"Let's unpack this!"
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Good morning! I’m so glad to be here in St. Louis, glad to join you this morning, since being here means I get to take a break from unpacking. Unpacking is what I’ve been doing for most of he past month, as quickly as I can, as I’ve moved my family from Dallas, Texas, here to St. Louis. I’ve never in my life moved houses like this, nor have I ever moved with kids. All this unpacking hasn’t made me good at it, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t wanna get good at moving. I think I”ll prefer to stay put for a while.
Everything is not yet in place in my house, but it’s use-able. My office in the church building is still entirely boxes, pretty much the same picture as what’s printed on the front of the worship bulletins this week. There’s so much to do, but on Friday, I had to give myself permission to take a break from unpacking. I sat in a chair in the living room, with an unpacked box in front of me, and I propped my feet up on it.
Do you know what that’s called? It’s called Holy Sabbath. God didn’t build human beings with the intention that we would be working nonstop for days on end; human bodies just can’t do it. God created the Sabbath for human beings, that our blessed, God-created bodies can rest. God thinks Sabbath is so important that it’s not a mere suggestion nor a good idea: it’s a commandment!
We’re together in Christian community to encourage one another in faith, to remind each other of our belovedness, to worship God in Spirit and truth, to study God’s Word and learn together. When Biblical scholars want to study Scripture, sometimes they’ll say “let’s unpack this.” What they mean is, let’s dig into this text and look closely and examine all the pieces and really evaluate what’s going on with the context and the history and all of that.
So that’s one of the things Lutheran preachers do in their sermons during worship: we unpack the text. But before we unpack, I think it should be said: if you’re exhausted because of life in a pandemic, or if you’re mourning, maybe this isn’t the right time for you to be unpacking. That’s fine—you can rest in God’s Word for now and do the unpacking later. God has already given you grace; you might as well allow yourself some grace too.
But here we go: let’s get to work unpacking this Gospel lesson. Mark’s Gospel is one that begs to be unpacked. It is tightly written, action-oriented, no unnecessary details. It’s not the longest Gospel, so it’s like a small box that’s very heavy: there’s a lot to unpack. We won’t be able to unpack the whole thing, but let’s see what we can find for today.
Immediately—this word comes up a lot in Mark’s Gospel. In this short passage, we see it two times already! And the whole Gospel of sixteen chapters, the word “immediately” is used 27 times, and that isn’t counting all the times we see the phrase “at once!” If Jesus is doing so many things “immediately” and if people are responding “immediately,” there’s a sense of urgency here. Mark wants us to know that it’s important to act quickly: when Jesus calls, we can respond immediately!
John was arrested—this would be John the Baptist. You know, the guy who was in the
wilderness eating locusts and honey, wearing camel-hair clothes, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sounds non-threatening, how did he get arrested? Well, you read ahead to chapter 6 and find out King Herod arrested John the Baptist because John’s sermons got too political, and John was critiquing the king for not following the law of their common Jewish faith.
There are real-world consequences for proclaiming the Gospel. If keeping your wealth and power and status is what matters to you, then the good news of God may not be good news for you. There’s no skipping over this reality or making it pretty: Mark is honest with us in telling us just what the stakes are. Jesus is beginning his ministry, proclaiming the same Gospel as what John was proclaiming, and Jesus knows the consequences and goes ahead with it anyway.
Jesus came to Galilee—this is his home turf! Galilee is where Jesus grew up, where he comes from. This is where people know him and love him anyway.
“The time is fulfilled”—Mark writes his Gospel in the Greek language, and the Greek word for “time” here is Kairos, which is like saying the fullness of time, or God’s time. There’s
another Greek word chronos that means the kind of time you keep with your watch or a clock; chronos is time you can measure. Kairos is holy time, a way of saying that the time is right because God makes the time right.
Chronos and Kairos times are both going on simultaneously. To give you an example that may still be fresh on your mind, Gethsemane Lutheran Church, it’s been a couple of years since you’ve had a permanent pastor in place—whatever that length of time, something like two years, is the chronos measure of time. To look back and say, “God made everything happen just the way God needed it to happen” is to acknowledge Kairos, the fullness of time.
“The dominion of God has come near”—this phrase is a little tricky because some
translations say “kingdom of God,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. But here’s where looking at the Greek word can help us understand better—Mark uses the word basileia, which refers more to the act of being in charge, the power to rule, more than a geographical place. And this is how Christians understand living in the kingdom of God: it’s not a place you go to, it’s the decision you make to let God be in charge of your life, to want the things that God wants.
