January 21, 2018


Mark 1:14-20

Only 2 weeks ago, we heard the amazing story about how Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  Now, all of a sudden, a few verses later, we read that John has been arrested.  We have to wait for five more chapters before we can learn about the reason for John’s arrest.  However, it seems that Herod Antipas, the Roman ruler in the region, had married his brother’s wife, Herodias.  It doesn’t matter whether John saw something immoral about this marriage, or whether he was critical of this marriage because of its political implications, the fact that John would even challenge this Roman ruler in this way was enough to get him arrested and put in prison.

Why would the author of this gospel mention this little detail about John’s arrest at the outset of Jesus’ ministry?  Herod easily could have ignored John as some crazy man who was standing on a street corner and ranting and raving about some baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, except for the fact, as we were told 2 weeks ago, that people from the whole Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem were going out to see John, were confessing their sins, and were being baptized by him in preparation for the one whom they thought would be their messiah.  Clearly, John had attracted a significant following, and Herod had to find some excuse to take him out of circulation.

Even so, Jesus dared to begin his public ministry in spite of this bad news about John’s arrest by proclaiming the good news of God’s love and announcing that the reign of God had come near—a message that certainly would cause King Herod to take notice because there was another prominent use of this term “good news” throughout the Roman Empire—one that often was associated with Caesar’s victories in battle, and was used by Caesar as a means of propaganda that led to the deification of the emperor.  Therefore, Jesus’ proclamation about the good news of God’s reign was a direct affront to the political culture of the Empire.

Then Jesus went out and started to call people to accompany him with the invitation that they would be fishing for people.  Ched Myers, in his book, “Binding the Strong Man,” points out that this metaphor of fishing for people has nothing to do with saving souls for Jesus, but rather is a reference to the prophets who used this euphemism of hooking a fish as a statement of judgment upon the rich and powerful people in this world.  Myers concludes that Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.

According to our gospel lesson for today, when they heard Jesus’ invitation to follow him, these fishermen immediately dropped everything, including all of their familial responsibilities, and chose to join Jesus’ company.  We have no idea about all of the reasons for this impulsive decision on the part of these fishermen.  Was it Jesus’ charisma?  Their curiosity?  Their macho desire for a good fight?  Their hope for a better world?  Had they already heard enough about Jesus’ message of God’s good news to think that this Jesus just might be the promised messiah who would liberate them from the occupation by the Romans?

In all of the research that he has done for the past 40 years on the historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan points out that Herod Antipas was a man who wanted to become known as the “King of the Jews,” as his father, Herod, had been.  He put a lot of effort into building up his domain in Galilee in order to impress Caesar.  One of his accomplishments was building the city of Tiberius, named after the emperor, on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, from which Herod was able to control all of the fishing industry on this lake by taxing anyone who launched a boat, cast a net, or brought in a catch of fish.

As a result of their commercial fishing business, Peter, Andrew, James, and John probably were better off financially than most of the people in their region. However, this new form of taxation on their fishing business would eventually force them into poverty.  So, why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to follow this itinerant preacher whose message was music to their ears, especially when he told them that they would be fishing for people and overturning the existing order of power and privilege that had become such a threat to their economic sustenance and existence?  We could call the response of these fishermen a matter of blind faith, because they really didn’t know who Jesus was and certainly had no idea about the reign of God that Jesus had in mind when he announced that the reign of God had come near to them.

Sometimes in our desire to be so well grounded in our faith or spirituality before we venture into the realm of following Jesus in this life, we may put off responding to Jesus’ call to action until we are ready.  George MacDonald, a Scottish preacher and author at the end of the 19th century, argued that if we wait until we have our faith all figured out before we act, we may never get around to following Jesus and doing what Jesus has called us to do.  It seems that these fishermen are good examples of what MacDonald was advocating, and that their complete trust in Jesus would come later in their lives after they had borne witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection and received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Unlike these fishermen, we have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight because we have had 2000 years of trying to figure out who this Jesus is and what his message about the good news of God’s reign meant for the people of his day as well as for us today.  Nevertheless, I am amazed and appalled that so many followers of Jesus today still think that fishing for people has only to do with saving souls for Jesus, and as a result, they will justify all of the ways that we have conquered lands, slaughtered indigenous people, enslaved people, placed people on reservations, and fought in wars, all for the sake of bringing people to Christ—most of which has been masterminded and orchestrated by people of power and privilege.

