Sermon for January 21, 2018

Scripture readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Ps. 62:5-12; 
1 Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Sermon by Josh McDonald from Mark 1:19-20

 A Lesson from Big Jim from the ’Burbs

Introduction

Let’s talk about boredom. A fourth century monk wrote this about it:

The demon of boredom—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack up on the monk at the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from lunchtime, to look this way and now that…. It instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the places, a hatred for his very life itself…

Then there are the words of the 18th-century French Queen, Marie Antoinette, who in describing her sense of boredom said, Noting tastes!

Then there are words concerning boredom from the 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire:

In the disorderly circus of our vice,
there’s one more ugly and abortive birth.
It makes no gestures, never beats its breast,
yet it would murder for a moment’s rest,
and willingly annihilate the earth.
It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine….

Finally, we have a profound observation concerning boredom from rock legend Kurt Cobain: Oh well, whatever. Nevermind

Boredom—the noonday demon, a tasteless existence, nevermind. Boredom is a common denominator in a culture where our needs are fulfilled we’re safe, fed, politically at rest, relationally connected, physically satiated. Yet our souls scream out: “What next?” “What’s life for?” “What’s the purpose of it all?” We ask ourselves, “Should I numb myself with pleasure?” “Should I keep acquiring stuff—doesn’t the one who dies with the most toys win?” “Do I now find some great issue to champion?” “Should I be pro-Trump or anti-Trump, pro-military or pacifist, protest cruelty to animals or protest abortion?” “What next?”

Christian author Kathleen Norris wrote about acedia—an ancient word that describes the mix of boredom and depression that seems to be the symbol of our time:

Acedia has come so far with us that it easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.

“Do more and care less”—isn’t that the painful description of the soccer mom as she drives to yet another PTA meeting and takes an anxiety pill so she doesn’t have to feel it? Acedia—boredom and depression—nothing new in the history of humankind. That which makes the sun seem to stand still and the day 50 hours long, and makes “nothing taste” (this said by the queen of France, who had more wealth and opportunity than all of us combined!).

Let’s think together about this issue by going to the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where we find Jesus beginning to call his first disciples—a hand-picked cabinet of 12 that included all kinds of people. There were con-artists, petty thieves, outdoorsmen, roughnecks, terrorists, cultural sell outs, all manner of weirdoes. However, the lessons we learn from their examples are invaluable—they bring the power of the gospel into high relief so we can see clearly what’s going on.

Yet among these 12 we don’t often see one thing—ourselves. Instead, we see people whose sins and heroism are obvious, who have powerful virtues and yet make great blunders. What we don’t see is the person like most of us—the suburbanite whose life is routine. We don’t see someone who is looking from his suburban manicured lawn to suburban manicured lawns every direction, dying of the modern sickness of apathy and boredom—the whole world at his or her fingertips like never before, yet their heart is gasping the words of Macbeth: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow… life is a tale told by an idiot…”

But let’s look closer at Mark’s account—past the examples of the first disciples’ extreme lifestyles and exciting transformations to two brothers from a middle-class family who are unbelievably bored. Perhaps we can relate.

Going on a little farther, [Jesus] saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:19-20)

Nothing extraordinary here. James was a common name at that time. In fact, we know of several James in the New Testament:

  •  James, son of Alphaeus. This one is an apostle we know almost nothing about. He is called James the Less, and it may be because he was shorter than James the Great. We might call him Little Jim.
  • James the brother of Jesus, also called James the Just. He is most likely the one who wrote the book of James.
  • James the Greater. He was the brother of the John mentioned here in Mark. James and John were known as “the sons of thunder,” a nickname Jesus gave them. This is who we are talking about today, or as I like to call him, Big Jim from the ’Burbs.
“St. James, the Greater” by Reni
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

We don’t know a whole lot about Big Jim—we know much more about his famous brother John. I call him “Big Jim from the ’Burbs” because he, more than any of the other original 12 disciples, seems to have the most in common with most of us. Matthew was a political traitor, Judas a terrorist, Peter a roughneck outdoorsman. All were interesting men, but we probably would not be hanging out with them in our day and age. However, we might find ourselves hanging out with Big Jim and his brother John—guys we might meet in the check-out line at the grocery store.

