Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 24, 2021
Mark 1:14-20 Commentary
If Mark were a Broadway play, then the first 13 verses are like the overture. As we come to verse 14, the curtain is about to go up on the drama and when it does we see . . . Galilee. We’re not in a bigger city like Jerusalem or Sepphoris or Rome. Nope, little old Galilee.
Today it would be like expecting to see some drama unfold in New York City or Los Angeles only to have the story zero in on some place called Outbank, North Dakota. It’s probably a nice place but . . . it’s not what we were expecting. It reminds me of a scene from the classic movie The Philadelphia Story in which Katherine Hepburn plays the haughty East Coast sophisticate Tracy Lord. At one point she meets an earnest young woman who tells Tracy that she is from Minnesota. With a dismissive, if not vaguely bored, tone in her voice Tracy says to the woman, “Ah, yes, Minnesota. How nice. That’s west of here somewhere, isn’t it?”
In other words, “You’re from nowhere, aren’t you, dear?” Or at least nowhere that counts. These days some refer to the heartland of the U.S. as “flyover country.” No one vacations there but you fly over it on airplanes bringing you to more exciting destinations. (Of course, that dismissal of wide swaths of society is wrong and has led to a lot of people who desperately want their voices to be heard and to count. But that is another subject, though one connected to what I am writing here about the opening of Mark.)
That’s the reaction Galilee might have garnered from the sophisticates of Jesus’ day. It’s not the kind of “happening place” where one would expect a great drama to unfold. But as the curtain goes up on the active phase of Jesus’ ministry, that is where we find ourselves even as Jesus—far from initiating some grandly unique message—basically tears a page out of John the Baptist’s book to declare “Repent! The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near.”
We’ve heard this before. That was John’s message but we thought John was the warm-up act. He had said so himself. So what’s the main character doing reprising all that? Jesus calls this announcement “good news” but at this precise moment as the story begins, the message itself is sufficiently thin on content as to make it difficult to discern what’s so good about it. The kingdom we are told is near. It’s not here. It’s not fulfilled. It’s not crashing in to replace the dim and sometimes grim realities of this world (nor doing anything overt as of the moment to solve even something as locally important as the occupying presence of the Romans in Israel). Something appears to be up. Something’s in the wind. But just what that something is . . . well, we’re not told.
But Mark does not give us a chance to ponder that for long as the story moves right along to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. However, the drama quotient of it all is hardly enhanced as Jesus calls to his side four simple fishermen. Smelling of fish and looking every bit like the working-class folks that they were, Simon, Andrew, James, and John hitch their wagons to Jesus’ still nondescript program and begin to follow him. Jesus does not tell them where they are going. Beyond some cryptic promise to become “people fishers,” he also does not tell these four the specifics of what they might expect to happen next. He certainly does not promise them riches or rewards or anything tangible whatsoever. Yet they follow but their doing so hardly is the stuff of great promise or portent.
It is at once striking and quite probably revealing that Mark’s version of the gospel story gets off to such a humble, modest start. Matthew has his mysterious star in the east and the Magi who follow it. Luke gives us layer upon layer of drama surrounding the birth and later appearance of Jesus. John brings us to the rim of the galaxies and the beginning of all things with that all-creating Word of God who was with God in the beginning.
But not Mark. Mark allows Jesus merely to appear from out of nowhere, emerging humbly from the heat vapors emanating from the desert floor to be baptized by John. And then at the very moment when we do expect the curtain to rise on the drama to come, we end up in Galilee even as Jesus starts to cobble together a set of followers that can be described only (and perhaps at best) as rag-tag.
This is “the beginning” Mark already told us. As many scholars have noted, it’s tough to know what Mark meant in his opening verse about “the beginning.” What constitutes this beginning? How far does it extend? Is the beginning the first 8 verses of the gospel? Does it extend through the 13th verse? Does this lection of Mark 1:14-20 round out the beginning? Or is Mark more clever than all of us by basically saying that the entire gospel from Mark 1 through to the end of Mark 16 is but the merest beginning of a gospel that finally knows no bounds?
