Mark 1:14-20, The Call to Discipleship

[January 25, 2015] These verses, skipping over Jesus’ experience in the desert, are about Jesus proclaiming the “gospel of God,” which is that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near.” This refers to Jesus’ own coming and presence in Israel; the Gospel is this good story or proclamation. The invitation that issues from it is: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” (In truth, this is more than an invitation. If we hear the Gospel, inwardly that is, it is an irresistible imperative.) Here the word “repent” surely refers to a change of mind, to allow an altering of our consciousness, so that we can believe the Gospel. The word “believe” too surely means more than “accept as true,” a kind of mental agreement. The word in Greek implies fidelity, faith-fulness, loyalty and existential commitment: personal fealty to the one of whom the Gospel is about. That is what the Gospel according to Mark is going to be about.

We have not gotten away from the “baptism of repentance” to which John called the people in verse 4. Only, we are adding a dimension to it. So let’s backtrack, because, as we saw, the meaning of the word was significant for what Jesus took upon himself—it is this act of Jesus, to become a penitent, that opens the story of Jesus. Repentance, as we said back then, which it is an altering of our consciousness, specifically refers to placing ourselves under, accepting and submitting to, God’s judgment, acknowledging it as right, and loving God in the divine holiness that results in this judgment. It means mourning for ourselves and each other for the state we are in, our alienation from God because of our rejection and rebellion against God, the rupture of our relationship with God as a result of our primal sin of shutting God out and thinking we can construct a “world” of our own apart from God.

We are not far from this thought when our passage today opens with the words, “After John had been arrested.” This is indeed the world-stage onto which Jesus now steps. It is a world hostile to God.

Repenting means to humble ourselves enough to place ourselves here in this place of penitence. “Repent, and believe the Gospel,” the good news that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near” in Jesus. What time is fulfilled? The prophets together speak of this, but here it is in the words of Isaiah:

“‘Console my people, console them,’ says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and cry to her that her period of service is ended, that her guilt has been atoned for, that, from the hand of YHWH, she has received double punishment for all her sins.’

“A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the desert a way for YHWH. Make a straight highway for our God across the wastelands. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be leveled, every cliff become a plateau, every escarpment a plain; when the glory of YHWH will be revealed and all humanity will see it together, for the mouth of YHWH has spoken.’

“A voice said, ‘Cry aloud!’ and I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ –‘All humanity is grass and all its beauty like the wild flower’s. The grass withers, the flower fads when the breath of YHWH blows on them. (The grass is surely the people.) The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God remains forever.’

“Go up on a high mountain, messenger of Zion. Shout as loud as you can, messenger of Jerusalem! Shout fearlessly, say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God.’ Here is Lord YHWH coming with power, his arm maintains his authority, his reward is with him and his prize precedes him. He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.” (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Isaiah uses this word “gospel” in chapter 52 when speaking on the same fulfillment:

“How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of the messenger announcing peace, of the messenger of good news, who proclaims salvation and says to Zion, ‘Your God is king!’ The voices of your watchmen! Now they raise their voices, shouting for joy together, for with their own eyes they have seen YHWH returning to Zion. Break into shouts together, shouts of joy, you ruins of Jerusalem; for YHWH has consoled his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. YHWH has bared his holy arm for all the nations to see, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” (Isaiah 52:7-10)

(The fourth Servant Song follows in 52:13–53:12, which speaks of the servant’s suffering and offering his life as a sin offering, taking the guilt of the people on himself.)

This time is what Jesus is saying has been fulfilled, and having placed ourselves in penitence, this is what we are ready to hear. It is very good news. Jesus asks us not just to believe in the fact of it but to commit to a relationship of fidelity with him, for he is the coming one, the coming of God, the coming one who has come (and will come again).

This (verses 14-15) is more or less a heading for what follows: a summary of what now takes place.

The first thing Mark relates then is the calling of Simon and his brother Andrew and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John. It is early in the morning when fishermen—who had been fishing during the night—are finishing up their business. The first set of brothers were still casting a net off the side of their boat into the “sea” (it is a lake). The second set of brothers were also in their boat, but they were mending their nets. All of them Jesus calls with a simple “Come after me.” To the ones who were casting their net into the water, who did not feel that they had caught enough and were looking for more, Jesus says, “I will make you into fishers of people.” The ones who were mending their nets may have lost some of the fish they could have caught had the nets not ripped. Dissatisfaction in what they were doing might be implied in both cases. All four of them, it says, at once left what they were doing behind and followed Jesus.

(Three words are used here: Jesus says, “Come after me,” Simon and Andrew “follow him,” and James and John “went away after him.” The word “after” also means “behind.” The word “follow” means to accompany. They all have the connotation of discipleship, of becoming an apprentice.)

The imagery of fishing for people, applicable to all four disciples, alludes to Jeremiah 16:16.

“Look, the days are coming, YHWH declares, when people will no longer say, ‘As YHWH lives who brought the Israelites out of Egypt!’ but, ‘As YHWH lives who brought the Israelites back from the land of the north and all the countries to which he had driven them.’ I shall bring them back to the very soil I gave their ancestors. Watch, I shall send for many fishermen, YHWH declares, and these will fish them up …” (Jeremiah 16:14-16a)

The time that Isaiah spoke of being fulfilled means that fishers will now gather the scattered Israelites to the Promised Land (which is now Jesus himself). The prophecy of Jeremiah concerns not only the Israelites for, after it speaks of God’s judgment on the other Israelites who turned away from God and went the way of the gentiles by their violence and idolatry, the prophecy continues:

“YHWH, my strength, my stronghold, my refuge in time of distress! To you the gentiles will come from the remotest parts of the earth and say, ‘Our fathers inherited nothing but Delusion, Futility of no use whatever. Can human beings make their own gods? These are not gods at all!’ Now listen, I will make them acknowledge, this time I will make them acknowledge my hand and my might; and then they will know that YHWH is my Name.” (Jeremiah 16:19-21)

In other words, the gentiles will give up their delusion and futility and come to the Lord who has come to Zion. Thus Jesus says, not that he would make the disciples fishers of Israelites only but, that he would make them fishers of people (human beings).

The Gospel calls all who hear to come to Jesus and drop everything else to follow him, to give up all other preoccupations and give him our allegiance, our faith. The disciples were dissatisfied with what they were doing, with their life in the world. Our life in the world is life under God’s judgment. We do not escape it. But Jesus restores us to life with God. By developing in him we learn to become inwardly independent of the world, to become free again.

The beginning of the Gospel according to Mark calls us along with these four disciples: Come to Jesus and follow the one whose footsteps you will see in the gospel story that the rest of the Gospel according to Mark tells.

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