Preliminary sermon reflections on Mark 1.14-20

Note that this is not a sermon; this is just my preliminary thought son the gospel passage for this coming Sunday. I still have to check the commentaries and then actually prepare a sermon.

What does it say? (NRSV)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and 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 lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

What does it mean?
This passage comes in the middle of the first chapter of Mark, and the first phrase links it to what has come before, as almost everything up until now has been related to the story of John the Baptist.

Mark began with explaining to the readers what he was up to: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. He then described the ministry of John, setting it up first with quotes from Malachi and Isaiah (vv.2-3), and then talking about his baptizing ministry and a sample of his proclamation (vv.4-8). The story continues with Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan (vv.9-11) and then his temptations in the wilderness which followed immediately afterwards (vv.12-13).

The chronological gap between verses 13 and 14 is uncertain, but it almost sounds as if the arrest of John was the signal for Jesus to begin his own unique ministry.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

The natural sense of the verses is that after Jesus’ baptism and his forty days in the wilderness, he remained in the south, in the area of Judea, until he heard that John had been arrested. He then travelled north to Galilee and began his preaching ministry.

Mark gives us a summary of his preaching. First, it is ‘the good news of God’. Jewish people hearing Mark’s words would think of Isaiah:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
Lift it up, do not fear;
Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your Gods reigns”.
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy,
for in plain sight they see the return of Yahweh to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem.
Yahweh has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;
And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:7-10)

These passages are set in the context of Yahweh rescuing his people from Babylonian exile and bringing them home to their own land again. The good news concerns salvation, which in the Old Testament is almost always a military concept: Yahweh saves his people from their enemies. So Jewish people hearing Mark’s announcement of ‘good news’ would immediately think of God acting in a dramatic way to rescue his people from evil and restore them to ‘shalom’.

Romans, on the other hand, were used to hearing this word ‘good news’ used in the context of royal birth announcements. ‘Good news! A son has been born to the divine Augustus’! This was an announcement that ushered in a new future for the empire (and, of course, not everyone would hear it as good news!!!!).

So, putting these two senses together, we could say that Mark is proclaiming to us the good news that in Jesus God has acted to bring about a new future for the world, in which he has rescued his people from the kingdom of evil and sin and restored us to ‘shalom’, through the life and ministry of his Son.

Mark summarizes Jesus’ proclamation in a very Jewish fashion: ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near’ (v.15). This refers back to the Old Testament understanding of the day of the Lord, and promises such as Isaiah 2:1-5, 11:1-9 and the many other Old Testament references to God intervening to save his people, bring the reign of evil to an end, and establish peace and justice for his people (in most passages) and for other peoples also (in some passages). ‘The Kingdom of God’ of course is not a territorial kingdom; ‘basilea’ actually refers to the ‘reign’ or ‘rule’ of God; God is about to establish his saving rule all over the world. Jesus explains later on in his ministry how he understands the kingdom when he teaches us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. The second half of the phrase explains the first: when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then God’s kingdom has come.

Has the kingdom come, or is it still coming? The RSV has ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’. The NRSV changes that slightly to ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’. NIV 2011 is similar: ‘The time has come…the kingdom of God has come near’. The REB is more dramatic and immediate: ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you’. The New Jerusalem Bible has ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand’. The two halves of the sentence seem to be in tension with each other: the time has come, but it has not quite come yet. The kingdom of God is near, but not quite here – although the REB/NEB tradition could be understood to mean that it has arrived (‘is upon you’). The general consensus, however, seems to be that the arrival of the kingdom is very, very near.

The response people are called to is ‘repent and believe in the good news’. ‘The good news’ is of course the good news of the kingdom which Jesus has just proclaimed. ‘Repent’ in Greek comes from ‘metanoia’ which means ‘to think again’ or ‘to change your mind’ – in other words, to see the world differently, with the change of life that this involves. To see the world in the light of the Kingdom of God will lead to a different worldview and a different way of life. No doubt Jesus’ hearers would have heard echoes of John the Baptist’s preaching here; John came ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’, says Mark (1:4), and Matthew expands this into a form which is very close to the words of Jesus: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 3:2).

