Learning more about the Okefenokee

Photo of book, "Suwannee River"

Cecile Hulse Matschat, Suwannee River: Strange Green Land, A Descriptive Joureny through the Enchanted Okefenokee (1938, 1966, Athens, GA: University Press, 1980), 296 pages including a bibliography, glossary, bird and flora list, an index. Black and white drawings illustrate each chapter.

I picked this book up at a used bookstore several years ago. It was the perfect book to pack along on my recent ramblings in and around the Okefenokee. Originally published in the late 1930s as a part of a “River in America” series, the University of Georgia Press republished it

I have read many books about rivers. I enjoy an author taking me down a steam, telling me about the river, its history, along with the flora and fauna and wildlife around its water. This book does that in a fresh and unique manner. The author, an “outlander” from New York. She, heads into the Okefenokee Swamp looking for the headwaters of the Suwanee River in the 1930s. Drawing on her interest and knowledge of plants, she becomes known as the “Plant Woman,” and gains the confidence of the people who live in the swamp. She then writes about the swamp and river through the eyes of the native residents of the swamp. Not only will the reader learn about the region’s natural history but also gains an appreciation of the stories of the swamp. These stories are told in the swamper’s own dialect. 

The largest part of this book involves the Plant Woman’s stay with those living in the swamp. Here, we also learn the folk heritage of the swamp. Instead of a scientific understanding of the region, we learn of how the beavers and the native people had developed a truce, but when a new chief rose, he decided to make war on the beavers. In retaliation, the beavers flooded the land and abandoned it forever (there are no beavers in the swamp. We learn of tall tales of the ingenuity of who lived in the swamp. One “swamper” wedded bees and lightening bugs, doubling his production of honey because the insects could now work 24 hours a day. 

Matschat asks to see a still. They blindfolded her and take her by boat to a remote landing. There, she sees a still in operation and learns about moonshine. She introduces us to the “snake woman” who has a pet kingsnake. Some of boys catch a large rattlesnake with 21 rattlers They set up a fight with the kingsnake. Everyone knew the kingsnake would win, but the betting was on how long the rattlesnake could last against its arch enemy. She’s present as they boil off cane squeezings into syrup and learns about “old Christmas.” She tells of people’s encounter with the wilds. This included wild hogs, bears, and sandhill cranes. We also learn how they cared for each other. We are provided with recipes for delights like sweet potato biscuits along with the words to songs sung to pass time.  Her time in the swamp ends with a wedding. 

After her time in the swamp, she takes boat down the Suwannee River. Here, she experiences a variety of orchids and meets those who live by the river. She spends some time on old cotton plantations, with African Americans left behind after the Civil War. There, they eke out a living from farming, hunting, and fishing. Some may find this section difficult as Matschat tells of older members speaking fondly of slave days. This doesn’t ring politically correct today, but she found the former slaves still living in their cabins as the old mansions of the masters were rotting away and considered haunted. 

One of the stories an old man tells the children is about the rabbit. Supposedly, the rabbit used to have a beautiful long tail. Noah’s son, Ham, in the ark, spent his time during the rain playing the banjo. When his strings broke, Noah suggested he take the tail of the rabbits to create new strings. He did, which is why rabbits now have bobbed tails.

When she gets to the mouth of the Suwannee, she takes a boat down to Cedar Key. There, she meets a more international community of Cuban and Portuguese fishermen and hears more tales of pirates and hurricanes. She leaves her journey behind, taking an airplane from Cedar Key back north. For all her journey, you’d thought she was in the 19th or 18th centuries. Only here at the end we’re reminded that her experiences were in the 1930s.  I found this a delightful book and highly recommend it if you can find a copy.  

If one wants to learn more about the actual history of the Okefenokee, I suggest reading Trembling Earth. I first reviewed it in 2015 and have republished my review below. It’s academic and approaches the swamp’s folklore from a more objective perspective. She of how it was a refugee for runaway slaves, native Americans, deserters during the Civil War, and outlaws. She also tells of human efforts to drain the swamp, which became a folly.

Opening pages of book
A look inside at the opening page of the book
Photo of book, Trembling Earth

Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 262 pages including notes, index, bibliography, and a few photos.  

The Okefenokee Swamp is huge bog located mostly in South Georgia, just above the Florida border. Today, much of it is a National Wildlife Refuge. Prior to this status, the swamp existed as a barrier. Nelson calls it an “edge space.” The name, “Okefenokee,” comes out of a Native American term meaning “trembling earth.” This name describes the floating peat islands inside the swamp. Since there is only a little “solid” high ground inside the swamp, few made their home there.  

Prior to European immigration, there were a few native communities existing along the edges of the swamp. The interior was only probed for hunting. This changed over time as the Spanish began to populate Florida and the British began to move into Georgia. The swamp and the native populations served as a buffer between British and later Americans in the north and the Spanish in the South. 

Native communities began to move into the swamp during the Seminole wars of the early 19th Century, using it geographical barrier to their advantage. Another group to find the interior of the swamp beneficial were runaway slaves. At first, Georgia didn’t allow slavery. However, Africans had some immunity to the diseases that affected Europeans. That, along with the need for new areas to expand rice plantations , a push was made to extend slavery. Being close to Spanish Florida, some slaves would hide out in the swamp before making their ways south. Interestingly, the last group to find refuge in the swamp were poor white men. At first, they avoided conscription in the Confederate army during the Civil War by hiding in the forbidding swamp. Later, “crackers” who lived under the radar in the swamp, living off the bounty of the land. 

After the Civil War, serious attempts were made to “conquer” the swamp. The first was a failed attempt to drain the swamp through the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic Ocean. It was with hopes that the rich ground could be utilized for farming. This attempt failed to understand the geography for most of the swamp drains through the Suwanee River into the Gulf of Mexico. 

After the bankruptcy of the dredging company, the swamp fell into the hands of northern timber companies who built “mud lines” (temporary railway spurs) which allowed them to harvest much of the cypress and pine within the swamp.  During this time, another group began to make the swamp their home. These “crackers” or “swampers,” both worked for and often resisted the various dredging and timber companies who attempted to change their environment. As the timber was being harvested, the interest in birdlife in the swamp increased as various surveys were made of the birds and waterfowl within the swamp were taken. This lead to the creation of a government protected wildlife refugee in the 1930s.  

Using a historicity which she labels “ecolocalism,” Nelson tells the history of the swamp through the stories of competing groups who relate to the landscape in different ways. These groups include Native Americans, slaves, colonists, developers, swampers, scientists, naturalists and tourists. This book is a distillation of the author’s dissertation. Although edited into its present form, it still maintains an academic distance from her subject. Only in an opening essay does she acknowledge having been into the swamp. This lack of a personal connect makes the book seem a little aloft. She does draw upon many of the group’s stories which makes the book very readable.  

twilight in the Okefenokee
Winter twilight in the swamp (photo taken in January 2017)

Jesus Trades Places with Us

Title slide showing photo of cross on Iona, Scotland

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches
February 11, 2024
Mark 1:40-45 (Leviticus 13:45-46)

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, February 9, 2024

At the beginning of worship: 

Some of you may have read Charles Dicken’s classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. It’s been decades since I read it, and I don’t remember much of the book. Of course, I remember that memorable opening line, but even people who haven’t read it knows “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I’m pretty sure that’s been a Jeopardy question. 

The only other part I remember is the ending. Charles Darnay has been condemned to death on the guillotine during the “Reign of Terror” in the French Revolution. While waiting for the day, Sidney Carton, a man who both looked like Darnay and who loved the same woman, visits. He comes with another friend and a plan. They drug Darnay and in his stupor, Carton exchanges clothes with him. Carton assumes the identity of the condemned, as the other man leads the condemned to freedom. Waiting for his turn at the knife, Carton comforts a young seamstress who faces the same fate, while contemplating the life he loved and would lose with the drop of the blade. 


What a sacrifice, to give your life for the life of your rival. As the scriptures say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[1] But what about when it’s not your friend? Carton gives his life for his rival with a woman he loved. And would you give your life for someone you don’t know?

Today, we’re looking at the closing story in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. Jesus trades places with a leper. In a way, with the placement of this story early in the book, Mark foreshadows Jesus’ goal. As Jesus says in the tenth chapter: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”[2] This is what atonement is all about. Jesus takes our place. He pays the price for our ransom. 

Before reading the Scripture: 

It’s taken us five Sundays to work through the first chapter of Mark’s gospel… From the prologue which announced Jesus’ purpose of proclaiming the kingdom of God coming near, Mark stacks on top of each other stories of Jesus’ power. He is no ordinary human. His power extends over evil and over illness. 

