Our Gospel reading for this morning describes the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It includes the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark and the calling of Jesus’ first disciples.
Jesus was roughly thirty years old when he gets going. By the standards of ancient Israel, that was pretty old, especially old to be getting started. Why the long delay? And why start when he did?
We don’t know what Jesus was doing in the years before he began his ministry. Luke gives us a story about Jesus at age twelve (2:41f). But the Gospels are silent about the next eighteen years.
Like a lot of people, I have often wondered about those years. But it appears that Jesus didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy. When Jesus returns to Nazareth for the first time after beginning his public ministry, his townspeople are surprised at his wisdom and power, and they ask each other, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Mark adds that they “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). Based on that, my guess is, Jesus spent his twenties carrying on the family business of carpentry, and not much else.
Now that I have children that age, mid and late twenties, I wonder what Mary was thinking in those years.
Mary knew, of course, that Jesus had been born miraculously. Shepherds had showed up with a story about angels appearing to them. Wise men came from the east bearing rich gifts. Clearly her child was destined for greatness. Mary knew that better than anyone else.
But then decades go by. And, apparently, greatness wasn’t happening, at least not in any obvious way.
I think about my twenty-something children. They are doing fine, and I am proud of them. And… Carrie and I fret. Neither one is married or in a committed relationship, so no grandchildren on the horizon. Neither of them are living in a city where they anticipate settling permanently. Benjamin may have begun a genuine career, but he is on try number three. Nicholas has tried and rejected two career paths so far, and at the moment he is employed seasonally.
Carrie and I remind ourselves that they are still young, that there is still time for them to find their ways.
And we fret. And we try not to nag. And almost every time we talk to them, we ask them anxiously about how things are going and what they think about their futures. As you might guess, they don’t talk to us very often!
And I wonder, did Mary feel the same way during Jesus’ twenties? Did she worry that his life, or his ministry at any rate, wasn’t getting going? Maybe she didn’t worry. Maybe she always had faith.
But I suspect that Mary was relieved when Jesus began proclaiming the good news of God, preaching that the kingdom of God has come near, and calling disciples. At last, Jesus was really on his way!
I emphasize this point because it is so easy to take for granted the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as if it was obvious that he would do exactly what he did exactly when he did it. In fact, Jesus’ ministry was a long time coming.
So, what did it take to get Jesus going? Three things, as best we can tell from Mark.
First, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove when he was baptized. In this, Jesus sets an example for us. Our process of discerning God’s will always begins with the Holy Spirit. That was my sermon two weeks ago.
But most of the time, the Holy Spirit doesn’t give us clear and obvious instructions. The Spirit often speaks with a still small voice that takes time to hear and to interpret.
Jesus shows us that, too. After the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). There Jesus had time to discern what shape his ministry would take. And the time wasn’t easy. Satan suggested different paths to Jesus, proposing, for example, that Jesus rule the kingdoms of the world in Satan’s name. Of course, Jesus rejected Satan’s suggestions and chose to do God’s will instead.
That’s our task, too. Like Jesus, we aim to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as seems to have been true even for Jesus, we often need time to discern, to weigh alternatives, to reject the bad ideas which might at first seem good, and to figure out what, exactly, God is calling us to do.
But for our purposes this morning, the third thing may be the most relevant. In our passage, Mark tells us that the arrest of John the Baptizer was the immediate catalyst of Jesus’ ministry.
John’s arrest must have been traumatic for Jesus. John was Jesus’ cousin. John baptized Jesus. In some ways, John’s ministry anticipated Jesus’. Now John was out of the picture, languishing in Herod’s prison where he would soon be killed. In addition to everything else, John’s death at the hands of political authority foreshadowed Jesus’ crucifixion, as Jesus must have known.
But John’s arrest is what gets Jesus going in ministry. After nearly thirty years, after having been touched by the Holy Spirit, after going through a period of temptation and discernment, it is John’s arrest that, at last gets Jesus started on the work he was born to do.
What are we to make of that fact?
I think Jesus was giving John time to do what John had to do. As long as John was proclaiming the word of God, Jesus remained in the background. God’s work was being done.
But when John was arrested, when the people of his day could not otherwise hear God’s word, Jesus emerged as the one John had proclaimed, the one the people had been waiting for. Jesus saw a need. And Jesus moved to meet it.
On a MUCH smaller scale, that is our task, too. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need time to discern the true will of God and to reject false alternatives, no matter how tempting.
And then, when we see a need we are prepared to meet, we act. We step up to the plate. We do our best to meet the need, in God’s name and with God’s help.
All three stages matter. And, in my own life, I usually experience all three simultaneously.
The Holy Spirit is constantly nudging all of us. That nudging began in baptism and continues for the rest of our lives.
But sometimes, we need to hold back, as Jesus did for thirty years. With my children, I am being called to patient waiting, which is proving a sore test indeed. In a more positive sense, many areas of Church life are chugging along just fine. In those, too, my role is to stay out of the way, to let people do their thing.
And sometimes, in some areas, we need to act, to meet the need, to fill the void.
Next week is our annual meeting, when we come together to review where we are, where we are headed, and, most relevant to our passage this morning, what needs to happen to get there.
Two weeks later, we will dedicate our commitments of time and talents. Those two weeks are an excellent opportunity to discern what needs God is calling you to meet.
My prayer for us is that, in the weeks ahead, we can follow Jesus’ example by listening for the Spirit, discerning God’s call, and acting as God leads.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan