Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 1:14-20
3rd Sunday before Advent
St Barbara’s; 7.11.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
When was the last time you dropped everything that you were doing to attend to something else. Maybe it was the urgent call from school to say your child had hurt themselves and needed picking up. Maybe it was the phone call from an upset friend who just needed time to talk. Maybe it was a sudden news flash that required you to drop whatever you were doing and give it your full attention.
We don’t normally just drop what we are doing, right in the middle of something, unless it is important.
And we even less frequently just drop what we are doing and change the whole direction of our lives, leaving home and job, on the spur of a moment decision.
But this is the impression we get from the way Mark tells the story of how those first disciples came to follow Jesus. Simon and Andrew, we are told, “immediately left their nets and followed him”; “James and John left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” In the middle of their work, they drop everything and follow Jesus, because he calls them. There is no hesitation, no prevarication. Jesus’ calling is too important, too special, too great a privilege, for them to respond in any other way.
But why is that the case? It may be helpful to think about how other religious teachers, rabbis, went about calling their followers. They tended to be very selective in who they chose. From the age of 5 to 10, children would be taught the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy) – and they would be expected to memorise them word-for-word. Most would then finish and go off to learn their family trade – fishing, carpentry, etc. But the best, the most accomplished, those who could recite the whole Torah without mistake, would stay on for the next stage of learning: the memorisation of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures – from Genesis to Malachi. By 14-15, most would have dropped out. Only the very best students would remain. And they would be the ones who would apply to become one of the rabbi’s disciples. The rabbi would then grill them to see if they really had what it took, not only to understand his teaching, but to behave like him and act like him. Even at this stage, many would fall by the wayside. But just once in a while, on a rare occasion, the rabbi would find one and he would say, “Come and follow me. You’re good enough to follow me.”
But Jesus does not call the very best, most promising, students. He calls fishermen, those who would have failed to even learn the Torah at age 10, people like me. He chooses those who were not good enough for other rabbis. But he believes in them. He not only believes that they can come to understand what he teaches, but that they can come to behave like he behaves, to be like he is.
Just as Jesus called those first disciples, he calls us. We too, like those early disciples, may feel like we can’t possibly be good enough. We don’t have enough education, or theological understanding, or faith. We don’t feel our lives are in good enough order. But Jesus believes in each of us; he believes we can be like him; and so he calls us to follow him.
It is the most extraordinary privilege. For the disciples, at that point, Jesus would have been a remarkable, inspirational figure, but just that. For us, knowing the whole story, Jesus is even more than that. He is God’s Son, He is the one who the writer to the Hebrews tells us enters into the very presence of God on our behalf. And we have the privilege of being called by him, to follow him, to serve him, to love him.
But Mark’s simple retelling of the calling of the first disciples does not shy away from the fact that there is cost involved in such a calling, as well as privilege. He begins his account of the disciples’ calling by reminding us that John the Baptist had been arrested by Herod for proclaiming the good news. We are reminded that James and John have a father, Zebedee, who they leave behind to follow Jesus. Those of you who are parents who have seen your children leave home will know the cost of that. How much more so when it is so sudden and when it may put the whole family business in jeopardy too? And our reading from Hebrews reminds us that Christ himself makes the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his life for us.
There is a cost to our calling. Because of what Christ has done, what the letter to the Hebrews describes as that “once and for all sacrifice of himself” upon the cross, the cost is not in the expense of sin offerings and guilt offerings brought to a temple – Christ has dealt with that. It is in the sacrifice of our lives, in the offering of our lives as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, as Paul puts it when writing to the church in Rome.
What does such sacrifice look like for us? What does it look like to respond to our call and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus?
I’m aware that for many people, indeed maybe even for most people, life is not easy at the moment. We’ve seem to have come through the worst of the pandemic, but it feels hard to move back through the gears of life. It feels difficult to find the energy, the enthusiasm, that maybe we had a couple of years ago, even to do the things we previously enjoyed, whether that is picking up the phone to chat to a friend, or to go out to a group or club or the theatre. I think there is a weariness, a lethargy, for many of us, if we are honest.
At work and in our community, too, things may feel more of a struggle. The goodwill to others that the early months of the pandemic engendered has begun to wear thin. We expect things to be as good as, if not better, than they were two years ago, without recognising how much has changed, whether that is in terms of queuing in shops or waiting for a GP appointment or what teachers can deliver in schools or meeting work-targets. We have begun to demand as much as we ever did before, even though things have changed. And that brings pressure. And it can bring demotivation.
And that is before we begin to recognise the wider social and economic challenges: the rise in domestic violence, the increase in gas and electricity bills forcing many more into fuel poverty, the decline in public services.
Within that context, our calling to follow Christ matters. Are we going to live lives marked by love, generosity, kindness, that looks out for the other, that is willing to go the extra mile? Whilst recognising our own struggles, reaching out to those who are struggling too. That works for patience, tolerance and understanding in the workplace. That works for the good of those most in need. Will we work to bring hope and light into situations? That comes at a cost. It is not easy, especially when we too may be feeling some of that weariness and lethargy ourselves.
But we bear the cost of our calling not by gritting our teeth and showing steely determination – that only can last so long before we are exhausted once more – but to recognise that alongside the privilege and cost of our calling, comes the joy of our calling. We are to remind ourselves time and again that we are called to follow Jesus, the one who loves us infinitely, with a never failing love, the one who has made possible the forgiveness of our sins, the one who offers us a future in the loving presence of God.
The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus being in the presence of God “on our behalf”. Imagine going for a job interview, and in the middle of being grilled by the interview panel, the CEO of the company walks in and starts telling the panel how brilliant you are and how ideally suited you are for the job. Christ, in a far more special and important way, comes before his loving Father on our behalf.
Because of what he has done and because of who he is, we are accepted into the presence of almighty God, into the presence of he who has made us and this world, who is the source of all that is good and loving, the one who is our perfect, loving Father. There is joy in our calling.
Privilege; cost; joy: may Christ help us to follow him this day.