Last week, we heard about Jesus leaving Capernaum,. So far, he focused his ministry there. Now he heads out to preach in the synagogues of the surrounding towns. We’re given one example of this ministry as he encounters a man with leprosy or some kind of skin disease. This was a feared illness. The Old Testament prescribed strict guidelines for how to handle the illness. For the sake of the community’s health, the one with leprosy must live outside the city and keep away from people. 

In the middle of the book of Leviticus, there’s a long section dealing with leprosy. I’ll spare you all the details, but let me read these two verses which provides an idea of what those living with the disease endured:

The person who has the defiling disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.[3]

It’s often pointed out that the leprosy of scripture is different from the horrible diseases we know today by that name. It included a host of skin diseases which create open sores on the body of the victim.[4]  

Because Greek had another name for the disease we know as leprosy, the updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version identifies the illness only as a skin disease.[5] Such people were seen as contagious, and therefore for the good of the community, they were kept away from people. As one commentator noted, it wasn’t just bad enough to suffer with the disease, the person also received a sentence, a banishment from society.[6]

Now let’s look at this encounter between Jesus and a man with leprosy or a skin disease.

Read Mark 1:40-45

This passage marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. He has headed into the other town of Galilee to preach in the synagogues, but after encountering and healing this man with a skin disease, his popularity soars so high he can no longer go into the towns. His ministry is now limited to the countryside. Still, the crowds flock to see Jesus. 

In a way, if you were a strict Old Testament law constitutionalist, our passage shows two violations. The first comes from the man who approaches Jesus. He was to stay isolated. With unkempt hair and ratty clothes, he was forced to announce his presence as “unclean,” to anyone who may approach him. But the man has faith and feels this is his one chance to be clean. So, he ignores the law and finds deliverance from his sentence which forced him to live as the walking dead. 

The other violator to this strict law was Jesus. If you were without the disease, you were to stay away from those infected. For most people, this was a no-brainer. Who would want the disease. But Jesus reaches out his hand to the man. The illness doesn’t scare Jesus away. 

It’s more important for us to care for others than to be a strict legalist. I’ve been studying to take the test to renew my Amateur Radio license, which expired around the time I started college. One of the FCC rules that surprised me has to do with times of emergency. If life is threatened, you can break rules. If you hear a ships distress call, you can go to a frequency you are not licensed to use, to attempt to respond and get them help. 

There are also good Samaritan laws in many states. We can’t practice as a physician if we don’t have a degree or license. However, if there is no physician on the scene, we can attempt to provide aid when its either that or letting the person die. The law’s purpose is to protect the community and life. Jesus, knowing his powers, willingly intervenes even if it means going against the law. We’ll see more examples of this in Mark’s gospel.[7] Grace and love always triumphs the law. 

I recall the first person I knew with AIDS, back in the 1980s. If you remember, when the disease first appeared, people were scared to be around those diagnosed with it. This woman’s husband, a hemophilic, had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. He died and she came down with AIDS. Her sister took her into her home so she would have a place to live out her remaining months. But there were people afraid of being around her. Thankfully, those in her sister’s church, which I was pastoring at the time, stepped in and made her feel welcomed.

I recall stories of those suffering from the illness who found hope and solace in those willing to give them a hug or to hold their hand as they were dying. As followers of Jesus, we are to show compassion and grace, even when it requires us to take risks. 

The man in our story today approaches Jesus reverently, kneeling before him. He has the beginning of faith. “If you are willing,” he says, “you can make me clean.” He knows of Jesus’ power. Think of how he felt when Jesus, without saying a word, reaches out his hand to touch the man. Jesus touched the untouchable. For Jesus, the law of love reign supreme, topping even the law of Moses. It’s only after Jesus touches the man, does he speak. Jesus’ word has power. The man experiences healing. 

Only then does Jesus follow protocol. He sends the man to the priests to be examined and proclaimed clean. Such requirements were laid out in chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus. And he tells the man to keep it a secret about his healing. We’re not told whether the man makes it to a priest, but we learn that he could not keep quiet about his healing. I

It was as if the man received a pardon when facing a death sentence. He can’t help but to brag on Jesus, on what he had done for him. He becomes an evangelist, sharing the good news that he experienced. 

Our passage ends with a statement that Jesus can no longer go into towns because his fame has grown so much that he’s overwhelmed by people. So instead of going to the people, now the people come to Jesus. 

And while the man who had the skin disease is free to go into town, Jesus is stuck on the outskirts. As I mentioned earlier, this is an example of atonement, of Jesus trading places with us. The leper is freed, Jesus is restrained. Mark foreshadows what happens on the cross. Jesus willingly takes our place, accepts our punishment, so that we, like the man in today’s story, experience freedom. 

While I don’t suggest we ignore Jesus’ commands, I understand the man’s inability to keep quiet after his healing. After all, he’s now freed to live and has much for which to be thankful. And, for his blessings, he gives the credit to where it’s due. He doesn’t claim the grace he experienced to his own abilities or hard work. He gives credit to Jesus. May we be as thankful. Amen. 


[1] John 15:13. 

[2] Mark 10:45. 

[3] Leviticus 13:45-46.

[4] See William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 84-85; Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 78-79; Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 33-34. 

[5] The original NRSV, which I will be reading, uses “ a leper.” The updated edition of the NRSV says, “A man with a skin disease.” 

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 68.

[7] In the 2nd chapter, Mark writes about Jesus breaking the Sabbath laws. See Mark 2:23-28. 

A stop at the Congaree

Title slide "A Stop at the Congaree" with photo of a kayak in the swamp
Cedar Creek

As I hadn’t planned on returning home until Monday, I decided to add another stop on my return. I have wanted to visit Congaree National Park in central South Carolina. The park is one of the nation’s newest, established in 2003. It’s also one of the least visited parks in the nation. The park consists of river bottom land along the Congaree River, which tends to flood.  A few weeks before I arrived, 80% of the park was underwater. While I was there, the water within the park was once again rising. 

Cedar Creek flows through the middle of the park, paralleling the Congaree River, which forms the park’s southern boundary. To the north, the land rises above the lowland, creating an area ideal for longleaf pine forest. Sadly, there are few longleaf, but I’ll get to that later.  

Leaving Folkston, Georgia, I determined to stay off the freeways. I followed US 301, through small towns in South Georgia, Nahauta and Jessup. This was familiar territory from my time living in South Georgia. The GPS on my phone drove me nuts as it kept trying to lure me back on I-95. The GPS even said it was the safe route as the National Weather Station reported flooding on other routes. I found myself rerouted to the interstate.  This I discovered this when I arrived in Hinesville. Turning the GPS off, I take a road that cuts through Fort Stewart, and picked up 301 again.  I drive through Claxton (the world’s fruitcake capital) and Statesboro and Sylvania, where I stopp for a late lunch in a Chinese restaurant.  While the rivers are high, they are nowhere near cresting over the bridges.

Crossing the Savannah River on an old bridge, I enter South Carolina. As I drive on, I listen to Edward Chancellor’s Devil Take the Hindmost, which is a history of economic speculation.  Traveling through towns like Allendale and Bamberg, who appear to have long passed their better days gives me time to ponder what happens when an economic bubble bursts.  I passed through Orangeburg, probably the largest city that I passed (Statesville might be larger, but I only skirted around it). 

When I crossed Intestate 26, running from Charleston to Columbia, I stop and grabb a burger for later, knowing that I didn’t feel much like cooking. 

Giant Loblolly Pine

I arrive at the Congaree National Park’s Longleaf Campsite at dusk. It’s a walk-in campsite, so I lung my waterproof bag containing my hammock, tarp, and sleeping bag a few hundred feet to my assigned site. I quickly set up my hammock, for there was heavy lightning to the north. But the storm took another path and by the time I was set to withstand the storm, the lightning has disappeared. 

I then set out to explore. The waning moon, only a few days after full, rose and offered plenty of defused light. I hiked the longleaf trail to the Visitor’s Center. Of course, everything was closed, but in the darkness, I came to understand that the name of my campsite and the trail to the Center was aspirational. I was camping and hiking under loblolly pines, the type of pines loved by paper companies. When the old growth longleaf were cut, they were replanted with loblollies, as they grow faster. The loblollies have shallower roots than the longleaf, who grow deep roots before they grow tall.  The only longleaf I’d seen in the dark were a few youthful plants near the outhouses. 

Returning to my campsite, it begins to drizzle. I retreat into my hammock and read a few chapters of Cecile Hulse Matschat’s The Suwanee: Strange Green Land, before falling asleep to the sound of rain. It rained off and on throughout the night. 

