Updated: Jan 25
Sermon #218 St. James the Less #125 1/24/21
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he 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.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
After John was arrested, Jesus came to 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.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
When God calls your name what do you do?
We had a conversation about this a couple of weeks ago at our Thursday Bible Study (that’s my shameless plug for telling you we have a Thursday Bible Study).
Many of us admitted that we haven’t heard the literal voice of God, but we have felt a tug of the heart at different points in our life. It may have come during a time of quiet prayer, passing someone in need, being out in nature, or maybe we’ve heard God speak through a friend or family member.
The voice of God may be understood more as a force—a push or pull that directs our thoughts and actions if we are open to its influence.
Whether we’ve read stories of God’s call in the Bible or experienced some form of it ourselves, we know that once God calls a person, he doesn’t allow us to continue to follow the status quo; usually something changes, and we cannot live the same as we did before. We may even have to make sacrifices in our life or reorient (or reform) our thinking and actions.
In our readings today we see two different ways to react to God’s call, and so I want to look at how Jonah responded in our Old Testament reading and then compare that to the reaction of the four fishermen in our lesson from Mark’s Gospel.
I believe we can learn something important from both of these passages.
So, let’s take a moment to talk about Jonah. I think we generally know his story: God called him to preach in the foreign city of Nineveh, and Jonah does the opposite of a faithful prophet—he boards a ship to Tarshish, going in the opposite direction of Nineveh, at which point he is thrown overboard, and a great fish swallows him up until he is spit out on a beach.
After much internal fighting, Jonah reluctantly goes to Nineveh. Our reading tells us about the sermon he preached to the residents of that pagan city. Even after preaching this sermon (and amazingly the people responding to it by repenting of their sins), Jonah wasn’t very happy about it. He still had Tarshish on his mind.
Scholars are not sure of Jonah’s preferred destination, Tarshish isn’t found on any ancient maps. It may have been somewhere in Spain, but it’s likely more a fantasy than reality; a tropical paradise where you could relax and forget about the worries of the world.
Jonah was trying to run off to this dream of a place where he could sip on pina coladas and listen to a reggae band rather than take up the tough message he was to preach to Nineveh—which was known for its violent tendencies.
And so you can see the tension in this story: God called Jonah and poor, stubborn Jonah went running after a daydream, this magical Tarshish which was more of a mirage in the midst of true reality.
It is then so shocking to read our passage from the Gospel of Mark and see the reaction of Simon, Andrew, James, and John when Jesus calls them.
We shouldn’t be picturing middle-aged men here—these four were likely in their late teens or early twenties. Our passage tells us that James and John were with their father—they were their father’s apprentice, taking up the family trade.
For those of you who were a part of our summer book study last year, you may remember what Rob Bell said about these boys. By the mere fact that Mark tells us that they were out working with their father, we then know that they were not at the yeshiva studying the Torah with the other young men of the town.
They were not the best of the best students, they didn’t have a knack for this “religion thing”, and so the local rabbi told them to leave school and take up the family business instead.
If Jesus wanted the smartest, most gifted Torah students, he should have been at the local synagogue scouting out the talent, rather than walking along the lake. This story says as much about the kind of people Jesus calls as it does about their reaction when he calls.
From the story we know these teenagers literally jump at the chance of following this rabbi who has called out to them. They don’t ask any questions, which seems reckless and irresponsible to us. They didn’t ask how long they’d be gone or where they were going. Their decision doesn’t seem thought through at all.
And of all things these boys were leaving behind, James and John had to leave their dad in the boat—in essence, they were leaving behind the family business—which was the livelihood for them and their parents.
They were leaving a good thing for something completely unknown.
Arning Sporting Goods
As I thought about this story this week I was reminded of my childhood. When I was about seven years old, my dad took a risk and opened a small business in Murfreesboro. He had been a printing salesman for years in Nashville, but as Murfreesboro was beginning to grow in the mid to late 90s, he felt it was time to open up his own sporting goods store.
I spent many days, most days after school in fact, at the store. As a young kid, that place felt like my little kingdom, it did have my last name on the front sign after all. I would go to school wearing with pride t-shirts my dad made that had in big, bold letters “Arning Sporting Goods”.
I would walk around the store with a big grin on my face. I’d check out the new baseball gloves that had come in that morning, put on the football pads just to see if they fit, and bounce every basketball to ensure they had enough air in them.
In my more mischievous moments, if a kid my age walked into the store I would try to see if they’d follow me to the backroom only to turnaround and tell them that only staff could go past the door, and then I would point to my official nametag.
It was a paradise for a kid who loved sports, but as I grew older, I saw how much time and energy my dad put into the family business. The business model itself changed over the years as bigger companies like Dick’s and Hibbets Sports came to town.
The store began to focus on making t-shirts and jerseys, something that the bigger companies didn’t offer. My dad would sometimes be at the store making t-shirts into the wee hours of the morning.
As much as I loved sports and that store, I dreaded the thought of having to tell my dad that I wouldn’t take up the family business. I couldn’t stay in Murfreesboro for the rest of my life. I wanted to explore and see the country and the world, and most of all I wanted to be a priest. I didn’t see how the two could ever work together.
It felt shameful that the store might not go on because I was unwilling to take up the family business when I got older. For better or worse, my dad and I never had to have that conversation. During my high school years, the business downsized significantly.
The economy was in a tough spot, and the big box stores had choked out a number of small businesses in Murfreesboro. My dad a few years later sold the business to the longtime manager.
But I can’t help thinking about family loyalty, and what it must have been like for James and John to look their dad in the eye and then jump out of the boat to follow a complete stranger. How could they just leave their dad in the boat?
What’s the lesson here? I think both Jonah and these brothers teach us something about faithfully following.
The Two Responses
Jonah shows us the bad things we need to let go of to follow God. Jonah learned that he needed to let go of his ego and selfish desires. He was chasing after a dream that wasn’t reality—no matter how hard he tried to run towards the sandy beaches of Tarshish, he was always supposed to be in dusty ole Nineveh. He wanted what he wanted, and he was willing to jump ship so that he didn’t have to go to Nineveh.
Jonah is us at our most stubborn moments—our most selfish and immature moments. We know what God wants from us, and we go and do the opposite.
Where Jonah shows us the bad things we need to let go of, the four young disciples show us the good things we may need to let go of to follow God—and that may even mean leaving dad in the boat. Meaning: leaving a good thing in the boat.
When Jesus calls our name we may have to leave behind some good things that we love and cherish. That which is precious to us may need to be re-evaluated or put in its proper place.
Can you imagine Christianity without St. Peter and St. John? What if they had decided to stick with the family business rather than respond to Jesus’ call?
I hope you don’t hear me saying that I’m like the disciples and so be like me, that’s not my point. But what I am trying to say is that following Jesus is hard no matter what. There will be pain and sacrifice as individuals and families. There are a lot of risks involved, and in the process, we might have to say goodbye to some dreams we had. Tarshish/daydreams are not where God wants us.
From both Jonah and the disciples we learn that many things change when God calls, but the one thing that doesn’t change is the One who calls. He is the One who called Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, He is the One who called the disciples to jump ship and follow him, and he is the One calling us to a life of faithfulness and discipleship this day.
Life will always be changing with the times, our church is in constant flux depending on whose here at a given time, but the constant anchor in our life and faith is Jesus. He is the one true voice calling us, he is the North Star leading us to himself.
It’s our job to listen—to listen and follow wherever he may lead us. But there is a warning: you may have to jump ship.
3rd Sunday after the Epiphany. Year B. Jonah 3:1-5, 10. Mark 1:14-20. Pic here.