A sermon preached on January 24th, 2021 based upon Mark 1:14-20 entitled, “Catching a Glimpse of Something So Wonderful We No Longer Need to the Knee-jerk Comparison Habit”
We are early in the Gospel of Mark. In thirteen verses prior to our reading, John has appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and masses of people have come out to the River Jordan in response to his invitation. Jesus himself shows up, humbly allowing himself to be dunked by John. As he rises out of the water the heaven is “torn open” and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. Immediately the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness specifically to be tempted by Satan for forty days.
This is where we pick up the story in the 14th verse of the first chapter of Mark’s Gosple.
Now after John was arrested, (a foreshadowing here of what will happen to Jesus who also challenges the authorities who wield power abusively) 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.”
Let’s unpack the basic concepts here: The time is fulfilled, meaning it’s ripe. A regime change is about to occur.
The Kingdom of God is already fully formed in what we call “heaven”, but God desires for God’s reign to take hold here on earth. God’s kingdom is that place where love prevails – where all people are equally valued because their sacred worth given to them by their creator is recognized. In God’s kingdom that are no no status ladders.
What is it in us that resists the God’s kingdom? You could point to many things, but one of the primary ways sin gets expressed is the compulsive tendency of we human beings to compare ourselves with others. We compare ourselves to those up the ladder and feel inferior – we’re not good enough. We compare ourselves to those below us on the ladder and we feel superior.
To repent means to turn around – to walk with God – to see life as God does.
Believe the Good News – trust in God’s graciousness in this tumultuous time.
Having made this general statement that highlights the central theme of Jesus’ ministry, there is special significance given to the story Mark proceeds to tell us first — the calling of the first disciples. What Jesus is about isn’t meant to be a solo affair. Mark’s whole Gospel confronts us with Jesus and the challenge to follow in his way. It is, I would suggest, what the church is all about – learning together to do the Jesus walk.
“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.”
This is a familiar story, the calling of these four fishermen. Most often, however I think most the way we hear it is unhelpful in two counts.
First, our knee-jerk comparison habit kicks in and we compare ourselves to the fishermen and their willingness to suddenly leave everything behind to follow Jesus and we judge ourselves as inferior to these fishermen. “Such faith and courage they had! I don’t have that kind of faith and courage to do such a thing!”
To respond this way is to get this little story wrong, which is apparent when we take the time to read the whole story. Mark goes out of his way to let us know that there was nothing exceptional about the twelve disciples. They are continually misunderstanding Jesus. Their courage and faith are constantly falling short.
Which raises the question, why did Jesus choose to call these fishermen and the rest of the twelve to follow him as travelled about proclaiming the kingdom? We can’t say for sure, but one reason would seem to be precisely because they were so ordinary.
In those days, Rabbis commonly had disciples but they didn’t go out looking for them. It was unbecoming for a Rabbi to do such at thing. Rabbis would wait for would-be students to come to them, and then they wouldn’t immediately take them on – no, they would question them – test them – see if they had the “right stuff” – showed some aptitude for theology.
But not so with Jesus. He goes out and chooses… fishermen. And later others, a strangely diverse group – people who would not otherwise have hung out together, including a taxcollector – somebody who a political zealot – two people from distinctly different ends of the political spectrum.
And here’s the second thing we misinterpret about the story. We come away thinking a real disciple has to undergo some kind of dramatic change of environment. A real disciple leaves his or her job and goes off to seminary, goes off be a full time missionary, goes off to work full time in a soup kitchen, or suddenly opens their home to the homeless. Don’t get me wrong – these are extraordinary things that sometimes God does call people to do. But it is not the norm. To begin following in the way of Jesus more commonly means changing the way you live in the place where you already find yourself.
I was having a conversation with a woman from our church in which she began talking about a woman she knew who had done a wonderful thing. This woman had opened her home to a teenage boy in great need, a young man she didn’t know very well but for whom it was quite clear was in need of much guidance — a young man who might not ever find his way in this world if someone didn’t take him on to be his mentor. The woman was in awe of this woman and rightfully so, and yet I sensed along with the awe some sense of feeling as though she came up short in comparison.
One of the great privileges of being a pastor is I get a glimpse inside peoples’ lives more than others usually get, in particular I am allowed to see something of the challenges – the struggles people deal with. Such is the case with the woman I was talking to, and having the privilege of knowing her pretty well, I told her I stood in awe of her as well. The place where God had placed her – in the network of relationships – many of which were quite a challenge, to say the least, wasn’t easy. I knew from previous conversations how over time something had shifted in the way she interacted in those relationships. I marveled as he persevered to — in her own imperfect but very real way to live as follower of Jesus — to try as she could to choose love and forgiveness rather than to hold on to resentment and bitterness. I told her she was an inspiration to me. I stood in awe of her.
What following Jesus looks like is different for every person, because a) the contexts of our lives are different and b) our gifts are different.
Here’s the most basic thing I think we get wrong about this little story. We focus our attention in the wrong place. We focus on the fishermen. But the fishermen aren’t the center of the story. The center of the story is Jesus.
This is really a kind of “miracle” story. These are totally ordinary human beings, these fishermen who one day did something they could never have imagined themselves doing – leaving their nets behind and following a stranger they had just met.
This is a story about the power of Jesus to effect changes in people that they wouldn’t be able to do on their own.
I find it helpful in understanding what took place in the lives of those simple fishermen that day – how they could suddenly let go their tight attachment to the lives they knew and suddenly follow Jesus – in the testimonies of people who have had what is called Near Death Experiences. These experiences have occurred throughout history, but seem to be more common today because of the advancements in medical care that makes it possible oftentimes for people who have “flat-lined” to be brought back to life. They occur to people who are altogether ordinary and who before the experience would describe themselves as just as attached to their earthly life as anybody else.
Typically, they describe themselves leaving their physical bodies, going on a journey in which they experience exquisite beauty and an unconditional love deeper than anything they have experienced in their earthly life. They describe what they experience as being “more real” than this life – and that it is only with great reluctance that they return to their bodies.
One such person who had such an experience was Dr. Mary Neal, an orthopedic doctor who 22 years ago took a trip to South America specifically to kayak a river there. Unfortunately, in a rough patch of white water her kayak with her inside it got trapped under the water for at least 15 minutes. Deprived of oxygen she should have died. “To Heaven and Back.”
(At this point I showed a video clip of Dr. Neal talking about her experience, and how her response to the wondrous love and beauty she experienced “on the other side” was such that her initial response was to not want to return to her body – her old life.)
I would suggest to you that people like Dr. Neal are describing a pure encounters with the Kingdom of God, that reality that Jesus said in his ministry was breaking into this world.
I believe that those four fishermen caught a glimpse of that reality when Jesus came to them by the Sea of Galilee that day long ago. Seeing him int that moment suddenly made it easy to let go of their old lives. Their strongest desire was to be in his presence.
People who have these remarkable experiences typically don’t radically change the outward circumstances of their lives, though some do. More often what happens is they see their old life with new eyes. They recognize what matters and what doesn’t.
That people are what matter, not things.
They become less attached to money.
That harboring resentments and anger, that refusing to forgive is out of touch with the deepest reality.
Typically, they slow the pace of their lives down – appreciate little things more.
They trust more, feel anxious less – having seen what they saw.
They find themselves less inclined to compare themselves to others, to recognize that each person has their own unique journey in which, as Dr. Neal says, God is fully present.
They realize they have a purpose here – to live out that love they witnessed on the far side.