Scripture: Mark 1:29-37
The way we understand fame has changed. It used to be that fame was only for a small elite group, that it seemed that everyone knew. At one point in time long ago, the way to tell if someone had made it to fame was if they were invited to appear on Johnny Carson’s tonight show. However, the Internet and social media has opened up fame to the masses. It seems now, as a social media influencer, theoretically anyone can be famous. For instance, a young man who goes by the name NickMercs has achieved a level of fame from playing the video game Call of Duty Warzone on the social media platform Twitch. In 2020 he garnered over 44 million views of people watching him play video games and managed to earn $1.7 million doing it. Likewise, over on Instagram Jen Selter has gained 13 million followers from posting fitness based photos. She can command over $32,000 per sponsored post and has a net worth of over $5 million. Perhaps the Internet’s absolute biggest star though, is one you likely are only familiar with if you have young children in your life. The most successful personality on YouTube is Ryan Kaji. He is the nine year old star of the Ryan world channel where he often showcases new toys and products for children. In 2020 his videos had over 12 billion views and he earned $29 million. Given their apparent success, it is no wonder then that a 2019 survey found that 86% of people ages 13-38 want to be a social media influencer.
If you happen to be out of the 13-38 demographic, it is easy to shake your head and think “kids these days”, but the desire to be famous is much older than current generations. It is just our current time frame makes it appear easier than ever. Success and fame can be instantly measured in the number of likes and followers. As always, the higher those numbers get the more famous the person is considered to be and the more money they make. An obsession with bigger being better and more being the measurement of success is also not unique to younger generations. We in general find this in all avenues of our society, including Christianity. If you want a good example of this, try to find a book or bible study published by a Christian publishing house by a pastor of a church with 200 attendance or less. We might try to dress it up in more spiritual language, but even in the church we put a lot of emphasis on fame, gathering likes, and building our personal brand to be influencers. In this morning’s scripture, Jesus had his chance to become the next big messianic breakout star. He could have made it big, been the talk of Jerusalem, and put himself on the map. However, that is not what he did. As we make our way in a culture that is obsessed with bigger is better and 86% desire to be famous, we can learn from Jesus about how to focus on what is truly important.
This morning’s scripture picks off right where last weeks left off. Last week we read about how Jesus taught in the synagogue of Capernaum. He teaches with authority and drives out an impure spirit. This morning’s scripture picks up the story with Jesus going to Peter’s house afterwards where he casually heals Peter’s mother in law. He just helps her up and like that the fever leaves her and she is good to go. From there though, things escalated quickly and Jesus gets very busy. I imagine the story of what he did earlier that day in the synagogue with casting out the impure spirit spread quickly. The people present at the synagogue were likely quick to share that Jesus was a teacher who taught with real authority. In the same way, I wonder if the story of healing Peter’s mother in law spread. Capernaum was not a very big town, did Peter’s mother law or even Peter himself happen to step outside for a moment and mention the miraculous healing that has just happened to a neighbor? In either event, people seemed to get the message of Jesus fairly quickly and by the evening the whole town was crowded around a small house to see what incredible thing Jesus would do next.
We have to put this scripture in perspective. This is more or less the official start of Jesus’ ministry. Capernaum was the launching point for Jesus, and he found instant success and an audience eager to hear him. If this was a strategic launch of a new ministry, then it could not have gone any better for Jesus from a P.R. and marketing perspective. He was poised for the fast track to fame.
Jesus was busy in this scripture. He probably could have stayed busy. As the news spread, he could have established himself in Capernaum. Set up a process to schedule healing appointments, while establishing regular teaching times. He could have kept busy and transformed the synagogue in Capernaum into a Mega-synagogue. He could have become the kind of celebrity that people would have made pilgrimages to come see. Doing so would have made Jesus a huge success by both our ancient standards and even by our modern standards. From the big start in this morning’s scripture, Jesus could have double downed and committed himself to a lifestyle of fame success, but instead he did the opposite. He withdrew. Instead of leveraging his momentum to greater fame, he went to be alone. We get an impression from the disciples that this was not a popular move. We get the impression that the assumption of the people is that he would commit to being Jesus Christ Superstar because everyone was looking for him for that very purpose.