In many ways, it would be so much easier if God’s dominion was simply a place—you can be there or not be there. But wanting what God wants requires a commitment to discernment, a commitment to paying attention and looking out for your neighbors and seeking justice.
“Repent, and believe in the good news!”—Jesus uses the same language that John the
Baptist used: repent. To repent is to physically turn around, to turn from evil.
Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—notice how Jesus isn’t in the Temple in Jerusalem or in the synagogue where faithful people would gather to worship and study God’s law. Jesus is out in the neighborhood, noticing people as they do their daily jobs, just the regular stuff they do every day to support themselves and their families.
I think this is worth noticing right now, especially for us church people as we’re having to
continue to be separated from one another for the sake of good health and safety. Is it good news for us to know that Jesus can show up while we’re at our jobs or just walking down the street or browsing through social media? Um, I believe that’s good news. There’s nowhere God can’t go.
And I’m really having to lean into my faith that the Holy Spirit can truly unite us as one body when we’re as far apart as we are now! It’s pretty different for me to be here in a sanctuary with only a few other worship leaders, and we’re still following strict guidelines for safety—because I am in the same room, I can’t sing along with the hymns and Y’ALL, these are some of my favorites! So if you’re at home or in a place where you can safely sing, alone or in the presence of just the members of your household, please sing for me! I’m gonna be up here with my hand over my mouth trying very hard NOT to sing in worship. And you know what I suspect will happen? Even though I’m annoyed that I can’t sing safely and I want to curse this virus, you know what will probably happen? I bet Jesus will STILL show up and help me notice some aspect of grace that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise because seriously: where can Jesus NOT go?
“Follow me and I will make you”—I want to just stop there and notice how Jesus is giving commands from the get-go. He’s not posting a sign-up sheet. He’s not calling for volunteers. He’s not even really issuing an invitation: it’s a command. Follow me. And then: I will make you….do what?
“fish for people”—and this is just weird. Fish for people? Sounds gruesome. Recover bodies from the water? (Shudder.) We usually use this phrase about fishing for people to imagine that we’re bringing in people into the family of God, everyone together! And that’s fine as a metaphor, though it ignores the fact that when fish are caught, they are taken out of the water and they die. (Wah wah, sad trumpet.)
Now our friend Mark, the Gospel writer, isn’t afraid of death and dying, and neither is
Jesus—later on in this Gospel (Mark 8:35), Jesus will say “those who save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.” So it could be that Jesus wants to fish people out of the fear of death.
Or, in the ancient near east in that time period, the sea represented chaos, and perhaps fishing people out of chaos is like rescuing them from sin. That could be an explanation. 1
But there are other places in the Bible where fishing is mentioned in the context of people. Biblical scholar Ched Myers notices that there’s a metaphor of fishing taken from the prophet Jeremiah (16:16), where fishing out evil people is meant to symbolize God’s disapproval of Israel. The prophets Amos (4:2) and Ezekiel (29:4) specifically used the image of catching fish on hooks to represent the divine judgment upon the rich and the powerful.
In light of this context, Myers concludes this: “Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.”
“Follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fish for people.” I will make you: keep doing what you’ve already been doing, but in a totally different way. I will make you: work for God’s purposes. I will make you want what God wants. I will make you use your power for the sake of the powerless. I will make you notice your privilege and consider how you use it.
And finally, they left their father Zebedee in the boat! These disciples called by Jesus
Christ were ready to respond, ready to change their lives completely, ready to give up comforts and even relationships. We aren’t going to unpack the rest of the story of James and John and their father Zebedee, because we’re still living in chronos time. But we can surely notice the sacrifices that a disciple might be asked to make.
Now that we’ve unpacked all this and made a pretty good mess, which of these things will stick with you? Is there something we’ve unpacked that makes you want to hang onto it and sit with it a little longer? Or will you pile it all back into your box and save it for another day? There are lots of ways to spend time with God’s Word; this is just one way. What does God want you to notice today?
The dominion of God has come near, and Jesus calls you to follow and to work alongside him. Even if we’re not doing things the same way we’ve always done them—I’ve certainly never led worship quite this way before—God is very much present among us, meeting us where we are. May the grace of God continue to meet us, today and always. Amen.
1 Osvaldo D. Vena, workingpreacher.org