The book of Jonah is a strange story told in just forty-eight verses. There is little documentation as to who wrote it, under what circumstances, when it was written, and, for some, even why it was written. The story is of a fictitious character named Jonah, perhaps named and derived from the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai. But the folkloric and almost comedic tone of the story suggests that it may come from an independent tradition of the telling of miraculous tales. No one really knows, though, what genre or story-type would have sparked this book.
Leading up to our reading, the story is told of Jonah, who is a pretty well-known prophet as Old Testament prophets go not, probably, because of what he did or what he said but because of what lore says happened to him. Because, you see, Jonah was not the most willing of prophets. When God told him to go to Ninevah, Jonah didn’t question or hesitantly stammer out the list of weaknesses that made him unlikely for this mission. No, Jonah ran away! He went and found a ship and tried to sail away from God. And then, in the midst of a fierce and terrifying storm, Jonah fell asleep. So believing that he may have with his actions brought this calamity upon others, Jonah volunteered to be thrown into the sea. Well, you remember the rest of the well-known story: Jonah was swallowed by a fish, he prayed and prayed and remembered his God who had done so much in his life, and then the fish regurgitated him onto the beach. You know…apparently being a prophet is sometimes messy business!
Actually the “messy” part of this story is that Jonah’s acts not only got himself into trouble, but also endangered others. It’s a hard lesson. We are not lone rangers in this world. What we do, what we choose to do, and sometimes when we try desperately to save ourselves from change, we endanger others.
So the next time the Lord spoke to Jonah, calling him to go to Ninevah and tell them to change, Jonah obliged. He probably wasn’t that happy about it but, after all, once you’ve been thrown up by a fish, you pretty much listen. So he went to the people of Ninevah. Now Ninevah was a major city—lots of commerce and wealth. They pretty much had it all figured out. But somewhere deep inside of them, something was missing. There was still poverty; there was still inequality; and there was still the sense that this was not all there was. So they listened to Jonah. More importantly, they heard Jonah. After all, they were headed for destruction. So they vowed to change, donning sackcloth and fasting and begging God for forgiveness. When God saw that they really got it, that they really intended to change, God saved them from themselves.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Father Mapple, the preacher at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, names “willful disobedience” as Jonah’s sin. He observes that God more often commands than seeks to persuade because what the deity wants of us is too hard for us. “And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” (From The New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 501) While that may sound a bit harsh to our grace-filled 21st century ears, I think there is some truth to it. Sometimes God must do something a little rash to get our attention, to jolt us out of our complacency, to, in effect, will us to “disobey” ourselves, to change pathways from the one on which we travel, and follow where God leads.
Truthfully, though, the whole story is sort of a caricature. I think those who desperately cling to literalism would struggle a bit with this story. A big fish? Really? And an entire city on the brink of hell suddenly repent? Really? Maybe we CAN just chalk it up to grace. You know, amazing things happen on this journey of faith, things that we do not expect, things that we do not plan, things that make no sense. Divine mercy and compassion always win. Maybe that’s the moral of the story. And, when it’s all said and done, when we just can’t seem to make it work, just can’t seem to get on the road, God lovingly chases us down and walks with us to the right place. In Feasting On the Word, Donna Schaper reminds us of the old Jewish proverb that reads: “Whenever someone says, “I have a plan,” God laughs.”
And when it’s all said and done, Jonah really doesn’t change all that much. I don’t think Jonah is in line for sainthood any time soon. He’s like most of us. Maybe that’s the point too. God calls us all. And if we mess it up or just flat run away, God always gives us another shot. And even those of us who do everything we can to avoid where God is trying to take us can end up saving a city (if we don’t get swallowed up first!)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What message does it provide for you?
- How would you respond to Melville’s notion of “willful disobedience”?
- What parallels for our time do you see?
- What is our Ninevah?
- Do you think there is a prophetic word of God in play today?
- What does this say about our own calling from God?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
For Paul, there was a sense of urgency here. He believed, it seems, that the “end of time” as we know it was coming quickly. Paul assumes here that although individuals are called by God, they also make choices for which they are responsible. Here, Paul is warning against being entrapped by the world’s values and not paying attention to what was coming. Paul urged his readers to remain unchanged even in the midst of a changing world. For him, believers need to keep a “long view”, without letting the world drag them down or away. Paul did not think that the world was objectionable or irrelevant but, rather, not the focus of where we should be living. For Paul, the new Creation is beginning to break in and we should be living “as if” it has already happened.