Having summarized Jesus’ proclamation, Mark then goes on to tell the story of the call of the first disciples:

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The way Mark tells this story gives the impression that this is the first time Jesus has met these people. Luke and John both have different chronologies; Luke has the synagogue story (Mark 1:21-39) before the call of Peter (see Luke 4:31 – 5:11), and of course the call of Peter is set in the context of the miraculous catch of fish. John, of course, has a completely different story, with Andrew and Philip (?) being pointed to Jesus by John the Baptist, and Andrew then bringing Simon Peter his brother to Jesus. It is not always easy to see how these stories can be reconciled, but perhaps we can say, first, that we should not set much store by the chronologies of any of the gospels, as the writers have more important priorities than telling the stories in chronological order, and second, in the light of the other gospels it is reasonable to suppose that there has been previous contact between Jesus and the four disciples mentioned in Mark’s account here.

All the gospels agree that the first disciples of Jesus were commercial fishermen. They made their living by going out at night onto the Lake (or ‘Sea’) of Galilee (or Tiberias), fishing with casting nets. In the morning they would come to shore, clean their nets, and then rest in preparation for the next night’s work. The detail about Simon and Andrew casting the net into the sea during the daytime would be unusual, I think, as this usually happened at night.

Jesus’ call to them is illustrated by their livelihood: ‘Come after me, and I will make you to become fishermen of men’ (literal translation); KJV ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’ (RSV ‘I will make you become fishers of men’) is very close to the Greek; NIV 2011 ‘Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people’ has missed the idea that Jesus will transform them into those who will fish for people – in other words, he won’t only send them out to do it, he will also make them into the kind of people who can do it. So discipleship and evangelism are intimately connected with each other (although euangellion ‘announcing good news’ is not used here, the idea is obviously present, as the whole passage is set in the context of Jesus’ proclamation of the good news).

So the early disciples are called to ‘Come after me’ or ‘follow me’, which to them is a very literal thing: ‘And immediately they left their nets and followed him’. Jesus was not calling them to carry on with their old way of life but just become a little more religious; he was calling them to leave the old life behind and commit themselves to travelling with him. In this context he would teach them the new life of the kingdom, but also, as an integral part of this, he would teach them to bring others into the kingdom as well. The two parts of this call are intimately connected with each other, and evangelism is obviously not an optional extra.

What does it mean for us?
The call to become followers of Jesus always takes place in the context of a gospel proclamation: in other words, good news comes before good advice. The good news of the kingdom of God is about the power of God and the love of God working together in the world to change things, and to do for humanity what we could not do for ourselves. Nowadays we talk about working to spread the kingdom of God, but the gospels never use this sort of language. To the gospel writers, the kingdom of God is something that God does; we can choose to align ourselves with it, or to reject it, but we cannot make it happen. It is a gift of God: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer are a helpful reminder to us of what the Kingdom is about: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. That is what God is about: restoring the world to his just and loving intention for it. Jesus believed that God was doing this primarily through his own ministry; his life, death and resurrection are the means by which God has established his Kingdom. A primary feature of that kingdom, according to the gospels, is its upside down nature – the first are last and the last first, the poor are exalted and the rich are sent empty away, sinners are welcomed and forgiven and the self-righteous disqualify themselves. Grace, in other words, is at the centre of the kingdom of God, because the gospel tells us of a God who loves his enemies, and Jesus lives this out.

We’re called to ‘repent’ – to think again, to see the world in the light of God’s loving rule. The last word is not the word spoken by presidents and tyrants and CEOs, but the word of God coming to us in Jesus, telling us that love (for God and others) is the central issue of our lives. So our prayer as disciples is that Jesus would teach us to see life as God sees it, and to live life according to God’s will. And because he is the Son of God, Jesus will be our supreme interpreter of what the will of God looks like.

Finally, this new life in God’s kingdom will always issue in mission, and this mission is not just loving actions (although this is important) but also what an earlier generation would have called ‘soul-winning’. The drawback of this sort of language is that the ‘soul’ was understood as some interior, non-material part of us, but if ‘soul’ is understood at the OT understands it, as the whole person (‘then Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living nephesh [soul]’ – Genesis 2:7), then this is entirely right. Discipleship is not an exercise in self-absorption; it includes participation in God’s mission to make new disciples for the Kingdom. All disciples of Jesus are called to participate in this mission.

That’s it for now; time to hit the commentaries for more insights.

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