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Sermon for January 21, 2024 – Third Sunday After Epiphany

Welcome to this week’s episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 3009 | Jonah—Prophet or Cautionary Tale
Greg Williams

If you ask anyone about Jonah, what will they say the story is about?

The whale. Every kids’ book and cartoon adaptation of Jonah features some hybrid of Moby Dick and Jaws creeping up out of the seaweed to swallow the hapless prophet.

But the real story is much bigger. Jonah is asked by God to avert the destruction of Israel’s sworn enemy, Nineveh. Jonah, out of an ethnic hatred of these people and anger about God showing them mercy, ran in the other direction as fast and far as he could.

At one point, he even chose to kill himself by jumping into angry seas rather than obeying God’s call. In his own rage and bitterness, he would rather die than soften his will to God’s.

God turns the tables on him by sending, as we all know, a giant fish.
God turns the tables again by hearing the Ninevites repenting and holding back his judgment.

But Jonah remains unmoved. He ends the whole book arguing with God over whether God is allowed to show mercy to these people.

In a sense, Jonah gets his theology right, but he misses who God is. Sure the Israelites are the people of God, sure the Assyrians were bloodthirsty and godless, but in the book of Jonah we read, God is:

 “…a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah 4:2 (ESV)

Isn’t that who we want God to be? Sure! But Jonah was blinded by his own self-preservation and his own thoughts on how God should be acting. Instead of a prophet, his story became a cautionary tale.

Has that ever happened to us? Have we ever so figured out how God should be acting that we miss what he’s doing? Does an obsession with theological details sometimes cause us to lose the big picture—that God loves the world and wants to draw everyone to himself?

Let’s not forget that God’s main business is love—and that love is messy, fuzzy, spontaneous, and generous. He’s not going to follow whatever expectations we have for him, and he’s not consulting us on how far to extend his grace. Halleljujah! Let’s be grateful! Embrace his lavish love for you and for your perceived enemies. That’s how GOOD God is.

I am Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 62:5-12 • Jonah 3:1-5, 10 • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 • Mark 1:14-20

This week’s theme is epiphanies demand a response. In our call to worship psalm, affirmation of God’s faithfulness enables a renunciation of placing vain hope in riches. Jonah, although reluctant, serves as an instrument of bringing God’s message to Nineveh that gained a response of repentance. Our reading from 1 Corinthians records Paul’s reminder that all other values are minimized by the surpassing worth of Christ. The Gospel text in Mark recounts the fishermen who leave everything behind when called by Jesus.

A Proclamation and Calling

Mark 1:14-20 ESV

It doesn’t take Mark long to tell a story. Our text today begins only fourteen verses into chapter one and Mark is already introducing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Mark begins his Gospel account with a short section on John the Baptist, which leads to an even shorter section on Jesus’ baptism, which is then followed by only two verses to tell of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. In quick order Mark accounts for the work of preparation that paves the way for Jesus’ ministry. In our passage today we are given a quick look into what Jesus’ ministry entails. Namely, a ministry of preaching and calling.

As we look at these two aspects of Jesus’ ministry, we are also given an epiphany of who God is and what he has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. Although Mark is short in the telling of his narratives of Jesus’ life and ministry, his briefness does allow us a laser focus on what is essential to the gospel message. Since Mark does not provide many details in his stories, we look at the details he does provide as loaded with weighty meaning. We will try to take note of those details as we go. But first, let’s see how Mark chooses to introduce the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15 ESV)

Notice that Mark lets us know that John’s ministry of preparation is over. Using John’s arrest, Mark removes John the Baptist from the scene and transitions from preparation to arrival. Jesus has arrived and there is no turning back. The focus going forward is fully on Jesus. However, Jesus’ arrival is in Galilee and not Jerusalem or Rome. The Lord’s ministry does not need to make a huge splash or begin in the spotlight of the grand and majestic. Jesus is content to start in the small, isolated corners that we find ourselves in, and not in the perceived center of the stage so often marked out by power, prestige, and popularity. When Jesus comes to us, we can trust that we are, in that movement, at the very center of the universe. There is nothing more majestic or grand than what Jesus is doing in our midst. This is the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. Our heavenly Father does not move on to bigger and better things to make a name for himself. He comes to us in our “Galilees” to glorify his name among us.

