Sermon: First Words

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:14-20

My sermon from the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (January 21, 2024) on Mark 1:14-20


So I want you to think about an important relationship in your life. Maybe it’s your spouse, a co-worker, or a good friend. Maybe the relationship that first comes to mind is someone you just spoke to or a person you’ll always miss. Often when we think about the relationships that matter to us, we linger on the last words we shared together. But I wonder: do you remember the very first words you heard them speak? 

I’ll admit that this kind of exercise isn’t easy for me since I remember first impressions way more than first words. And while those can be the same thing, that’s not always true. In fact, entire pop culture industries, such as teen graphic novels, pop songs, and rom coms, are all about how first impressions aren’t always the end-all-and-be-all of all things. In our Bible, though, first words are very important because they set the tone for what follows. We noticed that a few weeks ago when we listened to the very first verse in the gospel according to Mark that went: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Those words were less a sentence about Jesus’ story and more a title to what’s about to come. We’d expect after words like that to immediately discover who Jesus is. Yet what Mark chose to do instead was introduce us to a man named John who then dunked Jesus – and many others – into the Jordan River. When he came up from the water, Jesus – as we’ll hear at the start of Lent – spent 40 days hanging out in the wilderness. But when John was arrested, Jesus returned to the area he grew up in. It’s only been a few verses but Mark has already shared a lot of stories that took quite a bit of time. Yet it’s at this point, in verse 15, when we hear something we hadn’t heard before. Jesus, for the first time in the gospel according to Mark, spoke actual words. Now these probably weren’t Jesus’ first words even though they are the first ones recorded in the oldest gospel we have. But they are the words Mark wanted us to hang onto while we listen to the rest of Jesus’ story. Jesus’ ministry began with a proclamation that history had reached a turning point. The kingdom of God wasn’t simply near; it was here. And God’s imagination for the world was now present in ways it hadn’t been before. Jesus, like John, called all people to repent but to do more than simply turn to God. This repentance was also about changing our minds, our hearts, and our identities. Jesus then told people to do more than agree with what he was saying; he told them to trust that God really is their God. Jesus’ words were good news to those who are hungry, tired, worn out, and suffering. But they also served as a kind of warning to those who put any kingdom in front of God’s. Jesus’ first words weren’t meant to only be spiritual; they also make a difference in the here and now. 

And it’s those words, I think, that frame what happens next. Jesus, at the start of his ministry, took a walk along a sea shore. Now the Sea of Galilee was the economic heart of a corner of the ancient Roman Empire that didn’t have the greatest reputation. Galilee was a part of ancient Israel filled with many different kinds of people living together. Folks were suspicious about the diversity since we assume a certain amount of isolation is needed to stay “pure.” Yet this mixed cultural environment also created a fertile place for new ministries to grow. Mark doesn’t tell us when Jesus appeared along the sea shore but, after reflecting on it, I wonder if Jesus showed up in the morning. That would have provided him plenty of time to see people while meeting them at the end of their work day. Fishing, in the ancient world, was often done at night with pairs of boats trawling a net between them. Once the fish were caught and hauled to shore, the nets were then repaired. Andrew and Simon, who were casting nets from the shore, might have been trying to add to their catch or were keeping their nets damp before they put them away. John and James, though, were carefully examining each thread of their nets that were very tired. When Jesus showed up, these two sets of brothers were simply doing what they’ve always done. Yet Jesus, with a handful of words, changed those brothers forever. The words he shared were very short and, when compared to Jesus’ first words, seem a little odd. Mark doesn’t record any of their small talk nor tell us if the brothers talked to one another when they saw Jesus in the distance. As Jesus drew near, he didn’t tell the brothers to choose him, to decide for him, to believe in him, or to even repent. Jesus simply said “follow me” but gave no details about where he was going or what their journey might look like. The only thing Jesus did point to was some kind of transformation, shifting them from their current context into something more. I don’t think, though, that Jesus wanted these brothers to treat people like they did fish: hooking them, netting them, and then – metaphorically – consuming them. I wonder if, instead, Jesus wanted these brothers to act as fishermen at the end of their day. They were no longer there to catch and collect. These brothers would also tend and mend what God had given to them. 

The good news of Jesus Christ; the good news of God; the coming of God’s kingdom; and the invitation to become something more – might require us to move through our past and into something new. But that call from God can also involve tending and mending what came before. This is especially true in our most important relationships where our need to listen, to understand, and to emphasize with each other is at the heart of who we’re supposed to be. Our mending might require us to change our deeply held beliefs that no longer bring life to those around us and we might need to sacrifice our own comfort so hope can flourish. The mending and tending we do might require us to change our priorities so that people can thrive. This work will connect us to people we didn’t expect. And if some of our relationships have become too much, separating might be the most holy thing we can do. We won’t always get this mending right nor will we always realize how we are the ones who get in the way of what Jesus is doing in our world. But we get to embrace this call from God because God’s first words to us are never God’s last words of hope, love, and grace. God continues to reach out to us through scripture, worship, prayer, and people to show that God’s words to us in our baptism – that we are beloved – will never be taken away. Making those words come to life in all we say and do isn’t always easy but we aren’t doing this work alone because Jesus is already here; Jesus is already present; Jesus is already ahead of us and is inviting us to follow and see what God’s words of love always do.  Amen.