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January 24, 2021

“John or Jonah?”

(From Mark 1: 14-20)

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.  

     Our lesson today, from the Gospel according to Saint Mark, is a lesson about discipleship and calling.  On its surface, this reading shares with us a wonderful story about how Jesus began to call his first Disciples.  Yet, as I read this scripture anew this week, I was taken most by the immediate willingness and enthusiasm of those he called to become his followers.  This was especially true of James and John, who the scripture tells us immediately left their father Zebedee in their fishing boat with the hired hands to follow Jesus without hesitation.  It led me to reflect upon the journey of my own calling into pastoral ministry, and my somewhat less enthusiastic response.  Rather than the immediate and positive response of John to Jesus’ call, I was somewhat more of a Jonah person—you know—the guy who wound up in the belly of the whale.  That part of the story I suspect almost everybody knows.  I also doubt that most folks know the whole story of how Jonah actually came to be in the belly of the whale.  The story of Jonah’s journey into the whale reveals the sobering and yet accurate reality that it is sometimes a tough task to become a “willing” disciple of the Lord.  Let us explore this story of one of God’s more reluctant followers.   

     Jonah was a Hebrew, and a believer in the Lord God Almighty.  The word of God came to Jonah and told him to go immediately to Nineveh in order to cry out against the wickedness of the people who were living there.  Jonah’s response was to flee from the Lord by taking a boat in the opposite direction of Nineveh, toward the city of Tarshish.  God was persistent, and set a great wind and storm upon the sea.  The sailors were terrified, and they felt a need to call out to the gods.  Each cried out to their god, and they entreated Jonah to cry out the Lord God.  They also cast lots to determine who on the boat had caused the storm upon the sea—the lot fell to Jonah.  Jonah knew that he held guilt for running away from God’s calling, so he compelled the sailors to throw him overboard.  They, reluctantly did so to appease the Lord, and the storm ceased.  They all became believers, while Jonah became shipwrecked in the sea.  That is when God sent a whale to swallow Jonah and protect him from drowning in the sea.  Inside the whale, Jonah repented of his sin in running from God and vowed now to be faithful.  So God “spoke” to the whale, who then spewed Jonah out upon dry land.  Jonah, then headed straight to the city of Nineveh, to speak the word of the Lord God against the wickedness of the people.

     So, with this understanding of the story of how Jonah wound up in the belly of the whale, you can see just what being more of a Jonah person means.  I, unlike John and the disciples in our scripture lesson today, and yet perhaps like some of you, responded to God somewhat like Jonah.  I found excuses not to follow God’s call upon my life.  The truth was that I felt that I was unworthy to be in pastoral ministry.  I felt that was a broken person with a broken marriage.  If I could not love my ex-husband onto a path of healing and wellness, how could I love a whole church? 

     Did you know that the prophet Isaiah, one of the great prophets who foretold the coming of the reign of Jesus, suffered from a similar sense of personal unworthiness to stand before the presence of our Lord God Almighty?  But in a vision seraphs flew to him carrying live coals; and, touching his mouth, he was pronounced clean.  He was then free to respond to God’s call, “Here I am, send me.” (Isaiah 6: 1-8, NRSV).  Like Isaiah, I was similarly blessed—blessed with a best friend and a church family that bore me up and led me to the spiritual place of God’s healing, forgiveness and restoration. Also like Isaiah, once I was restored, I was much more enthusiastic about answering God’s call with “Here I am, Lord, send me.”

     The truth is, Church, many of us may have our own personal reasons for failing to respond to our own calling with the immediate enthusiasm of Peter, Andrew, James and John in our lesson today.  Like Jonah, we may need a bit more prodding from the Lord.  We may feel we have other pressing obligations, or we may be concerned that answering God’s call will bring changes to our lives that we are afraid, or perhaps even unwilling, to make.  After all, following God’s calling as Disciples of Christ Jesus will require something from us; the big “C”—and I am referring to Commitment.  It does take ongoing commitment to be a disciple—a true follower of our Lord.  Reverend Jonathan Parnell describes a disciple of Jesus as someone who is a worshiper, a servant and a witness to him. That can seem like a daunting task for believers.  But, God knows our hearts, people, and God knows our strengths and our human weaknesses. God knows our stumbling blocks, frustrations, and all of our failed attempts and best efforts gone awry.  God’s love will uplift us, and God’s guidance will equip each of us with gifts for whatever we are called to do for the kindom and family of God—advocate for others, teach, heal, comfort or simply show God’s love to those we encounter.  When I finally said yes to God’s call into pastoral ministry, many of my friends said, “It’s about time!”  They saw God’s work in and through me, equipping me for the work of ministry, long before I recognized or claimed it for myself.  That is how amazingly God’s Spirit works with us and in us.  So, whether you are a John or a Jonah type, an enthusiastic or more reluctant type, there is a place in God’s kindom, and a special calling prepared just for you.  I truly believe that God’s love has brought us to this place together, and the work of the Holy Spirit guides us all toward fulfilling our call to follow Jesus, and to become his true disciples in this very time and place.  Amen—let it be so.     

“I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” (words and music-Anonymous)  

 I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decide to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back.