Scripture - Mark 1:14-20
Let us hear the word of God as those for whom the kingdom has drawn near. Let us heed the word of God as those for whom light has dawned. Let us live the word of God as those for whom the ways of God are deeply lived.
The first time we hear Jesus’ voice in Mark’s Gospel, he says, “Change your hearts & lives, & trust this good news!” Most translations use the word ‘repent’ rather than change your hearts & lives, but the meaning is the same. The word ‘repent’ means “to reverse course,” or “to turn away from something.”
In the Bible it refers specifically to turning away from the things that Jesus hates to the things he loves. Euangelion in Greek, which is translated as good news or “gospel,” combines angelos, the word for one announcing news, & the prefix eu-, which means “joyful.” Gospel then means “news that brings joy.” This word had value when Mark used it, but it was not religious value. It meant history-making, life-shaping news, as opposed to just everyday news.
For example, there is an ancient Roman inscription from about the same time as Jesus & Mark. It begins: “The beginning of the gospel of Caesar Augustus.” It is the story of the birth & coronation of the Roman emperor. A gospel was news of some event that changed things in a meaningful way. It could be an ascension to the throne, or it could be a victory. When Greece was invaded by Persia & the Greeks won the great battles of Marathon & Solnus, they sent heralds (or evangelists) who proclaimed the good news to the cities. A gospel is an announcement of something that has happened in history, something that has been done for you that changes your status forever.
Right there you can see the difference between Christianity & all other religions, including no religion. The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is news. Other religions say, “This is what you have to do in order to connect with God; this is how you have to live in order to earn your way to God.” But the gospel says, “This is what has been done in history. This is how Jesus lived & died to earn the way to God for you.” Christianity is completely different. It is joyful news!
How do you feel when you are given good advice on how to live? Someone says, “Here’s the love you ought to have, or the integrity you ought to have.” And maybe they illustrate high moral standards by telling a story of some great hero. But when you hear it, how does it make you feel? Inspired - probably. But do you feel the way the listeners who heard those heralds felt when the victory was announced? Do you feel your burdens have fallen away? Do you feel as if something great has been done for you & you are not a slave anymore? Of course, you do not. Instead, it weighs you down: This is how I have to live? It is not a gospel. The gospel is that God connects to you not on the basis of what you have done (or have not done) but on the basis of what Jesus has done, in history, for you. And that makes it absolutely different from every other religion or philosophy.
Jesus says: Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts & lives, & trust the good news! What is the good news of the kingdom of God? In Genesis 1-2, we see that we were created to live in a world in which all relationships were whole – psychologically & socially perfect – because God was the King. But Genesis 3 tells the next part of our story: that we have each chosen to be our own king. We have gone the way of self-centeredness. And self-centeredness destroys relationships. There is nothing that makes you more miserable (or less interesting) than self-absorption. How am I feeling, how am I doing, how are people treating me, am I proving myself, am I succeeding, am I failing, am I being treated justly? Self-absorption leaves us static. Why do we have wars? Class struggles? Family breakdowns? Why are our relationships constantly exploding? It is the darkness of self-centeredness. When we decide to be our own center, our own king/queen, everything falls apart: physically, socially, spiritually & psychologically. We have left the dance. But we all long to be brought back in. This longing is told in the legends of many cultures, & though the stories are all different they all have a similar theme: A true king will come back, slay the dragon, kiss us & wake us out of our sleep of death, rescue us from imprisonment, & lead us back into the dance. A true king will come back to put everything right & renew the entire world. The good news of the kingdom of God is this: Jesus is that true King.
I am reminded of a line from Lord of the Rings: “The hands of the king are healing hands, & thus shall the rightful king be known.” As a child blossoms under the authority of a good & wise parent, as a team flourishes under the direction of a brilliant coach, so when you come under the healing of the royal hands, under the kingship of Jesus, everything in your life will begin to heal. And when he comes back, everything sad will be broken. He will return to usher in the end of fear, suffering, & death.
Here again Christianity is different from all other religions. Some religions say that this material world is going to end, that righteous or enlightened people will be rescued out of it & enter a kind of spiritual paradise. Other religions say that this material world is an illusion. Or perhaps you believe the earth will eventually burn up with the death of the sun & everything here will disintegrate as if it had never been. But the good news of the kingdom of God is that the material world God created is going to be renewed so that it lasts forever. When that happens you will say, like Jewel the Unicorn at the end of The Chronicles of Narnia, “I’ve come home at last! This is my real country… This is the land I’ve been looking for all my life.”
As soon as Jesus begins to speak publicly about the kingdom of God, he selects 12 men to be his disciples – his core group of friends & followers. That occurs through 3 encounters in Mark.