In his booklet, “Baptized We Live,” Dan Erlander states that one of the positive ways that we can follow in Jesus’ way is by putting our absolute trust in God.  He asserts that we are to live by trust and not by certitude, and that if we go out on a limb and act boldly in following Jesus, then we also can boldly trust that God will forgive us if we happen to act contrary to God’s will.  Personally, I am not so sure, given our human frailty, that any of us can ever put our complete trust in God.  If we who are baptized and professed followers of Jesus were able to do so, this world would be a much better, saner, holier, and more peaceful place in which to live.

Given our current political climate, now more than ever, we are being called upon to take a leap of faith and decide how we will follow Jesus by embodying the reign of God that he proclaimed.  I guess that our son, Leif, came to a similar conclusion this past Monday, about the same time that I was inspired to sit down and write this sermon on the day that we commemorated Martin Luther King, Jr.  Leif wrote these reflections in a post on Facebook that morning:

“While rocking our 11-month old Lila back to sleep this morning, I took the time to read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It's not the first time that I have read this letter, but it has kept me up this morning as I reflect on his words on this day when we pause and shut down many of our institutions in honor of a man who so visibly embodied the message of love that Jesus personified. . . .

His letter is a call to action to those who have not been directly affected by injustice, and have remained silent. . . . I haven't often posted items about current events, because I have always wondered about the purpose of my individual words being seen by friends who predominantly would agree with me. Or maybe I have just been afraid to put myself out there. However, today has me rethinking that. When the utterances from the most visible official leader in our country are those of hate and bigotry, it is imperative that those words be countered by a message of love that is made equally visible through sheer numbers. . . . So I will be more active on social media around the important issues of today.

We still live in a country where injustice abounds, where racism, supposedly officially intolerable but socially and systematically prevalent, is now gaining official support by our current leaders, and where the pursuit of happiness of the few tramples the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the many. What can we do? We can vote, yet political change is incremental and politicians still seem to be more beholden to the powerful and the normative. . . . There are protests and demonstrations, but many of them seem to be for the sole purpose of making a statement, rather than be mechanisms to bring about real change.

What would it take to make real change happen? What would it take to finally realize MLK’s dream? Would it take sustained, large scale, direct non-violent action? If so, what institution has the capacity to organize this on a large enough scale for a sustained period of time that it will actually force a conversation with the power brokers of today?  As a human being and as a person of faith, I have a responsibility to take action. As someone who benefits from the normative culture, it is imperative that I do not let my personal comfort lead to my silence.”

So, I leave you with these questions based upon our gospel lesson for today:  What will it take to finally realize Jesus’ vision of the reign of God where God’s love rules each and every day, where God’s justice would be equitably administered throughout the land, and where God’s peace would abound so that no one would have to learn war anymore?  Does the church empowered by the Holy Spirit have the capacity to realize this vision?  Isn’t this one of the main reasons why we are baptized, chosen, and called by Jesus into this community of faith when he said, ‘Come follow me, and I will make you fish for people?’”  As we bear witness to the baptism of Ward Carlson today, reaffirm our own baptismal covenants, and ponder these questions, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Christ, and the good news that he dared to proclaim. Amen.day that we commemorate Martin Lple."h have the capacity to realize this vision?  Isn's' on the day that we commemorate Martin Lday that we commemorate Martin Lple."h have the capacity to realize this vision?  Isn's' on the day that we commemorate Martin Lday that we commemorate Martin Lple."h have the capacity to realize this vision?  Isn's' on the day that we commemorate Martin L