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Time's Up!

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jan 25

Text: Mark 1: 14-20

Since Mark wastes no time diving into the deep waters of Jesus’ public ministry, neither will I. Time is of the essence for Mark, always. It’s why his gospel is almost half the length of Matthew’s and Luke’s. Having skipped right over any mention of Jesus birth or genealogy, Mark spends just 13 verses locating Jesus in the Jewish traditions of the prophet Isaiah and naming his connections to John the Baptist. By verse 14, he is already laying down the key theme for Jesus’ preaching—that the kingdom is near—and sharing the story of Jesus calling of his very first followers. When Jesus makes that proclamation, that the kingdom is near, this is a statement about time. It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new era that demands a new way of being. In his contemporary translation titled the Message, Eugene Peterson offers a version of this passage that underscores the point: “After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee preaching the Message of God: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.” As one commentator notes, “Mark begins like an alarm clock, persistently declaring the time and demanding some response.” After the proclamation, Jesus sees two fisherman on the shoreline, says, “follow me” and immediately they drop their nets and follow. He runs into two more and the scripture says “immediately” he calls them. By the end of that same sentence, they’ve already left their dad and they are on the way.

I’ve said before that I find this one of the strangest and hardest to believe passages in all of scripture. Immediately? Really? It’s only been recently that I’ve begun to understand why the urgency, why the drive to keep things moving, and how can the immediacy of the disciples response be even remotely credible. In order to appreciate all this immediacy and urgency in time, we need to first consider the place, namely the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Gnessaret or Lake Tiberias as it is variously called, in scripture and to this day.

Two years ago, almost to the day, I found myself standing speechless in front of an old fishing boat inside the Yigal Alon museum that sits on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a few miles north of Tiberias in Israel. The boat was about 27 feet long, 7 feet wide, its keel, frame and even some of its gunnels still in tact. Here’s the thing: the boat wasn’t just old; it was 2000 year’s old! The stunning beauty of that body of water, the largest freshwater lake in Israel, stretching 13 miles long and 8 miles across, was breathtaking enough, but to think that the boat I was gaping at had sailed on those same waters in the times of Jesus was absolutely awe-inspiring. I have a few photos of it and one of an exhibit sign from the museum entrance that reads, in Hebrew and English: The Mystery of the 2000 year old Boat -- To whom did this boat belong? To Jesus and his disciples? To the fighters of the Midgal Battle? To a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee? After reading our passage for today, we might add the question: Did it belong to Simon or Andrew, or James or John? It was discovered in 1986 on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee by, get this, two fisherman, who were also amateur archaeologists. During a season of extreme drought for the region, they were going about their day job when they noticed something sticking out of the wet sand. Though no evidence can connect the so-called “Jesus boat” to Jesus, carbon dating puts it right smack in the early parts of those first decades of the Common Era. The great first century Jewish Historian, Flavius Josephus, reported a thriving fishing industry at the time and a rough count of almost 230 fishing boats in the lake. This was surely one of them! By the way, Josephus who is a go-to for scholars of the period was so taken by the beauty of the Sea of Galilee and its environs that he wrote, "One may call this place the ambition of Nature." Nice, right?

It’s one thing to think about the historical context of our scriptures, the local economy and environs of a fishing village, even the daily habits and patterns of human living that sometimes only archaeologist can derive. Countless sermons have been preached on ways that Jesus message was compelling enough to draw these fishermen away from their chosen trade, even away from that sweet 27 footer, or one like it! But this is only part of the story. In fact, if we keep digging around that same shoreline, we can discover an even broader context of life in 1st century Galilee that would have made Jesus’ message, that the Kingdom of God is near, even more compelling, more urgent, both in the year 30 or so when Jesus said it, and in the year 70 when Mark was writing for a community that was still committed to following Jesus’ way. Bear with me, for a bit more on the context of this passage.

Our text begins with a mention of John’s arrest, which was also recorded by Josephus. He wasn’t just arrested for lewd behavior, for wearing hair shirts and eating locusts. John was arrested because of steadfast resistance to the ways of a Roman empire that wreaked havoc on the entire region for almost 400 years. This Lent, in book and bible studies and 10 am hour adult education sessions, we hope to be exploring together a recent book by the Boston Globe columnist, James Carroll, called Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. In fact, we’ll have about 30 copies available after church today if you want to get a head start on the reading. At one point in the book, Carroll says the following that may further expand the picture of where our story begins, and that offer may clues for how it relates to our context:

In Galilee…, Roman agents, together with a collaborating aristocracy and cooperative petty landowners, all under the protective watch of Herod’s henchmen – and Roman legions at the ready – operated a vast mechanism of economic exploitation, benefitting a small minority at the expense of everyone else. Imperial colonialism always squeezes treasure and blood out of those whom it dispossesses, and the chokehold on the people of Palestine in the time of Jesus was particularly savage. Peasants were thrown off land, laborers were deprived of work, artisans went unrewarded. Patterns of ordinary family cohesion were disrupted, with old people badly cared for, the young deprived of hope. Many people were made destitute and homeless, and there were few, if any, prospects for betterment. Within recent memory, those who had openly protested such conditions had been efficiently – brutally – dealt with. It was to such a demoralized population that John’s message of personal change by means of religious awakening rang with power: Your repentance will bring about the intervention of God!