Well, on the surface, it seems that this Scripture was proved wrong. After all, here we sit nearly 2,000 years later, world essentially intact. And yet, it’s not wrong. We have been promised that there is something up ahead. Our faith tells us that at some point the Kingdom of God will come in all of its fullness and, in effect, I guess, “swallow up” (pun intended!) the world as we know it. Paul is not like those few in our current day that attempt to pin point the exact time when this will all happen. Paul just wanted to believe that it was coming AND that it was happening as we speak. It’s a message of transformation. It’s a call to live into it, to live as if the Kingdom of God has come. It’s not a threat; it’s a promise—and an incredible one at that! The Kingdom of God will come in God’s time and at the appropriate time. And whether or not it happens on your way home, tomorrow, or 3,000,000 years from now, it really is imminent. It’s the stuff that our faith is about.
The point is that we are called to live eschatologically, into the future coming of God’s Kingdom. And knowing the certainty and the imminence of, we are called not to remove ourselves from this world but to align its being with what we know is coming. We are called to live “as if” it has already happened.
“Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive… that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].” (Thomas Paine, “The Crisis”, written December 23, 1776.)
America, In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
President Barack Obama
Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How do you think this relates to our lives today?
- What would that mean to you to “live as if”?
GOSPEL: Mark 1: 14-20
Jesus’ first disciples are fishermen from Capernaum, a settlement that stretched along the lakefront. He calls two pairs of brothers—Peter and Andrew and James and John. The story is written in the familiar “call” formula used throughout the Scriptures: (i.) Setting—Fishermen by the sea; (ii.) Summons—Come and follow; and (iii.) Response—They left and followed. The fact that the men drop both occupation and family obligations demonstrates for this Gospel writer that their call comes from God. In fact, it indicates that Peter and Andrew left immediately to follow Jesus. Needless to say, this calling to follow Jesus represented an extraordinary interruption in one’s life and may possibly have even been offensive. For fishermen, a departure might have put the welfare of the entire family at risk. But Jesus provides a “substitute” for their current occupation—becoming, now, “fishers of people”. It doesn’t mean, here, that we are all called to be “fishers of people”. It just means that the gifts we have, God is prepared to use. It means that our calling is not to be something we’re not, but to become fully who we are.
But there’s something else at work here too. The story represents that these were relatively prosperous fishermen, implying that for that culture, the disciples were not uneducated or impoverished. They were not out of work. They actually had a pretty lucrative fishing business. (Boy, what is the deal with fish this week?) But the point is that they actually had something that they had to give up to follow Jesus. They had to give up the lure of this world—money, security—to become who they were meant to be. You know, God never promised that this road was easy; the promise was that it was the one that was right, that was who we are. And, really, if it was easy, why would we need faith at all?
And yet, this call story is not so drastically removed from our own. We are called each and every moment to change pathways, to become who we really are. But it means that we have to give up this self that we’ve created, this self that we’ve tried so hard to fit into this world. We have to follow. And that’s what discipleship is all about. It is not what we do; it is who we are.
The Christian writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells in one of her books about a time in her life when she was struggling mightily with sense of call. She simply could not figure out what it was that God wanted her to do and be. Did God want her to be a writer? Did God want her to be a priest? Did God want her to be a social worker? Did God want her to teach? She simply didn’t know. And in her frustration and exasperation, one midnight, she says, she fell down on her knees in prayer and said: “Okay, God. You need to level with me. What do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? What are you calling me to do?” She said she felt a very powerful response, God saying, “Do what pleases you. Belong to me, but do what pleases you.” She said it struck her as very strange that God’s call could actually touch that place of her greatest joy, that she could be called to do the thing that pleases her the most.
Another Christian writer, Frederick Buechner says, “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” Think about that. “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” But there are other times when God’s call does not come so much from a place inside of us but comes from a place outside of us. Sometimes we’re being called to places we never dreamed we’d go, to do things we never dreamed we’d do, to say things we never dreamed we’d say. (From “Where You Never Expected to Be”, a sermon by Dr. Thomas Long, October 22, 2006, available at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/long_5004.htm, accessed 14 January, 2012.)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does this tell you about your own discipleship or your own calling?
- What is the difference between the notion of being a disciple as what we do and the idea of being a disciple as who we are?
- How does that change our view of our own calling?
- Do you feel like you’ve given anything up to follow Christ?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Call is something you must do to save your life. (Dr. Virgil Howard, Perkins School of Theology)
The desire to fulfill the purpose for which we were created is a gift from God. (A.W. Tozer)
Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 3)
You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity…Amen. (Rainer Maria Rilke)