional or whatever space we choose to call our own, establishing our personal boundaries over which we declare ourselves the master and king.
Many around Jesus, of course, could not think past geographical boundaries. He had to constantly alert them to the fact that his Kingship was of a different sort than restoring Israel’s national pride or enlarging the boundaries of a land over which kings like David and Solomon had once presided, the very ground on which the people now lived although the control of which belonged to the Romans. “Repent!” he cried. “Think differently. Turn away from the dimensions of your human considerations and consider, instead, the kingdom from above. Human boundaries mean nothing to the heavenly kingdom.” Jesus may as well have said, in the words of the psalmist, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King in Zion, my holy hill.’ I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalm 2:2-9 ESV) But all he said was, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
So Jesus came messing around with human kingdoms, insisting that another kingdom would engulf and overwhelm and overpower all those little kingdoms that people had so carefully constructed and guarded and in which they felt secure. “Turn away from all that,” he said. But he said more, “Turn toward the kingdom where security is of a different nature, where God’s presence is the light and there is no more darkness, where sickness and death must give way to health and wholeness and a life that is more full, more intense, more deeply rooted than anything you can ever assemble on your own. Let the King of this kingdom rule your life and you will be amazed at how much more grand this kingdom is than your shabby little huts that you treasure so much. ‘Believe in the gospel,’” he said.
The visible manifestation of this kingdom, of course, was the King, himself . . . namely Jesus. He immediately started building a citizenry within this kingdom. “Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.” So now there were four. And more were to follow. Twelve of them in all he would especially instruct as they followed him in close company. These first were fishermen, but it was quite a motley crew that he eventually assembled as those to whom he would entrust the furtherance of this kingdom he was bringing into existence. Although they recognized immediately that someone special was at hand, little did they dream of how thoroughly he would utterly perplex their lives, overturning everything of their past and establishing an entirely different future than they ever could have envisioned.
Three things stand out in this account. Firstly, what I have called a “motley crew.” He hardly chose people that one would expect for the building of a new kingdom . . . or, as our text has it, to be his “fishermen.” One would expect more sophistication, more people of unusual character. They were so ordinary, though, so unlike anything one would expect either as citizens of this special kingdom or as those who would build upon the foundations here being laid. They were people (wonder of wonders!) just like you and me! Nothing exceptional here in sophistication, education, social standing, wealth, innate power, intellectual ability, etc. Just plain people from every walk of life like us gathered here this morning! The significance of this is simple: The kingdom does not depend on its citizenry. It depends on its King! It is the King who makes the kingdom and it is life in the kingdom that transforms the citizenry into the kind of people out which the kingdom is built. So first of all, the pronoun changes almost imperceptibly from “them” to “us.”
The second thing is this: When Jesus said, “Follow me,” it was not an invitation. It was a command! He did not make a suggestion that they should tag along with him for a while, and if they discovered that they were of the same mind he was, they would together build a different kind of life. It was just the other way around. He said, “In following me, you will find a new kind of life. It is imperative that you leave everything behind and follow me. With me you will find a different kind of life.” It is that “repent” thing again . . . “turn away from the empty futility of the life that you have known and turn toward the one in whom the kingdom of heaven is found.” “Follow me!” he said. “Don’t look back. Turn from the past and toward the future. And the future is in me.”
The third thing is the urgency that is apparent in the text. “ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” “And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.” Eight times in various contexts this word “immediately” is found in this first chapter of Mark alone! It is indicative of the urgency that marks this Gospel throughout. The old kingdoms are falling away and one dare no longer trust in them, for “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Why hold on to the failing and falling kingdoms? Turn away from them and don’t look back!
Little did these four men in our text dream of how totally their world would be messed around with, though, once they followed him. We are told nothing of their emotions, their thoughts, their sentiments as they “immediately” left business and position in life and family (can you imagine how startled old Zebedee must have been when he so suddenly was left holding the nets all by himself?) to follow Jesus. All they knew was that he promised something they could not find anywhere else.