Coffee pot on my stove
(inside the fire pit because of the wind)

While I had enough water for the evening, I have to go find water for breakfast. I hike back to the Visitor’s Center and fill a couple of liter bottles. Coming back, I perk a pot of coffee and make some oatmeal. The wind slips through the pines as I enjoy breakfast. In honor of the Christian Sabbath, read several Psalms and commentaries in Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms. The sun burns the fog and clouds away. Along with the wind, my tarp dries by the time I finish breakfast. I pack up a head back to the Visitors Center where most of the trails originate. 

Boardwalk with evidence of recent flooding

The park has an amazing 2 ½ mile long boardwalk that takes you deep into the cypress lowlands. At places, the water is just below the walking path. I can see where, a few weeks ago, the water crested over the boardwalk.  When I get to the trail to the river, I take it, but only make it about a half mile before the path is blocked by running water. I return to the boardwalk.

Along the way, I pass one of the largest loblolly pines I’ve seen. It’s huge. This is the natural location for such trees, as they tolerate water around their base better than the longleaf pines. These trees are obviously old growth and this one next to the boardwalk is thought to be the largest pine in South Carolina. 

Water moving into bottomland. The rotten trees create bird habitat

These bottomland swamps, populated with cypress, loblollies, holly, and tupelo (gum) trees remind me of the swamps I started exploring as a teenager in Eastern North Carolina. While there is some similarity to the Okefenokee, it’s also different, especially with the amount of tupelo. After hiking about 4 miles, I make it back to my car and drive to the boat landing on Cedar Creek. I must get one more paddle in before driving home.  

I eat lunch at the boat launch on the edge of the National Park boundary, a few miles from the Visitor’s Center. From the number of vehicles, it seems there are many others on the water, and a few are hiking, even though much of the trails are underwater. As I’m putting in, I speak with a guide who is bringing back a couple of patrons from a paddle. The water is high. He informs me that you can only make it about a mile upstream and three miles downstream. I head out, paddling upstream against the hard current for about 30 minutes, till I arrive at a place I can go no further without pulling my boat over a log. Then, I turn around and make it back to the takeout in only 10 minutes. 

I continue going downstream for a few miles, passing many boaters struggling to fight the current as they paddle back to the takeout. This water is naturally blackish, but with the silt from the rains, it’s milk chocolate brown. As I turn around and paddle upstream, I pass many of those in small kayaks still fighting to get back to their takeout. My boat, 18 feet long, is easier to paddle against the current. I also read the water better, and am able to stay out of the fastest current. 

One of the local paddlers from Columbia is impressed with my sea kayak and asks me all kinds of questions as he helps me load it on the car. He’d come down from the state capitol for a day trip and had never paddled this area. As we talk, we realize that we have probably raced against each other. He used to crew on a friend’s boat out of the Savannah Yacht Club and raced in many of the regattas I have also raced in. 

A little after 3, I’m loaded up and heading north, driving the backroads of South Carolina through the Sandhill region of the state. In an old tree in a pond next to the road, I spot a bald eagle, I slow down, but there is no place to pull over. The car behind me honks his horn and gives me the “Hawaiian good luck sign” as he passes. The bird takes off. I have no idea what kind of hurry he was in, but he missed seeing a beautiful bird. As I enter North Carolina, the light fades. I cut over and take Interstate 77 toward home. Stopping only for dinner and gas, I arrive home a little after nine. 

Selfie taken on Cedar Creek

Saved for a purpose

Title slide showing a picture of the Okefenokee

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
February 4, 2024
Mark 1:29-39

Often people speak of seeking Jesus as if he can be found. Instead of us finding Jesus, he finds us. Some think if others can find Jesus, he’ll solve their problems or take up their cause. But that’s putting the cart in front of the horse. While it is worthy to seek Jesus, scripture tells us to seek first the Kingdom of God.[1]There might be a difference. 

We’re not to go out to find Jesus just for him to take care of our issues. God’s kingdom is about something far more important than individual needs. Furthermore, it’s not enough just to seek Jesus. When we encounter Jesus, we must be ready and willing to follow him.[2] We’ll see this in our text this morning from Mark’s gospel. The disciples seek Jesus so that he can tend to the crowds, but Jesus has a different plan. 

In my email “musings” that I sent out yesterday, I linked to an article by James Bratt, a professor emeritus from Calvin College, who describes our purpose in God’s plan in this manner: 

God is not just saving individuals from hellfire but is in the business of redeeming the whole world, the entire cosmos, from the blight of the fall. The “saved” at the end of time will populate the new earth, but in the meantime, they are to witness to that coming kingdom in every domain of human life, here and now. We are means, not the end; agents, not the goal.[3]

Before reading the scripture:

As I have tried to express in my first sermons from Mark, the gospel is fast paced. One of Mark’s favorite Greek words is euthys. Mark uses this word to express immediacy. It’s translated as “soon,” “just then,” “immediately,” “directly” or if you prefer the older English King James Version, “forthwith.” We find this word eleven times in the first chapter of Mark. It’s used a total of forty times in the entire gospel.[4] We see this in our reading this morning. 

Immediately after casting out the demon or unclean spirit, Jesus leaves the synagogue and heads to the home of Peter (referred to here as Simon). Peter and his brother Andrew’s home appears to have been right behind the synagogue. Archeologists are pretty sure where this home was located. Graffiti scratched in the wall in the late first or early second century, identify the site. It became an early church, venerated as having belonged to Peter.[5] There Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. 

Our reading today might be called “A Night in the Life of Jesus.” For after Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, the sun sets. The sabbath restrictions on travel is over. Now, people can freely move about, and they rush to be healed by Jesus. It’s chaotic. Before the sun rises and morning comes, after getting a little sleep, Jesus slips away for quiet time with his father. And the disciples head out in the dark in search of him. 

Read Mark 1:29-39

We can’t control Jesus. He doesn’t serve as our personal physician or miracle maker. Instead, Jesus came to inaugurate God’s kingdom and to show his followers what the kingdom should look like. As we see in this passage, Jesus resists becoming a freak show or circus act. As the crowd builds, instead of basking in their praise, he slips away. Even Jesus needs quiet time. 

Furthermore, Jesus’ message can’t be confined to a particular locale. While a personal relationship with Jesus is necessary, we must never forget that Jesus’ role in God’s plan of salvation is not just for us, as individuals. Jesus came and gave his life for the life of the world.[6]

In this text we also see Jesus’ human needs. His life consists of work, worship, and rest. He heals, then he gets away to rest and to reconnect with the Father. All aspects of his life are important. The same goes for us. We’re to work hard, but we’re not to forget to connect with God through prayer and worship. And it’s important for us to take time for ourselves. 

Now let’s look at the text. Mark uses that favorite word I told you about which emphasizes immediacy. As soon as they leave the synagogue, they enter the Peter’s house. Mark likes to create fast action, but here it might not just be rhetorical. As I mentioned, Peter’s home was next to the synagogue, so it really was immediate. Jesus walks out of one door and into the next door, as Peter and Andrew’s home shared a wall with the synagogue.[7]

As they enter the home, they learn of Peter’s mother-in-law’s illness. She has a fever, which in those days before aspirin and iburpofen, was serious. Unlike other faith healers of the day, or even today, we’re not told of any prayer or incantation. He doesn’t make an ointment. Instead, he demonstrates his power by just taking her hand and raising her up. Instantly healed and starts serving them. 

In a way, it doesn’t seem right. She is healed and immediately goes back to work. Again, as I pointed out in the quote from Professor Bratt, Jesus doesn’t just save us for our own well-being. There is a purpose in our lives. 

Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, some have used this passage to demonstrate how women are supposed to serve men. But that’s a misinterpretation. The word used for serving is the same word used to describe the angels tending to Jesus in the wilderness. It’s also the root of the word Jesus applies to himself. He’s the one who came to serve.[8] As we follow Jesus, we are to serve one another. 

Let me reiterate. This text in no way implies that just women are to serve. Instead, it means that those who follow Jesus (men and women, rich and poor, young, and old) are to be in service to others.[9] God’s kingdom turns the ways of the world upside down. We’re not to look to get all we can for ourselves. All are to be in service to others. A question to ask ourselves, “how are we at serving?”

Of course, the word of this instant healing spreads fast. After sunset, when the Sabbath is over and people can mill around, everyone gathers at Peter and Andrew’s door. 

Me with a girl from Honduras in front of a church, 2005

I remember the first medical mission trip I attended in Jesus’ de Ortoro, Honduras.[10] We announced in the community and surrounding villages there would be American doctors and medical personnel available on a particular day. The clinics opened at 8 AM, and by 7 AM, there was a line of folks stretching down the dusty street. Vendors popped up to sell food as many had to wait for hours. Desperate people grasp at any hope, and so all who have needs come out just as it was in Jesus’ day. Jesus heals many. He casts out many demons. 