We see this time and time again in the ministry of Jesus every time he starts to gain a level of what we consider fame and success, he with drawls from the crowd. He goes off into the wilderness and speaks with God the Father in prayer. Jesus shows us what is truly important. In the kingdom of heaven success is not measured by how many followers we have, it is not measured by how successful our brand is, or even by how full the pews are. Success is measured by our love for God and our love for others. There seems to be something innate about us as people, that we desire fame and we naturally see more as better. Even though Jesus is fully God, Jesus is also fully human. This means that Jesus felt the same temptations we face, and every time Jesus felt the pull of chasing fame, he instead retreated to God. The focus of Jesus was not on worldly success it was on obedience to God. As followers of Christ living in a fame obsessed culture, we should have the same focus.
The primary metric we use to determine the success of a church is through numbers. We essentially use the same measurement that the world uses. By that standard Jesus was not much of a success. The book of Acts reveals that before Pentecost, Jesus only had about 150 followers. I mean, even I have more followers on twitter than that. However, it is ludicrous to think that Jesus did not change everything. Success in the kingdom of God is not measured by pure numbers. It is measured in obedience and faithfulness. Now, this does not mean that just because a church has been able to harness modern tools to attract hundreds or even thousands of people that they are not being faithful to God. It also does not give smaller churches a free pass. If a church is not making disciples and transforming the world through loving action, then it is not being obedient regardless of the size. However, obedience does not always equal bigger. I think that this is important to hold onto in our culture, because quite often we inadvertently put our focus in the wrong spot.
Because the primary metric we use to measure success in a church is number, every single church wants to be bigger. The goal is always to grow, and often the idea is unlimited growth. Churches very rarely have a target number, they just want to grow. It is a nebulous goal that is impossible to ever achieve. The bigger problem is that very rarely is it ever expressed why do churches want to grow? Is it just about butts in the pews and dollars in the plate? If we ever struggle to answer this question, then our focus is in the wrong place. If we struggle to answer the question why, then likely it is because the focus is on bigger is better. As a community of faith, any community of faith, our goal should not be growth for the sake of growth. Our goal should be obedience to God. It should be on loving God, loving others, and making disciples as Jesus commanded us. When it comes to anything we do as collectively as followers of Christ, our motivation should be obedience to God not to attract more people.
I fully believe that as followers of Christ we should work together to transform our community into a more loving place by meeting the needs we find around us. However, our motivation for doing this should not be because we think it will attract more people and tithe dollars or give us a good profile picture. Our motivation for wanting to bring about transformation is because Jesus lifted up that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and we obediently are seeking to follow our Lord. As a faith community, it can be easy to lose sight of what our motivations should be because there is such a loud cultural message telling us that bigger is better is the end all be all of success. Our motivation should be obedience to God. Now often that does lead to numerical growth. Making new disciples means new people and when we love others, that love is often attractive. However, our focus should not be on the growth, it should be on obedience to God.
Up to this point the focus has been on obedience to God being our motivation as a faith community, as a church. However, we should follow the example Jesus gives in this scripture on an individual level as well. Jesus regularly stepped away to seek God and focus on obediently following God. Each and every one of us should do the same and we should do it as Jesus did it.
There is never a wrong time to seek out God, but I think there are two times when it benefits us the most. The first, is when we need to refocus on what is truly important. This is where Jesus finds himself in this morning’s scripture. There are people ready to make him famous, but that is not truly important so he withdrawal to focus on God. In the same way, we find ourselves being pulled. Perhaps we have allowed a temptation to worm its way into too much of our life, perhaps we find our priorities sliding out of whack so that we care more about things that are unimportant than what is truly important. In a moment of reflection, if our lives feel out of balance, out of sorts, or out of focus then that is a good time to seek God. The second time when we should seek God is when we lose track of what it means to be obedient to God. If we do not have a good sense of where God is leading us and what the next step of obedience we should take is, then we should seek God. In this morning’s scripture, Jesus set alone to a place of quiet and isolation. He removed distractions and the focus was on deep intimacy with God. In the same way we need to spend time with God that is intentional, distraction free, and probably more than five minutes we squeeze in when we are doing nothing else.
When we as individuals seek God out intentionally with the focus of being obedient to God, then we as a community become a faithful and obedient church who is focused on making disciples and transforming the world. We have this focus with the proper motivations of being obedient to our God. So I urge you to consider taking time in your life to seek God. Take the right amount time to find your solitary place, free yourself and distractions, and seek God in prayer. I challenge you to do this, because doing so will put our focus in the right place. There is an old hymn that describes the results we will experience. It goes like this, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”