January 24-25, 2009 Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle B
What a coincidence of events this week: Sunday was proclaimed by outgoing President Bush to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day, Monday we celebrated Martin Luther King day, Tuesday we witnessed that miracle of the US - the peaceful transition of power, Thursday was the 36th anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision, and this week is the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. All of which call us to greater discipleship here and now. Today's readings reveal a good deal about God's approach to discipleship.
Today's gospel passage from Mark is very similar to last week's from John; they both talk about Jesus choosing his first disciples. John says that they asked Jesus where he was staying and when he said come and see, they stayed with him the whole day.
Deacon Michael Bulson, in a homily on today's readings asks, "Do you wonder what Jesus and those first four disciples talked about?" Mark's account gives us a really good clue, They were all fishermen so they most likely told fish stories. And Deacon Bulson, taking his cue from the first reading wonders if Jesus told one of the greatest fish stories of all time: the story of Jonah the prophet.
This Sunday is the only time in the three year Lectionary cycle that we hear from the book of Jonah. And if all we heard was this short excerpt we might think that Jonah is the perfect disciple. God tells him to go to Ninevah, he goes and barely starts speaking when the whole city is converted. But the whole story tells us much more about what it means to be called by God.
Jonah was as prophet who lived some 700 years before Jesus was born. God spoke to him and told him to go to the great city of Nineveh and tell them that they had 40 days to repent or God would destroy them. Now Nineveh was a city that had periodically swooped down to destroy the Israelites, killing them and tearing down their cities. Jonah can think of nothing better than God destroying Nineveh. So instead of heading east to proclaim God’s message, he signs up for a Mediterranean cruise headed for Spain.
But God is not to be denied. He starts rocking the boat with a tremendous storm. Soon the superstitious sailors pin the danger on Jonah when he admits he is running away from his God. After Jonah begs them to throw him over board to save the ship, they finally pray to God for forgiveness and toss him over. The storm quiets and they start offering sacrifice to Jonah’s God.
Meanwhile God sends the fish to swallow Jonah and bring him back to shore where God again tells him to go to Nineveh. Here is where the reading from today picks up. Jonah bows to the inevitable and heads off, shaking his head and over his shoulder, complaining to God, “They will either laugh at me or they will kill me!” Now Nineveh was a big city, which took 3 days to walk through it. Before Jonah is finished his first day of preaching, the people of Nineveh believe him and start mending their ways. When the news reaches the king, he believes too (must have been election year). He commands that everyone, all the way down to the cats and dogs and cows and pigs had to put on sackcloth and ashes, and had to pray that God might spare them. And God does. So how do you think Jonah feels about his success?
This really makes Jonah mad. He goes out into the desert and sits down in the hot sun and begs God to kill him. “What good is it to be your chosen people if you are going to save anyone who repents and prays to you?” God makes a gourd plant grow up next to Jonah so the shade protects him from the heat. The next morning, God sends a worm to destroy the gourd plant. Jonah starts to complain again. When God asks him if he is angry about the plant, Jonah responds that he is angry enough to die. God then says, “If you are concerned about the loss of this plant, even though you had nothing to do with its growing, shouldn't I be concerned about the loss of Nineveh with its 120,000 people, not to mention all the animals?”
The story of Jonah is a concise summary of how God works his plan. He often calls us to go in a direction we would rather not go. Even in the midst of our flight from his plan, he can use us to reveal his kingdom, just as he used Jonah to reveal his power to the sailors. He can work tremendous miracles of conversion through us, even if we are convinced of our own lack of power. And God’s plan is always a plan of mercy and conversion, not threats and punishments.
Contrasted with Jonah, today’s Gospel has the first disciples leaving everything they had to follow this Jesus of Nazareth, just to see what made him so different from anyone they had ever met. The kingdom of God is at hand, not out there somewhere, but precisely in the person of Jesus, and since his death and ascension into heaven, it is in the body of Christ, the Church. Jesus announces this kingdom by challenging all to repent, which means to turn around, to re-orient ourselves to God, rather than to the fleeting riches of our culture or to violence as a means to our ends. Our Christian faith teaches us that God calls us, not just to believe in a dogma, or simply surrender ourselves to some structure, but instead to enter into a loving relationship with this person Jesus.
Would that we all had the courage (or the naiveté) of Andrew, Peter, James and John, to throw ourselves without hesitation into God’s plan for us. Like Jonah, and I think most of us, they had their moments of running away from God's plan, when Jesus was arrested. These stories together tell us that God can handle rejection. We can take heart from Jonah’s story and the story of the apostles, that God can use us, no matter how unwilling or unqualified we may think we are. These stories remind us that God really is the hound of heaven, continuing to call us again and again, no matter how unwilling or apparently incapable we are of responding.
The good news is that we are not called to do great deeds, although we may, or make great sacrifices, although we may. Our call is just to repent, to turn around, to “come and see” where this Jesus abides, and in getting to know Jesus, to start to know God as a God of love and compassion and forgiveness and mighty deeds. As we start to understand how much we are loved, our response is to share that love with those around us, even if they are not people we would choose to love. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand, this kingdom of love and peace and forgiveness and justice. In fact, in this week of Christian Unity, the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the remembrance of Martin Luther King, the turmoil of our economy, and violence in Africa and the mid-east, this kingdom is not just at hand; it is in our hands; for God’s call to us is to make that kingdom real by how we live and love this week.