Sunday, January 25, 2009

Third Sunday after Epiphany B

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

If I were standing at the beginning of time, said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on the day before he was assassinated, If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”, I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt...across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on to the promised land.  And in spite of its significance, I wouldn’t stop there.

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus.  And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripedes and Aristophanes assembled around the they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.  But I wouldn’t stop there.

Nor would he stop, King said, in the heydey of the Roman Empire or in the age of the Renaissance or at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.  He wouldn’t stop to watch Abraham Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation.  He wouldn’t stop to hear Roosevelt declare that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Strangely enough, he said, Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”  He chose his present age, and in those few years in the second half of the 20th century, of course, Martin Luther King would become a modern-day prophet with as passionate a proclamation of justice as any Old Testament prophet.  

Any prophet, that is, except for Jonah.  In the biblical book that tells his story, Jonah speaks only eight words of prophesy - the rest of the book is about his wishing he were anything other than God’s spokesperson.  Go to the great city of  Ninevah and preach against it, God calls to Jonah at the start of this fish tale.  In the very next verse, Jonah runs away from God and boards a ship going in the exact opposite direction.  Certain that a storm at sea is his fault for fleeing, he goes overboard to save the rest of the sailors.  And there in the water, once the wind and waves subside, Jonah is found by that fish who swallows him whole.


From inside the fish, Jonah prayed to God, we are told.  Artists have rendered the dark, damp belly with Jonah huddled amidst bones and muck, but the words of his prayer paint a different picture.  To the roots of the mountain I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.  But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God...What I have vowed I will make good.

We meet Jonah this morning shaking off bones and muck after the fish has deposited him on the shore.  Get up, God calls to him.  Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I will tell you.  This time Jonah goes, but not, I suspect, without heaving a sigh.  Israel and Ninevah were enemy states, and Jonah would love nothing more than to see fire and brimstone rain down from heaven upon that great city.  And he would love nothing less than to be the one whose proclamation prompts their repentance.  That’s exactly what happens, and in the verses just following where today’s story leaves us, Jonah cries out, I knew it!  I knew it!  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.  I knew you would forgive them.  You may as well take away my life, God, for I would rather die than see this day.  If the Almighty had asked him then which age he would like to live in, Jonah would surely have wished for any age other than the present in which he worried and stewed as much as anyone who has heard God call.

Anyone, that is, except for Andrew, Simon, James, and John.  It takes Jonah three chapters to accept God’s invitation to deliver a message; it takes the four fishermen one verse to accept Jesus’ call to proclaim good news.  Immediately, Mark tells us, Immediately they left their nets, their family, their lives and followed him.  Mark doesn’t tell us whether they had already heard Jesus speak or seen him perform miracles.  He doesn’t tell us if the fishing business was enough for them to make a living, or whether their families loved them, or whether wanderlust had been growing in their bones.  Immediately they followed him is all we know.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, I’m far more like the man in the fish than I am like the fisherman.  When faced with decisions, especially the life-changing kind, there’s a chance I’ll run the other way, and there’s often a storm of doubt.  Sometimes I am swallowed by the process of choosing which way to go, and sometimes I go intentionally deep down into that belly where there is nothing else to do but pray until I am ready to return to shore.  

This season of epiphanies is not a season for idly gazing at the stars, for basking in the light of the Light of the World.  For that light illumines the kingdom of God in our midst, and Christ calls us immediately to serve with him in it.  Follow me.  I will make you fish for people.  I will show you how to bring them in, into the kingdom, into a new way of living with justice and love.  The time is fulfilled, Jesus said then, and he has said in every generation since, and he still says to us now.  The time is fulfilled.

The Book of Jonah and the Gospel of Mark seem to offer such dramatically different examples of what to do when God calls, what to do when God invites us to live and proclaim the good news.  Jonah runs away; Andrew and the others jump right in.  Jonah witnesses and is horrified by God’s graciousness and compassion prevailing over judgement and condemnation; the disciples will witness, horrifically, Jesus’ graciousness and compassion resulting in his judgement and condemnation.  But the two stories end in a similar and striking way.  God’s steadfast love has prevailed in the sparing of Ninevah and in the Resurrection, but those who have, whether reluctantly or eagerly, followed God through the dark belly and up onto the bright shore are all silent in the end.  The last verse of the Book of Jonah is a question, as God asks Jonah whether the people and animals of Ninevah warranted compassion.  The last verse of the Gospel of Mark ends, in the Greek, in the middle of a sentence as the women run from the empty tomb in fear.

In the silence of those endings, I believe, God turns to us and invites us to make the next move, to make a new beginning, to take up the mantle of the prophet, to answer the call to discipleship, to proclaim what we know about God’s graciousness and compassion, to live in the kingdom of God.  Jonah’s story teaches us that God’s patience can far outlast our fear and doubt, that God can imagine success where we see failure, and that God’s desire for us goes deeper than the darkness in the pits of our stomachs.  

When we struggle to discern the way that God would have us go, when our own agendas for our lives are turned upside-down by God’s agenda for us, when we find ourselves in the belly of the whale, one preacher writes, it is then that we must learn to let the Spirit carry us to the new place where we can hear again God calling us.  When our epiphanies come, let us turn our lives in the same direction as the life of the one who calls us to graciousness and compassion and a proclamation of justice.  Perhaps we will be asked to jump ship, to leave behind all that is familiar; more often, I think, God asks us to do the same things we have always done, but to do them in a new way, for new reasons, with new hope, happy that the Almighty has placed us in this present age when the time is fulfilled, when the kingdom of God is at hand.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter - but beautiful - struggle for a new world.  This is the calling of the children of God, and our brothers and sisters wait eagerly for our response.  Amen.

Artwork: "Jonah in the Whale", by Frank Wesley; "Calling Disciples", by He Qi

No comments: