By Rev. J.C. Austin
One of my all-time favorite videos on YouTube is entitled, “The Exact Moment a Musician Realizes He’s Made It.” It is only 28 seconds long, and features Marcus Mumford, the lead singer and songwriter of the band Mumford and Sons, beginning one of their songs not long after their debut album had been released a little over ten years ago. They are playing at a festival in Reading, England with dozens of other bands, and are nowhere close to being one of the headliners.
You see him launch into the opening guitar riff of a song, and suddenly the roar of the crowd erupts like a jet engine flying right over your head as they recognize what he’s playing. And as that wave of sound crashes over Mumford, his face breaks into a huge smile, as he recognizes that this massive crowd of tens of thousands of people not only recognizes his song, but is ecstatic about hearing it.
Then, as he begins to sing the first verse, that entire crowd, probably one of, if not the biggest crowd he had ever played for in his life at that point, begins to sing along with him: every single word. And I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but his smile seems to almost double as he experiences his own words being carried back to him by a massive and adoring crowd. He’s so clearly overjoyed and moved that he can barely sing, giggling through the lyrics like a child on the best Christmas morning of their life. It’s the moment that singer-songwriters spend years working for and hoping to achieve, and mostly never get to experience.
That band seemed to have an almost overnight massive success with their first album around the time of that video, but like most overnight successes, it happened overnight after several hard years of building up to it. Success like that requires not simply enormous talent and a grueling work ethic but no small amount of luck in terms of being heard by the right people who can then help you find the right audience at the right time and then build upon it. And the payoff of all that hard work and good fortune is right there on his face in one magical 28-second moment.
I think that’s what Jesus’ disciples want for him here in this passage. Jesus really does have an almost overnight success; we’re not even out of the first chapter of Mark yet and already the crowds are clamoring around him like Jesus is the Beatles on their first U.S. tour, such a large and enthusiastic crowd that Mark says it’s like “the entire city was gathered around his door,” bringing him “all who were sick or possessed with demons.” Now, those two categories of need make sense because those are Jesus’ first two big hits.
Before our passage today, Mark describes Jesus’ ministry beginning with calling his first disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and then making his way over to the town of Capernaum. On the day of the Sabbath, he goes to the synagogue there and teaches with such authority that everyone is amazed. But it’s when a demon-possessed man confronts that they are truly astonished, because Jesus commands the demon to release the man and it actually obeys him. “At once,” Mark says, his fame began to spread throughout the whole region around the Sea of Galilee.
And when he says at once, he’s not kidding. Because this scene of the whole town crowding around his door is only later that same afternoon; and it only took that long because the crowds followed the Sabbath observance and didn’t come to him until after sunset. But Jesus doesn’t stand idle; he spends the intervening time healing the mother-in-law of Simon, his first disciple, who, despite the relatively mild sound of the English translation, was dangerously ill with a fever. And by the time he’s done with that, the crowds are cresting around the house like white-capped breakers in a rising sea.
The newly-minted disciples must have been watching all this with a mixture of exhilaration and wonder. In saying yes when Jesus asked them to follow him just a few verses earlier, they just happened to hitch themselves to the hottest sensation to come through Galilee in who knows how long. Just look at those crowds! Look at what Jesus is doing with them! Look how everyone is responding! This is amazing! Perhaps their faces looked not unlike those in the band listening to the crowd’s ecstatic response to that song.
It seems pretty clear that Jesus didn’t react that way, though. After this extraordinary first jam-packed day and evening of public ministry, he does not wait for a new crowd to gather the next morning, as it almost certainly would have, given the events of the previous day. Instead, he leaves that morning while it’s still dark and goes out to “a deserted place” to pray, meaning not just a place he could be alone but a desolate place like the wilderness or desert. He’s making a considerable effort, in other words, to get far away from everything or everyone that could distract him from prayer. But he wasn’t counting on the tenacity of his new disciples, whom Mark says “hunted for him.”
“Hunted” is a word that connotes a lot more than just looking for someone or something. I remember watching the movie Jurassic Park for the first time, which is basically a science fantasy about what might happen if human beings were able to clone dinosaurs and open a sort of game reserve to see them. The scariest scene in it to me wasn’t one of the iconic ones with the Tyrannosaurus Rex that you’ve probably seen at least clips of at some point. It was when the game warden of the dinosaur park and one of scientists are creeping carefully through some jungle later in the movie, on a mission to try and restore power to the park which is collapsing into chaos from the dinosaurs that have gotten loose.
