January 25, 2015

Two Calls, Two Reactions

As we make this journey through Epiphany and see how Jesus is revealed to the world around him and around us, we find today that God can speak in short, but powerful sentences, and just how stark of a contrast humans can have to hearing God’s call and invitation to ministry.

For Jonah, the word of the Lord is coming to him the second time in our passage today. In the case of the Gospel reading, Jesus, the son of God, the Word-Made-Flesh, God-with-us, is speaking with the voice of God to invite these fishermen to a new way of life. But in each case, those hearing the call react in dramatically different ways. We’ll look in a moment at how they are different, but let’s start by looking at how they are alike.


First -- the words they hear are brief. In Jonah’s first encounter with God, God uses 21 words to send him on his way: 

‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’
The second time, after the great fish (NOT A WHALE) spews Jonah out, God uses just 17 words:
‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’
From Emily Slichter Given. Check out her book "Building Faith, Brick by Brick." 
As Jesus finds his four new followers, who will become apostles, he uses the best recruitment line a fisherman could hear:
"Follow me and I will make you fish for people."
In many places in Scripture, God practices simplicity in choosing how to speak to people. I’m not one who easily or loosely uses the phrase “God spoke to me…” But the times I have felt and heard God speak directly to me, God knew me well enough to use short sentences and say it slowly. Maybe that’s why one of my mottos is “Brevity is next to Godliness.”

The second part of how these two “call” stories are similar is that they have a direct mission. Jonah is sent to cry out against Nineveh; James, John, Andrew and Simon are going to be fishermen of people. Or as Eugene Peterson writes it in The Message, Jesus says, “I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.”

Icon of Jesus calling the Disciples in Mark 1
There is no “hey let’s go for a walk and see where we end up” kind of call to this. God and Jesus are about as direct as they can be in what they are after.

It’s the reactions of the ones called that provide the clear differences. Those hearing the story of Jonah in generations after him would have found the story amusing, if not downright hysterical. I mean, the guy is called to share a message from God with a people to the East of Israel, and so naturally, Jonah goes… WEST. Who could blame him… Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, they were the enemy. The bad guys. The Assyrians were among the many nations that wanted the land that the Israelites believed was theirs by divine decree. (When you get home, read the whole book of Jonah, and imagine sitting around a campfire telling this story. See if you can find the humor and the irony in it.)

The four fisherman, however, simply drop their nets and head after Jesus at his simple invitation: Follow me. Mark does not record the reactions of their families, especially that of Zebedee, the father of James and John, who just watched his boys leave him with all the work. If those hearing the story of Jonah laughed at the irony, those hearing Mark’s Gospel would have been in shock at people like fishermen who just walked away from their work to follow an itinerant preacher and would-be Messiah. The reality is that they probably knew him or at least knew of him. They’d all been with John the Baptizer at one time, but JB was now in prison. Jesus’ invitation was, well, inviting and hopeful.

I think sometimes we expect a call from God, in whichever form of the Trinity, to give us long speeches or some big, pre-game, locker-room talk that will give us clarity or direction or comfort. As we see in these Scripture lessons, God doesn’t always do that. Jonah had no way of knowing what was going to happen in Nineveh, and Simon, Andrew, James, and John had no idea what lay on the road ahead for them. You have to wonder what the reaction would have been if Jonah had known the Ninevites would repent or these fishermen had known who Jesus really was and how many lives he would change and at what cost. God reveals what we need to know when we need to know it. I’m sure no one was more surprised than these Jewish fishermen when Jesus had his moments of openness to Gentiles and Samaritans. And when you read Jonah this afternoon, you’ll see how he reacted when the King of Assyria led his people in repentance.

Nineveh still exists, by the way. Today it is called Mosul, in Iraq. I dare say that Nineveh still exists in our own hearts, too. There are places to which God may call us that we do not want to go, or groups that we may think are beyond God’s reach or worse, we may not want God to reach them. We may not want to share the Good News with them that the Kingdom of God has come near. But as the story proves, that’s not for us to decide. Our job is to listen for the voice of God, the call of the Almighty, and to respond as faithfully as possible.

I can recall hearing the voice of God in worship in the parish in which I grew up, and on a nice long bike ride, and even, like last week’s lesson from Samuel, in the middle of the night. And not unlike our friend Jonah, I have attempted in vain to ignore or run away from the voice of God. Luckily, I have never found myself in the belly of a great fish.

I have no doubt that many of us have had a Jonah-like response to God at some point in our journey, maybe not to the extreme (though if it led to the belly of a great fish, I’d love to hear about it…). But I’m guessing that we have all had a time God said “Go East” and we went West, or God said “Pick up the phone and call this person,” and we said, “Ugh. That’s going to take up the rest of my day. Can I do it later? Tomorrow? When I have time? Maybe never?” Or God has said, “Those folks need to hear the Good News,” and we’ve said, “Really? Them?!” Even the disciples had a few of those moments with Jesus along the way.

If we were to shed our fear of bragging for a moment, I bet we could find a moment or three in our lives where we acted like Simon, Andrew, James, and John, where we took a really big gamble and said yes to Jesus. Where we made that phone call or when we didn't have time, but went the longer way to see our lonely or sick friend. Where we dropped our nets, our pens, our laptops, and learned how to fish for people. Because we didn't already know how, and we had to trust Jesus to show us the way.

Can you see how these are perfect stories for Epiphany? Not only is it about answering a call, but how, in answering yes, we are helping reveal God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit to the world around us.

As we make this journey through Epiphany, a season where we can re-commit ourselves to being the Light of Christ in the world, don’t be afraid to share your story, both the one where you acted like Jonah and the one where you acted like one of the fishermen in the Gospel. And don’t be surprised at the results when you do.

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