Big Jim and John were brothers in an economically comfortable family. Their profession as fisherman had been laid out for them when they were young. Their mother, Salome, was one of the first financial underwriters of Jesus’ ministry. John had enough money to take Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his home and care for her the rest of her life. Their dad, Zebedee, was in the rotary club and their mom was the secretary of the PTA. They were members of the bowling league and mowed their lawn on Sunday afternoon. More than any of original 12 disciples, James and John were like us.

And like us, they may have suffered from the listlessness of a settled life in a settled place. They may be in the time in their life when they’ve put together a profession and a future—a dull, grey, yet stable one—and their hearts are aching with boredom. They know there must be something more. I read an article this week that said the new epidemic in our Western world isn’t greed or lust or selfishness—it’s chronic boredom!

This is perhaps why we have Big Jim and John jump up so quickly in Mark  chapter 1:

And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:19-20)

If we drill down on this statement, we see the brothers leaving two things right away: their family and their profession. They didn’t just jump out of a boat—they jumped right out of their routine existence. To leave their family and their future occupation means that they left everything. Society would have no way to define them anymore. Just look at our last names.

[Give examples here: McDonald—I am the “son of Donald” of the clan Donald. Nelson—“son of Nell.” Steward is a name taken from the house guardian—it’s a profession name—the “steward” of the house. Metzger is the German word for butcher. Miller is another profession name.]

Who our family is and what our profession is are all too often used to define who we are. Big Jim left this when he left the boat, although it didn’t leave him for a long time.

In the Gospels we see all 12 of the original disciples bumble along trying to understand what Jesus is up to. Their errors, as well as their great triumphs, are there for the viewing. Peter gets called Satan, Philip gets confronted (you still don’t understand?), and all of them run off and desert Jesus on the worst night of his life. One of the big misunderstandings between them and Jesus is in the understanding of the word “kingdom.”

As these disciples were growing up, they would have heard stories about the great and terrible day of the Lord—the time when God was going to intervene directly in history, restore Israel as the ruling nation and himself as the king. He would break the evil and reward the righteous.

Jesus’ slogan, over and over when he arrives, is that “the kingdom is among you.” But it sure didn’t look like it! People were still dying, wars raged on, rivers dried up and famines continued, all during Jesus’ lifetime when the “kingdom” was supposedly near.

But what Jesus was talking about was a kingdom not of this world. Not a political or economic kingdom, but a kingdom of love and restored relationships. An upside-down kingdom in which the last are first, and the weak are called the strong. Instead of aggression and force, Jesus’ kingdom is about humility and willingness. Instead of amassing and taking, his kingdom is about sharing and loving. This kingdom is what things look like when God is in charge.

This understanding opens up our world a bit, perhaps a lot. The kingdom is fundamentally expressed in relationship. Sure, you may be having a great conversation with God in your own head, but if you can’t also have a conversation with a neighbor or a difficult relative, the kingdom isn’t there in its full power. You may have a great time singing praises with the praise team at church, but if it doesn’t result in a deepened love for your spouse or patience with your kids, the kingdom hasn’t come in its fullness.

The kingdom breaking into our lives means that it breaks into every part, every action, every thought, and definitely into every relationship. The kingdom is what things look like when God is in charge.

In Jesus’ day, the Israelite people had their own ideas about what the kingdom was and how it was going to come. For them, it was a political, military kingdom, and thus we see constant confusion with Jesus because of how he defined the kingdom.

Big Jim had his own problems getting the picture. In the two vignettes we have about him, he shows some sin issues that we can all relate to. First, there is the issue of fear; and second, there is the issue of vanity. Fear and vanity, both exposed by conversations with Jesus.

Let’s look at Luke’s account:

When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:51-56)

This is Jesus heading toward Jerusalem—he set his face toward Jerusalem. Jesus knew his purpose and knew what had to happen for this kingdom, the one he kept talking about, to come. And these two sons of thunder start telling him how to do his job.

There’s a lot of speculation as to where their nickname came from—Boanerges in the original language. Scholars speculate it had something to do with their thunderous tempers, and that may be shown here. The Samaritan village wasn’t listening, wasn’t making way for the kingdom of God. James would have known the story of Elijah calling down fire on an army in the book of Kings. They wanted to be part of that kind of kingdom, so they acted in fear.

