An Ark or an Army?

An Ark or an Army?

Mark 1:14-20

James C. Denison

It’s a tough world out there.

There was a time when new airlines seemed to start every month, promising lower fares and more flights. Now airline mergers are the wave of the future, though we’ll likely see higher fares, fewer flights, and more crowded airplanes.

JC Penney’s CEO told business analysts this week that he has “personally never seen an environment as unpredictable as this one.” The housing downturn has led to the dollar’s decline which has led to economic unrest across the country. Gas and groceries have never been as expensive as they are today. College tuition continues to rise faster than inflation.

This generation may be the first in our history to be poorer than their parents. Consignment and second-hand clothing stores are a new trend. Smaller cars are coming, as car makers respond to demand for fuel efficiency and lower prices. More and more people are downsizing as they struggle to keep up.

In a chaotic world like ours, there are two primary visions for the church in America, two ways to understand the relationship between the gospel and the church today.

One sees the church as an ark, a refuge and retreat in a storm. The church is a place where you come each week to be safe, to be helped, to get your needs met. The gospel is for believing and celebrating and holding. Come to be inspired, encouraged, taught; come for the sake of your family and friends; come to be blessed by God. Come to get inside the ark for a while.

The other sees the church as an army, a movement which assaults the gates of hell, a mighty force bent on the evangelization of all nations and the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. The gospel is for sharing and giving to everyone we can.

Have you come today to sit in the ark or to join the army? The answer says everything about whether or not your life will find the purpose and peace and power of God.

Live to give

Our text begins: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (v. 14).

This is the northern region of the Holy Land today, a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles. Arameans, Itureans, Phoenicians and Greeks all lived in the region. Travelers and traders headed from Africa into Asia and Europe came down her roads. Some three million people lived in towns and villages all across this fertile, vibrant region.

One thing they had in common was a dislike of the authorities and legalities which consumed Jerusalem and Judea to the south. If Jesus had established his ministry around the Temple and with its rabbis, waiting for the Galileans to come to him, he would be waiting still. So he went to them.

After he began his public ministry in Capernaum and great crowds flocked to him, he had a difficult decision to make. Would he settle there, teaching in the synagogue and doing his ministry in the city, or would he go to those who would not come to him?

Mark tells us that “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (v. 35) As a result, he could tell his disciples, “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38). Immediately “he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons” (v. 39).

This missionary impulse to breathe out, to give and share and serve, to go to people who would not come to them, quickly characterized the Christian movement Jesus began. He told them to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), and they took him at his word.

Philip soon went to the Samaritans with the gospel, Peter to Cornelius and the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas left the confines of Palestine to take the gospel to what they called “Asia,” Turkey today. Paul eventually traveled through Europe and Spain to bring the good news wherever he could. By Acts 17:6 the first Christians had “turned the world upside down” (KJV), sparking the mightiest spiritual movement in human history.

This has always been Christianity at its best and strongest.

William Carey, taking the gospel to the shores of India; Lottie Moon giving her life for the gospel in China; frontier missionaries bringing the good news to the western reaches of American expansion.

I preach each summer at Bloys Campmeeting, a gathering started in 1890 by Presbyterian circuit-riding preacher W. B. Bloys to bring the gospel to ranchers who could not or would not leave their herds to go to church.

Park Cities Baptist Church was started by a group of laypeople who believed there ought to be a Baptist church in what was then the far-north edge of Dallas. Without financial support from anyone, they began this work. Their first act in their first worship service was to take an offering for world missions. That’s the church as an army.

But that’s not your only choice in our culture. This society says that it’s all about you. You’re the consumer, the customer, and the customer is always right.

“Give the people what they want” is the marketing mantra of our day. My job is to help you manage your money or deal with your stress or make your marriage better. Our job is to help you with your problems and meet your needs, whatever they might be. So long as you come, you’ve done your job. So long as you sit in the ark, you’re safe from the storms for a while. If you feel better when you leave, I’ve done my job.

Give to live

If you could sit in an ark, why would you want to join an army? For one simple reason: the ark doesn’t float, at least not for long. Consumer Christianity isn’t Christianity, and it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t change anyone’s life, or heal anyone’s marriage, or defeat anyone’s temptations, or give anyone the purpose and peace and power of God. The simple fact is that God empowers us only when we fulfill his purpose. And his purpose is clear: “go and make disciples.”


