Jesus goes out to the people of Galilee and proclaims this message: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Jonah also has a message from God to preach, this time to the people of Nineveh who have turned their backs on the Lord. He tells them: Forty days more, and your city will be destroyed. Two messages from God to his people. Two different callings to bring God’s message to the world. What can we learn from today’s readings?
First, from Jonah, we see that God can call us to a task that we particularly don’t want to do. Jonah saw Nineveh as his enemy. He definitely did not want to see them repenting. In fact, what he wanted was to see Nineveh to be punished by God for all of eternity. Think of one of the diehard Mississippi State fans in our congregation receiving the call to bring salvation to the Ole Miss community and the people of Oxford. That wouldn’t bring joy to the heart of the Bulldog fan, would it? But God has his reasons and his wisdom for calling us to do something, and sometimes we just don’t understand, do we? I remember a seminarian complaining to me about something he was asked to do by as a part of his seminarian formation. I told him to lift it up to the Lord. He said that he really disliked when he was told that, but it is true, there are some things we do need to lift up to the Lord.
When I was a seminarian, I had to spend a summer serving as a chaplain at a hospital in a program called clinical pastoral education. It was known to be one of the toughest experiences we would go through in seminary. Most seminarians dread it. As a part of our training, we would do something called a verbatim: we would write down a dialogue we had with a patient in a ministerial situation, and we would act out the dialogue with another seminarian in the program. I remember one verbatim I had, after I read out the dialogue with one of my classmates, our professor turned to me and said: Lincoln, I am going to be honest with you, the discussion we are about to have about your verbatim is going to be very painful for you. And he was right; it was a very painful. But at the end of the summer, I could honestly say that although that summer of clinical pastoral education in the hospital was not easy, and often it was a struggle, it was one of the most important things that prepared me for the priesthood. Sometimes in the difficult situations God puts us in, there is great growth and a lot of learning that takes place.
Another lesson that struck me in today's readings: We can try to run away from God’s call for us, but God will pursue us. It certainly took Jonah a long time to learn that lesson. Because it was a calling he did not want, he went ran off to a ship, but he was swallowed up by a whale that God sent to bring him back to shore. Jonah relented, resigning himself to the fact that he couldn’t run away from the will of God. So he did what God asked him to do, although very reluctantly.
Contrast Jonah to the urgency in which Simon and Andrew answer Jesus’ call to follow. The NRSV translation of the Gospel says that in the middle of casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee, Simon and Andrew “immediately left their nets and followed him.” IMMEDIATELY!!! God can call us to serve him in our own backyard, or he can ask us to go to a faraway place. I was at the leadership formation program for priests in our diocese this past week at the Duncan Gray conference center near Canton in a program called "Good Leaders, Good Shepherds". It struck me how our priests come from different parts of the world – Africa, India, Vietnam, Latin America, Ireland. From Andrew and Simon who left their old lives behind, to the men and women today who make sacrifices to serve in ministry in our Church, we have great examples of those who courageously follow God’s call and eave so much behind.
God chose Jonah as his special prophet and he continued to rebel and fight that call. God called those four fishermen in the Gospel today. None of those men were perfect when they received their call. And in their ministries and their lives of discipleship, they continued to be imperfect – they continued to make mistakes. They continued to be human. God calls us out of our reality. He calls us to serve. Let us answer that call.