Here is my sermon from January 21, 2018, the Third Sunday after Epiphany. We have Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1, and Jonah prophesying to the people of Nineveh. (If you have time, and you haven’t before, read all of Jonah. It’ll only take about 20 minutes!) Have you ever identified with one or the other of these responses to God’s call?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The few times in my life I have been forced to go fishing, my boredom at all the waiting was only matched by my terror when I actually caught a fish. I decided pretty early on in my Girl Scout career that this fishing thing was just not for me. Sometimes I wish I’d stuck it out just a little bit longer, because there are so many stories about fish and fishing in the Bible. Imagine all the stories I’d have to tell in my sermons!
It’s ok, though. At their heart, these stories aren’t really about fish or fishing. Today we have a story from Jonah and the calling of the disciples in Mark that center around fish, but are really a couple of different examples of responding to God’s call.
I have to admit upfront that Jonah is probably one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s this absurd trek taken with the reluctant prophet. If you never knew the Bible contained comedy before, you should read Jonah start to finish—it’s only four chapters. It reminds me a lot of books like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. Although they are laugh-out-loud hilarious at parts, the absurdity is there to teach us some important truths.
In our reading today, we start in the middle of the story: the word of God comes to Jonah a second time. Jonah didn’t much like what God asked him to do the first time—go and preach to the Ninevites—so he ran the opposite direction and got on a boat the first time.
That didn’t work out so well for him, as he ended up in the belly of a big fish for three days, only to be spat back out. After all that, God comes to Jonah again, with almost the exact same words: Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.
Now Jonah really can’t be blamed for not wanting to go to Nineveh. It’s the capital of the Assyrian Empire, who has been attacking and killing the Jewish tribes for the past couple of centuries. Nineveh was a bad, bad place.
But it becomes clear that fear wasn’t Jonah’s only motivation for avoiding Nineveh. When he preaches what is possibly the worst, but most effective sermon ever, and the people repent, God changes God’s mind about destroying the city. And that is just what Jonah was afraid of.
Jonah knew that God is gracious and merciful, and he did not want that grace to be shown to the Ninevites. He did not want God’s grace to extend beyond his own people. When God announces that because of their repentance, the city of Nineveh will not be destroyed, Jonah is really disappointed.
His reluctance to follow God’s call and preach to the people of Nineveh stemmed from his fear of the chance that he might be successful. And he was—despite himself—Jonah was an instrument of God’s grace.
It’s a hard job Jonah had—I can’t judge him. Who wants God to extend forgiveness and grace to their enemies? Who among us truly wants those we dislike and despise, and who despise us in return, to be extended mercy? Jonah may be a comical prophet, but he speaks the words of our hearts. What he, and we, needed to learn, though, is that God’s grace is something that you cannot lose by giving it away. Our share of God’s love does not decrease by bringing more people under its care.
On the other end of the call story spectrum, we have the first disciples: Andrew and Simon, James and John. Rather than being reluctant, they are all but tripping over themselves to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. It makes me wonder what they had heard about Jesus before now. Were they expecting this man to call to them? Were they taken completely by surprise?
We don’t know, and we won’t ever know, really. What we do know is that they go immediately. As soon as Jesus calls, offers them a new identity as fishers of people, they are there. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you hear this story about the disciples being called, and you might wish you could have that kind of faith and courage. The kind that doesn’t doubt, but simply trusts. That goes at once, without questions.
But I have to remind myself that, yes, while the disciples are certainly to be celebrated for their trust and speed in answering Jesus’ call, this is not the end of their story, but just the beginning. It’s a great beginning, but there’s going to be much to learn ahead, much stumbling, much misunderstanding, and much backsliding.
This early decision to follow Jesus needs to be reaffirmed and even corrected time and again. At Caesarea Philippi, Simon affirms his faith in Jesus, but not his faith in Jesus as the suffering Messiah—that will take a lifetime. On the mount of transfiguration, Peter knows how good it is to be with Jesus but forgets that the real task to follow Jesus. In the courtyard, warming himself before the fire, Peter threatens to give up a lifetime of fidelity for a moment of fear. At the very end, when Jesus is on the cross, Peter, Andrew, James, and John are nowhere to be found. Even then, God does not count that moment as the final word: now Jesus will go before them, for a lifetime.
The truth is, becoming a faithful Christian disciple takes both a moment and a lifetime. And we all probably fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between the ultra-reluctant Jonah and the ever eager disciples.
The joy of this week’s readings is that God is able to use many different types responses—the feet-dragging ones that require much prodding, and the jumping out of the boat instantaneously ones. God calls, and uses, many different people, with a variety of gifts, to accomplish God’s work.
We are all of us called to be disciples. It’s a calling that we receive from our very beginnings as Christians in the waters of baptism, where we hear that all the baptized are called to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and dead, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. It might start at baptism, but it’s a calling that we live into over the course of our whole lives.
So, wherever you might be right now on the spectrum—running away, as fast as you can, like Jonah, or eagerly jumping into a new beginning like the disciples—know this: you are not alone. As a community, we are all on the path of following God together. And we are not alone. Because the God who calls us to bring good news, to be fishers of people, is the God who travels with us on our journeys. The God who sustains us when things are difficult, and the God who rejoices with us at the good news. Amen.