Third Sunday after the Epiphany — Rev. Karen Barfield

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Mark 1:14-20

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

In the early 1980s a young couple in New England decided to give up the “rat race” of modern life. 

So they began to look at what they could do. 

For a year, they researched the world, examining the places best suited for raising a family away from society’s pollutants. A place where they could get a new start. A place that would be free from the economic rat race, where their children could get a quality education, where they all could develop to their full potential in a healthy environment. 

Finally they found and they left in January of 1982 for a small, isolated island chain off the coast of Argentina: the Falkland Islands. And, of course, in April of 1982 – [three months later], the Falkland’s War began. (On Freedom and Call — The Jonah Complex)

We so want security.
We so want to avoid danger.

This avoidance seems to be human nature,
and yet security so often is elusive.

In the words of Helen Keller: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

This morning’s Old Testament reading begins this way:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time….”

That presumes a first time.

So let us refresh our memories: The book of Jonah begins this way…

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’

“But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” (Jonah 1:1-3a)

Jonah’s response to the Lord was not “no” but “hell no!”

Not only did he get out of town quickly, he boarded the first ship he could find that was heading in the opposite direction from where the Lord wanted him to go.

And then we hear the familiar story of turbulent seas, the mariners on the boat discovering that Jonah was the problem, his being tossed over the side and swallowed up by a large fish.

Then, in the midst of darkness and chaos Jonah has a change of heart.

He begins to pray to God for deliverance, saying that he will offer thanksgiving to God.

So after three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah is regurgitated out on dry land for what must have been a harsh landing!

Then we begin today’s reading:

“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)

This time Jonah set out
and went to Nineveh.

Nineveh was a huge city, the capital of Assyria, and the Assyrians enacted torture on its enemies. It was a nasty and frightening place.

Jonah going to speak a word of judgment to the Ninevites was like a Jewish man going to speak judgment to Hitler in 1938. Who in their right mind would do such a thing?

It is no wonder that he ran in the opposite direction!

And yet, as he turned away from God’s call to him, he found himself in the midst of darkness and chaos, feeling the distance from God.

And then he turned back,
seeking God’s mercy,
which God granted
and then called him a second time.

In today’s Gospel reading we have a story of quite a different response to the call from the Holy One.

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’

“And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:16-18)

As Jesus continued on, he saw James and John and immediately called them, and they hopped right out of their boat, leaving their father and the hired men sitting right there mending their nets, and they followed him.

He didn’t ask them to “repent” or to “believe” or to worship him or lay down their lives for him or do anything except to follow him.

And they did.

They, of course, ended up literally laying down their lives and Jonah’s was spared.

You just never know what’s going to happen when God calls, even if you think you do!

Only rarely do most people hop right up and follow when God calls.

I think Jonah’s response is much more common…seeking safety, but often ending up in the midst of the darkness and chaos we were trying to avoid. Until we realize that we are in God’s hands…that God alone is our rock and our salvation.

Even when God calls us to do things like sell what we have and move into a house together and live with those who have almost nothing materially, or go to Africa and minister to people suffering with Ebola, or tell a family member or friend that they have an addiction and need help, or tell a boss that you won’t lie, cheat or steal even though everyone else does it.

When God calls us…however uncomfortable or frightening that call may be, when we move the opposite direction from that calling, we run the risk of feeling distanced from God and finding ourselves in the midst of darkness and chaos as Jonah did.

The good news is that God will call us again and again.

God will not abandon us on the journey.

And even if we sometimes are crystal clear that we should follow a call and hop right up from whatever we are engaged in in our lives and take immediate steps to follow that call, it doesn’t mean that somewhere along the journey we won’t be confused or doubt.

Many times the disciples did not understand and acted contrary to their calling.

None of them accompanied Jesus at the cross!

And yet the Church exists because of their witness.

God returns again and again, offering us invitations to faithfulness and witness.

May we be so bold as to say “yes.”