Bible Reading: Mark 1: 16-20
Video of the sermon is here
Audio of the sermon is here
The sermon opened with a series of pictures and asked people to identify what was wrong with them (eg astronaut is on moon, so how can they be looking at the moon?)
We’re walking through the story of Jesus, as told in the Gospel of Mark. Last time I was with you, we considered the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospels. The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.
Today we come to the first thing Jesus does. Jesus is walking along beside the Sea of Galilee, when he sees a couple of fishermen. Andrew and Peter. They’re casting nets into the sea. Follow me he says and I’ll teach you to fish for people.
And they drop everything and follow.
They walk on a bit further and Jesus sees another two fishermen, James and John, mending their nets. We’re not told precisely what Jesus says to them. Maybe it’s the same words, maybe not. But it’s the same outcome. They too drop everything to follow him.
We’ve noticed in previous weeks how Mark is quite sparse in his details. Today it’s much the same. Chances are there were plenty of fishermen on that shore. Josephus tells us that at any time there were over 300 boats on the Sea of Galilee. But Mark doesn’t seem interested in why Jesus chose these 4, or why they dropped everything and followed. John’s Gospel suggests that Andrew at least had been a follower of John the Baptist. Mark doesn’t mention that.
Did the disciples know Jesus beforehand? Maybe. Mark doesn’t tell us.
Did the disciples like their work as fishermen?
Were they any good at it? Zebedee has hired men, which suggests his business was bigger than just a family thing. But other than that, we don’t know.
Did the two pairs of brothers get on before they met Jesus?
Did they work for the same company?
Were they bitter rivals?
Again, we don’t know.
All we’re told is that Jesus calls them, and they follow.
But even in the short scene as we have it, there are a couple of things which would have left those reading this story for the first time scratching their head.
So for a moment, if you can I want you to visualise that scene or to enter it. And as you do, ask what’s wrong with this picture?
The first thing that’s wrong with this picture is who is doing the calling. Later in the gospel, on the night Jesus is arrested, John tells us something interesting that Jesus says. You did not choose me, I chose you…
The context alone might well have suggested that this was simply a word of encouragement. Jesus has told them he was about to go away. He means he’s about to be arrested and killed. The disciples are understandably concerned, but Jesus wants them to know that this is not the end, and that they will continue his work even after he returns to the Father.
There’s something helpful about someone giving you that vote of confidence. Ever been in that situation where you’re thinking ‘oh, I’m not sure about this. Not sure I could handle that’ then someone says ‘do you think I’d have asked you, if I didn’t think you were up to the job?’ A vote of confidence like that, certainly from someone you trust and who knows what they’re talking about, can go a long way.
Maybe there was some of that in what Jesus said. But there was more going on here.
For it was not normal for a rabbi to issue that call to students. Not in that way anyway. It was for students or disciples to persuade a rabbi they were up to the task of being a student. Not the other way round.
Their education system was largely based around the Hebrew Scriptures. In the first stage of the education, Beit Sefer, lasted from around age 6-10. During that time they would be taught to memorise the Torah, or the first 5 books of the Bible.
If you’re thinking ‘wow, that’s tough’ you’re right. Most of them couldn’t hack it. Most never reached the end of that stage. Instead they’d go into the family business, or learn a trade. Or maybe they’d learn about looking after a household.
Only the best would go on secondary education, or Beit Talmud. Those kids who made it that far, and they were a minority, would learn to memorise the rest of the Hebrew scriptures… from Joshua to Malachi.
You can imagine, even in a culture like that, which relies far more on memory than we would, most would realise sooner or later, they’re not going to manage that. So by 14, 15 they’ve given up and taken up a trade, gone into the family business, perhaps even getting married, or at least betrothed.
But a few would make it, and would want to take it further. They would pick a rabbi and ask that rabbi to take them on as a disciple. They’d ask to be taught that rabbi’s yoke, or interpretation and application of the scriptures.
The rabbi would grill them on all sorts of aspects of the Torah, the prophets and so on, to find out if this kid had what it takes. But rabbis had a reputation to keep up. They wouldn’t just take on anybody. They only wanted to be associated with the very best. Most didn’t pass that exam.
But the odd one would stand out. To them they rabbi would say ‘come, follow me.’ And they would leave everything and follow their rabbi.
So Jesus is walking along the edge of the sea of Galilee. He sees a couple of sets of brothers, and issues the invitation. Come. Follow me.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Well, there are a couple of things.