After John was arrested -- John, that crazy guy crying out in the wilderness, John the one who baptized Jesus in the verses just before ours, John who carried forth and embodied the prophetic tradition as a mentor to Jesus -- after John was arrested, after John was eventually beheaded, a story which Mark tells in chapter 5, after all this, Jesus picks up the baton and comes to the sea, ready to bring God’s intervention to a movement of political and religious awakening. Can you see it? Mark gets the story just right, with just the right tone of alarm sounding urgency. And how much more so for his community who are still suffering under occupation 40 years after Jesus died. You see, in the year 30 or so when Jesus’ short-lived, roughly 3 year tenure of public ministry began, the Roman occupation of the entire region would have already been seen and felt in every corner of existence, and the Galilee happened to be one corner that was especially known for encouraging resistance. But by the year 65 or so, when Mark was writing, tensions between the Romans and Jews had developed into an all-out war, and the Sea of Galilee itself was one of the main scenes for battle. Remember the question on the wall of museum? Did it belong to Jesus and his disciples or to the fighters of the Migdal Battle? In the year 66, the Jews revolted against their Roman overlords in what is termed the Jewish War. The soon to be Emperor Vespasian ordered vessels to be built to engage the Jews on the Sea of Galilee. In his classic book, the Jewish War, Josephus describes that Migdal Battle in this, his own eyewitness account:

“When the rafts were ready, Vespasian put on board as many troops as he thought adequate to cope with the fugitives on the lake, and launched his flotilla. Thus pursued, the Jews could neither escape to land where all were in arms against them, nor sustain a naval battle on equal term. [When the battle was over] “One could see the whole lake stained with blood and crammed with corpses, for not a man escaped. During the days that followed a horrible stench hung over the region, and it presented an equally horrifying spectacle. The shores were strewn with wrecks and swollen bodies…The Dead, including those who earlier fell in the defense of the town, numbered six thousand seven hundred.”

I first learned about this standing inside that museum, which also displayed artifacts of the war, including spearheads. And you thought my line before about digging deeper into that lake was just a metaphor! Since hearing this, I can hardly consider the Sea of Galilee without imagining those blood stained waters in the year 66, right around the time when our gospel stories were written and gaining traction. Jesus came preaching a peaceful alternative to the Kingdom of Herod, and immediately, they left their nets! Imagine hearing that story, not in some bucolic lakeside setting, but on those bloody shores with the battle continuing to rage?

Why am I sharing so much of this background? Carroll talks about the gospels as “wartime literature.” It was to such a demoralized population that not only John’s message, but Jesus message, and so Mark’s message, of personal change by means of religious awakening rang with power: Your repentance will bring about the intervention of God! Carroll reminds us that the Gospels were written in a time when not 6000 but 600,000 Jews were killed by the Roman Empire. He even goes so far as to call it the first Holocaust. And it’s in that crucible of such profound historic crisis, of such abject exploitation of power by the empire of Rome that Jesus’ preaching about the end of that era, and the beginning of a new ear and realm was just the alarm of hope and change and non-violent resistance that the people needed to awaken them from their complacency and despair. When we read this story, we’re shocked by its urgency because we think of it as just another day at the beach for those quaint fishermen. It was just another day at the beach for Simon, Andrew, James and John, but another day having to live under a brutal occupation. For Mark and his community, it was another day at the lake, but a day at a lake filled with blood and corpses? And what about for us? Is today just another day for us to try to compare ourselves in daily terms to those early disciples. Are we ready to drop our 401k’s, ready to quit our day jobs, ready to make some tectonic shift in our lives so that we can better follow Jesus? These are the wrong questions for us. A better question is this: Are we hearing the alarms that are sounding all around us, the alarms that are telling us “Time’s Up!” Time’s up, as in if we don’t wake up, if we don’t realize we can’t do it alone, if we don’t start making bold change and start our own marches to Jerusalem, to city hall, to the state house, to the capital building, we will be standing in the way of God’s intervention in this time.

I wonder, how many of us woke up this morning thinking it was just another day. If so, then I daresay, we are hitting the snooze buttons on the alarms that are blaring all around us, alarms of ecological devastation, alarms of nuclear threats, alarms of racial injustice that has traumatized and infected our country with a toxic, centuries-old wound that is in desperate need of emergency care. Or, or, are we starting to wake up, as the gospel song goes, with our minds “stayed on Jesus,” and "stayed on freedom,” and stayed on a new movement of change within us and around that is allowing for God’s intervention and God’s grace, courage and God’s peace! Are we hearing a call by our own bloody shores, to gather in community, to engage new followers and new friends on the journey of life and faith? And are we ready to respond, immediately?

Immediately after church today, we will celebrate our Annual Meeting and tune into some new ways that God is calling us in this time and place. In the coming months, we’ll have a host of opportunities to engage in action, through our new Friday Cafe homeless ministry, through ongoing learning about gender, through powerful advocacy with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, through ongoing work with our Building Beloved Community and Witness against Gun Violence and Inequality groups. During Lent, we’ll have time to ground this external work in reflections on Jesus with help from Mark’s Gospel and that James Carroll book, all with an eye to our own context. I wonder. How, in particular, are you each feeling the call to wake up, to engage, and follow Jesus in these or other ways?
Time’s up! Your urgent reply is requested! Amen.

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