After Jesus’ visit to the Capernaum synagogue, the demons know who he is and fears him.[11] Jesus establishes his kingdom by defeating the evil powers in the world. But he doesn’t let them identify himself. He wants his disciples and followers to come to their own understanding to his identity and purpose. 

Now all this happened in the evening. Mark doesn’t tell us what time the clinic closed, but at some point, everyone heads home. Jesus, exhausted, gets a bit of sleep. Then he’s up early, setting off to find a place where he could be alone in prayer. 

Remember, while it’s morning, it’s still dark. And in the darkness, Simon and the other disciples go in search for Jesus. They find him and, in some ways, boldly chastise him. Essentially, they imply, “why are you hiding, everyone is looking for you.” But Jesus can’t be controlled. Instead of returning to Capernaum, he has them pack up and head to other towns in Galilee, proclaiming this same message. Jesus’ fame grows. 

We learn from this passage, as did the disciples, that we should follow Jesus and not try to control him. While we might seek Jesus, we’re not to seek him for our own selfish purposes. If Jesus saves us, he expects us to be of service to others, as Simon’s mother-in-law demonstrates. 

The disciples want Jesus to go tend to their neighbors and kinfolk. But Jesus has bigger plans. And he calls us to follow him, not just to save our souls, but to for us to participate in God’s grand plan to restore the world, not by might, but by love, not by power, but with grace. Amen. 


[1] Matthew 6:33. 

[2] Mark later tells the story of one who sought Jesus but wasn’t willing to follow him. See Mark 10:17-22. 

[3] https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2024/02/02/dutch-reformed-vs-evangelical-i-salvation/#comment-90066

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 58-59. The use of the word in other translations came from my own research as I looked at the KJV, NIV, Living Bible, RSV, NRSV, and Message.

[5] Edwards, 59. 

[6] We shouldn’t forget that John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world…” not “God so loved me.” God loves us and everyone.

[7] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox 1996), 29. 

[8] See Mark 10:45. 

[9] Edwards, 60. 

[10] I wrote about one of my trips to Honduras in an article for the Presbyterian Outlook in 2007 and reprinted it last year in my blog. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/02/02/a-return-visit-to-honduras/

[11] Mark 1:21-28. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/21/jesus-in-the-synagogue/

Chesser Prairie in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo taken last week.

My recent Okefenokee Adventure

Title Slide, kayak following a canoe

I’ve been away (taking my last week of vacation from 2023), and spending time paddling in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a place I’ve been many times. In May 2019, I did a five day trip into the Okefenokee which you can read about by clicking here.  From my count, I have spent 15 nights in the swamp and paddled in it 20 days. After my recent trip, I have paddled all the canoe trails in the wilderness area of the swamp. 


A selfie of me on the water

Drops of water hit just above my head as I wake from a dream of helping a college student host a seminar for families who have hosted exchange students. I have no idea of the genesis of that dream, but before I attempt to process it, I need to relieve my bladder. It’s 5:15 AM. I crawl out from my hammock, realizing the rain of the last couple of hours have stopped. Water still drops from the branches of trees. The full moon has moved to the west and, with the morning fog, brings an eerie light into the swamp. The moon also reflects off the dark water of the canal. The insects, so active earlier in the evening, have quieted. In the distance, I heard a large splash followed by a squeal. Did a gator find dinner? 

Bill and I are camping at Canal Run, in the heart of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The water in the swamp is as high as I’ve seen and flows hard toward the Suwanee. Yesterday’s paddle of a little more than 7 miles was tough, especially for Bill who paddled one of his Blue Hole Canoes. 

Dock at Billy’s Island

We’d left Stephen Foster State Park on the Southwest corner of the swamp yesterday morning around 10 AM, just as the fog rose. The current as we paddled the length of Billy’s Lake wasn’t too bad and it took just an hour to make it to Billy’s Island. We stopped to explore then took an early lunch. The island has long been inhabited by humans. The Lee family lived there for 50 years in a self-sufficient homestead. They raised crops, chickens, hogs, and cows, but also lived off the wild bounty of the swamp. Sadly, having never obtained title for their land, the logging company forced them out in the 1920s. Next came a logging camp which existed for a few years while they logged the swamp of its cypress and pine. Today, the island remains uninhabited, with only a few pieces of rusting logging equipment and a cemetery remaining. 

heading into the narrows

A short way up from Billy’s Island, the channel narrowed as we entered the wilderness area. From here on, motors are not allowed. We entered a quiet world. We pushed our way eastward.  At times, I had to make multiple turns in my 18-foot kayak to navigate the winding narrow channel. The real difficulty was in the first couple of miles, then the old canal straightened out, allowing us to make better time. Land speculators dug the canal in the late 19th Century with the hopes of draining the swamp and opening it up to farming. The plan was to drain the water through the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic, which was an engineering mistake as most of the swamp drains through the Suwanee River. 

As the canal straightened and widen, I paddled ahead of Bill. Once I found the campsite, I backtracked and gave him the good news. Arriving at the campsite was a milestone for me, for it meant I have paddled all the canoe trails within the swamp. It took us four hours to make the five-mile upstream paddle from Billy’s Island. Along the way, we saw many alligators, a few turtles, a couple of cardinals, plenty of ducks, and one great blue heron. 

Bill (dress coordinated with his Blue Hole)

We set up camp. Afterwards, Bill prepared the hot dogs he brought for dinner. I took his canoe and paddled upstream a bit more, collecting pieces of wood for a fire. Most of the campsites in the swamp are on platforms and fires prohibited. However, Canal Run is along the canal bank, so there is land and a campfire ring.  We enjoyed a campfire and talked of folks we knew when we both lived in Hickory, NC back in the mid-80s.  As we talked, the moon rose, and we could see it’s light through the trees and reflected across the waters. 

We both turned in before nine, but I laid awake in my hammock for a while reading a chapter in Cecile Hulse Matschat’s Suwannee River. She had traveled in the swamp and then down the Suwannee in the early 1930s, to study orchids and came out with a handful of tales. She told about Snake Woman and her pet king snake. Some of the boys of the island caught an old rattlesnake with 21 rattlers. They let the two snakes fight it out. Everyone knew the king snake would kill the rattlesnake, but the wagers were on how long the old rattler could survive. After a chapter, I fell asleep to the night sounds of the swamp. I only woke up one before 5:15. Around 2:15, to the sound of raindrops. Checking to make sure things stayed dry, I fell back asleep to the sound of raindrops. 

Canal Run campsite (the fire pit was to the left)

At 7 AM, I crawl out of my hammock and start heating water for oatmeal while perking coffee. We eat and takeour time packing up, discussing what to do next. Our plan had planned to continue down the Suwannee River, but it is so high, we know we would have a hard time finding camping spots. We discuss going down to Florida, where there are campsites up on bluffs, but when I suggest how much different the other side of the Okefenokee was than the west side, Bill decides he would like to see it. 

 It was just after 9 when we pushed off to make our way back to Stephen Foster State Park.  The sky clears. With a warm sun, we see more alligators than the day before. We again stop at Billy’s Island for lunch. As I paddle into the boat ramp at the park, I noticed a gator with a square box on her head. Then I saw the tag on her tail with the number 209. As we pulled ashore, I ask a ranger alligator 209. “That’s Sophia,” he said. “She’s part of a study. Go to the University of Georgia’s website to learn more.”

Sophia

Having packed up, we drive across the bottom of the swamp to St. Mary’s, where we picked up some ice and beer before heading north. We stop at Okefenokee Pastimes, a public campground just outside the Suwanee Canal Recreation Area.  Interestingly, as I’ll later learn, the grandmother of the woman who runs the campground, was born on Billy’s Island. 

Okefenokee Pastimes
Okefenokee Pastimes

After setting up camp, we plan to head into Folkston for dinner, but discover the campground has their own restaurant (serving dinner and on weekends, breakfast). We eat there both evenings and had breakfast together before we left on Saturday.  I highly recommend their cheeseburger and their Philly cheese steak sandwiches. The place has a party atmosphere that includes some locals and a lot of folks from Jacksonville. We hear a lot of stories from colorful individuals including the former drummer of 38 Special. He travels around in a sleek airstream camper, and this is one of his regular campgrounds. One of the patrons even offered us a shot of “swine,” a local home brew mixture of moonshine and sweet wine. I tried it. It was okay, but not good enough to ask for a second round. 

