Micah 6:6-8 and Mark 1:14-20
I loved reading the Sharpe novels. They tell the story of a common-born soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, moving through each battle all the way to Waterloo. In one of the books we learn a little about how they recruited soldiers back then. A sergeant would go into a pub in a poor town and start buying drinks. When he got his targets good and drunk he would drop a shiny new coin—a King’s Shilling—into their mugs of beer. When they drank it down, if they took the shilling they were in the army. Most of them didn’t even know it until they woke up the next day.
In our second text today we see a different kind of call to service. We continue our journey into the meaning of Jesus with a look at how he called his disciples.
With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O people of God, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.
When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Isn’t that a dramatic little story? Mark’s Gospel should come with seatbelts attached—it moves so fast though so many stories and teachings. Mark always seems to be saying ‘immediately’ or ‘at once’ or ‘just then’. In Mark’s Gospel there isn’t even time for the story of Jesus’ birth. He gets right into the thick of it with John the Baptist coming to prepare the way and Jesus being tempted in the desert—all of that happens in the first 13 verses of the first chapter.
In our text this morning, Jesus seems to walk in out of nowhere and recruit a handful of people to become his disciples. So much happens here in so little time. Some background will help as we catch our breath.
There are five main things we should know about this text:
First, it’s hard to miss the reference to the Kingdom of God here. By now it should be clear to all of us that the Kingdom of God is a central theme of Jesus’ teaching, and of the whole New Testament. The Kingdom as Jesus talks about it is not a place with limits or boundaries, but instead God’s reign over all creation and his power over all things, even death. In our text Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God is near—that it’s time to live new lives in a new way.
The second thing to notice is the way Jesus calls these people into service. “Come and follow me,” he said. That’s would have been a familiar thing for students of a rabbi to hear back then. The idea was that a student would walk behind a rabbi, who would teach as they moved from place to place. “Follow me” was Jesus’ way of telling these guys that he had something he wanted to teach them.
But what about the next line? What does it mean to be a fisher of men, of people? This one is important, because it meant a lot more than just being recruiters or people who knew how to entice people to join the cause. It’s not like the sergeants in the Sharpe novels, who knew how to trick people into joining the army.
Fishing for people was an Old Testament image that would have been familiar to these men when Jesus said it. In a handful of passages in the Jewish Scriptures, God is the one who is doing the fishing— In the Dead Sea Scrolls one passage says: ‘And you have set me in a place of exile among many fishermen who stretch a net upon the face of the waters…’
It was often a promise of judgement or punishment, but Jesus turns it around here and makes it a promise of grace and salvation. Jesus was calling these guys to God’s work, to the gathering of people in preparation for God’s calling and purpose. And these guys jumped at the chance to join in.
But there’s another thing to notice about the call to become ‘fishers of men.’ Where the traditional rabbis called students to follow them around and learn about the Scriptures, about theology and whatever else was in the rabbi curriculum, Jesus offered something different. He didn’t just invite them to know—he called them to do. He called them to join him in the actual work of the ministry of the Messiah. They would have been crazy to turn him down.
The fourth thing is to notice the sense of urgency in this story. The people who are called by Jesus tended to drop what they were doing and follow immediately—no questions asked, Jesus said follow, and they did. Even for Mark’s Gospel, which has people rushing around from story to story—even in Mark’s gospel this part stands out. Jesus makes a sudden call to discipleship, which is followed by an immediate response to follow.
Finally, and related to that, think about the last two verses in our text, when Jesus called James and John: “Without delay he called them,” the passage says, “and they left their father in the boat with the hired men and followed him.” In this part of the story we learn something important about the call of Jesus. James and John weren’t just workers, they were managers or part-owners in the fishing business.
There’s a clear distinction in the text between them and the hired men. And yet they still followed without question, leaving their own father behind. The call of Jesus here is so compelling that it replaces all other claims on their lives. Let that sink in a bit. The call of Jesus was so powerful that it trumped every other plan or desire or responsibility in these men’s lives.
In the end what Simon and Andrew and James and John understood was something about the Lordship of Jesus Christ. One theologian talks about the moment when believers surrender their previous understanding of themselves, and take up Christ’s call. Another author takes a more blunt view, and says: ‘You can’t say: “No, Lord,” because each word annuls the other.’
That may be the most important thing to learn from this passage. We tend to think of Jesus as a sort of weak, mild, passive sort of guy who drew people to himself just by being nice. Here we see the Jesus that could, in a just a few sentences, connect himself to centuries of Jewish hope, and call people to give up their previous understanding of themselves, and to follow him.
As we focus this season on the meaning of Jesus, a key part of that is recognizing the calling he places on each one of our lives. So what is that call?
Before we get to that, as old as it makes me feel to say this out loud, I’ve been involved in some kind of ministry for more than 25 years now. Whether it’s with middle school kids or senior citizens, young single adults or families with small children, there’s one type of question that everyone asks. It comes out in different forms, but it goes something like this:
What does God want me to do with my life?
How can I get a better sense of God’s leading?
Why won’t God tell me what he wants from me?
In the Bible we see God call people in all kinds of ways:
In a burning bush
On stone tablets
Maybe in a voice from heaven
Most of us right now are thinking: Whew! None of those things have ever happened to me. Maybe I’m off the hook!
Not so fast.
There’s no denying that the Bible can be a confusing book sometimes. The stories are set in a different time and culture. The values don’t always match up with ours. Sometimes there are events and practices that offend us, which makes it hard to know where we can find teaching in the Bible that matters for us—that applies to our lives.
But there are a handful of passages in the Bible that give some pretty clear instruction on how our lives are supposed to be—what they’re supposed to look like—what we’re supposed to be doing.
Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to hear God’s voice or wait for some kind of sign from him about hour lives. Or when that doesn’t happen we can think that we’re in the clear, that we’re off the hook somehow until God can muster up enough volume to make himself heard.
Well while we’re waiting for lightning bolts and stone tablets, there are a few passages of Scripture that tell us pretty clearly what to do in the meantime. We heard one of those this morning:
‘And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.’
That one is so clear that we often forget it’s even in the Bible. It’s not twelve plagues or ten commandments or even seven woes. It’s three things—three things that sum up what God wants from us. Three things that define what God’s call is on our lives.
We’re called to do justice: working to make sure everyone has everything they’re entitled to.
We’re called to love mercy: making sure we’re prepared to give people more than they deserve.
We’re called to walk humbly with God: remembering who we are and whose we are.
That’s our call—our assignments as followers of Jesus Christ.
Richard Mouw is a Christian philosopher and the president of the seminary I attended. Years ago he wrote a little book titled ‘Called to Holy Worldliness’, about our responsibility to engage the world around us in faith. Here’s part of what he wrote:
‘We must carry out this assignment with the zeal and spirit of self-sacrifice that have been typical of missionaries. For those who have been willing to follow through on their Christian commitment, no matter what the cost, the goal has never been simply success or personal happiness or worldly acclaim. The goal has been that of obedience itself, in the knowledge that the God who gives the call to act obediently is also the one who sent his own son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’
The goal for us—even when it seems too much for us to complete—the goal for us is that obedience. The call on each of our lives is to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God, and to be fishers of all people.
That’s a tall order, but with God’s help it can be the measure for everything we do individually and as a community of faith. Jesus is calling—all that’s left is for us to answer.
As we reflect on Christ’s call in and on our lives, we pray for strong hearts, for pure hearts, and for clean hearts. Let’s stand together and sing: Create in Me a Clean Heart O God. Make this your prayer today. Amen.