Weekly Preaching: January 21, 2018

January 17th, 2018

I’m going with Mark this week.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 is the most artificial, least believable portion of the story. The early part is riveting, and chapter 4 (on Jonah’s displeasure over the gourd) is even better (if you go there, by all means dig into Hans Walter Wolff’s brilliant insights on this moment). Psalm 62:5-12 is lovely and profound, drawing me to the song “Only In God” by John Michael Talbot. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 has this apocalyptic urgency, a weird origami of mood: the married act unmarried, the mourning don’t mourn, the joyful don’t rejoice, all because “the time is short.” If you want urgency though, look no further than our Gospel text!

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Mark 1:14-20 begins a short walk through Mark 1 over the next three weeks of lections. You might find it worthwhile to invite your congregation to read all the way through Mark over a few weeks. We did this a few years back with Matthew, with great results. I love Rowan Williams’s general introduction to Mark’s Gospel, including: “Mark sets out two challenges for the reader. The first is simply to let yourself be addressed by the central figure. Mark is writing out of a relationship, a compelling relationship which it is his purpose to make real to you, so that whether or not you want to be in the same kind of relationship, you have to pay attention to the fact of the relationship as presented.  Second, you have to grasp and share in the changed state of affairs to which the story testifies which is now being official announced, a press release from the palace, which has changed the regime.”

He then reminds us of the touching moment in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia when the children first hear about the lion, Aslan. Susan asks, “Is he — quite safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Williams adds, “No accident that Mark’s traditional symbol in Christian art is a lion.”

Some little textual notes that are interesting and pregnant with preaching potential: John was “handed over.” The Greek verb, paradidomi, is the term that will portray as Jesus holy and humble, a willing submission to betrayal, arrest and crucifixion at the end of the story. For now, Jesus emerges on the stage of history as in control, making things happen — but after Caesarea Philippi, he becomes passive, is increasingly acted upon, which is the plot of our own lives. Jesus thus ennobles that plotline in the face of society’s pity. John foreshadows all this at the outset.

The “time is fulfilled.”  It’s kairos, (not chronos) the elusive Greek term implying timeliness, not just clock-passing time. What only seems to be the ongoing passing of time, just another hour or day, is — in the case of Jesus walking onto the stage of history — decisive, epochal, literally exploding with meaning, purpose, possibility.

The kingdom “is at hand” (the Greek implies “has come near” — so it is really close but not fully embodied just yet?). The kingdom is the realization of God’s way and reign, of course. But the reality is that this kingdom that draws near is actually Jesus himself, the community he is beginning to assemble around himself, and their movement toward the least and the lost, to the powerful and clueless.

What could anyone do in the wake of this movement other than “repent” and “believe”? Churchgoers have sadly thin perspectives on these two verbs. “Repent” renders the Greek metanoia, meaning a “change of mind"; new thinking, an altered perspective, a Copernican revolution of viewpoint, a radically fresh understanding and direction — all picking up on the Old Testament’s verb shûv, meaning to make a 180° turn. I like to embody this when I am preaching: as I describe it, I face left, then as I’m talking, I swivel my body to the right. They not only hear me; they see and thus experience and maybe internalize the turn. “Believe” isn’t “give mental assent,” but is a full-bodied, heart-plunged flinging of your self into this new, changed reality. I’m fond of the thesis of Matthew Bates’s Salvation by Allegiance Alone which urges upon us the truth that faith is the acting out of allegiance and fidelity to Christ.

I wonder, with all the kerfuffle around the National Anthem at NFL games this year, if we might take the “pledge of allegiance” and ask about our allegiance to Christ. Risky… as people might get touchy, be inflamed by undue patriotism, or, perhaps worst of all, treat Christianity no more seriously than they do saying the Pledge of Allegiance — standing on cue, mouthing words, then living the same old life.

After the little overture to Mark’s Gospel in verses 14-15, we move into what Joel Marcus calls the “honeymoon period” of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus announces himself in word and deed, and his popularity swells. But first, before dazzling the crowds, he forms a community. You might think he’d dazzle, then collect some followers. But he starts with a circle of people to accompany him. Community matters.

I love Mark’s simple observation about why Simon and Andrew were casting nets: “for they were fishermen," as if to underline they aren’t superheroes of holy men. The Greek word of “casting” is amphiballontas, “throwing around,” implying circular tossing. Vivid detail, waving the hands to illustrate, or showing an image can draw people into the biblical moment. The reality of this fishing can also be brought home by pointing to the “Jesus boat” which archaeologists discovered in 1986 — from the time of Jesus! I wish “S.S. Simon Peter” was carved into the prow…

Jesus, rather surprisingly, says “Follow me." More surprisingly, they do. Rabbis didn’t invite an entourage to traipse around after them. And these guys, it appears, just now met Jesus. Why on earth would they follow? There had to be something compelling, alluring, even beautiful about Jesus (should we sing “Fairest Lord Jesus”?). And they follow “immediately,” a key word for Mark: euthus. It’s happening now, not a second too soon. When Jesus calls the next two, the immediacy is in Jesus: “Immediately he called…” He didn’t size them up, sort through their credentials, or check out their potential for discipleship. The image here is Jesus just grabs any and everybody.

Caravaggio’s painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew, might be instructive. Evidently, when Caravaggio was working on this haunting, inviting work, he grabbed some guys who were just standing around on the streets, dragged them into his studio, and boom! They were disciples of Jesus. No special saintly gene, no grand training in Scripture, no history of piety is needed for Jesus to swoop you up into his movement. And they start moving with him before they understand much about him, which fits the old principle of St. Athanasius, that you won’t understand Scripture until you’re actually living it.

The sons of Zebedee were “mending their nets.” Here’s a debate: many argue the fishing happened at night, so this mending happened by the light of day. Although this is probably correct, Joel Marcus wonders if they fished by day, and so their mending happened at night, in the dark — a suggestive image of Jesus, the light of the world (John 8:12), coming to those “who walked in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2).

How much hay could be made with this? “They left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants.” If they have hired servants, then this Zebedee family isn’t a bunch of unlettered rural bumpkins; they have some measure of affluence and security. Leaving was significant. And “they left their father.” So poignant. Did Zebedee try to talk them down? Did he fume at Jesus? What did he say to their mother? How did he run the business without them? History reveals so many great heroes who couldn’t become heroes without leaving their father behind. St. Francis was sued and then spat upon by his father, Pietro Bernardone, for abandoning the family business and embarrassing him by living as a pauper. Martin Luther disappointed his harsh father who demanded he go into law.

So many others... including me. Does the preacher use this moment to tell her or his own call story? I think maybe so, especially if it is told in a way that invites others to discover or recall and revivify their own. I was on track to go into engineering or science or law or something profitable. But then I got dragged to church — which wasn’t my thing. Some guys kept nagging me to go to a Bible study, but that was way, way too crazy; they should have been grateful I was showing up at church at all. Then, one night I had a very palpable dream: Jesus (how did I recognize him?) was standing before me, and he said two words: “Follow me.” I woke up a little dazed and remembered the Bible study invitation for that evening. I decided to go. My feelings of immense discomfort there grew way more uncomfortable when the leader opened his Bible and said, “This evening, I’d like us to talk about Mark 1:17 where Jesus says ‘Follow me.’”

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. James Howell's latest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available now.

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