a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B]
Mark 1:14-20 and Jonah 3:1-5, 10
It’s a new day, a new time. Something amazing and momentous is being inaugurated right before our eyes! We are told first that John has been arrested, and while that’s not good, here comes Jesus in Galilee, down along the fishboats, announcing that God’s kingdom is here. It’s a new day, a new time, a new hopeful regime has begun, and one of the first orders of business is to recruit followers.
As it happens, our culture knows all about followers and how to get them. Social media, the strangest force of our times, is built on the concept of recruiting followers. A follower is someone who pays close attention to everything you post. One of the people I follow on Instagram and TikTok, a young chef who puts up a new recipe approximately every day, just this past week celebrated getting 5 million followers. He baked himself a cake and decorated it with a big 5 and a big M. Each time this chef posts a new recipe, five million people around the world, including me, hear about it and, for at least a second or two, think about making it.
We know about followers. Followers, give someone clout and the ability to influence culture or their area of expertise. The more followers you have the more people you can influence. We call those people influencers, and some will do just about anything you can think of to gain more followers, more reasons to be talked about so that they can influence even more people. There is actually an account on Instagram dedicated entirely to showing what outlandish lengths people will go to get people’s attention. The account is called “Influencers in the Wild” and it ends up being both funny and sad at the same time. Funny, because people usually end up making fools of themselves. Sad, because people sometimes end up hurt or embarrassed. For example, they’ll dance on a crowded beach, they’ll take a selfie in the middle of the road with traffic all around them, they’ll have their friends get just the right angle for a carefully curated shot. And it’s all just to get more followers.
This morning we hear Jesus’ approach to getting followers. He is an influencer in the wild! We find him down on the beach where it’s likely pretty crowded, where people are going about their daily business, making a living. He walks up to some everyday fishermen and calls them to follow him. He doesn’t ask them. He doesn’t coax them with a cool carefully curated photograph. He sees two pairs of brothers, all of them in the tasks of working, calls them with a simple invitation and promise. And they drop everything and go. That is some kind of influence! How is Jesus influencing you?
Like probably many of you, I have loads of questions about the call of Jesus’ first disciples and this influence Jesus seems to have over them. It sounds like they’re leaving behind a family business, a livelihood that was probably pretty profitable, based on evidence in the story and what archaeological discoveries have told us about the fishing economy in the ancient Middle East. James and John, sons of Zebedee actually leave their dad in the boat. I want to know more about that. Did they see him again, or did Jesus whisk them away for good? Did these guys already know about Jesus and were hoping they’d be chosen as followers? Was there just something about him that was magnetic and they couldn’t resist?
None of the gospel-writers is too big on details, but Mark is especially brief, and the one thing he seems insistent on telling us is that this all happens immediately. Immediately they leave their nets. Immediately they leave their dad in the boat. There is something about Jesus’ invitation to follow that pulls them right in.
Here’s what I think: when you know there is a new day and a new time at hand, when you’ve been anticipating a new reality and a new beginning you don’t really waste any time in your decision-making. You are ready. You break loose, knowing you don’t really need to understand everything about what’s going to happen because the bigger picture it all is leading to is so wonderful and so amazing that you’re OK to figure it out as it unfolds.
That is the life following Jesus, the Son of God. That is one of the things that we learn right up front, right as things are getting off the ground. In Jesus, God goes right where people are and just begins enlisting ordinary, everyday people. I’m not getting the feeling Jesus overthinks this, are you? He’s not made a list and ranked his choices, like we often do when we’re recruiting people for something. If God’s kingdom, as the prophets repeatedly tell us, is about being a light to in all the nations, lifting up the bowed down, including the blind, the lame, the deaf, then Jesus can begin right among the common. His influence will have its greatest and most gracious effect in the groups and crowds of people who are ready for change.