The scientist peers through the vegetation and then looks at the game warden in relief. “I can see the power shed from here,” she says; “we can make it if we run.” The game warden’s eyes, though, are locked on a cluster of bushes ahead of them. “No,” he says slowly; “we can’t.” “Why not?” the scientist whispers with dread. “Because…we’re being hunted,” he replies, slowly lifting his shotgun to the ready against the terrible threat that isn’t even visible yet. And things don’t really get better from there for awhile…
When Mark says the disciples “hunted” for Jesus, he uses a word that means something very much along these lines. While I think it’s a little strong to compare the disciples to ravenous dinosaurs as they hunt Jesus, the word isn’t innocuous, either. It’s not just suggesting the intentionality or intensity of their search. It has connotations of hunger, of cunning, and perhaps of objectification above all: you don’t “hunt” people; you hunt prey. The disciples don’t simply want to find Jesus, they want to capture him so that people can come and marvel at him; experience something of his power.
Now, this doesn’t mean that their intent is malicious. Quite the opposite, in all likelihood; they saw the response that Jesus got the day before, and they want to help make sure that continues and grows, that he and they seize this opportunity in the moment. And apparently, they know it’s already beginning: “everyone is searching for you,” they tell him, with the implication being he needs to return and respond to that. The crowd today will probably be even bigger than the day before, as word continues to spread; maybe there will even be people starting to come from some of the surrounding villages as word gets out that something and someone truly extraordinary is there in Capernaum and they needed to make their way there to experience it.
Which I think is exactly why Jesus resists what they seem to be suggesting. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he says, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” He came out to proclaim the message, of course; literally, Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark are that message that he proclaims at the very beginning of his ministry, before he has even called his first disciples: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”
One of the mistakes that we often make about Jesus’ ministry is that we distinguish between proclamation and action; Jesus is either saying important things, or doing important things. But that is a mistake, because for Jesus, everything he does is proclamation; he just varies whether he is using words or actions to do so. There is a popular saying often attributed to St. Francis about this: “preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”
But there’s actually no record of him actually saying that. What he did actually say, though, is perhaps even better: “it is no use to walk anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”[i] By this he meant that words, as powerful as they are, are not — are never — enough in and of themselves. They must be incarnated in tangible actions in order to be believed, to be transformative, to be real; to demonstrate the power of the truth behind the words.
Jesus’ actions — his acts of healing and driving out demons and multiplying loaves and fishes and calming storms and even walking on water — these are not done to impress people watching, or even just to help the people he does them to or for, though that’s obviously part of the point. They are done to proclaim the nature of the kingdom of God that is coming near, at least as much as using words. They demonstrate the power of Christ and his kingdom who brings it: a power that heals rather than harms, that includes rather than excludes, that reconciles rather than dominates, that welcomes those who are least desired by the kingdoms and powers of this world: those who are poor, who are sick, who are rejected and marginalized because of who they are or what they’ve done or what’s been done to them.
And Jesus proclaims not just by words, not even words and actions, but also by walking: walking towards and with those who need to hear the promise of Christ’s kingdom the most. “Let us go on,” Jesus tells his disciples; “let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” It’s why the whole idea of us needing “find Jesus” misses so much of the point. Jesus is unwilling to be hunted, to be captured and kept in one place so that we can find our way to him. Jesus is always on the move because he is focused on finding us, on bringing the kingdom of God near to us and this world, whether anyone is looking for it or not, whether anyone wants it to come near to themselves or others.
So as his followers, our blessing and calling is not to bring others into the church, or to help them to find Jesus. Our blessing and calling is to always be on the move ourselves, to bring Jesus and his kingdom near to others wherever they are, in word and in action, through our walking and our being. That is what we are sent to do, because that is what Jesus came to do. And he will not stop moving until it is done, and everyone, finally, is found.
[i] See the thoughtful article on this by Jamie Arpin-Ricci entitled, “Preach the Gospel at All Times?” originally published on July 1, 2012 in The Huffington Post.