Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
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Priorities

Mark 1:14-20 and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

All the evidence we have suggests the Apostle Paul was never married. And sometimes, his views on marriage have earn him something of a bad rap. First Corinthians 7, in particular, might be to blame for that.

Given what we know about first century Judaism and marriage in that culture, it is strange that he wasn’t married. It’s possible that he was married and his wife died long before we meet him, but unlikely. You see, marriage was highly esteemed in that culture. It was expected that everyone would marry. There was only one legitimate reason for a person not to marry, and that was so they could devote themselves completely to studying God’s law.

So maybe that’s the answer. Maybe Paul chose celibacy for the sake of devoting himself to study. He was, after all, a Pharisee, a group of people who devoted enormous amounts of energy to studying the Law and all their traditions around it. We know he was a student of a great first century rabbi named Gamaliel. Maybe Paul considered these things to be too important to get caught up in marriage. We know from his writings that he was aware that marriage would mean other obligations that would take time away from what he thought so important, the Law.

In any case, here in chapter 7, Paul seems rather ambivalent about marriage. He advises those who were unmarried to stay unmarried, if they were able to do so. Paul’s advice may also be colored by the Jewish belief that there would be a time of great tribulation before the end of this current age and the dawning of the Day of the Lord. Best not to marry if that was the situation. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, at one point before Jerusalem was destroyed, advised people not to marry or have children. But that was only temporary advice. After the city fell, he told them that they should marry and have children and go on with the business of life. If Paul expected the return of Christ, and perhaps an accompanying time of tribulation, to be very close, then it makes perfect sense that he would advise people not to marry.

Since it’s been 2000 years, and Christ has not yet returned, should we then just ignore his advice? Throw it out?

I don’t think so. The basic facts remain unchanged. Christ’s return is imminent, right at hand. It will be until the day he comes. We never know how long we have before he returns, and we should live with that awareness and an attitude of watchfulness at all times. And the Kingdom of God must remain our highest priority if we are going to claim to be people who live under the Lordship of Christ. One of the Bible commentators I was reading for this morning put it this way, and I appreciated his

words: “We must relate to all matters so as not to over-value them and confuse them with what is most important, that is, what is ultimate.” Only God is ultimate, but the struggle of the Christian life is to resist the temptation to put other things in the category of ultimate.

Paul talks about things in these verses that are not ultimate. The first is marriage, obviously, given that the context of the whole chapter is about marriage.

Marriage is the most intimate and significant of human relationships. It is a relationship that will consume a lot of our time and attention. And that’s not wrong, not at all. Paul even went so far as to compare the relationship of marriage to the relationship of Christ to his Church. But even so, marriage cannot be our top priority in life if we are followers of Christ. Our loyalty to God must trump even our commitment to our spouse. Otherwise, Jesus isn’t really Lord in our life.

Next, Paul mentions happiness and sadness. I think that we can view these together. Happiness and sadness are both things that happen because of the circumstances of our lives. When circumstances are good, we’re happy; when they’re not, we’re sad.

What if we’re happy with the circumstances of our lives and God asks us to change them? Conversely, what if we’re not happy with the circumstances of our lives and God asks us to remain in them? Do we value faithfulness to God more than our own happiness? If Jesus is truly Lord, then we must.

The third thing Paul mentions is wealth, which of course, is a rather constant temptation, it seems. And it seems to be something that becomes the top priority for many people.

The summary statement is, “Use the things of this world, but don’t become attached to them, for they are temporary.” Everything in this world is temporary. And we are called to live for the things that are eternal.

I think Mark 1, which we read earlier, relates well to this passage. Jesus calls the disciples to leave everything that is familiar and comfortable and predictable. He calls them to leave their families, their work, and their homes. It’s not that they will never be back. Jesus’ ministry frequently brought him back to Capernaum, where Peter and these other men lived. But they would still be leaving the comfortable and familiar.

And it’s not that this is the first time they’ve ever met Jesus. He didn’t just show up and tell them, “Come, follow me, guys I’ve never met before.” We know from John’s Gospel that at least three of them had prior experience with Jesus, and there are

probably occasions of contact that are not recorded in the Gospels. But this is the moment of decision. Mark’s Gospel focuses on the authority of Jesus and a quick response to that authority. So he leaves those parts of the story out and focuses on Jesus’ calling and their immediate response. God’s Kingdom requires a decision.

And these guys were giving up a lot to follow Jesus. Fishing was a good career in first century Galilee. It was a solidly middle class career. That might not sound great to us, coming from a society where the majority of people are middle class. But in the first century world, more than 90% of people were poor. Middle class was living good in that day and age. And these guys were doing well. They had hired men working for them. They weren’t just doing a job; they were business owners. And they gave it up to go follow Jesus.

As I said, Mark focuses on Jesus’ authority. Who has the authority to call people to drop whatever they’re doing and go follow him? Only God has that authority. Jesus is acting with divine authority as he preaches the good news of the Kingdom.

There are several Old Testament parallels to this story of God calling people out of daily work and into divine service. We read the story last Sunday of God calling Samuel from his duties as a Levite into the work of prophecy. God also called Amos from tending sheep and fig trees into God’s work.

But I think the story that really resonates with this is when God sent the prophet Elijah to call Elisha to take up his work in 1 Kings 19. Elisha was plowing his fields with a team of oxen when Elijah placed the mantle of a prophet on his shoulders. Elisha, it seems, hesitated for a moment. But Elijah says, “Consider what I have done.” Elisha immediately breaks up his plow, sets it on fire, sacrifices his oxen, and feeds them to his hired hands. Then he goes after Elijah. It’s a “burning the ships” moment.

The phrase “burning the ships” comes from when Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519 to conquer the region for Spain. He ordered his men to burn the ships, to cut off their means of escape, so that they would be fully committed to the mission. Elisha burned the plow before Cortes burned the ships. The disciples didn’t burn the ships, but they left them behind. The meaning is the same: They were making a wholehearted commitment. They were prioritizing the work of the Kingdom of God. No matter what it meant, happiness or sadness, difficulty or ease, they were going to do the work God called them to do, because Jesus is Lord. If he is our Lord, then we should do likewise.

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