Tom Long believes it may be the latter and that there’s a reason why we therefore find Jesus in Galilee when he utters his very first words in Mark. Because these are the humble trappings that match the gospel ministry Jesus is launching. “Galilee” is the place where most of us live. Most of us live not in the citadels of power or in the glare of the bright klieg lights of history. No, we live in the Galilees of the world, on the margins, in those places where the powers-that-be do not visit and that they do not know much about more often than not. We start in Galilee because the Galilees of this life—and the simple fisherfolk who live there—are the places and the people Jesus came to save.
And so when we come to the gospel’s climax and we listen to the angel’s words to the women at the now-empty tomb of Jesus in Mark 16:7 “You must go to Galilee for there you will see him,” we as readers of the gospel are actually being directed back to Mark 1:14. We need to go back to Galilee, back to the humble beginning of the gospel and the humble, mundane characters who inhabit it to see it all through new eyes. Once we have been to the cross—toward which Mark drives us all throughout his gospel—and once we’ve seen the victory of God at the empty tomb, we go back to Galilee and all it stands for to realize anew that just such a place is what Jesus redeemed. The victory of Easter that the angel proclaims in Mark 16 directs us back to Galilee to realize that that cosmic victory is always finally a very local reality. It comes to Galilee and all who live there. It is a gospel and a victory for them, for fisherfolk, for the outback, and for every last one of us.
Thanks be to God! Yes, thanks be to God for Galilee! Because Galilee is where most of us live most of the time. How good it is to know that just there is where we again and again find Jesus proclaiming the Good News.
In Mark 1:17 Jesus uses the curious phrase alieis anthropon to entice Simon and Andrew to follow him. They would become “people-fishers,” anglers for human beings. It was a clever way to connect their current occupation with what Jesus had in mind for their future—it was in that sense, if you will forgive the pun, a good “hook” to get the attention of these men. Maybe had they been construction workers, Jesus would have invited them to become builders of human hearts. Maybe had they been real estate agents, he would have invited them to become sellers of kingdom turf. The source of the metaphor is obvious enough–they were fishermen and so Jesus used a fishing metaphor to address them. What Simon and Andrew understood from the metaphor is harder to discern. Fishing had been the source of their livelihood up to that time. Was Jesus promising them a more lucrative way to make money? That seems unlikely. Jesus did not look like someone who offered riches. But maybe he did look like someone who offered these men a chance to bring people into that kingdom whose nearness Jesus had been talking about ever since arriving in Galilee. And maybe the thought of reeling folks in to that better place was just intriguing enough as to have been part of what motivated these men to start modeling their lives on the life of the man whom they did not previously know but who seemed to believe in a future greater than could be imagined in that present moment.
The message we have to proclaim and to embody and to exemplify is the same now as it has always been: the kingdom of God is at hand. Today as much as ever, people need to know that this kingdom is real and available. They need to see the joy and the possibilities of that kingdom in us. Because often people are too easily satisfied just to make do with what is quick and easy and cheap. People settle for sex or liquor or a rock band or the distractions provided by entertainment. They look to these things to save them, or at least to help them move forward in a grim world. But, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, we are far too easily satisfied. We’re like a child who turns down an invitation for a day at the beach and chooses instead to stay sitting in a slum alley making mud pies just because the child really can’t imagine how much better a day at the shore can be. “What could be better than making these slimy mud pies?” the child might think. Ah, if only he knew!
Or as Dallas Willard writes, when he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside. But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrub boards, ice chests, and rug beaters. A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines. “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!” But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house. “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.”
Maybe the kingdom is like that: it’s here, it’s real, it’s right outside your door. The kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t be so easily satisfied with the temporary pleasures of sex and money, power and food, cable TV and the wonders of technology. A better, exciting, hopeful, joyful kingdom of life is real. The kingdom of God is at hand. We live knowing that this is true! We live to help others believe it, too.
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