A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 21, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God’s coming near, of the healing and hope for the world. And the first thing he does when he gets there is to call the apostles. Jesus came to Peter, Andrew, James and John and said, “Follow me.” So they followed, and it all seems pretty simple and straightforward. Not much to it, really. Stop sweating, working with the nets, for hardly any return, and go out and chat with people. Of course, thinking of it this way leaves out the rest of the Gospel.
So let’s turn to our Old Testament lesson today, from the book of Jonah. When you read today’s passage, it sounds like God told Jonah to go preach to Nineveh and preach and everybody repented and things were good—God calls, the prophet answers the call and things work out.
The problem is, that this is exactly NOT what the book of Jonah is about. This bit is from the middle of the story, while both the beginning and the end of the story give a very different view. The story actually goes like this: God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. Jonah’s immediate response was to head in the other direction. Instead of going across the desert to Iraq, Jonah got on a boat headed to Turkey, or maybe Italy, perhaps New York. This is where the whale comes in. God was not amused by Jonah’s response, and sent a big storm, and the crew of the boat threw him overboard to keep the boat from sinking.
It worked and a big fish or whale swallowed Jonah and spewed him out back on the beach where he started. That’s where we get today’s lesson. God says it again, and Jonah trudges off to Nineveh, and walks into the huge city, and tells everyone to repent, and they take him seriously, and do it.
Fine. Except that’s not the end of the story. Jonah is very unhappy with this outcome. He had expectations. He had said that in forty days Nineveh was going to be overthrown, and that’s what he wanted to see. And if God was going to change the deal, Jonah was just going to go off and sulk. Jonah wants to die, because God is merciful to the people he wants to punish. Jonah wants God to do what he wants him to do, and be the way that Jonah thinks God should be, which oddly enough, is just like Jonah.
God, however, is a living God, who does not resemble Jonah, or me, or even you. God’s love is beyond our understanding—deeper and wider than our imagination can take in. So, God calls his people, he calls his prophets, his apostles, his priests, his witnesses to the truth, mothers and fathers and children—and we think we understand that call. Peter and Andrew and James and John thought they understood when Jesus said, “Follow me.” Perhaps they even believed they knew what it meant to become fishers of people. But responding to the call to follow Jesus works out differently than we expect, at least the first twenty or thirty times we start out. Jonah actually had a pretty good idea of what God wanted, and that’s why he took off in the opposite direction. It was not going to work out that his enemies were going to be punished and Jonah’s angry fantasy satisfied.
Not everyone’s fantasies are angry, like Jonah’s. Many times in my life, my fantasies have been more grandiose and self-centered than angry. As individuals and as a church, we have ideas and expectations that are sometimes visions of God’s kingdom and sometimes fantasies to make ourselves comfortable. God’s call to us is in the real world, and it leads us in ways that we often don’t expect. Jonah found that God’s mercy abounds, even beyond our own regions of comfort. Those first disciples also discovered the abundance of God’s mercy—it took time for them to understand that that mercy called them to go with Jesus into places that challenged them more than they imagined.
Jesus brings us good news, THE Good News that God is here with us. That God’s mercy and compassion are right here, in this place for all of us; for every one of God’s children without any need to pass a special test, or have special skills or achievements. God loves you and welcomes you. Jesus calls each of us, like he did his apostles. Like God called Jonah. The Good News, of course, is also for that other person, the one who might make somebody uncomfortable, the ones that Jonah ran away from. We think we know that they won’t accept the Good News, or at least not respond to God’s call with appropriate repentance. Sometimes we are just like Jonah that way. And what does our lesson today say?
Jonah cried out, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Jesus’ apostles, in their journeys with Jesus, also had similar experiences, with the outcasts and lepers, the Samaritans and the Gentiles, with many who they assumed would reject the Gospel, or who God healed and transformed before they believed.
We have God’s mercy, God’s Kingdom, right here among us. The challenge is to accept and live in that love—to follow the call of Jesus and to see where else he bestows that Good News.
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.