n Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. Our texts for the third Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:14-20 and I Kings 19:19-21. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:
Not long ago I was driving along and I thought I heard singer-songwriter James Taylor doing an amazingly beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I was so taken with it that when I got home, I searched the internet, but could not find it. I couldn’t find it because, apparently, James Taylor hasn’t recorded that tune. I learned that day that James Taylor has a younger brother named Livingston, and now I’m a fan.
Have you ever found yourself reacting to someone you’d never really met before simply because they remind you of someone else? I’m not talking about “mistaken identity”, like when I’ve been asked for my autograph because someone thinks that I’m NFL broadcaster Dan Fouts; I’m talking about how you might treat someone nicer because she sort of looks like your grandmother, or how your neighbor’s child reminds you of the way your brother acted when he was younger.
When the author of Mark was writing his gospel, he went to great lengths to point out to people some of the ways that Jesus might have reminded them of someone that they ought to have known very well.
One of the most important characters in the entire Bible, and in our own faith story, is a shadowy figure named Elijah the Tishbite. He was widely regarded as Israel’s greatest prophet. He arose, seemingly, out of nowhere and called an unrighteous monarchy to account. He pushed the leadership of the people and the people themselves for purity in their spiritual lives. Elijah is one of two people mentioned in the Bible who did not die – rather, he was “taken up into heaven” in a fiery chariot.
Because of his reputation as a prophet, and because of the story of his having been taken directly to heaven, the people in Israel began to speak of Elijah’s return as the time when God would come and really set things straight once and for all. Four or five hundred years after Elijah’s death, the prophet Malachi wrote that Elijah would return at “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). When faithful Jews observe the Seder meal at Passover, it is customary to set a place at the table for Elijah – the one who comes to announce the presence of the Lord.
Mark wants us to remember Elijah. The prophet himself will figure prominently in the gospel in later chapters, but even here at the beginning, our narrator intends for us to see echoes of the Elijah story. Here’s a bit of that story to jog your memory.
As I mentioned, Elijah’s concern was defeating the idolatry that plagued his people. One day, he challenged the priests of Baal to a showdown of faith – one that ended very badly for them and for their “god”. While that may have been a very good thing for a number of reasons, the fact is that the King and Queen of Israel were Baal worshipers, and when he humiliated them, they put his name on their “public enemies” list. He fled to the wilderness, where he spent 40 days and 40 nights bemoaning his fate. At the end of that time, God came to Elijah when Elijah was alone, and spoke to him as to what to do next.
The old prophet leaves his mountain hideout and re-enters the community, where he encounters Elisha. He places his mantle on the young man’s shoulders, and in so doing, invites him to come along. It might not seem like it to our 21st-century ears, but placing the prophet’s mantle on Elisha was a very concrete invitation. It would be as if I asked Lydia to come over here, and I took off my robe and stole and put them on her – it would be an indication of what I thought her future might hold, wouldn’t it?
And Elisha doesn’t miss the message. He goes through a very public display of leaving his home, his family, and his career and then follows Elijah.
In last week’s reading from Mark, we read of another man who wandered into the wilderness. Jesus left Nazareth and found John the Baptist; after their encounter, Jesus alone hears a voice and sees a vision that directs him. He then spends – how long? Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, following which he engages in his ministry. The first thing he does when he leaves the wilderness, according to Mark, is to come into Galilee preaching and teaching. Simon, Andrew, James and John all see Jesus and make a very public display of leaving their own homes, families, and careers in order to follow Jesus.
Do you see how the reading from Mark is set up to parallel the story of Elijah? Why would he do that? What does that mean to us?
You may remember that a couple of weeks ago when we began this study we noted that Mark invented the genre we call “Gospel”. Chapter one, verse one: “The beginning of the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” So far, we have encountered John the Baptist and seen Jesus. Now, in verse fourteen, we actually hear the Gospel: “The time has come! The Kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe the good news!”
The first announcement of the Gospel as recorded in the first Gospel to be written consists of two announcements (“the time has come” and “the Kingdom of God has come near”) and two imperatives (“repent” and “believe”). The thing that God has long-intended to do is here! Pay attention. How do we pay attention? We repent. The Greek word that Mark uses is metanoia, and it means, literally “change of mind”. It speaks of being transformed, and re-orientation. And once we become open to this transformation, we live into it by believing. Pisteuete – have confidence in this thing; act as if it were true; depend on it – in short: believe!
Ah, but how do we do those things? What do “repent” and “believe” look like in our world?
Too often in modern and post-modern American culture, the word “repent” is used as a guided missile. An “evangelist” (literally, someone who is entrusted to carry the Good News) encounters a “non-believer” and hurls the invective: “You! Yes, you! Turn or burn, baby. You are so filthy, so miserable, so sinful… well, you make God sick! You better straighten up, buddy! You’d better get with the program like the rest of us holy people!” Yep, Good News all around!
And if that is how “repent” is interpreted, then the second part of the pronouncement to “believe” can often be heard as a call to abandon the intellect, turn your back on science, and just accept whatever I tell you to be true, you ninny.
