August 19, 2019
Psalm 62; Mark 1:14-20
Last Sunday after worship a few of us stood in the back of the sanctuary and talked briefly about how simple this all is and our tendency to make things way more difficult than they need to be. And there was a quote in the bulletin last week that kind of got at this point. This is something John Ortberg, a nationally recognized Lutheran pastor and author once said, “Some people would rather debate doctrine or beliefs or tradition or interpretation than actually do what Jesus said. It’s not rocket science. Just go do it. Practice loving a difficult person or try forgiving someone. Give away some money. Tell someone thank you. Encourage a friend. Bless an enemy. Say, ‘I’m sorry’. Worship God. You already know more than you need to know.” I like that quote. “It’s not rocket science…You already know more than you need to know.”
Psalm 62 does an admirable job of boiling things down to their very simple essence. The Psalmist writes, “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.” All our years spent pondering, all our books written on theology, the study of God, distilled down to God is strong and God is love. It’s so simple, it kind of makes you want to chuckle.
The summer following my college graduation I was working as a server at Red Lobster and living at home. Every day, I would take a walk and often those walks would turn into prayers. I remember struggling with a sense of purpose and feeling disconnected from God the first part of that summer. But then one of those prayer walks became a formative turning point. I was wrestling with God and talking to Him about the distance I was experiencing in our relationship when suddenly something clicked. I understood my faith in a new way and recognized how complicated I had been trying to make things. I’m given to introspection and tend to analyze things a great deal. That’s true now. It was also true then. I’d been analyzing my relationship with God very closely and the more I analyzed and picked things apart, the more distance I felt. I don’t remember what led to my insight, maybe I finally quit talking and started listening? But on that walk, I began to understand I was making complicated something that was beautifully simple. God loved me and desired me to have faith and to follow, end of story. I remember the relief and joy that flooded through me. And suddenly God was right there. I could feel God’s presence holding me. I felt cradled. As soon as my parents got home, I anxiously shared with them this experience I had had with God. That was a real turning point for me in my spiritual journey. That newfound closeness allowed me to then pursue a service assignment, that after a few twists and turns led me to work as a missionary for a year in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Unfortunately, at least for me, this has not been a one-time only experience. God has needed to teach me this over and over again. Part of what I’m talking about here is the separation of heart and head knowledge. Thinking about God is very different from experiencing God. When our relationship with God gets out of balance and shifts more to the head than we lose sight of what is intended to be simple.
When I read this Mark text, these are some memories and thoughts that came immediately to mind. Let’s face it. Our heads are bombarded by input of all kinds. We’re overloaded with information for our poor brains to try and sort through. Always so much more to read, so much more to learn about, we can’t possibly keep up. And somehow this preoccupation with information tends to creep over into our spiritual life and weight the scales in favor of the head.
Let me break in here with an aside. Balance is important. Today I want to talk about the simplicity of faith, the importance of keeping heart knowledge in balance with head knowledge. But let me also add that it is just as wrong to swing the balance to the other side and neglect head knowledge. Operating solely from the heart is just as threatening to an intimate relationship with God as the other extreme. One of the most important ways to give faith depth is to question, to think through different issues, to study and learn.
There are wise and spiritually mature people who do manage to keep the two in balance more or less, but most of us struggle. And today I want to address those of us who find ourselves tipping towards the head side of things.
The passage from Mark read earlier brings this home. Every time I read these verses, I’m amazed. Jesus goes to these fishermen, says “follow me”, and they pack up their fish nets and go…without hesitation. It’s all so……simple. If we back up to verse 15, we have the gist of our faith boiled down to a couple of sentences. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God has come. Then he asks us to repent and to believe. And in verse 17, his instructions are completed with the directive, ‘Come follow me’. And you know, that’s really all there is to it. Isn’t it amazing? Something as profound as our faith is as simple as humbling ourselves in repentance, believing and following. Heart’s response, head’s commitment. Believing and following.
We know through reading Luke’s account of Jesus calling the disciples that there was perhaps a little more to the story. According to Luke, Jesus first meets Peter in the home of his mother-in-law. She has a high fever and Jesus heals her. Jesus then calls the disciples in the following chapter, but before he asks them to follow him, he instructs them to lower their nets over the side of the boat, and when they gather the nets up, they are full to bursting. I’m sure this miracle was a help for them in making up their mind. At least I believe I’d find a miracle quite persuasive.
Mark omits this part of the story though. He takes it down to the bare bones and allows us to see the heart of the story, Jesus’ call and the disciples’ response. Mark conveys the simplicity.
So why do we make things so much more complicated? Well, here’s the catch (no pun intended), simple and easy are two different things. There’s nothing easy about dropping everything to follow Jesus. This involves surrender, letting go of control. It means having nothing in our life which stands between us and God. One of the commentary writers I consulted made an interesting observation. In verse 18 we read that Andrew and Simon left their nets and followed Jesus. Further down in verse 20, James and John are also sitting mending their nets, but the text reads that they immediately left their father and followed Jesus. Does this mean that work was the highest priority for Andrew and Simon, just as family was the highest priority for James and John? Whatever the case, both are abandoned as these fishermen respond to Jesus’ call.
