Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62
1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
The juicy parts in the story of Jonah come before, and then after, what we read today. Here’s the story, in brief:
Jonah is a prophet, sent by God, to call the people of Ninevah to repent. Jonah knows that these Ninevites are world-class sinners. He has done the feasibility study on the potential of their ever doing the right thing, and he knows for sure that they do not have, as consultants say, the capacity for much repentance. They are party-hearty sinners, and set in their ways. Jonah told God all this, and said, forget it; let’s shake the dust from our feet and move on. God said, Do it, and Jonah said, No, I’m not, and went off to cruise the Mediterranean. The ship got in trouble; the crew knew that it was Jonah’s fault, and so they threw him overboard, where God conveniently arranged for a private retreat space, otherwise known as the belly of the whale, for Jonah to think again about his assignment. The whale spits Jonah out onto the beach, where, “the word of God came to Jonah a second time.” He goes to Ninevah, the people are converted to God’s agenda, and, amazingly, God changes his mind. God decides NOT to punish the Ninevites for all their world-class sins. God sees that they have turned from their evil ways, and God realizes, hey, this is what I really wanted all along. God is pleased.
Jonah, as you might recall, is not. Jonah thinks these sinners ought to be punished anyway. He goes off to sulk that his powerful prophecy about Ninevah being overthrown was nullified. He and God have another conversation, and God, as you can imagine, because this is the Bible, has the upper hand. The people of Ninevah turn toward God and thrive, and Jonah is mad, because he is deprived of the opportunity of saying, “Nyeh, nyeh, I told you so.”
So who is this story of Jonah and the people of Ninevah about, anyway? Jonah? The Ninevites? No. It is about God. God who got mad that people were not living the good lives God wanted them to live, and then God, who changed his mind. The people of Ninevah, sinners that they were, got God to change God’s mind about the future, from wrath, punishment, desperation and misery, to … grace.
St. Paul, in this little snippet from his first letter to the Corinthians, talks about what happens when wild and crazy sinners, like the people of Corinth, like the people of Ninevah, get what God is saying – what happens when their hearts are converted to God’s way of living. Things that used to matter a lot to them – all that wild, sinful life -- does not matter anymore – for the world, in that present form, is just passing away.
Conversion is like that. You might have thought that you could change nothing about your life, or you would die – and then God gets ahold of you. You begin to read the story of your life through God’s eyes, and then, without even knowing it, a lot of stuff you thought was do or die, life or death, just passes away. A lot of other things become a lot more important.
Ok, now. So reflecting on that Reader’s Digest version of the story of Jonah that I just gave you, think about this gospel story about the call of the disciples, these fishermen who left their nets to follow Jesus. What is this story about? Whose story is this?
A conventional reading, with all the “should” and “oughts” attached to it, is that this story is about the disciples, and us – about making the choice to follow Jesus, about what we are giving up, about how hard the life is, about how Jesus comes to us everyday, asking to give up everything we hold near and dear. And well, yes, later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does say, “Take up your cross,” and Jesus does say there is a cost to that discipleship.
But actually, when we read this story, I think it is distracting to read this story as being only about the disciples, or only about us. I love what the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls “the miracle on the beach,” calling this a miracle story about the power of God to create risk-taking, committed disciples out of what was just a bunch of fishermen. That this is a story not about what good, or bad, characters those fishermen were, but about the power of God, Taylor says,
… to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not [about] God, and smack them upside the head with glory.[i]
Reading this story as God’s story gives it a completely different point of view – one that does not reduce the fishermen to insignificant puppets, does not take away their “fisherman-ness,” but gives them a chance at something new, something creative and exciting. Reading this story as one about the power of God to convert even the most mundane and workaday heart shows us how God gives ALL of us the chance to play a role in God’s story of the creation of a transformed, abundant and blessed world.
Like the fishermen, like Jonah, like the Ninevites, like the Corinthians, we don’t have to earn our place in the kingdom of heaven.., God just invites us to come along. We’re already in. Maybe, like the people of Ninevah, we can surprise God with just how ready we are to take up that call. All we have to do now is to begin to see this story the way God sees it.
Conversion, they say, is turning our lives in the same direction as God’s life. In our workaday world, we might be doing the same things we have always done – we might still be fishermen, for example, but as Jesus says, we are going to fish for so, so much more.