After sunset photo, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 2015
Cedar Hammock Sunset, 2015

On Saturday, Bill and I set out to explore the east side of the swamp. I leave my kayak on the car and take a position in the stern of his Blue Hole canoe. This side of the swamp is more open with large swampy areas known as prairies. As the water is high, we could paddle most anywhere we wanted to go. We explored Chesser and Mizzell prairies and  stop at Cedar Hammock platform. I remember taking some incredible sunset photos from here in 2015. We see lots of large birds including sandhill cranes, egrets, and hawks. There are plenty of alligators and turtles. While few of the flowers are in bloom, we see lots of dried pitcher plants, which will come back to life later in the spring. We also hear the bellowing of bull gators, which seemed a little in the year. 

After paddling maybe 8 miles, we toured the Chesser homestead and hiked out to an observation tower over Chesser prairie. After dinner at Okefenokee Pastimes, we built a fire and sat around enjoying it. Bill plays guitar and we talk till bedtime. The next morning, after breakfast, Bill heads home and I head into Folkston to watch some trains, before my next adventure (which I’ll write about later). 

a long train of mostly tank cars running the “Folkston Funnel”

Jesus in the Synagogue

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
January 21, 2024
Mark 1:21-28

Sermon taped at Mayberry on Friday, January 19, 2024

At the Beginning of Worship

I finished Harrison Scott Key’s book, How to Stay Married last week. Harrison teaches at Savannah College of Arts and Design, and I have met him several times. His recent book is the only one of his I have that is not signed. Harrison is a funny writer, even when he writes about how his marriage almost ended. I quoted this in my Saturday musings yesterday and thought it fit for today’s message. 

When I was growing up, my grandmother would often say, ‘I’m sweating like a whore in church.’ As a kid, I assumed this imaginary whore was sweating in church because she knew Jesus was watching her and scowling his disapproving scowl. But I now know. The whore is not sweating in church because of Jesus. She’s sweating because of all the Christians.[1]

The Jesus of scripture has compassion on us. We’ll see this in today’s passage as he frees a man possessed by an evil spirit. Interesting, the encounter happens in a synagogue, the church of the day.

We who strive to follow Jesus, need to also show compassion to others. Let’s make sure no one should be sweating in church (unless it’s a hot summer day and the air conditioning is out). 

Before reading the Scripture

Mark cobbles together short vignettes of Jesus and places them back-to-back. The fast pace of Mark’s writing provides little time to contemplate what happens before we’re into a new story. It’s easy, almost, to ignore the miraculous nature of the episodes, as we’ll see today.[2] But when we pull all these stories together, we’re overwhelmed. Mark does this on purpose. Without saying, “Jesus is God” or a similar proclamation, these stories help us understand that Jesus’ uniqueness. He’s truly God’s Son, the one welding the power to save the world. Today, and in the weeks ahead, we’ll see this at work. 

Another interesting thing about Mark is how he refers to Jesus’ teachings but says less about what Jesus taught than the other gospels.[3] Jesus teaches, people are amazed with his teaching, but we are not privy to what he taught. Instead, as we’ll see today, Mark provides us with a surprise reaction to Jesus’ teachings. This reaction comes from the demonic world. 

Read Mark 1:21-28

When I was a child, whenever we were away from home on Sunday, my parents found a church for us to attend. Sometimes it was just for Sunday School, but at least for part of Sunday morning, we were in church. Mostly these were Presbyterian Churches, but on occasion it was a Methodist or Baptist Church. 

When we were in my family’s home territory in Moore County, North Carolina, we always attended Culdee Presbyterian Church in Eastwood. First, we would attend Sunday School, often taught by one of my father’s parents, followed by worship. It seemed we always sang “Holy, Holy, Holy,” a song I later heard a Church of God pastor label as the “Presbyterian National Anthem.”[4] That was, by-the-way, meant as a compliment. I still can recall my grandfather singing that song boldly even though I think I inherited his lack of a musical voice. 

I remember us having some reason to be in Moore County on a Sunday afternoon, so we’d break the three hour drive up by attending church in either Riegelwood or Elizabethtown. And if we were vacationing in other places, we’d attend church there. I remember going to church in St. Louis and around Washington DC. We’d attended church because it was expected. 

Church was where we were to be on Sunday. As the boy Jesus said to his parents when he was lost in Luke’s gospel, “where else should I be but in my father’s house.”[5] So we went to church.


Of course, there was another reason. Attending church, in those days, was a bit like being a Rotarian and having to “make up” meetings you missed. If we attended another church, we still received credit toward earning our perfect attendance pins. Do you remember them? But whatever the reason, whether for a perfect attendance award or because it was the right thing to do, it was good to be in our heavenly father’s house on the Christian Sabbath. 

Likewise, for Jesus, a Jew, when the Sabbath rolled around, he wanted to be in the synagogue. We see this in today’s reading, where Jesus and the disciples who’d just signed up to follow him, are in Capernaum, the first disciples’ hometown. 

There is some evidence that after Jesus left Nazareth, he made his home in Capernaum, the “village of Nahum,” as the name translates. It was a city on the north shore of Galilee and prosperous in the first century. Supposedly, there was an eight-foot seawall that ran for nearly a half mile along the sea, with piers that jutted out into the water. Fishing was a main industry, and the fish were not just consumed locally, but dried and shipped to other towns. In the countryside, there were fertile farms. And the city, lying next to major roads, served as a center of trade.[6]

Today, there are ruins of a magnificent ancient synagogue in Capernaum built of imported white limestone. But that was constructed in the 4th Century. In Jesus’ time, there was an older synagogue, the foundation of which is underneath this more magnificent one. That synagogue was constructed out of the black basalt, a rock common to the area. That older synagogue was possibility where Jesus visited in our story today.[7]

A synagogue is essentially a meeting place for the Jews. There were no sacrifices or anything like that. Instead, the faithful gathered and the Torah was taught, often by lay people like Jesus. 

On this day, Jesus must have been on fire. His teaching amazes everyone. Again, we don’t know what he taught, but he caught the attention of those gathered. So amazed, they bragged about how his teaching had authority. Again, as we’ve seen, Mark’s use of the Greek is informative here. The word for authority used here, in other writings of the time, convey a supernatural power. It’s as if his teaching comes from God. 

When the crowd says Jesus teaches not like the scribes, they’re not saying anything bad about the scribes. Instead, they imply a freshness of Jesus’ message. The scribes’ message came from the traditions of the Hebrew Bible, but Jesus’ message comes direct from the Father.[8]

Instead of learning what Jesus taught, we see the reaction to the message. While everyone is amazed, a demon or unclean spirit, who inhabited a man present at the gather, goes berserk. It cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth. Here, the demon calls Jesus’ earthly identification. It knows his name and from where he came. By naming him, the unclean spirit attempts to overpower Jesus, because the ability to name was considered powerful in the ancient world.[9] But it doesn’t work. 

The demon essentially implies that Jesus is trespassing on his turf. A cosmic battle exists between the unclean, the demonic, and the powers of heaven. And now, as a part of this battle, a skirmish occurs in Capernaum. And here, Jesus shows us the world still belongs to God. Jesus isn’t trespassing. The ones trespassing are Satan’s minions. 

The demon knows it’s in trouble for it encounters the “Holy One of God.” Interestingly, long before Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah,[10] this unclean spirit identifies Jesus’ divine role. Knowing Jesus identity is not the same as believing in or following him, as we see in this encounter. As James teaches, “even the demons believe and tremble.”[11]

Jesus then rebukes the unclean spirit. Notice, however, Jesus doesn’t rebuke the man with the unclean spirit! By rebuking the unclean spirit, Jesus shows compassion to the man inhabited by the demon. With convulsions and crying, it leaves the man. Here, at the first instant of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark, we witness his power, the power that can only come from God and will reclaim the earth for God’s good purposes. Jesus’ power is greater than that of the evil in the world.  

And, as we can imagine, word gets around about Jesus. The event in Capernaum helps bolster Jesus’ fame. We’ll see how Jesus’ actions in the first chapter of Mark becomes like an avalanche, growing and gaining power as he moves from one place to the next. By the end of the first chapter, we learn Jesus can’t escape the crowds.[12]

This story, at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, sets the stage for what will happen in the first half of Mark’s story. Chapters 1 through 8 show Jesus moving around the countryside. Through his teaching and healing, his power over evil and the weather, demonstrate how the kingdom has come near. 

What might we take from this passage that will help us live as a follower of Jesus? We’re reminded of Jesus’ power, in which we’re to trust. That which is evil has no power over our God. We don’t have to fear such evil. Instead, let’s give thanks to God in whom we find hope. We trust God. When overwhelmed by dark forces, we call upon God. Amen. 


[1] Harrison Scott Key, How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2023), 284. 

[2] Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (1989, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 135. 

[3] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 61. 

[4] I heard this from the pastor of a large Church of God at a Ben Johnson’s evangelism seminars at Columbia Theological Seminary in 1992. 