The gospels and the book of Acts further illustrate this difference between simple and easy. All the disciples need to do is to believe in Jesus, trust in his word, and follow. Nothing complicated about this. It’s quite straightforward. And yet it proves to be remarkably difficult all the same. The disciples know what they are to do and yet they stumble their way through the gospels. They doubt. They think about all they’ve sacrificed and wonder aloud if maybe they are deserving of some great award. They get confused, impatient, angry, scared. Remember finding them locked away in the upper room last week? Over and over their heads hijack the simple calling of their hearts.
It’s not easy to be a follower of Christ. I mentioned earlier being a follower means surrendering control of our lives. I think all of us, deep down inside, know how to go about doing this. In fact, I would guess most of us have been pushed to the point of surrender a number of times in our lifetime and have experienced the relief and grace which followed. Yet despite these more positive experiences, despite our capability to lay down all, the fact remains, we don’t really want to most of the time. Simple, but not easy. We want to be in charge. We want to do things our own way. If we give up all to follow, then we might be led in directions we never had any intention of going.
This, for me, is the most striking thing about this Mark text. These disciples surrendered their livelihoods, their families, their very lives to follow a virtual stranger. Is this what Jesus expects of us? Absolutely. But it’s also important to note that later in this same chapter in Mark, Jesus and his followers have traveled to Capernaum and then come back to Galilee and are gathered at Peter’s home. And the four fishermen I believe, continue to practice their trade as time allows. We definitely know following Jesus’ death, they returned to fishing, at least for a time. Sometimes when Jesus calls, we will need to leave behind our physical settings as missionaries around the world have done. But most of us are simply asked to surrender all in our life insofar as other things tend to creep higher on our priority list pushing our relationship with God further down. Jesus calls each of us to follow him and most of us know exactly what this means. This is not a vague or confusing instruction. The real question is, are we willing?
So how do we hang onto the simplicity? When God seems far away and our thoughts and emotions are muddled, what can we do to remember what was intended to be so clear? I suppose there are many things we could do, but I’d like to suggest just one. Cultivate an appreciation for the simple in all areas of life, and most particularly in our natural world. Last Sunday we hosted Camp Sing at our church. This is the final event of Camp Mennoscah’s camping season and brings together lots of youth and young adults and a few children and adults too. But you have this whole gathering of new friends and old friends who are just so happy to be together, hugs abound and the air is electric with their energy and excitement. And as this big group, we all sang beloved camp songs, lifting our voices as one and praising God. It was pretty awesome! But what was the catalyst? What was it that made an evening like this possible? Lots of things and lots of people, but nothing more important than Camp itself, or more specifically, the way God moves so powerfully there in our Camp Mennoscah setting. Over and over, across the generations, we hear our children bubble over sharing with us the ways in which they have encountered God in the sounds of the river, in the stillness of the campfire, in the sand of the trails, in the handwriting of nature, far from the demands of the world and all its techy devices and gadgets. God is felt there in the simple things.
When we are in tune with the people in our life, when we take the time to listen and hear. When we stop to appreciate flowers or look at the sky. When we savor the smells of spring or of rain. When we take the time to notice the simple joys of life, we are almost always more in touch with the simplicity of faith as well. We are almost always walking closer with God. So I invite all of us to get in touch with simplicity in whatever way might be most meaningful and see if this spills over into your relationship with God.
I’d like to conclude our time now with a simple prayer exercise. If you’re comfortable doing so…..close your eyes and still your thoughts…Relax…Now imagine with me as I paint a picture with words. It’s a clear and beautiful summer morning. The sun is climbing to its post overhead. The hills are green and wildflowers add splashes of color. You are down by the lakeshore. Men are working on their nets, or fishing. Women are gathering water, washing clothes and watching their children run and play. If you pause for a moment you hear the water lapping onto the shore. When you look up, you see someone approaching. You’ve seen this man before and you’ve heard even more. He stops when he reaches you and you lift up your hand to block out the sun as you look into his face. You draw in your breath and look deeper into his eyes. You see kindness there, understanding. You feel your heart, your mind, your soul responding to this stranger in a way you’ve never felt before. You sense you are in the presence of someone special in ways you are unable to even convey. And then he begins to speak. He looks at you and he says, “Come….follow me.” You give a heart’s cry of response and then you pause…What is this man calling you from? What is this man calling you to? Will you follow?
Give yourself a few moments and then open your eyes. Some of you might feel you’ve received a message, other’s might not have received anything. Either way is fine. But these final words are what I’d like us all to reflect on in the week ahead. God’s wish for us is simple. What is God calling you from? What is God calling you to? Will you follow?