Using John the Baptist’s arrest, Mark is also able to make hint of the conflict that will come later for Jesus as he carries out his ministry. Just as John was arrested, so Jesus will be. But even with this foreshadowing of conflict, we are to anticipate that Jesus will not be deterred from his mission of proclaiming the good news and calling us into it. For Jesus, there is nothing more important than his mission to save us. He will not be distracted or hindered, no matter the amount of conflict he must endure. This ominous “arrest” can also serve to prepare us for the conflict that awaits those who will become his followers. Following Jesus will not be easy, but it will be incomparably so worth it! Because of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, we too can face all conflict as we turn to him in faith. No matter what we face, we can always turn to the one who is forever, and immovably, turned toward us.

With John the Baptist off the scene, Mark presents Jesus’ ministry first and foremost as a “proclaiming” of the gospel which has everything to do with the “kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is a politically loaded statement. We often want to avoid making “political” statements as they seem so divisive, and certainly often are. However, “kingdom” language is clearly political in content and is not to be dismissed as philosophical talk, moral advice, or therapeutic spirituality. The message Jesus proclaims is to the whole world and it has implications to all issues within it. The gospel is not held at bay by the political polarization presented to us. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, and he brings with him God’s kingdom. It doesn’t get any more political than that.

The difference we see in this “political” message is that it is “the gospel of God” meaning it is the good news that God declares to us in his Son Jesus. It’s the “bad news” politics of our day that must take a back seat to Jesus’ proclamation, not the other way round. No doubt, such a proclamation will indeed bring Jesus and us into conflict with the powers that be who oppose and resist the proclamation that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Notice how that proclamation is a stated reality, not a potential or comforting thought. It is a declaration of something that has already taken place with a forward motion towards completion. Like the first sight of the rising sun that breaks the darkness of night, you know there is no stopping it. It’s just a matter of time till the darkness becomes full day. You can resist it, but only by closing your eyes and pretending it’s not there.

But this proclamation does not stand alone. It demands a response. And that response is to “repent and believe in the gospel.” This may be why this story finds itself on the calendar for the Season of Epiphany. Epiphanies are those moments when we see something that was once hidden. When this happens, we will want to make some changes to fit the reality that we now see. Have you ever bumped your shin walking through a dark room? If the lights get turned on you can clearly see the coffee table that you were bumping into. Now that you see the coffee table, it would be foolish to take the same path. That’s why the response to the proclamation of the gospel is to “repent,” which essentially means to change your mind and act accordingly. But, along with that response of repentance is the response of “believe in the gospel.” This means that not only do we see the “coffee table” but we trust that a new path is good for us.

We must come to trust that the news of God’s kingdom and his reign is in fact “good.” And to do that we must come to know that the King is indeed a good king who has our best interest in mind. In this way, repentance is a joyful turning to the Lord and a deliberate turning away from all that prevents us from knowing him more. So, we do not repent out of some self-willed determination to be our best selves. Rather, we come to rely and trust on the Lord’s word to us, turning to him and leaving behind all that is not fitting to the relationship with him that he calls us into. In this way we repent, even when we don’t feel it or understand it. We do it out of trust in the one who has proven to be trustworthy.

That’s all Mark gives us for now regarding Jesus’ ministry of preaching. He swiftly moves into Jesus’ ministry of calling. And as he does, we are able to see a little more of the heart and character of this one who proclaims the good news to us and calls us to himself. Along with the story of Jesus calling his first disciples, we gain some epiphanies of who God is as revealed in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. As we look at these few verses recounting Jesus calling his disciples, we will keep an eye out to know the one who is calling us today. We will find that he is good, trustworthy, and worth following. Let’s revisit how Mark tells it:

Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 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 1:16-20 ESV)

First, we see that Jesus is on a journey. He seems to have a destination in mind as he is “passing alongside the Sea of Galilee.” He is not setting up camp or looking for a place to settle down. He is on the move. But this does not mean he is passing by those he calls. We come to know later that his calling is a special one, reserved for those who will be entrusted with the keys of the kingdom and the charge to pass on the message of the gospel to future generations. Part of that message we have before us in this story. Thanks to Mark’s faithfulness to his calling, we can hear Jesus’ calling to us today in this passage.

