Sunday, August 2, 2015

Kingdom in the Backwoods: A Sermon on Mark 1:14-39

If you had important news you wanted to get out to all the world, where would you start? In the days of Jesus, whenever a new emperor took power, his enthronement was proclaimed by heralds who traveled from city to city, making the announcement. And the word that the Romans used for that announcement was “gospel,” “good news.” For Romans, to spread the “gospel” about “the Lord” meant that a new emperor was sitting on the throne, and there was a fresh chance that this would be the one who would bring a golden age of peace and glory. That was important news! So this “good news” was spread from city to city in the major urban centers. The good news might start in Rome itself. It might start in Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Carthage. Today, when we want to get the news out, we think of announcing it from Times Square, we think of San Francisco and London and Hong Kong. We think of getting it plastered all over the mass media, reaching millions and millions of people. We like to think big. That's how kingdoms of this world spread and hold their power. But this good news is about a kingdom that's “not of this world” (John 18:36).

For Jesus, the kingdom was not about starting big. The kingdom was about starting small. Not that big is bad – but big is for the endgame. That's the point of his parable about the mustard seed: the kingdom is like the tiniest seed you've heard of, that's how it starts, but in the end it's a tree with shade for everyone, and even the birds of the air can come perch in its branches (Mark 4:30-32). The gospel of Rome's kingdom might start in the halls of power, but the good news of God's kingdom starts in small places, in isolated places, in the places we sneer at and say, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Jesus says the kingdom doesn't start in Rome, doesn't start in New York City. It starts in the backwoods. The kingdom of God is a grassroots phenomenon.

So when Jesus started his ministry, he didn't immediately go to Rome. He didn't even go to Jerusalem. Paul may have gone from city to city like an imperial herald, he may have had an urban strategy for his mission, but before Paul, there was Jesus, at the very beginning. And Jesus started by going from village to village in Galilee (Mark 1:39) – an obscure province, not much bigger than Lancaster County, on the distant outskirts of the empire. He went to the small places, places Caesar never heard of by name. Jesus didn't even go to the cities of Galilee, places like Sepphoris with its population the size of Ephrata. For his base of operations, Jesus picked Capernaum – a little fishing village, with a population smaller than Gap. And even that was maybe three times bigger than Nazareth. In Capernaum and plenty of tiny villages throughout the area, Jesus preached his message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). If Jesus were beginning his ministry here, you wouldn't look for him in Washington DC, not in Harrisburg, not in Lancaster, not even in Ephrata. But you can bet your bottom dollar he'd make his way through White Horse. Would we be ready to listen if he walked through our door?

When Jesus came to Galilee, walking alongside the lake, he met a couple pairs of fishermen – two sets of brothers, one pair at least youthful enough to be in the same boat as their dad. Jesus calls out to them, “Come, follow me” – and immediately they drop what they're doing, and they go join him (Mark 1:16-20). Now, that's not so much a surprise with James and John – they can see their friends and colleagues Simon and Andrew are already out on the shore, standing behind Jesus – though I'm sure it came as a shock to Zebedee. Have you ever wondered what went through Zebedee's mind in those fateful instants? Did he try to stop his sons from running off with this stranger on the shore? Did he stand in their way, beg them to come back? Did he think, even for a moment, of jumping out of the boat and going with them? I wish I knew; I'll have to ask him or his sons about it one day. And what spurred any of them to quit their jobs on the spot to go roam the countryside with this man? Had they heard the gossip about him already, that here was a teacher who might be worth hearing? Or is it, as in Luke's Gospel, that Jesus was already teaching a crowd on the shore, so they had a chance to hear for themselves what Jesus was teaching, and they experienced his miraculous power with a big catch of fish, and then he extended his invitation (Luke 5:1-11)?