Fishing With a Blackberry

Fishing With a BlackBerry

Mark 1:14-20

James C. Denison

Would you rather be paid cash or a compliment? An article in Wednesday’s news says that each activates the same reward center in the brain. In other words, you feel as good when people same something nice about you as when they give something nice to you. Just for the record, our finance committee would rather you put money in the plate than compliment the ushers.

But that’s not all we want you to do. We want you to give of your time and talents to the cause of the Kingdom as well. For weeks now you’ve been hearing about the “gospel,” the good news that God loves us and has sent his Son to redeem us. We’ve talked about the gospel and us, the gospel and relationships, the gospel and the church, and now taking the gospel to our community.

The trouble is, most of us are uncomfortable talking to other people about our faith. We’re afraid they’ll ask a question we can’t answer and we’ll be embarrassed, or that we’ll offend them. We would like our friends and colleagues and neighbors to know Christ, to understand and believe the gospel, but we feel inadequate to the task. We’d rather trust the professionals, the same way we don’t practice medicine unless we’re a doctor or try to fly a plane unless we’re a pilot. Someone could get hurt.

We know that Jesus called us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) starting in our “Jerusalem” (Acts 1:8), our community. Some people don’t care about winning the lost, but most of us do. We’re just not sure we can do much to help.

If you want your life to count for God’s Kingdom but aren’t sure how to go about it, you’re the person I’ve been sent to help this morning. I need to answer two questions.

Why does God need you?

Jesus called his disciples to be “fishers of men.” Why? Why do we need to give other people the gospel? Why tell them about Jesus? There are several very honest questions wrapped up in this issue.

First, aren’t the fish fine where they are? Why do they need our boat? Our lake? Our religion?

Our postmodern society believes that the individual is the sole arbiter of truth, the only one with the right to say what is right and wrong. There are no absolutes. We have no right to impose our reality, our values on others. Religion is a private, personal, subjective thing. Except that people make these claims as absolute truths. And to deny absolute truth is to make an absolute truth claim.

But do we really believe that the good people we know who don’t happen to be born-again Christians are going to hell? Your neighbor down the street who works hard, loves his kids, and lives a moral life needs to accept your religion to go to heaven? Your friend at work who believes in God and lives a good life needs more than that?

God says they do. Jesus was clear: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.6a). Acts 4:12 says that there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. John 3:18 says that whoever does not believe in Jesus is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

And there is a heaven and a hell. Jesus claimed, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b). This is the only way into the “Lamb’s Book of Life.” And Revelation 20:15 warns us, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Just because someone doesn’t believe in hell makes it no less real. I can decide to ignore terrorists, but that doesn’t make them go away.

People need us to find them. You are not imposing your own subjective values on them. Their eternal souls are at stake.

Second, isn’t this a job for professionals?

Many of us enjoy fishing, but we’d never survive if it were our living. That’s why God calls professional “ministers,” right?

Actually, he doesn’t. If this were true Jesus would have called rabbis and scholars to be fishermen, but he didn’t. He called Galileans to reach Galileans, tax collectors to reach tax collectors, fishermen to catch fish.

The idea that “clergy” would do the ministry while “laity” pay their salaries and watch is a third-century invention, not a biblical concept. Ephesians 4:12 says that the job of religious leaders is to equip God’s people for works of service. We’re the coaches–you’re the players.

Third, don’t we have all the fish we need?

Our boat has plenty of fish on board, doesn’t it? We have a bigger boat than nearly anyone else, and the fishermen seem happy. Don’t we have all we need?

The fact is, 85% of church growth today is transfer from church to church, swapping fish from boat to boat. Less than 1% of today’s churches are growing primarily by conversions.

When we last checked, we discovered that there are 114,000 unchurched people within three miles of this “boat.” Not until every person has a realistic opportunity to be saved, churched, and discipled, can we quit fishing.

What does God ask of you?

So God needs you. To do what? To go to the fish, where they are, because most of them won’t come to us. That’s what the men in our text were doing: “casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen” (v. 16).

Fishermen in Jesus’ day used two kinds of nets. The sagene was a trawling net, dragged behind the boat.

The more common was the amphiblestron, a circular net weighted on the perimeter with a rope attached at the middle. As it sank down into the water and closed, it trapped the fish, which were then hauled into the boat by hand. This was the kind of fishing Peter and Andrew were doing. These were the nets being “prepared” and repaired by James and John after their fishing was done.


