Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
January 22, 2012
O’ Lord, here I sit in the dark belly of a very big fish
or so it seems.
I wish I could stop avoiding your call.
In my heart’s dreams
I would give all to simply follow Jesus. Amen
Last week’s scriptures were about being “called” to follow God. This focus continues in the Old Testament and Gospel readings for this Sunday.
The Book of Jonah was written in protest of the harsh separatism that became attached to the religious revival led by Nehemiah and Ezra[i]. There was a ban on intermarriage and it was deemed prudent to avoid outsiders (such as the people of Nineveh).
Jonah is a very reluctant prophet who, after enduring his “imprisonment “inside the big fish, goes to Nineveh. He calls them to repent, delivering probably the shortest sermon on record: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” He thinks God should destroy them. He is actually very angry when they do repent.[ii] It is important for us to realize that this story emphasizes that God cares for all people. There are no outsiders for God. God calls everyone to repent, to turn around, to change their thinking and their ways. When it comes to listening to God’s call and being willing to repent, the people of Nineveh are certainly a better example than Jonah.
It is very interesting that he offers them no hope, gives them no explanation of what will happen if they repent.[iii] They simply repent. I like to think that God was already working in their hearts and minds. Perhaps they were spiritually hungry for something more, desiring a deeper walk, a different understanding of God. Perhaps there was an inner restlessness which stirred them to follow God’s commands? I’ve known that restlessness, haven’t you? Usually when I reflect on the Book or Jonah, I look at Jonah: his prejudices, how he hides from God, and how God uses even the reluctant and the prejudiced to do God’s will.
However, there is another message here. This is a story about God caring for the outcast and calling them home to live deeply in God’s love and forgiveness. When we read this story sometimes we identify with the people of Nineveh and other times we (with brutal honesty) must admit that we act more like Jonah. Is our society that much different from that of the time of Ezra and Nehemiah? Who are the outcasts, spurned by “good people”? Who are the forsaken that God is calling us to serve?[iv] Are they and we being called to something more? Could we all become closer to God by following the call to care and be cared for?
The Gospel (Mark 1:14-20) occurs after the arrest of John the Baptist. Jesus is preaching in Galilee: “The time is at hand, the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent and believe”. What a powerful statement! What you’ve always hoped for is happening. God is present now in your lives. Claim the moment! Rethink your relationship with God and others. Dare to believe the Good News! God has broken into history and the world will never be the same again. God is the absolute authority, ruling and guiding every human heart for all time![v]
The passage that follows (the calling of Simon, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee,James and John) demonstrates what it means to repent and believe. For the Christian, getting closer to God means attaching oneself to Jesus. We are compelled to follow where Christ leads even unto the Cross.[vi] In this passage there is no mention of Andrew being a disciple of John the Baptist, there is no reference to a prior relationship. The Gospel writer stresses that Jesus simply called and they cast down their nets and followed him. Amazing! Like the people of Nineveh they just did it, they turned their lives around and satisfied the deep longings of their hearts.
Can it really be that simple? Christ calls and we follow. I long ago came to the realization that simple and easy are not the same. Attempting to live a simple life in Christ is hard for us. Once God breaks into history nothing is the same. We have to set aside our prideful assumptions about the world and learn gradually to be humble before God. Yet at the same time we are called to be bold in the Spirit. Spiritual boldness is a gift allowing us to go where angels fear to tread. Spiritual boldness allowed the people of Nineveh to repent for repentance’ sake alone. Spiritual boldness allowed the fisherman to follow Jesus simply because he called. Spiritual boldness allows us to attach ourselves to Jesus and live deeply our new life in Christ.
For God alone I wait silently; my hope comes from him…
On God my safety and honor depend.
On God who is my rock of refuge…
Trust in him at all times…pour out your hearts before him;
God is our shelter. Psalm 62:5-8
[iii] Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 79
[iv] Ibid # i.
[v] Ibid, pp. 73-75
[vi] Preaching the Lectionary, p. 294