And this gives us a radical insight into what the kingdom is about. To be serious about the kingdom, it may be all-or-nothing – you can keep your job, or you can close the shop and hand over the keys to the van and follow Jesus. You can know what you're going to eat next week and be confident you can pay the bills, or you can follow Jesus. You can keep the same zipcode, or you can follow Jesus. You can wake up tomorrow morning and greet your dad and your spouse, or you can follow Jesus. That's the choice that faced Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Now, maybe not so drastic at first – Simon and Andrew were from the nearby village of Bethsaida (John 1:44), maybe Zebedee's family was too – but it was a big change.

And they didn't hesitate. Mark's painfully clear: twice he uses the word “immediately.” They didn't ask for a few days to mull it over. They didn't jot it down in an appointment book, saying that they needed to get a few things done first, and then they'd get around to finding Jesus – which is exactly what some other people in the Gospels do. Jesus tells them to be his disciples, his followers, and within the hour they're on the road together. No time for long goodbyes, no time for packing – they barely know Jesus yet, but one thing they do know: you don't want to miss out on the chance to be with him and to have a hand in the kingdom he's preaching. Not if you have the chance to be a “fisher of men” (Mark 1:17), someone who spreads the net of God's word to catch people, stop them in their tracks, and pull them into the kingdom, into the strange and new world of the boat where Jesus is Captain, where the wisdom of the water gives way to fresh air and sunlight.

But the same words Jesus shouted across the water to the men in two boats, he says to each one of you, and to me: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus calls us to be fishers of men – calls us to spread his net to catch people for the kingdom, calls us to disciple all the nations in his commandments, his wisdom, his teachings, his justice and mercy and love. And not just distant nations – he calls us to be fishers of our neighbors, to disciple the family down the street. Are we obedient to Christ's call? Are we indeed fishers of men right here, right in our backyard? Or do we watch them swim off their own way, thinking that eating their fish food and spawning and living domesticated in a corporate fatcat's aquarium is all there is to life 'til we all float belly-up on the waters of this small world? We know better – there's more, there's the kingdom of God, there's Jesus! And he sends us out with his net in our hands to preach the gospel of his kingdom. Are we actually going, are we even trying to catch anyone? Or are we content to meet here once a week and then leave the net on the shelf? Under our own power, even if we cast our nets and fish through the night, we come up empty handed, just as the earliest fishermen-disciples so often did – until Jesus showed up and told them where to cast the net. If we try to do it on our own, we'll tire ourselves with our empty nets. But if we earnestly seek the presence of Jesus, if we do what he says even when it seems pointless to obey, then we have hope of a catch beyond our wildest dreams – not for our food, but for the cause of his kingdom.

So with these four newly-minted fishers of men, Jesus strode into Capernaum, straight to the synagogue, which had long since replaced the town gate as the center of community life, the public square, where the people all met each Sabbath. And Jesus didn't come just to sit and listen quietly – though surely he'd grown up faithfully attending the Nazareth synagogue for years and years. No, in Capernaum, Jesus brought his local disciples – familiar faces to many, living in the next village over – and he “entered the synagogue and taught” (Mark 1:21). And he no doubt taught the same thing he'd been teaching every moment so far: the gospel of the kingdom of God, and the need to repent and believe it. And when Jesus taught, it wasn't a dry and dusty sermon, hedged with qualifiers and chains of authority: “Believe this because Rabbi So-and-So heard it from Rabbi Such-and-Such, who learned it from his teacher Rabbi What's-His-Name.” Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). “You have heard it said... But I say to you...” The people were amazed!

When Jesus steps up to the pulpit, you don't yawn and take a nap, you don't nod along to platitudes you've heard a million times before, you don't get ready for the same warmed-over jokes and rehashed illustrations, and you never wonder if the preacher really takes his message seriously. Yet in so many churches today, that's exactly the sort of preaching we offer. There's nothing fresh, nothing new. It gets stale, dumbed-down, boring, doubtful, and irrelevant. If the preacher even preaches the gospel, and if he even believes it when he does preach it, he turns it into a happy little tune to make the audience a tiny bit nicer. But when the gospel is really proclaimed with conviction, proclaimed in its gospel simplicity but also its profound and radical depth, it doesn't have to be made relevant; it's more relevant than relevance itself!

