I begin with thanks to the people who put together the lectionary. Today we have two great stories about how God calls. First, we hear about Jonah – who really doesn’t want to have anything to do with what God’s call to help the people of Nineveh. Doing exactly what God asked of him! It only took being thrown overboard and sometime in the belly of a whale. In our next reading we have the first disciples who hear nothing but, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17) It seems that Simon, Andrew, James and John leap at the chance to follow Jesus. They drop everything to follow him. It is two completely different ways to respond to God’s call and God’s grace. I for one am thankful that God works with us no matter where we find ourselves.
Today we start with Jonah. A story of God’s grace and the winner of the bible’s prize for most reluctant prophet. God says, “Go” and Jonah runs away. In his attempt to flee from God’s call he gets thrown overboard and spends “three days and three nights” in the belly of a whale. During that time Jonah prayed until finally the whale spit Jonah out on dry land. Again, God says to Jonah, “Get u, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) Jonah drags his feet but he goes to Nineveh. When Jonah finally arrives, you can hardly say he spoke a prophetic word with any kind of conviction. Oh yes he said the word that God asked him to speak. But I don’t think he did not put his heart into it. You might say his preaching lacked a certain amount of punch.
I imagine Jonah delivering his prophesy in the most monotone voice he could muster “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” No mention of who was doing the overthrowing. No mention that God had sent him on this mission. No talk of hope or of God’s abundant grace. Just, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In spite of all that or perhaps because of all that the people of Nineveh listened but Jonah sulks. He is angry because he knows too much about God’s grace. Jonah plain and simple does not like the people of Nineveh. They are his sworn enemies and for him the idea that they would be saved is horrifying. On this front you cannot blame Jonah. The Syrian army was cruel. The King never relented. Some biblical scholars say that the people of Nineveh repented is more unbelievable than Jonah spending three days in the whale.
You can understand why Jonah did not want God’s grace to extend to the people of Nineveh. You can understand why Jonah said no to God and fled. The story of Jonah and Nineveh tells us everything we need to know about God’s grace. Jonah says it best in chapter four, “O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abound in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”” (Jonah 4:2) God’s love reaches beyond our imagining and invites us to follow in our own ways.
This story is a gentle reminder that in spite of our no’s, God’s answer is always yes. God finds ways to work through us even when we are reluctant to follow or have closed our hearts to the abundant nature of God’s grace. Jonah did not want to do as God asked, yet God still works through him to change the hearts of the people of Nineveh.
The story of Jonah stands in stark contrast to our Gospel reading for today. Instead of running the in the other direction – Simon, Andrew, James and John drop everything and follow Jesus. It seems to me that the people of Nineveh and the story of the first disciples have more in common with one another than God’s chosen prophet Jonah and the disciples. When the people of Nineveh hear God’s word proclaimed they stop all that they are doing and repent – and not just a select few. Everyone from the King to the barn animals change their hearts and their ways as they sit in sackcloth and ashes repenting. In the same way, the disciples drop their nets, leave behind family and friends and go to pursue a new calling as fishers of people.
As usual with the Gospel of Mark, the details are scarce. Here’s what we know. Jesus has just returned from forty days in the desert and John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus now begins his teaching ministry “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.” That’s all Jesus says before he walks up to Simon and Andrew and says, “Follow Me and I will make you fish for people.” Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow. We don’t know if they’d grown tired of fishing or if they’d known Jesus for a while. You might think that this kind of major life altering decision would take some time to make. You might think that Simon and Andrew would walk just outside of Jesus’ earshot and have a little conversation about what they should do. But that didn’t happen. They dropped everything to follow Jesus – no questions asked.
Then the same thing happens again with James and John. Again, Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Once again, no questions asked, they drop the nets they are mending and follow Jesus. James and John even leave their father in the boat – confused by what is happening. There is something special about this story. The bible is full of people who respond in some way to God’s call. But this story is different from the rest. The disciples just go. Jesus didn’t have to do anything to persuade them – they follow.
Often we talk about the courage it must have taken for them to go and leave everything behind not knowing what was in store for them. For me, miracle is the word that comes to mind. It is like some of the miracle stories in which Jesus says the word and they are healed. In this case Jesus says the word and they follow. Given, all the frailties and failings that come with our human natures, it really is miraculous.
The contrast between the miraculous call of Simon, Andrew, James and John and the reluctance of Jonah gives us some balance in perspective as we all struggle to respond in faith to God’s call in Jesus Christ day by day. God still calls us today. We might be reluctant like Jonah or filled with excitement like Simon, Andrew James and John. The contrast shows that there are many ways of being faithful to God’s call but in all things God finds a way to use us and the gifts we bring. Can you hear that voice calling, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Amen