Before we get to their response to Jesus’ calling, we should take note that this is a personal calling. Jesus is not blasting his call over a megaphone with some generic message to random fishermen to come follow him. Notice how Mark describes the calling. Jesus first “saw Simon and Andrew.” What a comfort that Jesus’ calling to us is not divorced from his seeing and knowing us by name. He is first and foremost calling us into a relationship with him. And Jesus doesn’t just see us as isolated individuals. He sees and knows us, along with the relationships we are connected to. Simon and Andrew are brothers, and that detail does not escape Jesus’ seeing eyes. He knows who is important to us and the implications his calling will have on our relationships. Jesus also sees our status in life. There is no mention of a boat for Simon and Andrew, so we might surmise they were fishing from shore, indicating they weren’t well off in life.

Now that Jesus has seen them for who they are and where they stand, he calls them. Notice that his call is not without promise and hope. His calling is not just from something, but into something far greater than what must be left behind. They are called to “become fishers of men.” The contrast here from literal fishing to “fishers of men” indicates a radical new trajectory of their life. And our calling is the same. Jesus is not calling us to put our life on hold to do something we’d rather not do. He is calling us into the true life we are created for. The comparison of our former life is a radical improvement that we can’t possibly quantify from our own perspective. But Jesus is telling us in his calling that what he intends to do with us will amount to an astounding transformation which we can liken to the difference of smelly fish and living people. And even that analogy falls woefully short.

Now we see how these two poor fishermen responded. They did not hesitate, ask questions, or seek further explanation. They didn’t sit there and say, “Well Jesus, that’s an interesting notion. Maybe we should make a pros and cons list.” No, their response was immediate. They followed Jesus. And that immediate response involved leaving “their nets” which is equivalent to leaving all that they knew, for we are told that they “were fishermen.” Now some of us may be thinking, “Well, being a fisherman with little money in that day was some serious hard work with no guarantee of good returns. No wonder they didn’t think twice about following Jesus. Surely, they would just as soon follow any Rabbi promising something better.”

Not so fast. Let’s look at the details in Jesus calling James and his brother John. Here we have two more fishermen and brothers, but they have a boat along with hired servants. They are doing pretty well in the fishing business. We also see that they are “mending the nets.” Are we to conclude that they are wrapping up their fishing journey compared to the first set of brothers, Simon and Andrew, who were in the middle of fishing? Jesus’ calling may come while we are busy at our task or when we are closing shop. Either way, Jesus calls us according to his timing, not ours. Either way, we see that these brothers also responded by leaving all to follow Jesus’ immediate call.

We have two sets of brothers representing two different stations in life. Jesus is no more deterred in calling the well-off fishermen as he was in calling the poor ones. What a breath of fresh air to know that our Lord does not size us up according to our success or lack of success in life! He is not looking for the privileged or the underprivileged. He is looking for followers. In the end, our stations in life are nothing in comparison to where he is taking us and what he is doing with us. If you have ever looked down from a skyscraper and seen people walking below, you understand how it is pretty much impossible to tell who is taller or shorter. They all look like ants. From the perspective of Jesus’ high calling, we will never look back on our status as something contributing to where Jesus takes us.

Regardless of who we are, where we come from, what station in life we find ourselves in, or who we are related to, Jesus’ call demands the same immediate response to follow. We are all called to leave everything behind to follow him into his good kingdom in which he reigns.

