Texts: Jonah 3:1-5; Mark 1:14-20
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 1-21-2018)
Mark’s Gospel can leave you breathless. Jesus steps into the Jordan River, is baptized by John, is thrust into the wilderness by a feisty Spirit of God, is tempted by Satan, is delivered by God’s angels, preaches in Galilee after John is arrested, is followed by four fishers who leave all else behind, heads to Capernaum, goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, heals Peter’s mother-in-law, casts out a demon, cleanses a leper and tells him to keep it quiet, while crowds swell like they do on the Washington Mall on July 4th and every last person is amazed.
To fuel his rapid fire storytelling, Mark stitches each scene together with his favorite adverb, euthys. Often translated in English “immediately,” this adverb is Mark’s kindling to set the fire of his Gospel aflame. When readers are tempted to stop and linger over a story, to pause and reflect on what Jesus just said, Mark tosses in another euthys to keep the story moving on. There is something about Jesus, says Mark that demands our attention “immediately.”
Jesus begins his first sermon with two indicatives – “the time is fulfilled” and “the reign of God is at hand,” but before we can muse about what he means, he shifts into a new mood – the imperative. Because “the time is fulfilled” and “the reign of God is at hand,” Jesus tells anyone and everyone to “repent, believing this good news!”
For Jesus, the indicative fuels the imperative. Repent not hoping that one day God may come near and set things straight. Repent because in Jesus God has come near. Believe not hoping that one day God will come among us to guide us and comfort us. Believe because in Jesus God is among us.
Mark shows the imperative in action as Jesus walks along the sea of Galilee. Without a word of explanation, Jesus calls first to Peter and Andrew who are casting their nets into the sea, and then calls to James and John who are mending their nets. He speaks with an imperative voice: “follow me” and they do. And the one word common to both brief scenes of calling disciples is “immediately.” Immediately Jesus calls. Immediately they follow.
What about the families they are leaving behind? What about the fishing business they are leaving without new hires to replace them? What about the commandment to honor your father and mother, as James and John leave Father Zebedee to mend their stinking fishing nets? And what about just good ole fashioned curiosity? What are these four men saying “yes” to? Why is it more compelling to follow Jesus than to stay nicely nestled in their familiar routine? Mark does not answer any of those perfectly reasonable questions. Instead, he tugs at our arms and says, “Move along, immediately, I have more story to tell!”
For those among us who do not tolerate change well, the Jesus we meet in Mark can cause serious indigestion. Without a word of warning, he inserts himself smack in the middle of four ordinary lives and says, “Follow me -- immediately.” If you think you can follow Jesus and keep your regular hours, follow your regular routine, and lead your regular life, there is no need to read the rest of Mark. There is no such thing as “after hours” discipleship for Mark.
I am astonished by how many people see following Jesus as optional equipment in life, like when you are being urged to buy that extended warranty on the new car. “Yes, I’d like to purchase the ‘Christian’ option, just in case there is something to this Jesus, then, I will be covered.”
This is not a new phenomenon. Read to the end of Mark and you will meet many people, just like me, who are ready to purchase the “Christian” option. Yet, from the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark introduces us to a Jesus who is not interested in our occasional curiosity or our arm’s length respect. Jesus is interested in getting our attention right now, claiming our lives right now, and then transforming our lives right now.
I have often wondered if I would call myself a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, if I had not grown up in a majority Christian culture. In the neighborhood of my childhood, except for Johnny Lerner who traded his matzah for my mystery meat sandwich at school lunch during every Passover week, everyone headed off to church on Sunday morning, children and parents – and everyone knew who stayed home!
The Jesus I met in church was always well mannered, had encouraging words to say, especially to the children, loved his mother, obeyed his father, performed marvelous miracles, and did not do anything that might disrupt decent and orderly church life. This Jesus was easy to follow and required no more than choosing the polite “Christian” option.
The Jesus we meet in Mark bears little resemblance to that Jesus. The Jesus we meet in Mark is looking to turn us around, to make us to become fishers for people, people who are adrift in the sea of a casual, civic faith or no faith at all. The Jesus we meet in Mark Jesus is not looking for us to follow him eventually, when the time is right and we have more time on our hands, when we have more information about him or the economy is better or when our children are older or when we are nearing retirement. The Jesus we meet in Mark is looking for us to follow him immediately, and then immediately again tomorrow, and immediately again the day after tomorrow.
To follow the call of Jesus is simply not optional in Mark’s Gospel. It is not something we do occasionally or when convenient. To follow Jesus, immediately, may mean that like the four Galilean fishers we leave everything behind and head in directions we never considered before. It may also mean that we, like the man exorcised of his demons in chapter five, do not move an inch. He wanted to leave all behind, but Jesus told him to stay and to share his good news with the toughest audience of all – with those who have always thought of him only as a mad man.
Late one Friday, many years and several churches ago, I had a knock on my office door. It was our church custodian. I had been expecting her visit. I was sure that she was going to resign, because her adult cognitively challenged son had won the lottery and she was now the beneficiary of his newfound, massive wealth. As she took off her rubber gloves to take my hand, I could see tears forming in her eyes and she said, “Gary, everyone tells me that I should quit this job now, move to a bigger house, and travel and never look back.” I must admit the idea of doing something like that sounded pretty appealing to me at the time, but I held my tongue.
She took another deep breath and said, “But I love my job. I love serving God by making God’s house a clean and decent place for anyone who comes here. I want you to tell me what to do.” Before I could say a word, she said, “Gary, I don’t care what they say; I care what Jesus says and he is calling me to stay right here.”
When I read Mark’s Gospel, I meet the Jesus that Lucille knew better than I – not the well-behaved, polite, Lord of my childhood who did not expect much of us, but the relentless, imposing, and transforming Lord of life who expects everything of us and gives everything to us that we ever need. I meet a Jesus who wants nothing less than our complete attention – right now. I meet a Jesus who is ready to lead you and me into a whole new life.