Their fear, manifested as anger, caused them to make this violent request of Jesus. Do you want us to call down fire? Surely now we are part of the kingdom that will eradicate haters like this? They considered the Samaritans to be half-breeds, heretics, cultists—a threat to what it meant to be God’s people. Hate and fear worked together in this request.

Just the sight of the Samaritan village on the hill would have disgusted them. Can we connect with that fear? [show pictures of a member of ISIS and then a member of the KKK]. Everyone of us can act out of this fear. We can all act out of hatred and anxiety, and wish that God would crush the evil-doers, and eradicate the Samaritan village so that we can finally rest easy. Surely Jesus wants to do that! We savor the day when he will finally give all these arrogant sinners their cumeuppance.

But what does Jesus do? He rebukes Big Jim and his brother John. We don’t have the words exchanged, but we know the context. People come to him immediately afterward and say “let me bury my father first” or “let me say goodbye to everyone at home” and then I will follow you. Big Jim and John are saying something similar—”Jesus, we’d like your kingdom to look like we want it to look. We only want to give a little—I’m willing to give up this sin or that sin, but I really like to keep this one.”

I’m reminded here of cancer. The most aggressive kinds respond the most dramatically to treatment. Cancer that is obvious and moving quickly often responds to treatment and shows quick results. It’s the slow-moving, deeper cancers that you don’t notice until it’s too late. Those are the ones that kill you subtly and silently—that’s why they are so dangerous.

Sin is like that. Sure, you may have found freedom from an addiction to alcohol or pornography, but what about being addicted to being the center of attention? You may have finally stopped cussing when you stub your toe, but do you use your clean words now to gossip or tear others down? Do you let fear run your decisions—not just disagreeing with those who live differently than you, but avoiding them, treating them like they aren’t made in God’s image? Treating them like Jesus didn’t die for them too?

Jesus exposes one of Big Jim’s besetting, suburban, “acceptable” sins in this short exchange. Jesus tells him that this isn’t what his kingdom is about—a temporary judgment coming out in military strength and supernatural violence. Jesus is not running that kind of operation. He’s not setting his face toward Jerusalem to go there and take over the government. He will be entering the city on a donkey, not the white horse and fanfare of a king—that has yet to come. Villages will continue to reject him, and us by proxy, and he will hold back the fires of destruction. Jesus’ kingdom is one of mercy, and the only cleansing fire that needs to come from heaven right now, will come in our hearts.

So Big Jim from the ’Burbs starts to see a little of what’s going on. Jesus isn’t going to be absorbed into their lives as usual. Just as he called them out of their father’s boat, their father’s profession, and their family matrix, so he calls them out of their long-held prejudices. He calls them out of letting fear run their lives.

The second vignette deals with a sin that might be a little easier to get our hands on. Let’s look at Matthew’s account:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (Matt. 20:20-23)

Ah, nepotism! We know from later on that their mother Salome is one of the financial supporters of Jesus’ early ministry, and of the early church. Here she is doing what any good suburban mom would do—looking out for her boys. Look, Jesus, it would be easier for me to increase my tithing, loosen up those purse strings a little if I knew that Big Jim and Johnny were gonna be comfortable when this all gets established. I scratch your back, Lord, and…well…?

Vanity, pride. First, we had fear and prejudice and cultural hatred, good old-fashioned racism and small-mindedness. Now, we have career advancement. Say, Jesus, just wondering who you’re going to pick for head positions when you come into this empire you’re talking about! James and John are good boys, maybe a little rough, but they learn quickly. I’d love it if they could have corner offices, maybe next to each other.

But this isn’t the kind of kingdom Jesus was talking about. The kingdom of God runs on higher laws and with better ends than the way things work in the world of business or politics. The kingdom of God is eternal; these other realms are temporary. The kingdom of God isn’t achieved by personal strength or clever intrigue, or by garnering favors—the kingdom of God is known through love. The kingdom of God was won by Jesus’ suffering and dying, not bullying his way to the top.

So we have Big Jim from the ’Burbs. Along with his brother John, he’s being called further and further from his old life and the old idols that sucked up his spirit.