[5] Luke 2:46-50

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 52-53. 

[7] Edwards, 53. 

[8] Edwards 55 (see also 53-54).

[9] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 28.

[10] Mark 8:27ff. 

[11] James 2:19. 

[12] Mark 1:45. 

Icy stream with snow covered banks
Icy stream (from yesterday’s walk)

Coming Home to Pittsburgh, 1987

Title slide with photos taken from the Capitol Limited along the Potomac River in winter

This is a follow-up story to the one I posted before Christmas, when I wrote about my first long distant train trip from Pittsburgh to Florida and the only train wreck I’ve experienced. Click hereto read the story. Click here to read about my visit to Pittsburgh last summer. 

New Years Day 1987

Soon after the conductor checked me in and shortly after pulling out of the DC Station, I headed to the lounge car for a beer and a sandwich for dinner. In a corner booth, several obviously intoxicated guys played cards. I sat diagonally across from them, in the only open seat. Across from me, another conductor did paperwork. We exchanged greetings. He went back to his work, and I took a bite into my sandwich and looked out the window. 

Darkness was upon us. But every so often the flashing red lights at gates dispelled the descending darkness as we crossed highways. Leaving DC, the tracks snaked along the Potomac. The icy winter mix we’d been experiencing all day had changed to big snowy flakes by the time we reached Harper’s Ferry. After finishing my sandwich, I purchased another beer and pulled out The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I only had a few pages left, which I read while downing my beer.

The guys in the poker table in the corner kept hollering and then one of them told a racist joke. The car attendant came over and told them they’d been inappropriate and need to return to their seats. When they asked for another beer to take with them, he refused, saying they’d had enough. The game broke up and all but one walked away. This guy became louder, shouting obscenities and racial slurs. The conductor immediately stood up in support of the car attendant, as he called for assistance on his radio. 

I wondered if I was going to witness my first mobile bar fight. The three men, the drunk on one side, the conductor and attendant on the other, appeared locked in a stand-off, waiting for someone to blink. The man was told again that had better go back to his seat or he’d be removed from the train. He refused and sat back down in defiance. 

I’m not sure who made the call, perhaps the other conductor who had stepped into the car and stood at the back. Everyone remained quiet, with the drunk staring at the attendant and conductor. A few minutes later the train slowed. At a lonely snow-covered road, with the flashing lights of a sheriff’s car competing with the crossing lights, the train came stopped. The engineer had parked the lounge car in the middle of the road. 

The attendant opened the door, and two sheriff deputies entered. They spoke briefly to the conductor, and then to the drunk’s amazement, told him he was under arrest. He asked if he could go back to his seat but was cuffed and led out into the night. The conductor made a call from his radio, the whistle blew, and the train jerked forward. Everyone in the lounge car remained quiet, surprised by what we’d witnessed.

The day, cold and gray, had started early as I’d boarded the Silver Star in Southern Pines, North Carolina. I’d spent New Year’s Eve with my Grandma, barely making it till midnight. I was in bed soon after Dick Clark finished clicking off the seconds of 1986 at Times Square. 

Boarding the train, I was seated in a coach that I soon learned had a malfunctioning heating unit. Everyone was cold and the attendant had given out every blanket he had. I pulled my sleeping bag from my backpack and sat down, sliding my legs into it. My eyes alternating from the barren winter landscape outside to the pages of The Bridge over the River Kwai.

In Raleigh they tried to fix the heating unit, and again in Petersburg, but in both cases, as soon as we were running, the unit kicked out. The train, filled with folks heading home for the holidays, was full. There were no available seats in the other cars. That afternoon, I napped, warm in my bag, as sleet and freezing rain pounded against the window. There wasn’t a second to pause when we reached Washington, D. C. We were late and I had to immediately board the Capitol Limited for its run toward Chicago. Winded, I was at least pleased to find a warm coach with a working heat unit. 

After my light dinner and the evening entertainment, I’d returned to my seat. The train crossed over the Appalachians and began the downhill dart through coal towns nestled along the Youghiogheny. The snow piled up. When we stopped at the little hamlets, folks getting off the train would leave footprints in the powder as they head toward the station or awaiting cars. Some looked around, as if waiting for someone who wasn’t there to greet them. This was such a lonely scene, I thought. As the tracks approached Pittsburgh, running through the Monongahela Valley, I saw flames coming from the few steel mills still operating. Their red glow cutting though the darkness. A few minutes later, we pulled into Pittsburgh. As I got off, I wonder if I’ll have a ride, if Rusty has been able to make it through the snow to pick me up.

Sure enough, Rusty was waiting in the station. Pittsburgh had received nearly a foot of snow, but he was used to driving in it. The roads were vacant as we drove through town. Once we got back to the school, I dropped my bags in my apartment, pulled on my boots and headed outside. It was early in the morning, January 2nd, but I couldn’t sleep. Outside something magical happened. The dreary day had been transformed and now, at night, the snow added a cheerfulness to the air. I walked along Highland Avenue, enjoying the left-over Christmas lights that pierced the darkness. I was home.

Church steeple high over a Pittsburgh neighborhood in January 1987
Taken from the 3rd Floor of Fisher Hall at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in January 1987. Sadly, the Catholic Church with the high spires closed two decades ago. Many of its slate shingles had fallen off when I was in Pittsburgh last summer.

Postscript: Two days later, my mother called to make sure I was okay. She had heard of a terrible train wreck in Maryland. I don’t know why she worried that I was on that train unless she felt that my former trip’s wreck made me unlucky on trains. The accident turned out to be the one of the worse rail accidents in Amtrak history as a set of Conrail engines ignored lights and crossed in front of the Amtrak train. 

“You Catch ‘Em, He’ll Clean ‘Em,” Jesus Begins His Ministry

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
January 14, 2024
Mark 1:14-20

At the beginning of worship: 

In her book, God is No Fool, Lois Cheney shares this bit of dialogue: 

“Moses said, ‘Oh, Come on now! Be sensible! Not me! I’m a terrible speaker. They’ll never listen.’ And God said: ‘Oh, for crying out loud! Use your brother to help with speaking.’ And Moses led God’s people out of slavery. 

And Jonah said, ‘Oh, Come on now! Be sensible! Not me! I’m not the type.’ And after a rather unexpected vacation in a fish, just thinking things over, he talked the people of Nineveh into repentance. 

And Zacharias said, ‘Oh, Come on now! Be sensible! Not me!  My wife and I are too old to have kids.’ And God said: ‘Oh shut up! He did shut up—for nine months. And John was born, and the way of Christ was opened. 

And I heard a child say: ‘I can’t serve God, I’m too young.’

A senior citizen said: ‘I can’t serve God, I’m too old. 

And I heard a boy say: ‘I can’t serve God, I’m not good enough.’

And I heard a woman say: ‘I can’t serve God, I’m not skilled enough.’”[1]

What excuses do we give God? This is a good question for us to ponder as we explore the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he calls disciples.

Before reading the Scripture:

Last week we began exploring the gospel of Mark, looking into the opening verses of the chapter. As I indicated then, Mark doesn’t make a big deal about John the Baptist. Mark’s subject is Jesus Christ and the good news he brings to earth. 


Today, we’ll pick up where we left off. As in verse 1, verse 14 reiterates Jesus’ purpose announced in verse 1, “To proclaim the good news of God.” Following this, Jesus summarizes his message, followed by the calling of the first four disciples. 

Read Mark 1:14-20

When asked what miracle Jesus first performed, most will say it was the turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.[2]

But I think there’s another overlooked miracle. Jesus calling the fishermen. How many true fishermen and fisherwomen do you know, who’d leave their tackle behind to follow some stranger on the beach? 

But let’s be a bit more serious as we look at today’s text. Mark places the beginning of Jesus’ ministry after John’s arrest. The first two verses of our text sets things in context. Verse 14 serves as a press conference, announcing Jesus’ entry on the scene. The spotlight focuses on Jesus, not John. While most translations say John was arrested or placed into prison,[3] the Greek word used by Mark translates directly as “handed over.” 

This is a kay word for Mark, for later the gospel author will use that same word for Jesus being handed over to the Romans and for the fate of Jesus’ followers who suffer persecution.[4]

Mark’s point is that John has done his work; it’s now time for the focus to be on Jesus. However, the language used by Mark foreshadows what will happen to Jesus and perhaps us. Danger lurks when the gospel is proclaimed. 

Next, Mark summaries Jesus’ ministry. Jesus proclaims the good news of God. I spent a lot of time last week discussing the meaning of the gospel or good news.[5] Now, I want to point out something often overlooked. We tend to think of the good news from our own vantage point. We privatize the gospel, so we understand it personally. And while that’s important, here Mark indicates the good news is “of God.” It’s not just for me. God works through Jesus to restore the world to himself and in our text this morning, we see Jesus setting the stage for this work. 