The gospel, preached with authority, cuts the heart to the quick, it demands attention from the mind, it calls for the hands and feet to leap into action. That's the way Jesus preached. It wasn't the norm at the Capernaum synagogue – no wonder people were shocked, no wonder they sat back in wonder and whispered breathless wows in the pews! But we can't settle for anything less. And that doesn't just apply behind the pulpit. We're all called to preach the gospel in word and in deed. We have a fresh word, perpetually crisp and sweet, never stale. All we have to do is let it loose! Do all our neighbors know about the kingdom – that things aren't the same, that conventional wisdom is dead, that God's power looks like a king nailed to a cross, that the Resurrection and the Life has holes in his hands and feet, and that his mercy breathes new creation into every morning?

But the good news of the kingdom is more than just talk. Simon, Andrew, James, and John saw that with their own eyes that fateful sabbath morn in Capernaum. “Just then, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit” (Mark 1:23). Darkness is everywhere. Not just in the cultural centers, not just in the red states or the blue states. We may easily overlook a town as small as Capernaum, out there in “fly-over country.” But even there, you'll find unclean spirits infesting human life. Satan doesn't overlook the smallest villages – the serpent's too crafty for that. And that's why the kingdom has to start there. There's no trickle-down deliverance from demons; they have to be rooted out in every nook and cranny. Even the small places are infested. Even Capernaum had “many demons” (Mark 1:34). So that's where the Light of the World goes and teaches about the kingdom.

Mark doesn't tell us how long this particular man had an unclean spirit stuck to his soul, whether it was a week or a year or a decade, but the teaching of the scribes never scared it off. Sabbath after sabbath, all the preaching and all the praying of a whole synagogue made nothing but a nice, hospitable nest for that demon. And so it may be with our churches today, if we don't preach and act like Jesus did. When we preach nice little conventional morality, when we hem and we haw and we pontificate on what scarcely matters, the darkness can laugh and snooze, secure against any challenge. A century and a half ago, my cousin, the great and eccentric Evangelical preacher Mose Dissinger, had just that complaint against many churches of his day – they taught as the scribes, and not with authority to send the demons packing. He said:

When the gospel is preached by converted ministers, it is just like a battery with which fortifications are shot down. With this battery we can batter in the gable end of hell, so that all the dark spirits of hell tremble with fear and terror, and the hairs of old Lucifer himself stand on end. But it must be preached by men whom God has called and equipped with the unction of the Holy Spirit: men who are not afraid to preach the pure truth, that sinners may be converted to God and God's kingdom may be extended, that devils may be driven out and the devil's kingdom destroyed. … But there are such bandbox boys who know nothing of conversion and regeneration, nor care to know. They come with paper guns and paper balls, which they have brought out of school. They think they, too, can fire upon the devil and do great deeds; and when they have fired off their paper battery a few times they imagine they have shot the devil dead; but they do not know that they have not yet touched a hair of his back or of his tail. Shooting like this is fun for the devil, and where such shooting is done he will lie down at the foot of the pulpit and go to sleep and snore, for he knows that no harm will be done him there. But as soon as the rifle guns thunder the eternal truth of God, like fiery balls, into the dirty, sinful camp of Satan, his sleep is at an end, and he runs like mad to save his tattered reign, for then there are reverberations in every corner of his dirty kingdom.

