December 27, 2015
“Kingdom and Call”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 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 fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for 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.
I want you to take a look at the bulletin cover. I chose this painting purposefully because it shows Jesus and John together, and not as life-worn men of thirty with facial hair, but youths and friends, with Jesus with his arm around John.
The Women’s Faith Study group spent the last few weeks studying all the advent texts of the Gospels. And one surprising thing I realized was that Jesus and John would have known each other.
We are told in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, that when Mary heard she was pregnant and she was told by the angel that her relative Elizabeth was also miraculously pregnant, Mary rushed off to visit her. John leapt in the womb when Mary walked into the room. There is no reason why the two families wouldn’t have spent time together over the years.
Jesus and John could have been friends, playmates, family.
I always imagined John waiting his whole life for this one brilliant moment when all of a sudden God’s Messiah would arrive and the mystery would be revealed. But all along it was Jesus. God was with John the whole time. God was as near as a friend.
This account we read this morning comes from Mark’s account of Jesus’ life. It is the earliest and briefest account, and it leaves out all the stories we associate with Christmas.
Mark wasn’t interested in or didn’t know about the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth. What I like about Mark is that the writer moves the story along.
His favorite word is immediately which occurs forty one times in this short biography. Mark begins with John the Baptizer.
We usually run into John in the Advent time leading up to Christmas because he is the one who prepares the way for Jesus’ coming. It might feel strange to find John in Christmastide.
But John not only paved the way for Jesus, he didn’t stop his work once Jesus came – he points to what is next.
In fact, that is where we took the name for our 5-6th grade youth ministry – from the Message paraphrase of John’s words in Matthew (3:11): “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out.”
John is a prophet, his dress and eating habits and appearance and language are all meant to remind us of this.
When I was in college I sang in an acapella group with a bunch of lovely, faithful women who came from a very different religious tradition. One time they invited me to come to their charismatic church because a modern day prophet was coming to speak.
I politely declined, all the while thinking, “I’m Presbyterian, and this is not in my religious comfort zone.”
Now, years later, I regret not going, to hear what the man had to say. Because prophets are truth-tellers, at least that is the Old Testament model.
Karoline Lewis, one of my favorite biblical commentators at the moment, writes that prophets are “not forecasters of the future, not doomsday prognosticators. They are only predictors of what is to come if that future makes sense because of or due to present behavior. They are analyzers of the ‘now’ for the sake of moving toward a different future.”
That’s what John was doing, calling people back to God.
I don’t know if you noticed but Mark intentionally links John and Jesus together. Once John is arrested, Jesus picks right up preaching where John left off: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Christmastide is a good time to consider what comes next. We have been waiting for the savior of the world, we have celebrated the light of God coming into the darkness with our lit candles on Christmas Eve.
But now what?
Another one of my favorite biblical commentators, David Lose, who is the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary, writes about the studies into the downward slide in church attendance.
One reason is that attending church isn’t a cultural duty like it used to be.
Another reason, Lose writes, that he has found convincing “is that many church-goers haven’t found the Christian narrative a particularly helpful lens through which to view and make sense of their lives.
Maybe they don’t know it all that well.
Maybe they have a hard time connecting what happens on Sunday to the rest of their week and life.
Maybe we as leaders thought it was obvious why the faith matters and so we assumed it was clear to others as well. Whatever the reasons, folks don’t take the biblical story with them out into the world . . .”
I think John and Jesus connect Christmas, when we celebrate the Incarnation, God with us, to the rest of our lives. They make the connections for us between our Sunday faith and our Monday worlds.
God coming into the world marks the kingdom of God coming into the world.
John preaches about repentance – repentance is re-orientation.
In Advent we almost always sing or hear our choir sing “People Look East” – we look to the East because that is where the sun rises, that is where God’s light first dawns on a dark world.
Turn and face God, that is what John tells us to do.
Because, God’s kingdom is coming, God’s kingdom is here.
Jesus carries on the message. The world has changed, God is at work.
Our sermon series last year was on the kingdom of God – we spent a year trying to get a handle on what the kingdom of God is all about –
the kingdom of God is spreading, sometimes because of us, and sometimes in spite of us;
the kingdom of God can begin as something tiny and insignificant;
in the kingdom the least are the greatest, and the servant is the greatest of all;
the kingdom of God values grace over worthiness.
Friends, this is a profoundly different way of seeing the world, a profoundly different way of making sense of our lives.
In our lives can we see that grace is better than always being right?
Can we see that serving one another is better than always being on top?
That we should care for people who are devalued in our society?
That we trust that small acts can produce great change?
That is how our faith makes us look at the world differently.
We are told that Jesus takes his preaching on the road and passes by the Sea of Galilee, and he calls to Simon and Andrew and James and John.
And they leave everything and follow Jesus.
I’ve always been a little uneasy about these call stories because it feels like if we do not do the same then we are sub-par Jesus followers.
Are we willing to follow this model and leave everything, jobs, houses, family behind to follow an itinerant preacher?
But, even the writer Mark knew that his readers couldn’t follow the historical Jesus as these four had done – following Jesus in Mark’s time would necessarily be different. Following Jesus in our time will be different.
But still we need to take this seriously – what does it mean for us to hear Jesus say to us, “You, come after me.”
I was struck reading the passage over this past week how Jesus call is specific, at least it is to Simon and Andrew: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Perhaps he calls in the same way to us, if we are willing to hear it:
Follow me and I will make you a care-er for foster children;
follow me, and I will make you a peacemaker in your family;
follow me, and I will make you an advocate for the mentally ill;
follow me, and I will make you a better friend to someone in need;
follow me, and I will make you a better spouse and parent;
follow me, and I will teach you how to live out the end of your days with grace.
We long for purpose and meaning in our lives – we pray, God show me what to do, show me how to live – and here we have it if we will only listen – kingdom and calling. You are a part of the kingdom, so live like it. You have a calling – follow that calling. Amen.