Following Jesus and the Gospel of God

This passage is about the arrival of God’s kingdom in Jesus. As Pastor Jonathan said, we can’t avoid reckoning with Jesus. He forces our hand. It’s also about the beginning of his ministry and his call to his disciples. But before we explore Jesus’s message and call, I want to underscore a pattern that we saw last week. Jonathan noted that Jesus’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness for forty days identifies a parallel between Jesus and Israel. Jesus, in fact, is Israel-in-miniature. He recaps Israel’s story in his own life.

Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea and then met with the living God at Mount Sinai, where God declared that Israel was his treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). Israel sins, and wanders in the wilderness for forty years, being led by the Spirit, after which they enter the Promised Land.

Jesus is baptized by John (passing through the waters), receives God’s glad approval as his beloved Son, and then is driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit for forty days. Thus, it’s no surprise in Mark 1:14 that, after encountering God, and after the wilderness temptation, Jesus launches his own invasion of Canaan. He enters Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God.

And as Jonathan noted last week, the reason for this pattern is that Jesus is our substitute. He is living out a mini-version of Israel’s story on our behalf. He wasn’t baptized for the remission of his own sins; he was baptized to identify with ours. He wasn’t driven into the wilderness for his own sins; he was driven into the wilderness for ours. And unlike Israel, and unlike Adam, when Jesus was tempted by the devil, he stood firm and thus became qualified to be both perfect God and perfect man, for us and for our salvation.

But here’s one more thing about that pattern. It’s not just Israel and Jesus; we see the same pattern in our lives. God often brings us to the mountain-top and showers us with his grace and mercy, and makes us feel his love and affection. And then, the next thing we know, we’re in the wilderness, surrounded by wild animals, and assaulted by God’s enemy and ours.

From the mountaintop to the valley of shadows. From the heights of joy to the pit of despair. And, as with Jesus, the time in the wilderness is often preparation for fruitful ministry. God sends us to be tested in order that we can fulfill his mission.

And when we recognize that pattern and internalize that pattern and experience that pattern, it terrifies us. Joseph, the son of Jacob, received great dreams and visions from God. But then he was sold by his brothers, slandered by Potiphar’s wife, and left to rot in an Egyptian prison for years. Moses fled for his life and lived for forty years in the wilderness of Midian before God appeared in the burning bush. And do we even need to talk about Job? This biblical pattern brings us up short. It gives us pause. It makes us fearful of the future. We ask, “What does God have in store for me?” And the Bible gives us no comfort in guaranteed safety and ease. I’ll return to that fear at the end.

Discipleship and the Gospel of God

Mark is written as a manual for discipleship and ministry. Mark was probably written for Gentile Christians, who didn’t have the full Jewish background, but who wanted to understand what it means to follow the Jewish Messiah who is the Savior of the world. Mark seems to assume some knowledge of Jesus and his life and times. For example, this passage begins with, “Now after John was arrested.” No explanation; no context. Mark seems to assume that his readers know that John was arrested, and he uses this common knowledge to identify the time when Jesus begins his Galilee ministry. This also probably accounts for Mark’s brevity in certain places. Mark is compact and efficient. His is a gospel of action. The word “immediately” appears again and again as a way of moving the story forward.

So if Mark is written so that we can know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, it’s important to see how Jesus’s ministry begins. Discipleship begins with an announcement

from God. Jesus arrives “proclaiming the gospel of God.” The phrase “gospel” is drawn from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah uses it three key times. Mark has already mentioned Isaiah 40, the passage about the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” A few verses later in Isaiah 40,

Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;

lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;

lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,

“Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,

and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead those that are with young.

We have the Lord God coming with might (remember that John said one who is mightier is coming?), tending and gathering up his people like a shepherd. And what’s the good news? “Behold your God.”

Again in Isaiah 52:7-10.

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,

who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation,

who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;

together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see

the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing,

you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people;

he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm

before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see

the salvation of our God.

God is returning to his people. Every eye will see it. God is coming to comfort, to redeem, to save. Peace, happiness, salvation—they’re coming. And what’s the good news? “Your God reigns!” Behold your God, and your God reigns. That’s good news. That’s worth singing about.

Finally, Isaiah 61:1-3.

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;

to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;

that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.

God anoints his deliverer with the Holy Spirit (remember the baptism of Jesus). This deliverer will bind up broken hearts, liberate prisoners, proclaim God’s favor, comfort the mourning, turning their sorrow to gladness, and their weariness to praise, that they might be grow from being bruised reeds to oaks of righteousness. What’s the good news? If you’re weak, poor, broken, and enslaved, your God is here for you.

That’s the background. That’s the Old Testament promise and hope. And Jesus arrives, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time is fulfilled.” What time? That time. All of the hopes for the good news—Behold your God; your God reigns; liberty to the captives; comfort to the broken—that time is now. The kingdom of God—your God reigns— is here. Therefore, repent and believe this good news.