So preached Dissinger – and so taught Jesus – and so must we. These two kingdoms – the kingdom of God that Jesus brings, and the dirty kingdom of Satan's reign – are incompatible and at perpetual war until the day when Jesus destroys the latter totally. Mark shows us Jesus at war – not at war “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12) – and in small places, too. Jesus comes to drive out unclean spirits – “if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Luke 11:20), he said – and so must we. Jesus comes to set the captives free – so must we. Jesus comes to shed light on everything that lurks in the shadows – so must we: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). Confronted with the message of the kingdom, an unclean spirit pitched a hissy-fit, crying out against Jesus, “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). Throughout the Gospels, most people haven't a clue who Jesus is. But the demons “knew him,” they recognized him. Not wanting their tainted acclaim, he “wouldn't permit the demons to speak” (Mark 1:34), instead demanding that they shut up and get lost (Mark 1:25). Resistance is futile: when Jesus says go, even the demons go (Mark 1:26). “A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27). That's who we follow.

Jesus took Capernaum by storm. After a public miracle, he did a private miracle – healing the mother of Simon's wife from a fever, and “the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:31). She was bent on hospitality, with the heart of a servant; she was eager to get back to showering others with kindness and good things. She reminds me of a lot of people in this church that way. And by the sabbath sunset, “the whole city was gathered around the door” to experience the power of God's kingdom – how it can heal the sick and drive out demons, restoring wounded people to health and wholeness (Mark 1:32-34).

The kingdom is about proclaiming, teaching with authority, driving out demons, healing the sick – where do you find the time? Where do you find the strength for all that? In this one passage, Mark shows us the three-fold source of Jesus' strength, the way he kept himself going as a human being. Note where Jesus was on the sabbath: in the synagogue, to worship God with others. I know plenty of people who say that they don't need to go to church – that church services are fine for others, but not them. Hunting trips are their worship; the woods are their cathedral; the birds chirp their hymns. Or they get all the spiritual strength they need from some uplifting televangelist, and they don't even have to leave the couch to get spoonfed their weekly ration of milk! But Jesus didn't “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). It was “the habit of some” then, it's “the habit of some” now – hopefully never our habit. One of the three places Jesus recharged was right here, in a worship assembly that met weekly. Jesus gathered to hear the words of the scriptures read, to join in the prayers and praises of the people, to be united to the great tradition of Israel, and to declare the common confession that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4).

Second, where did Jesus go when the synagogue let out, when the people wandered back to their own lives, down from the mountaintop, as it were? Jesus and his friends went to a private home, a domestic space, family circle – because Jesus was welcome there. Jesus spent the rest of the sabbath with friends and family – not out gallivanting around Capernaum, not exhausting himself with busyness, not toiling in a carpentry shop, but relaxing. I don't know what Simon's family had for lunch that day, but I'm sure it was some kind of delicious home-cooked meal. That's what Jesus did with his sabbath afternoon: ate and talked with his friends at home.

Third, in the early hours of the next morning, Jesus rose to pray. He didn't grab anyone to go pray with him. He didn't insist on being surrounded by people at all times; quite the opposite. He “got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). The others had to go track him down (Mark 1:36). It's important to be nurtured by being together, praying together, listening together, worshipping together. Too many forget that. But in America, we can also easily lapse into the opposite mistake, thinking that we need to do everything together, that every spiritual discipline is for a community. Jesus was balanced in a way we can only marvel at: individual and communal, introverted and extroverted, Jesus drew strength from worshipping with others but also from praying alone, spending some quality one-on-one time with his Father. The spiritual dimension to his life wasn't limited to one or the other; it carried through the fabric of his whole life. Jesus regularly gathered as a worshipper among others, he regularly made time to relax at home, and he regularly withdrew from the busyness of life to pray. That's the biblical pattern for maintaining our strength.

If we're called to follow Jesus, then shouldn't we emulate not just his message but maybe his methods? We may be in a modern Galilee, we may live in the backwoods up on the mountain or down in the valley, but all the same, each and every one of us is called to preach the kingdom; we're called to shine light into the darkness; we're called to be fishers of men; and we're called to go about it as Jesus Christ did, resting up and going forth with authority, with “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). So “let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that [we] may proclaim the message there also, for that is what [we] came out to do” (Mark 1:38). The kingdom has come near to the backwoods, near to Lancaster and Chester Counties – let's go fishing!

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