Third Sunday after Epiphany, Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20
What would make you stop your life as you know it and follow a completely different path? A new job? A new life partner? A promise of another climate? A better living situation? How about a seemingly random summons from an itinerant carpenter with no promises of security, safety, social acceptance, or even a bed to sleep in? It was enough for Simon, Andrew, James and John. Jesus called to them;
offered them a completely impossible life. They dropped their lives, their identities and they followed him.
I don’t know about you, but I reluctantly find myself identifying much more with the more practical, less compliant Jonah.
We didn’t read the whole story of Jonah this morning. You all know the story, though, right? Abbreviated version: God says to Jonah, “Jonah, I’ve got a job for you to do.” Jonah says, “Um, what?” God says, “Go to Ninevah, tell them they’ve got it all wrong and they should change it up”. Jonah says, “You want me to go a city that embodies pure evil, one that I would happily see wiped from the face of the earth, a place where they would just as soon kill me as look at me and say, ‘Oops, sorry folks, completely change the essence of your being or be destroyed’. Uh, yeah, sure, God, I’ll get right on that.”
Except that Jonah doesn’t go to Ninevah, he hops a ship to Tarshish – closest thing he could figure to the end of the earth. A horrendous storm blows up and the sailors say, “You’re a God person. Talk to God and get us out of this.” Jonah says, “Yeah, God and I are not getting along all that well right now. Actually, I pretty much disobeyed a direct order and am presently AWOL.” “Right then”, say the sailors, “out you go.” They toss him off the ship, where he’s eaten by a great monster of a fish.
Three days in the digestive tract of a fish gives a person plenty of time to work on their spiritual life with very few distractions. So Jonah prays. A lot. God finally decides Jonah’s had enough and the fish vomits him unceremoniously on land. “Ok, then, Jonah, let’s try this again” says God. “Go…to…Ninevah.” That is where we join the story today. Jonah goes, delivers the message as succinctly as possible, “You’ve got 40 days, then you’re toast.” Ninevah as a whole believes him, and that quintessential seat of evil does a complete 180 right down to the sackcloth and ashes. And God spares them.
The story of Jonah is usually told with a whale playing the role of the “great fish” but the scriptures are not specific and scholars doubt it was actually a whale. A number of more likely species have been suggested, as outlined by specialist Brian Donst. One possibility that has been proposed is Icthusius apathensis, an overwhelmingly large, oblivious fish with the common name of Large-apathy bass. A related possibility is the Ichthusius privatus paradiso. This prolific fish, more commonly known as the “Feather-my-nest fish” is often found indoors in huge rooms with vaulted ceilings nestled among more things than can possibly ever be useful. Consideration must also be given to Fishensius frightensius; also known as the Timid Fish or the “What-can-I-Do Walleye”. This interesting creature is known for swimming away from any kind of turbulence, apparently feeling inadequate to negotiate any kind of troubled water. Interestingly, if thrown into rough waters the Timid Fish typically functions quite reasonably. Perhaps the strongest contender in Jonah’s case is the great Rightensiusindignatus. According to Donst “a very ancient fish that somehow always swims upward and in straight lines and looks either sorrowfully or disdainfully at more wayward fish around it that seem to be swimming in unhealthy ways, but doesn’t really get involved with them, just watches them swim to their end.”
You may hear people question whether this could actually happen. Could a human being actually spend 3 days in the bellies of one of these beasts, and live to tell the tale? All these fish are alive and swimming in today’s world, and I am here to tell you from personal experience that we humans can spend days, months, even years in the bellies of these and similar beasts, seemingly cut off from God and God’s world. It happens every day. And although the process of exiting the beasts may not be pretty, we can survive it, and God still has this job for us to do when we escape.
We know very little about the fishermen Mark describes before Jesus called out their names with his preposterous proposal. They may well have wrestled with the species I’ve described. We do know that they were working men with families and livelihoods and presumably all the messiness and confusion in their lives that has always accompanied the human condition. These were not young kids following a crazy fad, or people with nothing to lose. Yet they responded “immediately” to Jesus’s summons, leaving hearth, home and family.
Poet Timothy Haut writes:
A distant bell rings
Through the morning fog.
There is the slap of nets on water,
And a sudden flurry of birds
Stirring the sky.
The two fishermen are weary
Though the day is just beginning.
They sense that the seasons of their lives
Are slipping away,
Like silver fish seeking
They can not see beyond the horizon–
Not the farther shore of the sea,
The green hills where a strange world is hidden,
And not the uncertain shores
Of their own mysterious lives.
Something has stirred in them, too,
This voice calling them,
This presence casting a net over their hearts,
Tugging them somewhere
Yet to be discovered.
“You will always be fishing,” the man had said,
“But it will not just be fish that you seek.”
The brothers feel the sun
Shining on their sweating faces.
They know that whatever will come,
They are in it together.
The younger one shades his eyes,
Squints at the man coming down the road,
Waving toward them.
They are caught by love.
Remember that God’s love is with us, even when we languish in the bellies of our own personal monsters. Jesus asks for nothing less than our lives, and offered nothing less than his own in the service of that great love. Listen for your name. Know that God is calling you. As that call becomes clear, you may have to forgive yourself a brief Jonah moment of “Who me? You want me to do WHAT?” But then drop your net and open your heart and follow the love that is Jesus Christ. After all, you may not be called to go to Ninevah, you may be called to go fishing. And oh, what a fishing trip it will be….
Thanks be to God!