The following sentence from Jesus summaries his gospel.[6] “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” 

I could probably do a whole sermon on this one sentence. There’s much here to unpack here. I’ll break it down quickly, starting with the first phrase, “The time is fulfilled.” The Greeks had two words for time. The one we are more familiar with is chronos. This is time understood with clocks and calendars. From this word, we get chromometer, which is an excellent timepiece that was necessary, pre-GPS, for navigation. If it was this word, it would mean, “The clock has run out.” 

But instead, the other word Greeks used for time is karios. This word implies it’s the right time for something to happen. Looking back to the prophets whom the Jews had placed their hope, we see that it is the time for the fulfillment of their hope. We move from “anticipation to actualization.”[7]

This is not the end of history, but an ongoing beginning of a new history. 

Next, we are given what I think is a riddle. “The kingdom of God has come near.” God’s kingdom here implies the “rule of God,” instead of a particular territory. The Jewish hope that God would assert his authority and put an end to human rebellion has begun.[8] The term, “come near” is in the perfect tense, implying that the action began in the past carries on in the present.[9] It’s still ongoing, in the life of the church. 

Jesus ends his summary of the gospel with a command: Repent and Believe. Both verbs are imperative. They’re important. Repent implies to turn around. We’re to turn away from sin. Believe is what we are to turn toward or to.[10] We turn toward and trust God’s good news.

Now that the spotlight is on Jesus and his teachings, he sets out to recruit assistants by calling a group of fishermen. Here we see an example of those who live out Jesus’ command. Like with repentance, they turn their backs on their previous life and turn to the one who has the good news. 

This is a miracle. They hang up their nets and leave behind their family and coworkers to follow Jesus. Jesus demands obedience. We are not privy to why they were so willing to follow Jesus. For all we know, they haven’t even heard him preach. Maybe, as was suggested in this week’s men’s Bible Study, the blues weren’t running. 

But we know this. Their decision to follow Jesus helped change the world. These four would become key leaders, not just among the disciples, but in the early church. We see them take off after Jesus without hesitation, unlike Moses, Jonah, and Zacharias. However, we know later they will have doubts.

In my last year of seminary, I worked halftime at Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, a community on the northside, west of Pittsburgh. The pastor, Brent Dugan, started out as a mentor of mine and over time, we became close friends. Sadly, he died in 2006, which is why I still have this shirt that’s over 25 years old. It’s probably the oldest t-shirt I own. When I was in Utah, Brent came out several times to ski and on one of the trips, sometime back in the 90s, he presented me with this shirt. On the back it reads:

Simon Peters Offshore Shop
Supplying Fishers of Men since 33 AD
Charter Boats * Cruise Ships * Pier Fishing * Outrigging
Net Mending * Scuba Gear *Rod and Reel Rentals
Tackle, Gaffs, Lures, Hook, Line, & Sinkers, Bait Bags and Tanks
“EVERYTHING FOR THE HARDCORE BORN AGAIN ANGLER!”
Located on the Shores of Galilee.

I really like the phrase at the bottom of the shirt. You’ll have to look close to see:
“You catch ‘em, He’ll clean ‘em!”

I think I know why these guys were so willing to follow Jesus. “You catch ‘em, He’ll clean ‘em!” 

As everyone knowns, it’s fun to catch fish, cleaning them is at best mundane! Jesus calls us to go out and cast the net, to go out and proclaim the gospel in the hope we’ll lure in with the gospel message those in need of love and forgiveness. We’re fishing for Jesus. He is the only one who can forgive those who repent. He’s the only one who can cleanse one contaminated with sin.

Like the disciples, we follow Jesus. He does the heavy and dirty work, cleansing us and others. We follow Jesus and are to be faithful, for we have hope in the kingdom that has come near and will one day be experienced in the fullness. Amen. 


[1] From K. R. Conover in the bulletin board, “Bottom Drawer (#3065), January 24, 1997. From Lois A. Cheney, God is No Fool. The words have been slightly altered.  I used this clip in a sermon preached in Cedar City, Utah on January 26, 1997. 

[2] This is certainly the first miracle recorded in John’s gospel. See John 2:1-12. 

[3] The NRSV, Revised Standard Version and Living Bible translate as “arrested.” The King James Bible and NIV translate as “put in prison.”

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 41. This word (paradidomi) is used by Jesus to refer what is to happen in Mark 9:31 and 10:33. It is used 8 times in Mark 14 and 15 to describe what happens to Jesus. I tis also used in Mark 13 three times to refer to what may happen to believers in Mark 13. 

[5] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/07/marks-prologue-preparing-for-jesus-ministry/

[6] While this is often seen as a summary of the gospel, at least one scholar notes that while it is true for the historical Jesus, it is less true for Mark (this is the only time Jesus speaks like this). See Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 20. 

[7] Hare, 20-21. 

[8] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1977 ), 55.

[9] The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, NRSV with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1806, note on 1:15.

[10] Edwards 47. 

T-shirt advertising St. Peter's Offshore Shop along the Sea of Galilee
T-shirt given to me by Brent

2023 Reading Recap

selfie of me, taken along Laurel Fork

Summary: 

 202120222023
Total books read 545353
Fiction848
Poetry (and about poetry)561
History/Biographies131713
Theology and ministry[1]162219
Essays/Short Stories836
Humor413
Nature6913
Politics335
Memoirs10114
Writing (how to)221
Titles by women14716
Read via Audible202026
Books reviewed303439[2]

The numbers do not add up as some of the books fit into multiple categories.

A few additional insights into my reading:

Of the books read this year, I have met 14 of the authors. 

I’m still reading a lot more non-fiction than fiction, but I read more fiction in 2023 than 2022.

This year I read only 9 non-American authors (and the nine include Canadians and British authors).

My favorite fiction book of the year is Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. My favorite non-fiction would be Wendell Berry’s The Need to be Whole. Both books have a lot to say about healing our broken world.  Below, I highlight a monthly favorite with the photo.

According to Goodreads, I read 15,475 pages this year for an average of 292 pages per book. To see my Goodread year end summary, click here.

January

Picture of book cover for "Horizon"

Sherry Blackman, Tales from the Trail: Stories from the Oldest Hiker Hostel on the Appalachian Trail

Earl V. Shaffer, Walking with Spring (second reading, first read this book in the mid-80s)

Barry Lopez, Horizon

Robert Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (I might come back and review this book if he would finish his final volume on LBJ)

Harlow Giles Unger, Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman

Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way UP is Down

February

Book cover for Demon Copperhead

John Burgess, After Baptism

C. Lee McKenzie, Shattered

Merrill Gilfillan, Chokeberry Places: Essays from the High Plains

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

Thorpe Moeckel, Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw: A Wonder Almanac

March

Book cover for A Speckled Beauty

Douglas Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of our Most Essential Native Tree

Rick Bragg, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People

Mills Kelly, Virginia’s Lost Appalachian Trail

Joel B. Green, 1 Peter

Barbara Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Tony Horwitz, Spying on the South: Travels with Frederick Law Olmstead in a Fractured Land

Jeff Darren Muse, Dear Park Ranger (I read an advance copy, the book was published in May)

April

Book cover for One Summer, America 1927

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

Caroline Grego, Hurricane Jim Crow: How the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 Shaped the Lowcountry South

Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter

Martin Clark, The Substitution Order

Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

May

book cover for Cadillac Desert

Mark Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (I read most of this book in the mid-1990s, this time I listened and re-read interesting selections)

Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith

Shelby Foote, Jordan County: A Novel

June

Book cover for Ride with Me Mariah Montana

Sara Seager, The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

Larry L. King, In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor

Ivan Doig, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

July

Book cover for Big Hair and Plastic Grass

Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (2nd time read, first read in 2001)

Dominic Ziegler, Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires

Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s

August

Book cover for The Old Man and the Boy

Robert Rauk, The Old Man and the Boy (This is my 4th time reading this book since I was in Jr. High)

Ben McGrath, Riverman: An American Odyssey

September

Book title for The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism

Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationaliam: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation

Patrick Wyman, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shocked the World, 1490-1530

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China

October

Need to be Whole book cover

James S. Currie, The Kingdom of God is like… Baseball: A Metaphor for Jesus’s Kingdom Parables

Sarah Clarkson, This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into our Darkness

Wendell Berry, The Need to be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice

November

Ernest Best, 2 Corinthians: Interpretations

C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians 

Donna Giver-Johnston, Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants (review coming soon)

C. Lee McKenzie, Rattlesnake

December

Book cover for A Radiant Birth

Suzanne McDonald, Re-imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God

Richard and Elizabeth Raum, Drive-Through Christmas Eve and Other Christmas Stories

Tristan Gooley, How to Read Water: Clues & Patterns from Puddles to the Sea

Leslie Leyland Fields and Paul J. Willis, A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season


Click here for my reading list from 20222021 and 2020

Did you have a favorite book that you read last year? What’s the title and why did you like it?