Raising and Overturning Expectations

I’ll return to what it means to repent and believe at the end. At this point, I want you to notice something about what’s happened so far. In verse 4, John appears, dressed like Elijah, the great prophet who was taken up into heaven, and announcing that a mighty one is coming. Next thing: some guy from Nazareth, a podunk town in Galilee, shows up and is baptized. A new Elijah appears, “Get ready for the Mightiest of All.” A carpenter from Nazareth.

Then, the Spirit descends like a dove and God expresses his delight in this nobody from Nazareth. “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased.” And the next thing that happens: the Spirit drives him into the wilderness with wild animals to face Satan.

Now in this passage, the gospel of God. Behold your God. Your God reigns. Kingdom is here... Now let’s go get some fishermen (1:16-20).

Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Do you notice the pattern? In each case, Mark raises our expectations by alluding to God’s promises in the Old Testament. Elijah preparing the way. The Spirit resting on God’s beloved king and son. The announcement of God’s triumphant kingdom. And then in each case, he immediately surprises us. Nazareth? Wilderness? Fishermen? In other words, Mark raises our expectations, and then overturns our expectations. But in overturning our expectations, Mark is clear that Jesus is actually fulfilling God’s.

In a book or a movie, there are two kinds of surprises. The first builds up our expectations, and then shatters them out of left field in a way that leaves us saying, “What was that? That was random.” The second builds up our expectations, and then shatters them in a way that makes us say, “Yes. Amazing. That’s it.” There’s a kind of surprise that’s almost impossible to anticipate, but once it arrives, it’s the only way it could go. It’s truly surprising and absolutely fitting. That’s what Jesus does when he arrives, and Mark is determined to help us see it.

The Call of the Disciples

When it comes to the calling of the first disciples, I was very helped by the timeline that Pastor Michael mentioned in his exhortation. I’d always been bothered by the fact that these four men would just drop everything to follow some random stranger. Like there was a little bit of voodoo going on here. They’re just fishermen who are completely focused on making a living, and then Jesus comes up, looks them in the eye, and says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” And they’re so intrigued or confused or entranced by that clever turn of phrase that they drop everything and go.

But, as Pastor Michael noted, if we study our Bibles carefully, we learn that the events of John 1-4 all occur prior to this section of Mark. Scholars refer to that time in Jesus’s ministry as “the year of obscurity.” It’s after the baptism and temptation of Jesus. Jesus is doing some teaching and ministry. Water into wine; cleansing the temple; conversation with Nicodemus; conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. It includes some baptisms and some disciples. But it’s not yet the full public ministry that will make Jesus famous in Israel. And Mark basically skips the year of obscurity and jumps straight to the public, miraculous ministry in Galilee. And so this passage doesn’t record the conversion of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Instead, Jesus comes and tells them, “It’s time. Let’s go.” This is not the call to salvation; it’s their call to ministry. They stop fishing for fish, so that they can learn from Jesus how to fish for men, how to call people to repentance and faith.

That raises a question: does that mean that Jesus’s “Follow me” in this passage only applies to those who are called to full-time, vocational ministry? No. When Jesus was on earth, in order to follow him and learn to fish for men, you had to stop fishing for fish. If you wanted to learn from Jesus, you had to be with Jesus. Which means that you couldn’t be with your dad in a boat. But now, you don’t have to leave your nets to fish for men. You can fish for men while fishing for fish, or working for Target, or being a cop, or teaching at a school, or making a home, or any other of a thousand vocations. Jesus still wants to make all of us fishers of men. All of us are involved in that task in some way. That’s what the Great Commission is all about. But for most of us, that will mean tending your nets well and living faithfully where God has planted you. And the reason that you don’t have to leave your nets to follow Jesus is because Mark wrote a book to teach you how.

For most of the rest of Mark’s gospel, Jesus will never be alone again. He will always be traveling and ministering with his disciples, showing them how to fish for men. And thanks to Mark, just like them, we’ll have a front-row seat to see how Jesus fulfills God’s promises, overturns everyone’s expectations, and shows us the surprising character of God’s kingdom. The final part of today’s sermon will give you one snapshot.

The Authority of Jesus

Jesus and his disciples go into Capernaum. He goes into the synagogue and begins teaching. And everyone’s astonished. And twice in this passage, we’re told that Jesus or his teaching had “authority” (1:22, 27). And we need to distinguish the two uses of authority. In the first, the people are astonished because “he taught as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” This is a declarative authority. It’s a reflection of how Jesus taught. Jesus has come, “proclaiming the gospel of God,” announcing the kingdom, heralding God’s arrival. If you went to the scribes and asked, “What does God want me to do?,” a likely answer would be something like, “Rabbi Eleazar says this, but Rabbi Hillel says that, but again Rabbi Simonides says this.” You would get rabbinic disputation, appeals to various other authorities who had reflected on the Torah in order to help people live. But if you asked Jesus what God was up to, he’d look you in the eye and lift up his voice and say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. Your God reigns, and he is coming to comfort and deliver you from sin and death. Believe the good news.” That difference in how they spoke is why Jesus’s teaching is so striking. He speaks, not as a scribe or rabbi, but as a prophet and messenger from God himself. And, if you listen carefully, even more than a prophet.

