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Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24, 2021

Mark 1:14-20

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,

I caught the end of the inauguration ceremony on TV this past week. I tuned in just in time to catch the last few minutes of President Biden’s speech, followed by Garth Brook’s performance of “Amazing Grace.”  I saw later that Garth Brooks joked before the inauguration that he would probably be the only Republican on the stage. (I assume he meant the only Republican performer on stage.) In accepting this invitation to sing at the inauguration Garth understood that there are things that are more important than party affiliation. Particularly as he was invited to sing a Christian hymn, Garth understood that he was a Christian first, and an American second, and a Republican third. He didn’t stop being a Republican, but he laid down that part of his life for a time in order to attend to higher things. He laid down that part of his life in order to bear witness to Christ Jesus.

In our gospel reading for today we hear of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel. Jesus begins to call people to “repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus also begins to call disciples. He sees Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the sea and says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people!” And immediately Simon and Andrew laid down their nets to follow Jesus. Jesus saw a couple more fishermen. He saw James and John in their boat mending their nets. He called them too, and they left their father, Zebedee, and their boat, and their hired men, all in order to follow Jesus.

It isn’t as though these fishermen will never pick up nets again. It isn’t that James and John are abandoning their father forever. But now they have a new top priority. Now they have a higher calling. Now they are Christians first and sons second and fishermen third. Now they are laying down those parts of their lives for a time in order to follow Jesus. Jesus has laid claim to their lives, and it has become the most important thing about them.

Jesus has made a claim on our lives too. And this claim, this call to follow, means there are times when we must lay down our nets, when we set aside our other callings and commitments in order to follow Jesus. Once we hear the call: “Follow me,” there is nothing that has a higher priority for us. To be sure, we serve God through our various vocations in work and family life and civic engagement, but Jesus always comes first. We are Christians first; everything else comes after that. To get these priorities wrong is idolatry, plain and simple.

In recent years we have seen this idolatry take the form of right-wing Christian nationalism, which has been fomenting on the fringes of evangelicalism and is part of what drove the Capitol riot two weeks ago. We see it also take form in a sort of left-wing Christian Marxism, which uncritically adopts certain intellectual categories which empower Antifa and their riots which have continued in Seattle and Portland as recently as Wednesday night. The answer to a radicalized Christian right is not a radicalized Christian left! And vice-versa! The answer to both is Christian humility. It is Christian love. It is faithful Christian discipleship which puts Jesus first and our big plans for the world second.

By all means work for the change you want to see. Whichever end of the spectrum you are on, work for the policies that you believe are best. Let your faith inform that work. But as you do so, never forget that Jesus has made a claim on your life. He has called you to follow him. Following him involves loving your neighbors. Following Jesus means loving even your enemies. Whenever your work in the world gets in the way of that, that’s a net that you need to lay down.

Our primary purpose as Christians, our primary mission as the church, is to fish for people. It is to share the good news of Jesus’ saving love through our words and our deeds in such a way that they will repent and believe the good news. You may have heard me say it before, but it is so important to note that these fishermen Jesus called did not use bait. They did not use lures. They did not use hooks. These were net fisherman! This is important to note if we are going to understand what it means to fish for people. It doesn’t mean baiting people or luring them or hooking them. It means to come alongside them, meeting them where they are, so that they would get caught up in the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

People are caught up in so many things. They are caught up in extreme partisanship, which seems to give their lives meaning and a mission. Many have recently been caught up in conspiracy theories which seem to make a chaotic world make sense. While COVID has raged, the epidemic of drug addiction and alcohol abuse has been flying under the radar as people find themselves caught up in these desperate attempts to dull their pain or anxiety. People have been caught up in despair, which is driving unprecedented rates of depression and suicide.

Our primary calling is to fish for people – especially for those in the dark waters. Our calling as Christians is to pull people up from those deep, dark trenches and into the light of Christ. Our calling is to get people all caught up in the good news of the gospel.

As Garth Brooks was singing “Amazing Grace” at the inauguration, there was a moment when he looked at the camera and invited those watching at home all across the country to sing along. He wasn’t just talking to people in red states, like his home state of Oklahoma. He wasn’t just talking to people in blue states, like the vice-president’s home state of California. He was talking to everyone. He was speaking as a Christian first, as an American second, and as a Republican third.

To fish for people is nothing more than this. It is to invite all people into the amazing grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is to get people caught up in the sweet sound that “saved a wretch like me.” It is to get them caught up in Jesus’ love and mercy so that they would find healing and hope and begin to sing along.

Let this congregation be a place where we lay down our nets for a time to live together in Christian love – for our sake, and for the sake of our country and our world. Let our worship be a time when we lay down our nets for a while to hear Christ’s word anew, to hear his call to follow him, to repent once again and to hear and believe the good news. And then let us take up our nets and go out into the word to fish for people, so that they would join the song.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church