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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
December 31, 2023
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The story of Jesus calling the fishermen to follow him has a special place in my heart, because it’s where my story of being called to be a pastor begins. The weekend after 9/11, I was on a leadership retreat with the church that I was a member of at that time. And after reading this story, we were sent off by ourselves to meditate on the question, “what nets are you holding onto that are preventing you from following Jesus at this time?”
The answers I received that day changed my life in ways that I couldn’t imagine. They took me to Costa Rica, and to seminary, and to Phoenix, and they brought me here.
This story of Jesus calling the fishermen is recorded in each of the gospels. And every time I read it, I go back to that question – what nets are you holding onto? – because setting down the things that keep us from following Jesus is something we do over and over again throughout our lives.
Because Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me” is one that he gives over and over again not just for the big decisions, but for our daily lives.
We’re at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, which isn’t where we usually are on the Sunday after Christmas Day. But it’s fitting to be at the beginning of Jesus’ story as we close out our calendar year.
For many of us, this is a time that we look back over the previous year and take stock of the things we accomplished – or didn’t. Sometimes we make promises to ourselves for the coming year. Sometimes we even just give thanks that we made it through another trip around the sun.
But in Mark’s gospel, there’s no time to sit back and reflect. It starts with Jesus as an adult, and it doesn’t stop until the day of resurrection. There’s an immediacy and an urgency to telling Jesus’ story that tells us that, in Jesus, something fundamentally changed in terms of God’s relationship with creation – and creation’s relationship with God.
At the time Jesus was born, Judea was occupied by the Roman Empire. And people living under Roman rule lived the way the empire wanted them to live because it made life easier, even if it wasn’t the way that was named in scripture.
It was literal colonization: the people weren’t in charge of themselves or their values. They had to be careful of what they said, where they said it and to whom. It wasn’t a peaceful existence.
But change was coming. And we’re given a hint of that change in John the Baptist’s ministry. When we hear the word “repent” we often think of it in terms of punishment or shame. But, really, what John was asking the people to do was reorient their lives toward God.
And the baptism that John performed was a ritual that marked a transition in a person’s state of being. People were baptized by him to show that they were changing their hearts and their lives – that they were beginning a new way of life.
They’d been living under Roman rule, and probably its values along with Jewish values thinking that they went together. But John called people away from simplistic loyalty to Rome, and called them back to Torah. He called them back to God.
And the change that he ushered in went a step further at Jesus’ baptism when the heavens were torn apart – not just opened, but torn apart. If something is opened, it can be closed again – like a door or a jar of peanut butter. But if something is torn, it can never be put back the way it was before.
This gives us an idea of the power that was present at Jesus’ baptism, and of the power that drove him into the wilderness immediately afterward, and stayed with him and helped him to survive the temptations there. God’s Spirit was on the loose in a new way.
It kept the momentum going when Jesus returned from the wilderness and called the fishermen.
When we take these events together – John’s ministry, Jesus’ baptism and calling the disciples – we discover that they’re a series of invitations. Not just to the people who witnessed those events but invitations to us, too.
Invitations to reorient our daily lives toward God, toward the way of life God gives to us. Invitations for us to follow Jesus. Not to intellectually believe that he’s the Son of God, or in the things he said, but to let go of the nets we’re holding onto and actively follow him. To embrace the good news of Christ and live the life it calls us to.
The grace of these invitations is that Jesus offers them throughout our lives. He gives us constant opportunities to begin again, to reorient our lives toward the power of the grace and love that came to us as Jesus.
Each time we accept his invitation, it changes us in such a way that we can’t go back to who we were before. Because it opens our hearts to the message of the good news of Jesus, and we discover that that message isn’t only relevant at Christmas.
That it moves us through the season and into the rest of the year as we evaluate the things we’re holding onto, and set down the things that keep us from following him in our daily lives.
Because the stuff we hold onto in our life of faith can both empower us and hold us back or drag us down. And even the empowering things like prayer and worship can become detrimental if we hold onto them too tightly. For example, if we get stuck in the comfort and familiarity of them – or if we say that there’s only one way to pray or one way to worship.
But by extending the invitation over and over again, Jesus constantly invites us to live our lives in light of the good news that he brings to our world. Not just at Christmas, or the end of our calendar year, or any other particular season.
As we close out this year, may we accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him. May we continue the celebration of grace and love that came down at Christmas, and changed our lives and our world forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.