(Let me insert a little note about the rabbinical disputation that explores what different prominent teachers have said on a given subject. Because you might come away from this passage thinking, “We don’t want any of that ‘this guy says; that guy says’ nonsense.” But there’s a place for that kind of disputation. In complicated moral issues where prudence and wisdom are required, there’s a humility that says, “This is complicated. I’m not sure. But this pastor says one thing, and this other theologian says this, and that leads me to land here.” That can be humility. But the reason that we’re free to wrestle with complicated moral issues and the application of the Bible in that way is because all of that wrestling is built on the announcement that our God reigns and has acted in Jesus to establish his kingdom and deliver from sin and death. In other words, when the biggest questions in life (like, “Who is God? And who am I? And how do I get right with him?) have been definitively answered by Jesus and his work, then, as we move out from that central good news, we are free to wrestle and dispute and appeal to lesser authorities to help us understand and live in a complicated world.)

That’s the first use of authority and it refers to how Jesus speaks. The second use of authority is more than this. Jesus proclaims the gospel of God in the synagogue; people marvel at his manner of speech, and then all of a sudden, a demonized man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebukes him, silences him, and casts the demon out, and the people are amazed again. Not only does he teach authoritatively, but his teaching itself comes with power and authority to drive out demons. He doesn’t just say it forcefully; he shows it. Here there is both powerful word and powerful deed. He is here to set the captives free, to deliver those who are in bondage. This gospel that Jesus announces is powerful and effective; his teaching has authority.

Our Response

As we close, I want you to think about the different responses to Jesus’s arrival that we’ve seen. First, the demons. They’re terrified. They know exactly what’s going on. But as we’ll see, Jesus won’t let them identify him. We ought to ask why. Second, the crowds. They’re amazed and astonished by him. His fame spreads everywhere. He has a lot of fans, and as we’ll see, the crowds will flock to him for healing and deliverance. But Mark wants us to know that Jesus is about more than instilling terror in dark power and creating fan-boys. He wants us to keep our eyes on what it means to follow Jesus personally. So let me close by returning to the fear of what God might ask of us that I began with, and to the fundamental call to repent and believe.

Given who God is, and given the patterns in Scripture that make it clear that he often guides his people into greater suffering and affliction, there is, in all of us, a tendency to shrink back from too naked a contact with him. We stick to the shallows because the deep water is terrifying. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Some of us pray faintly and quietly, lest God actually hear us.” So we try to play it safe. We place certain parts of our lives off-limits. We try to say to him, “This is mine, my own, not yours.” We try to bargain with him, saying, “I’ll take another step in faith, if you promise not to wreck me.”

And Jesus aims his proclamation of the gospel of God precisely at this attitude. He comes to us in our play-it-safe mentality, in our you-can’t-touch-this state of mind, in our this-is-mine attitude, and he says, “Behold your God. Your God reigns. Repent and believe the good news.”

“Your God reigns” is only good news if he’s your God. He is God, whether you want him to be or not. He doesn’t ask us for permission to exist and to rule and reign and govern and to punish. But his reign is only good news if he’s your God. And the only way for him to become your God is to repent and believe the gospel. Repentance begins with confessing your sins, with being honest with God about the darkness in your life. And it means turning from it, rejecting it, allowing God to put it to death. And then faith means turning to, trusting in, relying on Jesus as the only hope for forgiveness, deliverance, and salvation. You dive in. Or maybe you fall in.

That’s what Jesus does to every one of us this morning, Christian or not, new believer or mature saint. He confronts us with the reality that the time is fulfilled. The kingdom is here in Jesus. Repent and believe the gospel. The Choice confronts every one of us. For some of you, the Choice may be clear for the first time. And the next step is just to be honest about that, to be clear about what is truly keeping you from turning from your self-will and trusting in Christ. For others of you, you’re in, but you’re realizing afresh what “Your God reigns” means, and you’re tempted to shrink back and play it safe. I just want to encourage you to unveil, to drop the mask, to come out of the shadows, and meet with God. There is no promise of safety. God is not safe. But he’s good. He reigns for you. And the Christian life is harder than you can imagine, and better than you could ever dream. Finally, for some of you, you’ve been with Jesus for a while, and now he stands before you and says, “It’s time. Let’s go. I’m going to make you a fisher of men.” And that may mean that you need to leave whatever boat and whatever nets you’re currently mending. Or it may mean that you need to stay in that boat and mend those nets in a new way, with a new awareness of God’s reign for you, of Jesus’s authority and power to liberate you and to liberate those that you know from sin and to heal and comfort in affliction.

The Lord’s Table

And that brings us to the Table. Here at the Lord’s Table, I say, “Behold your God.” See him clothed with humanity and represented by the bread and wine. Here is comfort in your distress, oil of gladness in the midst of your mourning, a garment of praise for your heaviness. “Your God reigns.” He has bared his mighty arm at this Table, and his arm rules for him. Here is peace and salvation. Here is the authority of Jesus and liberty for the captives. Come and welcome to Jesus Christ.