Yet when we place those words in the context of Jesus (and Elijah, for that matter), we see that there is an entirely different mood and outcome.
Elijah places his mantle on Elisha, who asks a question. The old prophet immediately responds by saying, “Look? What did I do to you? This is between you and God. It’s not about keeping me happy. You do what you need to do.”
Jesus stands on the beach and calls out to the fishermen: “Come, follow me…” According to Mark, this is one of only three times that Jesus uses this particular word. It’s not the regular word for “follow”, but more appropriately “come along with me”, or “join me” or even “share this journey with me”. In other words, the call to repentance and belief is an invitation that is extended by one who wishes to share in the process, not browbeat some helpless people into theological submission.
I had a great example of this kind of invitation earlier this week. I was at my desk when I got a text from Marla (I’m still not sure how I feel about people who are in the same building, or even the same room as I am who send texts rather than simply walking over and conversing, but that could simply mean that I’m really old). The message read, “Come down to the side door. You’re gonna want to see this.”
That brief message had so much good in it: there was invitation, intrigue, presence, and anticipation. There was no sense of a threat; there was no scolding. My friend was inviting me to join her in a place she thought I would appreciate. So you know what I did: I got up and hightailed it to the side door – because I trust Marla. If she said I would want to see it, then I wanted to see it.
She showed me the back of her car, filled with nearly 300 brand new books that had been donated to the Open Door for distribution to the children of this community. She was right! I did want to see it. She had good news, and she showed me the good news. She also made me help her unload the good news into the church, but that’s another sermon I suppose).
Jesus, fresh from the vision and voice of God, fresh from his time of testing in the wilderness, walks over to the edge of the water and calls to those who are working hard: “Hey, fellas! Check this out! Come and see!” He walks a little farther, where he encounters a couple more men who are nearly finished with their daily tasks and says, “You’re gonna want to see this…” And they do! They get up and they follow.
I want to note at this point that the calls from Elijah and Jesus do not come at the time of optimum convenience. Nobody shows up at the house, or stops by the beach on a day when you are just hanging around with all of your stuff done, wondering “I wonder if anyone has anything interesting they’d like to show me? I mean, I’ve got a lot of extra time and energy right now. Maybe someone will invite me into a new place to serve…”
The call to walk with Jesus (as with Elijah) rarely seems to come when people are feeling exceptionally well-rested, well-funded, or well-equipped.
The call to walk with Jesus often requires a leaving of sorts. Sometimes this is dramatic, as when we are invited to battle through an addiction or interrupt an occupation. Sometimes it is disappointing, as when we are encouraged to let go of a relationship that we treasure, but we know to be toxic. Oftentimes, it is frustrating, as we think about getting up earlier on yet another day, or spending time at one more meeting… And we realize that leaving what we have known and come to love and trust is always filled with some kind of grief, even when we are pretty sure that we are moving into something that is better for us (that’s why we cry not only at funerals, but at weddings: we hope for what will be, but we kind of love what is…).
Yet the call from Jesus is personal, genuine, and non-threatening. “Come with me. You’re going to want to see this. Let me show you that for which you are longing. Enter into this new way of life with me.”
I was struck by an example of this kind of invitation to a new way of life as I reflected on the opportunities I have had to travel internationally. Someone says, “Hey, come to Africa!”, and you think, “Wow! What a change that would be!”
There are a whole series of announcements: I’d like to go… I’m getting ready to go… It’s time to go: the trip is at hand!
You find yourself milling around the terminal at Dulles airport, where it seems as though the whole world has gathered. There are voices everywhere, and monitors all around you. Some people hear an announcement that flight #877 is leaving for Addis Ababa, and they get up and go to gate A23. Some people, presumably, don’t want to go to Addis, and they keep on walking. Still others don’t understand the language in which the announcement is made, and so they continue in confusion.
You get to Addis, and you find yourself in an airport that is, to your mind, incredibly crowded, overwhelmingly smelly, and poorly laid out. It is filled with strange sounds, and the PA system seems to work about 1/3 of the time. If you can find one, you settle into a seat, hoping that you’ll be able to make sense of what is going on… and then you realize that the one who invited you to come on this journey is sitting right next to you. What a relief it is to travel with someone who has been there before. It’s still a little scary, but you can catch your breath because you know it’s not all up to you! What a relief, right?
The Gospel – the good news – is this: the time has come! The Kingdom of God is near to you! So come on! Jesus is inviting you and me into the rest of Mark. He seems to think that there are things that we’ll want to see.
None of us are going alone. I know, you think, “Well, it’s not really a great time for me to be thinking about making major life changes.” Yeah. Join the club. But it will never be a perfect time. So let’s see what there is to see. Let’s leave our boats, our nets, our current fascinations and walk a while with Jesus into the nuances of discipleship. It may be that we will find the life of deeper discipleship to be that one for which we are made! It may be that the purposes to which we are called reflect those we were given at our birth.
What has he done to you? He’s invited you. Thanks be to God, he’s invited all of us. May we have the grace to follow with him today. Thanks be to God. Amen.