The Gospel Paradox

The Gospel Paradox

Mark 1:14-20

James C. Denison

There were many ways to call people in the biblical era. Kings could send messengers to summon you to their palace. Generals could dispatch sentries to enlist you in their wars. “Trumpets,” rams’-horns called the “shofar,” were a common way of warning people of impending attack, or calling soldiers to battle.

No call in all the Bible is less intrusive, more private and personal, than those we will witness today. But none changed the course and face of human history as did these quiet conversations.

In this post-Easter season of our church year, we will explore our vision, purpose, and direction as a congregation and as followers of the risen Lord. We will assess where we are and where God is calling us to go as his people. To do that, we need to revisit these fishermen laboring alongside the Sea of Galilee. We need to hear Jesus’ words to them, for they are his words to us.

Let me lead you into this remarkable story, then we’ll see why it is so crucial to our stories today.

Knowing Jesus

Our text begins with the essence of Jesus’ proclamation: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (v. 19). “Good news” translates “gospel.” The “gospel” is the good news that God loves us and has sent his Son to save us. This good news calls us to “repent,” to turn from ourselves and our sins and selfish ambitions, and to “believe” and commit ourselves to living by the “good news.”

This was the message of Jesus’ life and work, throughout his life and work. The “gospel” that God loves us and calls us to follow him is still the essential message of the church today. We have no other.

Now Jesus begins to enlist men in the work of spreading this gospel across their culture and human history: “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen” (v. 16). Reading the text, we assume that this is their first meeting. But Mark’s original readers knew this was far from true.

In January of AD 26, Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptizer in the river Jordan. After his temptations in the wilderness, he returned to Bethany, the place of his baptism. There he first met these fishermen (John 1:28, 35-51) and called them, along with Philip and Nathaniel, to join his ministry.

They saw him turn the water into wine, and traveled with him to Jerusalem for their first Passover together on March 21, AD 27. They met Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman.

And so Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John knew Jesus. They have believed in him and followed him for a year. But not full-time, not with their lives and their futures, their all. Not until today.

Many of us are like them. We know who Jesus is and what he can do. We have experienced his saving power in our lives personally. We have asked him to forgive our sins and make us the children of God. But we are not following him, at least not full-time, unconditionally, absolutely. We’re still fishing for fish.

We have our religion and our work, Sunday and Monday, Jesus and the rest of life. We have fish to catch, families to support, work to do. Our culture has taught us that religion is a private, personal thing, a hobby reserved for Sunday morning discretionary time during the week.

It isn’t that way for the Orthodox followers of Judaism in the Holy Land. We saw them by the hundreds, wearing their black clothes and long beards, praying fervently at the Wailing Wall, living every day by kosher dietary laws and strict legal regulations.

It isn’t that way for the Muslims we met in Israel, men and women and children who stop five times every day to pray facing Mecca. The maitre-d at one of our hotel restaurants had a permanent dark mark on his forehead from years spent praying fervently with his face to his prayer rug.

It isn’t like that for the Buddhist who live by the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Noble Path. It isn’t like that for the Hindus who live every day by their caste system and rituals. It wasn’t like that for the first Christians, more than a million of whom died rather than separate their faith from their lives.

But it’s like that for many of us. When was the last time you surrendered your time, money, life, plans, and ambitions completely and unconditionally to God? You know about him–how close are you to him? When last did you spend time listening to his voice, seeking his word, submitting to his trumpet-call to your soul?

Following Jesus

His call was and is very simple: “‘Come, follow me,'” Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men'” (v. 17). “Come” is a command: “come here.” “Follow” means “be full-time followers, pupils, disciples.”

The construction is plural, showing that this is Jesus’ will for each and all of them.

“Me” shows that they will follow Jesus personally. Their loyalty will not be to a religion, an institution, a program, but a person. The Son of God himself.

Then, “when he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (vs. 19-20).

For what purpose? “And I will make you fishers of men.” “Make” means to equip for a job, to give you all you need. “I will make you” shows that only Jesus can do this. And that he will–this is his promise.

“Fishers”–people who will catch something. What? “Fishers of men”–all men. Not just Jews, but Gentiles. Not just men, but women. Everyone. The entire world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). He wants us to love the world, and win the world to Jesus.