John the Baptizer is arrested, handed over for criticizing Herod’s unlawful marriage to his brother’s estranged wife. The lesser gives way to the greater. The one who prepares the way steps aside for the One who is the Way. The Forerunner precedes Christ into death. Jesus goes to Galilee, the north country, the place where the prophet Isaiah said Messiah’s light would dawn first. Not Jerusalem, the religious capital, but Galilee, the border between Israelite and Gentile. He comes for all inclusively.
He comes preaching the good news of God. “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe in the gospel.” The reign of God is hidden, a “mystery,” something not apparent to the eye. You must be told it. It must be preached. The chief Preacher is the Word Himself, the Word become Flesh. He proclaims what no one could know on his own: Eternity and time have intersected, the reign of God has drawn near in Jesus. Where the King is, there is the kingdom.
The same happens here in this place, from this very pulpit. This is Galilee for you where God’s light shines in the darkness, where eternity and time intersect in a moment of fulfillment, where the kingdom of God is proclaimed to you. When Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue, He said, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, said, “Now is the acceptable moment, now is the day of your salvation.” This is your day and moment, when the Word Incarnate seeks you out and proclaims God’s reign to you. Everything that God has done from all eternity and everything He will do to all eternity, He delivers here in this concentrated crystalline salvific moment. God is always a present tense: I AM.
The kingdom calls for response. Repent and believe in the Gospel. Repent – literally change your mind, come to a new way of thinking about yourself and about God. The Hebrew word behind it is “return.” “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” To repent is to turn from unbelief to faith, from idolatry to God, from sin to righteousness, from death to life.
It’s not a turning we do to ourselves, it’s a turning the Word does to us. Repent and believe are not things we do to ourselves. They are what the Word does to us. God said, “Be light” and light there is. “Be sea and dry land,” and it is so. The Word does what it says. The Word says “repent,” and stubborn, stony hearts of sinners are turned in repentance. The Word says “believe,” and unbelieving hearts trust in the good news of Jesus.
“You, though dead in sin, God made alive in Christ Jesus.” The dead can’t move, decide, repent, believe, turn or even twitch. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.” Jesus comes to you, breathes His life into you, speaks His Word to you, enlivens you, turns you toward Him and places His trust in your heart. He meets you in the darkness and deadness of your unbelief, your sin, your self-centeredness, the idolatries of self. “Repent. Be turned from your self to Christ – God in the flesh – where your life is. Your sins are forgiven you. Believe it.”
That’s what makes this news “good news,” “Gospel.” Not that Jesus has done God’s part and now it’s up to you to do yours. Work is not good news. And whether it’s 5 percent or 95 percent doesn’t really matter. As long as you’re pulling the oar, it isn’t good news. Good news is that it’s all finished and it’s all yours. That’s why it has to be preached.
Listen to how Luther put it in the Large Catechism: “Neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe in Him and take Him as our Lord, unless these were first offered to us and bestowed on our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel by the Holy Spirit. The work is finished and completed, Christ has acquired and won the treasure for us by His sufferings, death, and resurrection. But if the work remained hidden and no one knew of it, it would have been all in vain, all lost. In order that this treasure might not be buried but put to use and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to be published and proclaimed, in which He has given the Holy Spirit to offer and apply this treasure of salvation.”
The reign of God in Christ must be preached, and Christ Himself is the preacher, whether He preaches in person or through His Office. That’s why God has a church in the world, why this congregation exists, why the Office of the Holy Ministry exists – that the reign of Jesus Christ might be proclaimed and that sinners might be called by His Word to repentance and faith in Him.
This is all illustrated well in what follows. As Jesus is walking along the shore, He sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets. He says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately, Mark records, “they left their nets and followed Him.” Then He does the same with the Zebedee brothers, James and John. Jesus the great Fish reels in the fishermen for His service. He’s the one who initiates things. He chooses them, they don’t choose Him. He seeks them, they don’t go looking for Him.
He finds them busy in their vocations, casting and mending nets. Take note of that. Jesus finds them while they are busy in the boring and mundane details of their livelihoods, not meditating on a mountaintop or engaging in some “spiritual” exercises. They were at work, as Matthew was a work in his tax collector’s office, when Jesus said to them, “Follow me.”
Those words, “follow me,” like the words “repent” and “believe” are enlivening, powerful words from the Son of God. They do what they say. The fishermen immediately left their nets, their boats, their father, their lives, and they follow Him. Where are they going? He doesn’t tell them. The road Jesus puts them on will lead to His death, and their own. They had no idea what they were getting into that day. But the words “follow me” from the mouth of Jesus into the ears of the fishermen turned them in new directions. They followed.
What will they be doing? “Fishing for men,” Jesus says. They knew something about fish. But men. How do you catch men that don’t want to be caught? Jesus would teach them and authorize them. “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all that I have commanded you.” That’s how they would catch men from the kingdom – by casting the net of Baptism far and wide and hauling in the catch.
You know what happens to fish caught in a net – they die. And so it is in Baptism. You died and were buried in the death of Christ in order to be raised with Him in His resurrection. Death and resurrection to life is the way of Jesus, and of all who follow Jesus. Not a death that leads to eternal corruption, but a death that leads to eternal life with God.
An illustration from my hobby of tropical fish. I sometimes keep fish in a holding tank for a while, prior to putting them in their permanent tank. The temporary tank is plain, nothing of interest, not even a bubbling mermaid. The permanent tank is lushly planted, a fish paradise. There comes a day when I have to catch the fish in a net and transfer them. To the fish, the net looks like certain death. They swim away and hide from it. They struggle against it and thrash around trying to escape. When they are out in the open air for that brief moment, it may even seem like death itself But when I release them into their permanent home, death gives way to a life that can be had no other way than to be netted.
You have been caught in the net of Jesus’ death. You are baptized, capture by a death that atones for the sin of the world, united with Jesus in His death that conquers your sin, your death, the judgment of God’s law, hell itself. You are held captive in that net by the Word of forgiveness you hear, by the Body and the Blood you receive. But this is not a death to destruction. This is not like the fishermen hauling in the catch for sushi. This net saves you, it means life for you.
What a privilege it is to be caught in that apostolic net, to be baptized and forgiven, to trust Christ instead of our selves! The world sees it as captivity, like fish held captive in a net, anything but free. Yet our freedom is precisely in our being held captive by Jesus. This puddle of a world is going to dry up one day, consumed in the fire of God’s wrath. But you are safe in Jesus’ net, caught for life in His death and resurrection.
Salvation’s moment is fulfilled here and now for you. What else can you do but repent and believe that gracious good news? Anything else would be downright foolish.
In the name of Jesus,