Bloggers with recaps for their yearly reading:

AJ’s best of 2023

Bob’s essay on his 2023 reading

Kelly’s 2023 list of books

MaineWords

Kinga’s 2023 summary

And English Homesteader

If you’d like me to highlight your 2023 list here, just send me a link.

Photo of me walking along Laurel Fork
Selfie, hiking along Laurel Fork, 2023

Mark’s Prologue: Preparing for Jesus’ Ministry

Title slide with photo of a desert river

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
January 7, 2024
Mark 1:1-13

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on January. 5, 2024

At the beginning of worship:

Have you experienced temptation in your lives? How many of you have found yourself tempted shortly after experiencing something wonderful? Maybe you received a big promotion and then temptations came knocking at your door.

I have shared a lot with you about my ministry in Cedar City, Utah. Shortly after I arrived, the congregation set out to build a new facility to meet the need of a growing church in a growing city. We purchased the land and drew up plans. We raised money, broke ground, began construction. Exciting times. 

But as construction started, we began to lose members. Several of our members, most of whom worked for the Park Service and the National Forest, were transferred. Others moved because of personal situations. In the first half of 1997, we lost 7 families, all who moved out of state. 

It was a scary time. I worried if we were in over our head. I was temptation to throw in the towel. But all worked out. It became a reminder that life has its ups and downs, and we must trust God. Often, when we think we’re hot stuff, temptations overwhelm us. If we don’t learn to depend on God to provide, we faulter. 

It was no different in Jesus’ earthly life as we’ll see in our text for today. At Jesus’ baptism, he’s confirmed by God. Jesus rides high, but instead of celebrating or getting right to work, he’s led to the desert to be tempted. Expect temptations. 

Before the reading of scripture:

I plan to spend much of 2024 in the gospel of Mark. It’s the shortest of the gospels. Over the years, I’ve preached straight through much of the other gospels. And, of course, I’ve preached many sermons from Mark. But I have not gone through the book in a systematic fashion, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, seeing how the text lays out before us. Mark seems to be a good book for me to dig deep into to help us all develop a compressive understanding of the life and work our Savior. That’s my hope.

We must start somewhere. Matthew provides a genealogy of Jesus’, placing him in the line of David. Luke starts with angels setting up the birth of John the Baptist… John starts with Jesus’ being the Word present at creation.[1] And from these points they all go on to tell the story of Jesus.

Mark, however, doesn’t see himself writing a biography of Jesus. Instead, of a book, Mark writes a proclamation. He proclaims Jesus as Lord, as God’s son. He proclaims the truth found in Jesus.  As the opening line goes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” 

In these opening verses of Mark, it’s as if we’re provided a heavenly vantage point of the drama around God entering history.[2]

The good news or “gospel” (as it can also be translated) was a common word to Mark’s contemporaries. At this point in history, it had not taken on the technical definition it later would as in referring to the gospel as a book.[3]  

The Greek word for the good news or gospel is where we obtain the English words evangelical and evangelist. The good news, the gospel, or the Greek evangelion, was used to proclaim a victory or a great event. At the time of Jesus’ birth, on Caesar Augustus birthday, people shouted evangelion, proclaiming Augustus as the leader who brings peace. 

But with Mark, there’s a subtle difference. The Romans used the word in the plural. Caesar birth or a victory on a battlefield was only one piece of good news among many. It might be the headline story in the evening news, but there were others. Mark and the other gospel writers use the word in the singular. Jesus is the good news; there is no other.[4]

Read Marks 1:1-13

Mark begins his gospel (again, it’s not a book, it’s a proclamation) with John the Baptist. The role the baptizer plays shows God fulfilling divine plans set forth centuries earlier. As we have in the other gospels, the Baptizer is heralded as the one fulfilling Isaiah’s promise. 

We are provided a bit more insight into John the Baptist in Mark than in John’s gospel, which we looked at during Advent.[5]However, Mark is still concise, especially when compared to Matthew and Luke. He portrays John’s role to prepare for Christ, then quickly moves to Jesus’ baptism. Mark isn’t proclaiming John, only using him to point to the subject of his proclamation.

During this era of Judaism, there was a belief Elijah would return before the Messiah. For Mark, John role portrays an Elijah-like[6]character who serves as the forerunner to the one “more-powerful.”[7] Like Elijah, John is associated with the wilderness and his dress, which would have been as unusual back then as today, was Elijah-like.[8] Elijah also wore a garment of animal hair with a leather belt.[9]

What Mark suggests to us about John’s baptism is that it’s symbolic. It points to what’s coming. John prepares people for the one who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit, a prophecy fulfilled on Pentecost.[10]

Mark doesn’t provide us with a dialogue between John and Jesus prior to his baptism as does Matthew,[11] nor does he give us a first-person account of it. Instead, he reports Jesus’ baptism something that has happened. Instead of focusing on the details in the Jordan, Mark reports on God’s action. As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart as the Spirit descends as a dove. And then God speaks. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” When God speaks, grammatically the text shifts from the past tense to the present. 

The rending of heaven and God’s proclamation show us something miraculous and cosmic happens. God steps into history. Here, at the baptism, the three persons of the Trinity are represented. The Son, who was baptized, the dove who symbolizes God’s Spirit, and the voice of God the Father. 

Mark, it’s generally assumed, wrote for a Gentile audience, and draws less from the Old Testament than the other gospels.[12]Gentiles would have not been as familiar with the Old Testament; yet his narrative around Jesus’ baptism is steeped in the Hebrew Bible. Like the humble servant of Isaiah, God’s splendor is displayed in the Son. And God refers to Jesus as the Beloved, which reminds us of Abraham’s love of Isaac, who was to continue to carry the promise.[13] Mark wants to place Jesus in the lineage of what God started with the call of Abraham.

Furthermore, by referring to Jesus as God’s Son, we see the bond between the Father and Son, the one in which the Son is not only of God, nor can only speak for God, but is God. As we go through Mark, we’ll see the Son doing the things of God: forgiving sin, healing the sick, casting out demons, controlling the weather, and challenging the religious authorities of the day. 

After his baptism and confirmation, we’d think Jesus would punch in on the time clock and start working. But before Jesus starts, or to change metaphors before he gets off pit-row and onto the racetrack, there’s a speed bump. God has an adversary who wants to destroy this new challenger on earth before he can get very far. 

Unlike Matthew and Luke,[14] Mark only provides the bare minimum of information about Jesus’ temptation. But like both other gospel writers, it occurs right after Jesus’ baptism. All three Gospels speak of God’s Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness where he faces temptations. But instead of telling us about the type of temptation he faced, Mark provides only a few bits of information. The wilderness experience lasted forty days. Satan tempted Jesus. During this period, Jesus lived among wild beasts. And angels waited on him. 


This brief description of the temptation continues Mark’s display of God directing and controlling the events. It’s an overhead view of what happens before Jesus starts his ministry. Mark has set the stage. Next week, God willing, we’ll watch as Jesus’ ministry unfold. 

These opening verses in Mark’s gospel are like the opening of John’s gospel. They serve as a prologue. They prepare us for what is to come, reminding us that Jesus is not just a special man, but is God’s answer for the human situation. Jesus is the good news. To him we are to praise, and to follow. In him, we find life and our hope. Amen. 


[1] Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 1:5-25, and John 1:1-18.

[2] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 32

[3] Hooker, 33. 

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 24. 

[5] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/12/17/a-voice-crying-out-in-the-wilderness/

[6] As we saw in the John passage, the Baptizer didn’t see himself as Elijah, which is why I use the term “Elijah-like character.” See John 1:21. 

[7] Edwards, 29. 

[8] Edwards 32. Edwards cites 1 Kings 1:8 for Elijah’s dress, obviously a typing error that was not caught in proof-reading. 

[9] 2 Kings 1:8

[10] Acts 2ff. 

[11] Matthew 3:13-15.

[12] Edwards, 26. Mark may have been written in Rome and uses more Latin terms. See William Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 24-25.

[13] Edwards, 36-38. See Isaiah 49 and 42:1 and Genesis 22.

[14] See Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.

Photo of the Sevier River in Utah
The Sevier River near Marysvale, Utah. It’s a desert river, like the Jordan, that never makes it to the sea, but eventually evaporates.