That’s all we get from Mark on Jesus calling his first disciples. Perhaps we wish he provided more details, more backstory. We may become uneasy with the immediacy of Jesus’ call and the disciples’ immediate response to it. What does Mark mean for us to do with his short and curt telling of Jesus’ ministry of preaching and calling? Perhaps it will be helpful to note that Mark’s emphasis on Jesus’ ministry is the message that the kingdom of God is at hand. The emphasis is on the reality that has been established by the coming of Jesus Christ. Everything has changed. As soon as we see it, as soon as we are called into it, there is absolutely no reason for delay.

What about you and me today? Do we hear the Lord calling us? Are there things we need to immediately leave behind in order to follow him? Do we need to take another look at who Jesus is and hear once again the good news of his kingdom in order to turn once again to follow him? Do we need to embrace once again or for the first time the promise that Jesus calls us into a life that will far outpace anything we can attain for ourselves?

Let’s rephrase this: are you hearing the Lord call you today? He sees you, he knows you, and there is nothing to keep you from following him. Whether you are hearing him call you for the first time or for the 101st time, the response is the same. Repent and believe in the gospel and follow the Lord who is calling you.

Grace Areas w/ Dan Rogers W3

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January 21—Third Sunday after Epiphany
Mark 1:14-20, “Follow Me”

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Program Transcript

Grace Areas w/ Dan Rogers W3

Anthony: I’m going to invite our listeners to come and see our next pericope of the month. It’s Mark 1:14-20. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the third Sunday after Epiphany, which falls on January 21.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

So, Dan, if I can phrase it this way, what is the big idea of this particular passage?

Dan: A big idea here is, it gives a concrete example of commitment to the ministry of Jesus, to participating with Jesus in his ministry.

Now, this directly applies today to those who know they’ve received a calling to, whatever you want to call it, the ordained ministry, the professional ministry. But some believe they’ve really been called to that kind of ministry, and they have to think about it, and what that entails, and what that means about the future of their lives.

But it also applies to all of us, as we all participate in many ways in the ongoing ministry of Jesus. So, when Jesus calls us to do something, we need to respond because it’s our time. It’s as Mark would say, immediately. It’s our time to receive and respond to God’s call.

Ministry and discipleship may call for us to leave a job, leave property, even sadly, sometimes leave family if need be. And we have to consider our response.

We can either run away from our calling as Jonah did in the Old Testament, or we can respond as Peter, Andrew, James, and John did to Jesus’ call for us to participate with him in his ministry.

Anthony: Each time I read Mark’s Gospel account, I’m just struck by the speed and urgency of the storytelling. The word immediately, which you’ve already referred to, shows up numerous times in the book and in today’s text.

Even to the point where James and John leave their daddy in the boat, right? What’s behind the urgency of Mark’s telling of the Gospel story?

Dan: Over half the uses of the word immediately in the entire New Testament are found in the very short Gospel of Mark. Now, there are several theories as to why Mark uses the word immediately so many times.

For example, one is, Mark was young and impetuous. Two, he prefers action over teaching. And three, he was a lousy writer. His Greek is unimpressive with lots of problems in syntax and transitions. But to give Mark some credit, he’s actually a better writer than some would give him credit for being. His purpose is to identify Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God.

He begins his short Gospel that way, and he ends it that way. Now, in between, his style produces a sense of urgency. He writes deliberately to that end. For Mark, the time has come. The kingdom of God has come near, and so he wants his readers to understand we need to get ready and respond now, immediately.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Mark moves so fast in his Gospel account? (It can be shared that when Mark gets to the crucifixion he slows down and spends a lot of time on details.)
  • Why is the message that God’s kingdom is at hand a political statement? What implications does it have in a politically polarized world?
  • How would you explain what it means to “repent” and to “believe?” Did your understanding of these responses grow or change any from the sermon?
  • How does knowing Jesus sees us and calls us personally shape our response to him?
  • How did the differences between the two sets of brothers Jesus called speak to who Jesus is? What does this say about Jesus’ heart and character?
  • Are there things about us we may think would keep Jesus from calling us? What are they?
  • What other details in the passage stood out to you?

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