This sermon mixes historical data with narrative. Sources for that data:
Mark 1:14-20 The waves slapped against the boat, as they always do. The perfect percussion and the warm sun could lull the unexperienced fisherman to sleep as they patiently waited for their nets to sink. But who could sleep now? Emotions had been churned till they were raw. No one in Galilee was interested in a nap today.
John the Baptist had been arrested. The news spread quickly, but no one objected…at least not openly. Everyone in Galilee went about their work, portraying a normal day. Galileans were very skilled at business as usual. It was a façade covering the burning desire for freedom that was always skin deep.
Galilee had become the center for the Zealot movement. Their mode of operation was violent guerilla warfare tactics. Secret conversations were around every corner. At any time violence could erupt.
Because of the political upheaval Zebedee had introduced “boat talk” to his boys. Our equivalent here in the Appalachian Mountains would be “barn talk”. The language isn’t always clean and the subject matter revolves around things we can’t control, like politics and taxes. Sides are taken, debates ensue and arguments are projected. Zebedee wanted to keep that talk in his boat, far from the eavesdropping of any political operatives and far from the dinner table. Boat talk allowed a father to talk openly with his sons about the lessons he has learned living in this tumultuous time.
Zebedee’s boat talk was a platform for old man to impart his wisdom to James and John by illustrating this history of the Roman rule through his own stories. All of these stories supported his philosophy, which he quoted regularly, “Just keep your heads down and fish. Romans and Jews will always need fish.”
Zebedee told the story about the slaughter of 2000 Jews that came to the aid of students that studied the law at the temple. The young men had gone to class to discover a Roman eagle on the entrance. Feeling that the eagle violated God’s law to have no graven images, they removed it. The Romans reacted violently by slaughtering these young students. When the Jews rushed in to help them, the Romans killed indiscriminately.
With a government like this, what choice did young men have? Hit and run missions, suicide attacks, terrorist-like invasions in palaces were the work of the zealots. Some days it seemed the only way to counteract such cruelty.
This action in addition to the census (the backdrop of the Christian Christmas story) had further fueled hatred for the Romans. For the Jews land ownership was a religious matter as much as it was a political matter. Families owned land because it had been given to them by God. This land gave them the ability to participate in the economy. God’s plan promoted financial stability for the family and the expectation that this stability would be shared with the less fortunate. Romans government did not honor Jewish culture. The census gave the Romans the data they needed to levy just enough taxes to push the Jew to the breaking point, but not break them. When the Jews turned to violence, 2000 men were crucified and 20,000 were sold into slavery. Zebedee, a young man then, resisted the urge. He survived and insisted his boys do the same. “Put your head down and fish.” He would say. “Romans and Jews always need fish.”
But almost thirty years into policies and taxation based on those census numbers had left Galilee and all of Israel in poverty. Political leaders, religious leaders and their minions lived in luxury. Everyone else barely got by. The glory days of the Davidic kingdom seemed even more golden when recalled from the shadow of Roman rule. This was not God’s plan.
What choice did young men have? Join the Zealots? Zealots kept small daggers in their cloaks in case violence should give them the opportunity to slit a Roman throat. Zebedee checked his sons’ cloaks when he could.
These were the stories that James, John, Simeon and Andrew cut their teeth on.
But for the first time, “boat talk” did not seem so draining. Another option now stood beside Zebedee’s fishing philosophy and zealot violence.
Before his arrest, John the Baptist’s had appeared along the Jordan River side for 6 months. His pronouncement was clear, “Repent and believe. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Kingdom talk implied a king. This message was just the sand paper needed to irritate the Romans. But the John’s kingdom message was not focused on politics. It focused on the heart. And no other symbol portrayed that change of heart message more than the rubric of baptism. Jews were familiar with baptism through the rite of purification.
The priests of the temple had been bought. Rome placed whoever would work with them and for them. Jewish festivals were honored, but only to keep riots at bay. Farce described worship. Ceremonial bathing for women and men, in preparation for many occasions, were always available through the rite of purification. However, what did the rite offer now? Was it up to the participant to make the most of it? When John offered his followers baptism, his crowds were more than happy to partake because he offered an authentic response to what God was doing and was about to do.
Even Zebedee, the old man who encouraged a quiet life of survival, had gone to hear John the Baptist. Cautiously optimistic, he agreed that John offered an alternative to violence.
Now John the Baptist was gone, sitting in jail, awaiting a trial that may never happen. Young Jewish men now gravitated again toward the Zealot movement and method.
Zebedee, again, worried for his boys. Even Simeon and Andrew had been considering what to do. Young men want to do something besides mend nets and watch fish prices and taxes inflate. God given disgust as the poor are taken advantage of must have an outlet. Somebody has to do something.
Read Mark 1:14-20
John the Baptist has a different take on the situation. This is why the crowds came to him. John does not lay his criticism solely on the hierarchy with an expectation that change will result. John included those who had no power. He challenged them to change their thinking, attitude and behavior. And he started by speaking of matters of the kingdom. To the powerless and downtrodden his message is clear: Live as if the kingdom is here and it begins in your life, heart and mind….right now.
John the Baptist believed that it was God’s job to bring about the vengeance and the Jew’s job to get ready for reckoning. Fishermen, carpenters and housewives could no longer play the victim. They were to be held accountable. The poor have a part in bringing the kingdom and it begins within…repent for the kingdom is near.
When Jesus shows up with a similar message, the hearts and minds of those who would be his closest followers were ripe. “Immediately, they followed him”.
“Boat talk” had prepared the boys for a kingdom on earth – power and might through military strategies, strength and power. John the Baptist challenges this idea by including those with no power. But Jesus builds on John’s message by revealing a kingdom of God’s true intent.
Infringed widows and orphans are valued
Children sit on his knee
Sick are healed
Death itself is challenged
For those called to be the original disciples these are unintended consequences. And they were so challenging, these glimpses of heaven, that the original expectations of national pride and militarism fade into the background.
Our original motives and expectations are challenged when we sign up to do God’s work. Things never work out like they are supposed to. But instead of imposing our kingdom (with all your power and influence), I’d like to invite you to look for God’s kingdom…and not only in what you are doing but also who you are becoming.