Today we heard two stories about callings. The first reading was about Jonah. The second was the story about the calling of the first disciples. You all know the basics of the Jonah story: him being swallowed by the whale and preaching to the evil city of Nineveh. But what you may not know is that it is satire, a parody, like a 5th century BC version of Saturday Night Live. In the original Hebrew it’s easy to tell this story is supposed to be funny. Historically, the prophets always had a hard time convincing the people of Israel to return to the Lord. But when Jonah barely says anything the cruel, evil people of Nineveh immediately change their ways and everyone from the king to the cows put on sackcloth and ashes in repentance.
Now Nineveh was the capital city of the fierce Assyrian Empire, the empire which (historically speaking) destroyed Jonah’s homeland the Northern Kingdom of Israel. A century later, Assyria was destroyed by Babylon, the same empire which brought the Southern Kingdom of Judah into exile. Then Persia defeated the Babylonians, and the Judeans returned to their homeland. At that time Jonah was written as a comedy meant to portray the outrageousness of God’s forgiveness and highlight the audacity of people who refused to repent.
The original readers would’ve hated the Ninevites, they were violent and oppressive enemies of Israel. They were evil people. So Jonah did not want God to forgive the Ninevites. To avoid his calling he gets on a boat to sail to the complete other side of the known world, Tarshish—a city in modern day Spain. God has a giant fish swallow him, and in its belly Jonah agrees to do God’s will. Then he’s spit out on the shores of Nineveh and he goes into the city where he reluctantly says one sentence about how they should repent. And miraculously the whole city repents! It’s every prophet’s dream come true. People never listen and repent! But here they do, and God forgives them.
Jonah’s mission was accomplished. And he’s really mad about it. He didn’t want to see the Ninevites forgiven. In the next chapter he gets angry and complains to God: “See I knew you were forgiving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! I knew it! That’s why I didn’t wanna come here! These people don’t deserve to be forgiven! But you’re so loving that you did it anyway!”
Besides being funny, this story is also meant to reveal an important message. The story ends telling all who are listening that God loves people of all countries, and also the cattle and animals. The story reveals a number of truths like: God loves the people you hate, and following God’s calling may lead us to do things we don’t want to do.
Now bearing that in mind, let’s consider the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. It’s interesting that Mark say “immediately” over and over again. There’s a real urgency to this Gospel. The disciples immediately leave their nets and follow him. They’re excited to follow Jesus and eager to see what’s ahead. Maybe they expect great things, power and success, or maybe they’re up for adventure and don’t know what to expect. Whatever the case, they’re excited to follow Jesus. They do the opposite of what Jonah did when he turned the other way and went to Tarshish. But like Jonah, God blesses their work and helps them succeed in their mission even when they’re less than perfect.
When you hear God’s call do you respond more like Jonah or more like the disciples? Do you drop what you’re doing and follow the Spirit’s direction or do you resist and turn the other way? Perhaps a better question for modern Christians is: do we even hear God’s call like Jonah and the disciples did? Do we even want to hear God’s call in a clear and undoubtable way?
I think that’s the first question to ask ourselves: do we even want to hear God calling us? I imagine all of us are at least a little bit afraid of what we might hear. We might hear a call to pack up and move to the other side of the world. We might hear a call to stay put when we’d love to move. We might hear a call to leave a comfortable career or relationship. We might hear a call to join a new ministry when we already have too much on our plate. We might hear a call to read a new book or take on a new spiritual practice. We might hear a call to offer forgiveness to somehow who doesn’t deserve it. We might hear a call to reflect more deeply on how our political beliefs and how what we advocate for in the public sphere reflects our belief in the God who lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, who favors the outcast and the refugee, the widow and the orphan. If we open ourselves to hearing God’s calling in our lives, we will hear a call to deepen our spiritual discipleship in some way. We might like what we hear, or it might be very challenging.
It helps, I think, if we learn to see the whole of life as a spiritual journey. God calls us on this journey. Just like Jonah and the disciples. We may not be physically traveling anywhere (especially these days), but this journey is an inward journey of reflection, gentle self-criticism, humility, and trust. And if we prayerfully consider how God is calling us inwardly, we will gain greater clarity to where God is leading us outwardly. Such clarity may come suddenly one day after a long period of spiritual confusion and discernment, or it may come little by little as our spiritual quest comes into clearer focus. But the key is to be intentional and prayerful, to listen and trust that God will guide you if you ask.
In the men’s group we’re reading a yearly men’s spirituality book by Richard Rohr where we’re learning to explore life as a spiritual quest. Rohr encourages us not to settle for easy answers but to dive deep and ponder the mysteries of paradox and sit with unanswerable questions. To reflect on how life is a continual journey of growing closer to God and of discovering the divine image in which you were created.
While we may not be called to travel across the world to Nineveh or to follow the Messiah around Galilee and Judea, we are called to take the inward journey of spiritual discipleship. We are all called to that. And the inward journey will almost certainly change your outward journey. It starts with spending time in silent prayer, meditating on scripture, reflecting on the sacred presence that fills everything.
Deepening our inward journey is risky and it takes courage. It takes time and energy. But there’s also a graciousness and patience about the Spirit’s call that simply says: just do the best you can. So do whatever that means for you. Think about it, pray about it, invite God to direct you on the inward journey and to prepare you for whatever calling you hear concerning the outward journey. It always starts in prayer. Invite God to deepen your relationship with Him and trust the Spirit’s gentle tugs in your life. Pray for the strength to follow wherever God leads, whatever that may mean for you. Come and follow me our Savior says, and I pray we all follow the call. Amen.