What boat is Jesus calling you to jump out of today? For some people, that means a calling right out of their life and into direct, vocational ministry. Francis of Assisi is an example—a rich kid with a privileged life who left it all behind to go into ministry. But most of us aren’t called to something quite so dramatic. God gets a lot done through us doing our jobs and paying our taxes. It’s when we start defining ourselves by these things that the problems arise. When we start acting like the financial or occupational situation we’re in is all that we’re made for, we end up like Marie Antoinette saying, “Nothing tastes.” Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. The cruel grey idols of our own selfishness and self-addiction.

Big Jim seems to finally get the picture at some point. Somewhere, we don’t have an exact record, he lets go of himself and puts his life fully in the care of Jesus, his Lord. According to early church tradition, following Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, he heads west, taking the treacherous journey all the way to Spain.

Historians support this tradition, noting that his mission to Spain essentially flopped. The one who wanted to make connections in the kingdom and destroy the enemies of Christ like a prophet was, at least by our standards, a failure as a missionary. During the same time, Peter and Andrew were doing well in their missionary work in the West—winning people to Christ and planting churches. But it seems that Big Jim was selling something nobody wanted. He worked and worked, yet was only able to convert nine people after a few years, while his brothers-in-arms converted thousands. Nine. Not exactly victorious Christian living! A man who had been trained in ministry by the son of God himself fizzles out in hostile territory.

That, to me, is great encouragement. When I don’t think things are going well in my ministry or with the church, I can think of my older brother James having much the same luck. One day he was praying, laying out his frustrations and confusion with his present mission. The story goes that the virgin Mary, who was still alive at the time, appeared to him with a pillar. She told him that his work hadn’t been in vain and that God would bless him. Then she told him to build a church around that pillar she had brought. If you ever meet someone who is Latino and has the name “pilar” it comes from this story.

So he built the church as instructed, and finally found success. He returned to Jerusalem at some point, and we don’t know exactly why. There he was brought up on false charges and put on trial. Big Jim, the one who wanted to make all the connections and have a name for himself, the suburban kid who was going to climb the ladder and distinguish himself, is given a sacred ministry, and resurfaces in scripture one final time:

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. (Acts 12:1-2)

About the same time, Peter was also arrested by Herod. And yet Peter was freed by an angel and went on to have a fruitful, illustrious career and do great miracles. Big Jim was executed like a criminal by some soldiers, probably between their breakfast and lunch.

Tradition says that James was falsely accused, but Herod was only too happy to have him arrested, especially when he saw how popular it made him with the public. Soon Big Jim faced the sword—he’d seen beheadings before, he knew how these things went. And yet he who, in the past, was motivated by vanity, stood before his executioners with peace on his face. Seeing this, his accuser was so moved that he threw himself at James’s feet and asked his forgiveness. James forgave him, and they were then both executed by Herod.

Tradition tells us that Peter’s ministry was to found the church in Rome, Andrew’s ministry was to found the church in Greece, and Thomas’ ministry was to found the church in India. The ministry of James the Great was to be the first to prove that the kingdom of Christ, while in this world, is not of this world.

What, though of Big Jim? What can we learn from him?

  •  See yourself in the story. The Bible seems very far away sometimes. As if the only people God chooses are great sinners and great saints—comic book characters, to our minds. But Big Jim wasn’t like that. He was a middle-class guy with a middle class future ahead of him. He was connected, secured, and bonded, and Jesus called him out of that.
  • Jump out of the boat. Maybe Jesus won’t call you out of your profession and culture, but he will call you not to define yourself by these things. He will call you to hold these gifts—because they are gifts—with an open hand. Once you close your hand around them, they become idols. What boat is he calling you to jump out of today? Do you need to jump out of the boat of your own image? The boat of career advancement? Lining your bank account? What holds you back from allowing God to take care of you—from being prepared to let him be your only reward, your only recognition.
  • Understand that the kingdom is not of this world. The man who had his mom try to get him in good with the boss, was the first to lose his life. Big Jim was the first to show that this worldly kingdom, even accomplishments in ministry, weren’t where his identity came from. How would it change our lives if we were to embrace that perspective? If we were to see our success in the world paling in comparison to success in the kingdom?

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