And at first there must be have been exhilaration as the crowds around Jesus grew. They watched him mend the lame, give sight to the blind, raise the sick from their bed (Simon saw his mother-in-law healed by Jesus shortly after this!), exercise authority over demonic powers, and even restore life to the dead. It must have been troublesome on occasion to hear some of the sharp edges of Jesus’ teaching when he said things like “Take up your cross and follow me” or “Whoever would save his life must lose it” or “If your eye offends you pluck it out,” but those moments were offset by others more comforting and encouraging and inspirational. Follow him, they did, though, through thick and thin, good times and bad. Still . . . they never quite “got it.”. The James and John of our text would ask Jesus somewhere along the line for seats of privilege when this kingdom he was proclaiming took on a fully visible earthly form such as they wholly expected. They wanted everyone to know that they, who many called fools for following this man with such an obviously dead-end future, were not fools after all. “Let us sit at your right and left hand,” they asked of him. There it would become obvious they had made the right choice. Then the other disciples became angry with them for asking this favor since they all, themselves, expected these very places of honor! Nor did they ever quite understand Jesus’ constant insistence on going to Jerusalem where he would suffer, die and be raised again. “Never!” Peter said. And Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan!” They were bewildered.
Then everything caved in on them! Talk about messing around with life! Jesus had led them down a rosy path that began to look less and less rosy as things went along. One of them named Judas became so disenchanted that he wanted to leave the band but didn’t seem to quite know how to do it in an honorable way. So, for a pitiful reward, he led the enemies of Jesus to the place where Jesus could be taken into custody quietly and away from the crowds who still had some confidence that Jesus would do something dramatic, something spectacular, something that would show the Romans where to get off. And the religious authorities managed to get this man Jesus crucified! The one who had messed around with lives all over the place now found the world messing around with his life. Laid in a grave, he left those who had followed him in a deep quandary. What were they to do now? They had followed him as he had commanded them . . . and the sand of his life dribbled out through their fingers. What kingdom would they, each and every one, now have to rebuild? The kingdom of God, which Jesus had promised, had turned out to be nothing but an empty wishdream. Their old kingdoms were in shambles, neglected and ignored while they followed him to experience this hope that the kingdom of God was near. Now they had nothing. Or so it seemed, at least.
Ah, but Kings are noted for their authority are they not? And this King had authority even over death itself. Well . . . you know the end of this story. The wonder, the awe, the majesty of the Risen Lord overwhelmed these poor little everyday men and women who had followed him and they were empowered by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost to move out into all the world bearing the good news. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,” they, themselves, now proclaimed! It was “for us” that he died and was raised! His death and resurrection are the very gateway to the kingdom of God! They poured water, as he had instructed, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They broke bread and drank wine together, remembering that “This is my body . . . this is my blood poured out for you.” “For you,” they kept saying. “For you.”
And “for us” gathered here. The pronoun continues to be interchangeable. “They,” “us,” together we follow this one whom we call the Christ, the Anointed One, the Promised One of God, the King who fulfilled the hopes and dreams of men and women of ages past and who continues to fulfill the hopes and dreams of men and women of today and for all futures. The waters of our baptism are his call to “Come, follow me.” He still changes lives for all who heed his call and walk in his footsteps like those first disciples as those who trust their future to him, who are willing to let him crush all the little kingdoms constructed out of the stuff of this earth so that the kingdom of God can become the overarching rule of life. For such, there is no looking back. There is only the One in whom all futures are contained and whose kingdom is more significant than any kingdom this earth can conjure up.
In C. S. Lewis’ story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Mr. Beaver tells the four children who sit at his feet hearing about the Lion who will come to save Narnia from its unending winter, “’Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Mr. Beaver is ever so right! The Lion of Judah, the one known as Jesus, isn’t safe. He messes around with us no end until we “repent” and recognize the glory of the truth that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” That is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven . . . thy kingdom come! Amen!”
Hubert Beck, Austin, TX