Jesus immediately calls people to follow him. This is unique in Jewish tradition. Pupils chose rabbis; rabbis did not choose pupils. Those who wished to learn sought out a rabbi to say, “I want to study with you.” But Mark is showing us that Jesus has a different type of authority than a regular rabbi. You cannot have a relationship with Jesus unless he calls you.
When Jesus says to Simon & Andrew, “Come, follow me,” at once they leave their vocation as fishermen & follow him. When he calls James & John, they leave behind their father & friends, right there in the boat. We know from reading the rest of the Gospels that these men did fish again, & they did continue to relate to their parents. But what J is saying is still disruptive. In traditional cultures you get your identity from your family. And so, when Jesus says, “I want priority over your family,” that is drastic. In our modern culture, saying good-bye to our parents is not a big deal, but for Jesus to say, “I want priority over your career,” that is drastic! Jesus is saying, “Knowing me, loving me, resembling me, & serving me must become the supreme passion of your life. Everything else comes second.”
In many of our minds, such words can sound like fanaticism. People in our culture are afraid of fanaticism, for good reason. In this world considerable violence is being carried out by highly religious people. Even setting aside such extremism, almost everybody knows someone, personally or by reputation, who is deeply religious & who is also condemning, self-righteous, or even abusive. Most people today see religion as a spectrum of belief. On one end are people who say they are religious but do not really believe or live the tenets of their religion. On the other end you have the fanatics, people who are too religious, who over-believe & over-live their faith. What is the solution to fanaticism? Many would say, “Well, why can’t we be in the middle? Moderation in all things. Not too zealous, & not too uncommitted. Being right in the middle would be exactly right.”
So, is that the way Christianity works? Does Jesus say, “Moderation in all things?” In Luke’s Gospel, he says to a large crowd, “Whoever comes to me & doesn’t hate father & mother, spouse & children, & brothers & sisters – yes, even one’s own life – cannot be my disciple.” Does that sound moderate? Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me.” He does not say to the crowd, “Look, most of you can be moderate, but I do need a few good men & women who really want to go all the way with this discipleship.” He says, “Whoever,” meaning all. There is no double standard. “If anyone wants to have anything to do with me, you have to hate your father & mother, spouse & children, brother & sister, & even your own life, or you cannot be my disciple.” That is what it means to follow Jesus.
Why does he talk about hating? In a number of other places Jesus says that you are not even allowed to hate your enemies. So, what is he saying regarding one’s father & mother? Jesus is not calling us to hate actively; he is calling us to hate comparatively. He says, “I want you to follow me so fully, so intensely, so enduringly that all other attachments in your life look like hate by comparison.” If you say, “I will obey you, Jesus, if my career thrives, if my health is good, if my family is together,” then the thing that is on the other side of your if is your real master, your real goal. But Jesus will not be a means to an end; he will not be used. If he calls you to follow him, he must be the goal.
Does that sound like fanaticism? Not if you understand the difference between religion & the gospel. Remember what religion is: advice on how you must live to earn your way to God. Your job is to follow that advice to the best of your ability. If you follow it but do not get carried away, then you have moderation. But if you feel like you are following it faithfully & completely, you will believe you have a connection with God because of your right living & right belief, & you will feel superior to people who have wrong living & wrong belief. That is a slippery slope: If you feel superior to them, you stay away from them. That makes it easier to exclude them, then to hate them, & ultimately to oppress them. And there are some Christians like that – not because they have gone too far & been too committed to Jesus, but because they have not gone far enough. They are not as fanatically humble & sensitive, or as fanatically understanding & generous as Jesus was. Why not? Because they are still treating Christianity as advice instead of good news.
The gospel is not advice: It is the good news that you do not need to earn your way to God; Jesus has already done it for you. And it is a gift that you receive by sheer grace – through God’s thoroughly unmerited favor. If you seize that gift & keep holding on to it, then Jesus’ call will not draw you into fanaticism or moderation. You will be passionate to make Jesus your absolute goal & priority, to orbit around him; yet when you meet somebody with a different set of priorities, a different faith, you will not assume they are inferior to you. You will actually seek to serve them rather than oppress them. Why? Because the gospel is not about choosing to follow advice, it is about being called to follow a King. Not just someone with power & authority to tell you what needs to be done – but someone with the power & authority to do what needs to be done, & then to offer it to you as good news.
Where do we see that kind of authority? Jesus’ baptism has already been attended by supernatural signs that announce his divine authority. Today we see Simon, Andrew, James, & John follow Jesus without delay – so his call itself has authority. And friends, he is calling me & you. Come, follow me.