Sermon: "Responding to God’s Call (Or More Humorously, Learning to Fish)"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 62.6-14; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20
Today’s readings invite us to consider two radically different responses to God’s call – Jonah as opposed to Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John.
Jonah is one humorous, ironic story! The reading begins, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you’” (Jonah 3.1-2; NRSV). What about Jonah’s first call? God told Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up against me” (Jonah 1.2; NRSV). Jonah decided he was not going to have anything to do with God’s call – he chose to run away. The account tells us “Jonah went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went aboard, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1.3b; NRSV). Jonah must have thought he was out of God’s reach, that he made a timely. if narrow, escape.
When a severe storm arose, the mariners found Jonah asleep in the hold of the ship. The captain told him to get up and pray to his god that they might not perish. The sailors decided to cast lots to determine “on whose account” the calamity had befallen them. The lot fell to Jonah. Let’s read a bit of the story: “Then they said to him: ‘Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ ‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’” (Jonah 1.8-9; NRSV). Hearing this, the sailors were even more afraid; they said, “What is this that you have done!” for Jonah had previously told them he was fleeing from God. The sailors asked what they should do to him that the storm may abate. Jonah told them to throw him overboard. They were hesitant to do so, but after the storm intensified, they threw him overboard. Hence, Jonah found himself in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights. After Jonah prayed, the Lord spoke to the fish, and the fish spewed Jonah out on dry land. The fish thought, “It must have been something I ate!” Well, that last statement isn’t in the account, but had I written the story, I would have included it! We often say, “I think I ate some bad fish,” so why shouldn’t the fish say, “I must have eaten some bad human”? Well, I digress.
Jonah is now back where our reading began; God commands him to go to Nineveh a second time. This time he went, and he prophesied against the great city, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3.4b; NRSV). And what happened? Nineveh repented – both the high (including the king) and the low sat in sackcloth and ashes, so God spared them.
To put it mildly, Jonah was less than pleased. Listen to Jonah’s prayer: “O Lord! Is not this 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 abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4.2-3; NRSV). In other words, “God, I knew you would forgive them! Now you have made a fool of me!” God asked, “Is it right for you to be angry” (Jonah 4.4; NRSV)? In a snit, Jonah went outside the city and constructed a booth so he could sit in the shade and wait to see what happened to the city. Now the story takes on an even more humorous turn.
God causes a bush to grow up to provide shade for Jonah; he was incredibly happy. But the next day, God sent a worm to attack the bush and it died. God sent a sultry east wind and the hot sun beat down on Jonah’s head such that he grew faint; he asked that he might die. God then asked, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah replied, “Yes, angry enough to die!” Then God responded, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow … And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals” (Jonah 4.9-11; NRSV)? The story ends at this point; we are left to wonder about God’s question, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh …?” Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city, a Gentile city … “Should I not be concerned about the Gentiles?”
The story of Jonah is instructive. Nineveh was guilty of idolatry, i.e., of worshiping false gods, of putting something in God’s rightful place, of worshiping or loving the created more than the creator. In Judaism, idolatry is considered the greatest sin, for it violates the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20.3; NRSV).
The great irony in the story of Jonah is that Jonah resists God’s call – he sins, for he would follow his own gods, his own desires, then he begrudges Nineveh’s repentance; Jonah permits an idol to interfere with God’s call. Jonah is so repulsed with the idolatry of Nineveh (so consumed with anti-idolatry) that he fails to recognize his own idolatry. As Sandor Goodheart, observes, Jonah falls into the “idolatry of anti-idolatry” (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/epiphany3b/ ). As Goodheart observes, Nineveh repents of its idolatry, but Jonah never repents (Ibid.)! Hopefully, God’s question ultimately led to his repentance. The story leaves us hanging; we are invited to step into Jonah’s shoes where we might wrestle with our own idolatry.
Our gospel reading is very brief. After John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus went to Galilee where he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.14-15; NRSV). Jesus is beginning his ministry; it is time to gather some disciples. Mark tells us as Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea. Jesus issued a call: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people … immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Jesus next saw James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were in their boat mending the nets; Jesus called them; they left their father in the boat with the hired men and followed Jesus (Mark 1.16-20).
If we were to have, or to read, only the gospel of Mark, we would likely have a few questions. Since John was arrested, was Jesus also threatened by arrest? Did Jesus already know Simon and Andrew, James and John? What was it about Jesus that prompted them to immediately drop everything and follow him?
It helps to remember the gospel of Mark was written first somewhere around 66-70 AD, some 40 years after Jesus’ death: Matthew and Luke were likely written 85 – 90 AD, and John as late as 90 - 110 AD. Thus, it is doubtful that any of the gospels were written by eye-witnesses. Nonetheless, the later gospels add detail to Mark’s account.
For example, let’s examine Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. After noting the beginning of Jesus’ ministry following his temptation, as does Mark, Luke records several other events which precede Jesus’ call of Andrew, Peter, James, and John:
First, we have the story of Jesus rejection in Nazareth, his hometown.
Second, Luke tells us that Jesus, having been rejected, traveled to Capernaum on the coast of the Sea of Galilee where he taught in the synagogue. As he was teaching, a man with an unclean spirit cried out, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Luke 4.34; NRSV). Jesus cast out the unclean spirit, and Luke tells us “a report about him began to reach every place in the region” (Luke 4.37; NRSV). Andrew, Peter, James, and John were likely in attendance and may well have witnessed Jesus’ power over unclean spirits.
Third, Luke next tells us Jesus left the synagogue and went to Simon Peter’s house where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a high fever. At sunset, people brought those who were sick, and Jesus cured them. As Jesus cast out many demons, they shouted, “You are the Son of God!” (Luke 4.38-41 After this, Jesus continued to proclaim the kingdom of God was near in the synagogues of Judea.
At this point, Luke tells us Jesus was standing on the shore of Lake Gennesaret (the Sea of Galilee). As the crowd was pressing in upon him, he climbed into one of two boats, one belonging to Simon Peter, and asked Simon to pull out a short distance from shore. After teaching, he asked Simon to move to deep water and let out his nets for a catch. Simon noted they had fished all night long without a catch, but as Jesus had told him, he let out the nets. The catch was so great the nets began to break; Simon called his partners (James and John) in the other boat. Both boats were full of fish to the point of nearly sinking. Luke tells us, “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’… Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5.1-11; NRSV).
When we consider both accounts, we have a far more complete picture of what must have transpired. Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John not only heard Jesus’ teaching, but they also witnessed his power over illness, demon possession, and his knowledge of nature. I have to admit, some days when I have been fishing, I wish Jesus would tell me where to fish, but then I realize, he already has, but like Peter, he has called me to fish for people!
We have considered two quite different responses to God’s call. In Jonah’s case, we see how we sometimes hang on to our idols and resist God’s call. In the case of Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John, we see how they left everything (their boats, their fish, their nets, and their family) to follow Jesus. God calls us to share the good news that the Kingdom of God is near – will we hang on to our idols or leave everything behind?
Collect: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.