One is that Jesus does the calling. They don’t come seeking him out. He seeks them out.
But more important is who he seeks out.
As Jesus walks along the sea of Galilee, what are they doing? Not following another rabbi. They’re in the family trade. Which means somewhere along the line, they’ve come to think they didn’t have what it takes to do Jesus calls them to. Follow a rabbi.
We shouldn’t underestimate the disciples. Whilst they may not have been the most learned, there is no reason to think they were utterly unschooled. And they were in a decent trade.
But it’s not the best of the best whom Jesus calls. It’s not those at the top of the class.
Jesus doesn’t invite us into relationship because of our greatness.
They were just ordinary people…
…but people prepared to commit themselves to a new way of life. Prepared to admit that with Jesus all sorts of new possibilities could emerge.
That wasn’t easy. It is a costly choice, both to Jesus and to them. They are leaving behind a way of life, with a fair degree of security to follow and learn to do what Jesus does.
And for what? A calling that it ill-defined at best. When they drop everything to follow Jesus, they haven’t a clue where this is headed.
There’s a call to worship we sometimes use. It says…
This is the place and this is the time;
here and now, God waits to break into our experience:
to change our minds, to change our lives, to change our ways;
to make us see the world and the whole of life in a new light:
to fill us with hope, joy and certainty for the future.
I had that call to worship at my ordination. Carol Murray, one of my college tutors preached on that occasion and spoke of how that call to worship had been used at another occasion when she had been invited to preach. Except there was a typo on the order of service which spoke of being filled with hope, joy and uncertainty.
Carol said that far from being unfortunate, it was quite appropriate and honest. The journey of faith can be filled with uncertainty.
In some ways it would be great if faith meant having all the answers, that we could map out the journey. But it doesn’t work like that.
It won’t for these disciples. As we read along they never really get it. Jesus will constantly confuse and perplex them. Discipleship is not about having all the answers. It’s about being aware that there is always more to discover and being open to the mystery.
The journey of faith is a bit like that. Take the story of Abraham. He’s called to go from your country, your people, your father’s household… He’s called to leave behind everything… the economic system he inhabits, the worldview he’s inherited, the gods he had come to believe in… and do what… go… where? To a land I will show you…
We’re not told why God calls Abram, or why he goes.
They both just do.
Or there was another story in their tradition, of a woman called Ruth. Ruth’s mother-in-law had Israel to go to Moab. That was how Ruth met her husband, Mahlon. But both Naomi and Ruth lose their husbands. Naomi decides to return home. Ruth insists on going with her.
Naomi tries to dissuade her. There’s something wrong in this picture. Why would you want to come with me? Ruth was stepping into an unknown world, into a place where she would have no rights, lands, resources.
Yet she insists on going. And we’re not told why.
Only at the very end of her story do we get a hint of where this is headed, when Ruth marries Boaz, and several generations later we come to David who becomes King, and in turn Jesus comes from that family line.
That’s what faith is like. It so rarely comes as a blinding flash. It so often starts with a what if?
What if I did that?
What if I went that way?
What if I don’t just accept that’s how it is?
It’s not always easy to put words to it, to explain it, but something stirs within you, a sense that this, whatever this is, is the right way. A still, small voice calling Come, follow me.
And you don’t have all the answers. The whole path is not visible. Often we’re given just enough light for the next step, and we’re invited to take it in trust that the light will come for the step after that.
And you will sometimes be confused and perplexed. You will sometimes falter and make mistakes. As I say, it was costly for Jesus as well as for them. The results of their efforts at following were, at best, mixed. Over the rest of Mark’s Gospel, these disciples rarely match the unwavering commitment of this first episode. Their performance is rarely stellar.
But Jesus knew them through and through and still committed himself to them, as he does to us.
Last week I sent out a picture on our Whatsapp group of all different sorts of potato with the headline ‘if you can do all this with a potato, think what God can do with you.’
It was timely. Sometimes in prayer I think ‘God, you know you call me to follow you? You know what’s wrong with that picture? Me!’ And God says ‘no, what’s wrong with that picture is how you see yourself. Now come, follow me’
And I ask the what if questions, and I take the next step.
He isn’t calling us for our greatness. He isn’t looking for us to have all the answers. He is not calling us to save the world through heroic performance. He simply ask us to trust him and trust he has committed himself to us. And he calls us to take the next step, wherever it leads, and follow.