That’s what Jonah learns the hard way when God sends him among the people of Nineveh. In Jonah’s eyes, the Ninevites are not special people. They are a wayward, sinful, dark-souled people who Jonah thinks should be written off by God because of the amount of evil in their city. But God wants to include them in his mercy, and no amount of protesting or running away on Jonah’s part is going to change God’s mind. Even Nineveh has a chance to repent and embrace the life of God’s reign. And to Jonah’s surprise, they do…immediately. Jonah is a better influencer than he realizes! Even though he tries to escape his role as messenger to them, even though it takes a large whale to swallow him up and spit him back out in the right direction, Jonah manages to bring them around to God. They get a new beginning.
As you can imagine, when we were in seminary we shared a lot about our own calls to follow Jesus, our new beginnings. We spent a lot of time in some of our early classes unpacking where we had come from, the lives we had left and the careers we had changed in order to arrive at seminary and explore more deeply what God might be calling us to do. I distinctly remember sitting around one day and having this surreal and almost unsettling feeling that we had really all been assembled by some mysterious person that we all had in common. It was like one of those books or movies, like Oceans 11, where different unrelated characters are all gathered together somewhere only to figure out after they’re all there that they will all have a task to carry out or a problem to solve. Some of us had risen quickly from our former lives, whereas some had been putting it off for years. In the end, it didn’t matter because the call wasn’t primarily about us or our own gifts but about the new beginning God was bringing about in Jesus and that the whole world would eventually be in on the game. Like Simon, Andrew, James and John, we had been called individually, but the task involved a group effort.
Sometimes the call to embrace the mercy of Jesus’ kingdom means a big drastic break from a career or a lifestyle. We walk away from the nets and the boats altogether. But Jesus mainly comes to call and claim people each and every day. In each moment Jesus’ invitation gives us the chance to use our gifts right now for his kingdom, to make a thousand little breaks from the past, a thousand little changes of direction to live as Christ himself would live in each and every relationship we already have. We may or may not leave “boats and nets” behind, but Jesus still keeps us fishing and catching with a different goal: more followers.
This past week, on the evening before our country inaugurated a new president, we installed a new Church Council. We did this on Zoom and recorded it, and in a minute you will see them, looking like a Brady Bunch Church Council, everyone in their own black square, answering the call to serve as a congregation leader for another year. In that group is someone who is retired from a career in law enforcement, a person who worked in commercial real estate, a person in risk management for the financial sector, a public relations specialist, an education specialist for intervention, an expert in state commerce, just to name a few. There are people who’ve worked primarily for themselves and people employed by large corporations. There are people who’ve devoted their lives to organization and those who’ve moved around vocationally. There are some who’ve given their adult years to the holy vocation of raising children in the home. And this doesn’t even touch on how diverse they are in terms of family background or age.
What I’ve learned through the years, though, is that people who serve on Council bring with them gifts they have honed elsewhere in life. Jesus, in a sense, repurposes their skills and talents for the work of his kingdom through the church. The law enforcement person has great insights for our Safety Team. The public relations expert thinks of our messaging and how to communicate effectively. And the finance people are always curious about our audit procedures. Jesus calls them all individually, but they’re working together.
This applies to all of us, too, whether we’re in leadership positions or not. We may be followers, but our baptism, has turned us into influencers, too. We should be prepared to do some outlandish and public things once in a while for the sake of bringing more followers along. Outlandish things like serving the hungry. Making friends with people we disagree with. Mentioning Jesus’ name every once in a while! Our common leader has uncommonly assembled us all, calling us to embrace the new reality of Jesus’ reign. Unlike the shadowy figures who lurk at the center of conspiracy theories our leader lays himself out there for all to know.
In fact, he doesn’t just recruit and call people people out in the open, but he lays himself out there in the open. On the cross, he makes it absolutely clear that the time is fulfilled…the time for God’s unconditional love to break in…the time for bringing all people into the heart of God’s mercy…the time for forgiveness for all our sins. On the cross, he wields mighty influence over death and sin and all our brokenness and all the things that stand in the ways of his Father’s love. He wants followers, and he wants us all, and he’ll take us no matter who we are and where we’ve been.
So, come on. Feel that influence. And now be it. In the wild. This is a new day. A new time.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.