Such a Sunday it is. On the liturgical calendar, it is the third Sunday after the Epiphany. On the calendar of festival days, it is the feast of St. Titus, pastor and confessor. On the synodical calendar it is “Sanctity of Life” Sunday. And of course, on the calendar of American civil religion, it is Super Bowl Sunday. And the readings are equally diverse. In today’s Gospel, four fishermen are made fishers of men by the Word of Jesus. In the OT reading, a reluctant prophet named Jonah, who was fish food for three days, preaches the Word to Nineveh. And the Word of God has its killing and making alive way.
John the Baptist had been put into prison. Poor John – whisked off to jail for telling King Herod he shouldn’t have his brother’s estranged wife. John gets all of thirteen verses in Mark’s Gospel and that’s the last we hear of him. Gone from the pages of history as quickly as he came. The One greater than John had come, the One whose sandals John said he was not worthy to bend down and untie. John’s task was to point his prophetic finger to Jesus and say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and then get out of the way. John must decrease; Christ must increase. Off to prison goes John. Up to Galilee goes Jesus.
Galilee was the place of Jesus’ first miracle, at a wedding in Cana of Galilee where He turned washing water to wedding wine. Galilee is also where Jesus preached His first sermon. Galilee wasn’t quite as bad as Nineveh, where the reluctant prophet Jonah was called to preach, but it wasn’t Jerusalem. Galilee was a melting pot of the north country – Jews and Gentiles, fishermen, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, political zealots. It was virtually impossible to remain ceremonially clean in Galilee, with all those Gentiles and “sinners” running around. Even the olive oil produced in the region Galilee was considered unfit for burning in the lamps of the Jerusalem temple.
Yet the bright light of Christ burned first in Galilee. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Lowly Galilee is honored first. That’s how our Lord works – from the bottom to the top. He begins with the least and the lowliest. – Galilee. He doesn’t start with the high and the mighty, the proud and the powerful, the educated and the elite. Instead he calls four Galilean fishermen to be His first followers, and also His first preachers and pastors. There is room for all of us with Jesus. No one can say, “He’s not for me.”
“The kingdom of God is at hand.” The arrival of Jesus meant that God’s time had come – the fullness of time, the moment when God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem, to buy back with His own blood, us who were doomed under the curse of the Law.
This was a turning point in human history, the “two-minute warning.” God had entered the world, born as an infant, revealed to Israel in His Baptism, manifested in His turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. And now Jesus announces that this was it, the opportune moment. “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The world has gone into its “two-minute” drill, that period in a football game where every play matters and every second counts because there is no time to waste.
We must not slip into the comfortable complacency of our culture, which assumes the sun will come up tomorrow just as it did yesterday. Today just might be our last Divine Service, the last time we hear the forgiveness of our sins before we stand before the judgment throne of God.
That is the urgent reality of the end times, the last days, what the Revelation figuratively calls the thousand years. That’s what makes it like a two-minute drill in football. We have been in the last days ever since Jesus cried out “It is finished” from the cross, ever since His death, resurrection, and ascension to His throne to reign. Salvation is closer now than ever before. The kingdom of God is near – so near we can almost reach out and touch it. It is as near as Jesus is near, in baptismal water, eucharistic bread and wine, forgiving words, the mouth of the minister.
The kingdom of God is at hand. That changes our perspective. “The time is short,” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. “The world in its present form is passing away.” Every once and a while we get a reminder – an earthquake, a flood, a fire, a senseless shooting. Disease, decay, death. The extinction of yet another species. The decline of culture and civilization. These are just a few of the signs that the present order of things is passing away. Things aren’t evolving, they are de-volving, falling apart. Things don’t get better, they get worse. The good news is that in the end Jesus appears.
Don’t get bogged down in the stuff of this world, St. Paul warns. “From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.”
Paul doesn’t mean that we are to abandon house and spouse, bid farewell to the boss and go off and live in a monastary to wait for Jesus. What he does mean is that the coming of God’s kingdom has cut the umbilical cord to this world. We are born anew from above as children of God. Christ frees us from bondage to sin and death, not from responsibility. The death and resurrection of Jesus give us freedom to work, not freedom from work. It is because we recognize that there is more to life than the stuff of this world that we can live and work as people who are “in the world but not of the world,” pilgrims passing through to something greater, knowing that what is greater has already come with the coming of Jesus.
Nothing may get between us and Jesus. Quite the opposite. Jesus must get between us and everything, or everything will become idolatry for us. When Jesus says to a person, “Follow me,” he is laying claim to all that person is and all that person has. He doesn’t want a spare three hours of your time Sunday morning or ten percent of your income. Jesus wants all of you and everything of you.
When the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard the words “follow me” from the lips of Jesus, they left everything – their nets, their boats, their father, their business, their entire lives – to follow Jesus. He was heading to the cross. When Jesus calls a person to follow him, He is calling that person to die with Him and to rise with Him. He wants to embrace the whole of you with His death and life. He wants to make His death yours and His life yours. He won’t settle for just a piece of you. There is no such thing as half a disciple. He wants all of you.
There were plenty of would-be followers of Jesus, those who heard the gracious invitation – “follow me” – but went the opposite way. There was the rich, young man, to whom Jesus said, “Sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me,” a young man whose riches kept him from following Jesus. There was the man who first had to bury his father. There was another who first wanted to say good-bye to his family. And as important as all these things might be, they don’t mean anything apart from Christ, and if they get in the way of following him, they have to go.
Without Christ we have nothing, though we possess everything in this world. With Christ we have everything, though we possess nothing in this world.
I think most of us are surprised at how quickly the four fishermen left their livelihoods to follow Jesus. We look at our own lives. Would we be willing to put ourselves so radically in Jesus’ hands? The fishermen had no guarantee of housing or income. Jesus offered no promises of safety and security, no health plan, housing, retirement benefits, and pension plan. They left everything for nothing but Jesus. Would we? The honest answer is no. Were it left for us to decide, we would hold something back, keep something in reserve, just in case this “fishers of men” thing didn’t work out. We have a difficult enough time sanctifying a portion of Super Bowl Sunday with the Word of God and prayer.
There was nothing exceptional about Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Their following of Jesus is not due to some inner quality in them, some heroic aspect of their character that made them follow Jesus. There is nothing in these four fishermen that made them into followers of Jesus and fishers of men.
What made the difference was the Word that Jesus spoke. With His Word, Jesus silences the demons and casts them out of people. With His Word, Jesus heals the sick. With His Word, Jesus cleanses the leprous and raises the paralyzed man from his mat. And with His Word Jesus calls disciples. He says, “Follow me” to four fishermen tending their nets, and the living and powerful Word of Jesus had its way. The Word does what it says, and Peter, Andrew, James, and John followed. The Word mades fishermen into fishers of men. Had Jesus not spoken His Word, there would have been no following on the part of the fishermen.
Before we can be doers of God’s Word, we first must be hearers of His Word. Before we can be followers of Jesus, we must be hearers of Jesus. Before we can be fishers of men, we must be fish caught in the net of Jesus’ death and resurrection. His Word must have its way with us. And this Word is no idle, human word. It is the Word of God come in the flesh. When Jesus speaks, things happen. The demons flee. Diseases are healed. The paralyzed walk. The blind see. The deaf hear. The dead live. Sins are forgiven. Fishermen follow. The Word does it all.
“Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Those are the words that Jesus speaks to us here this morning. Repentance and faith is what it means to follow Jesus. These aren’t one-time words, but continual words. It is not as if you repent once, you believe, and now you do whatever you feel like doing. The Word is “Repent continually, and continually believe in the Gospel.” That’s how you and I follow Jesus, by daily dying to our sin and rising to new life, daily repentance and faith in Christ. Repentance and faith are not things we do, but what God works in us through His Word.
To repent is to become completely different. Repentance is a turning from sin to righteousness, from self to Christ, from death to life. It is to be turned inside out. Our natural tendency is to be self-oriented, turned inward. We can thank Adam and Eve for bringing us the curse of self-awareness. God turns us inside out with His Word. He turns us toward Himself and toward those around us. To repent means to have a changed mind, to be minded differently than you now are. Once you thought of yourself as a sinner condemned to die, now think of yourself differently, as a saint and heir of eternal life. Once you thought of God as your judge, now think of Him in a new way, as your Savior and Redeemer. To repent means to become nothing, so that Jesus may be everything, to become a total sinner so that Jesus can be your total Savior from sin, to become a beggar so that Jesus can fill your empty hands with His riches.
Repentance isn’t a pleasant, happy thing. There will be sorrow over sin, terror of God’s wrath, grief over our death and the loss of our sin. We aren’t going to feel good about ourselves when Jesus’ word “repent” works repentance in us. The old Adam in us hates to die. He will get mad at the preacher and tune him out. He will shut our Bibles tight. He will avoid the church. He will deny God.
But the Law is not God’s last word. Repentance is not God’s last work. God kills, but He also makes alive. He brings down to death, but He also raises the dead. Jesus says, “Repent” and He also says, “Believe in the Gospel.” That Word too must have its way with us. The good Word of the Gospel says, “Jesus Christ has died and risen for you. Believe in Him and everything He has is yours. His perfect life is your life. His perfect death is your death. His resurrection is yours. His ascension and glory are yours. His kingdom, the reign of His forgiveness over all that condemns you, is yours. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Jesus delivers that to you with the simple, little imperitive, “believe.” Believe in the Gospel, the good news, that the kingdom of God has come to you in the flesh of Jesus.
The time is fulfilled, here and now, for you. The kingdom of God is at hand, here and now, for you. Repent, be turned from your self and your sin, and believe in the Gospel, trust in Jesus – crucified, risen, and reigning – for you and for your salvation. Be baptized in His Name. Be forgiven in His Name. Receive His Body and Blood. Follow Him, daily dying and rising, and He will give you life.