All three of our readings today are about letting go –
- letting go of our hatred of those we consider enemies, like Jonah has to do in order to go and preach to the Ninevites
- Letting go of our plans and ideas about where we should go, also like Jonah when he takes off in the opposite direction from where God tells him to go
- Letting go of things we value, even our closest loved ones, our emotional ties, our possessions, the world and its cares, as Paul says true believers ought to do
- Letting go of our identities, like the disciples leaving their boats and their livelihood as fisherman
These readings are all about the things we leave behind in order to follow Jesus…
Jonah’s just trying to live his normal life when God comes along and messes everything up for him by calling him to go and preach repentance to the Ninevites! You see, Jonah hates the Ninevites. He hates their pagan ways. He hates their power. He hates their wealth. The closest thing I could imagine to this situation today might be God calling a young Taliban fighter to go to New York City calling us to repentance. Nineveh, in Jonah’s mind, was as ungodly as any place and people on earth could ever be, and I don’t believe Jonah was alone in that opinion. So, I can understand his reaction when God calls him. He takes off in the opposite direction, trying to get as far from Nineveh as he can, and he ends up on a ship sailing toward Tarshish.
Now, you know what happens next. God sends a major storm, and the sailors freak out and start praying to their gods for rescue, while, all the while, Jonah’s asleep in the hold of the ship. To make the ship lighter, the sailors start throwing their cargo overboard, and they find Jonah sleeping down in the hold, and they ask him what in the world he’s doing. So Jonah tells them his story and that he worships the God who made the earth and sea. And they ask Jonah to pray to this god for rescue, but Jonah tells them not to bother. All they have to do is throw him overboard, which they eventually do. It seems Jonah would rather drown in the sea than to have to preach to Nineveh.
But God still has plans for him. So God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah up and after three days in the belly of the big fish it vomits Jonah up on the shore, guess where. Right outside of the city.
And this is where we pick the reading up today. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying: Get up! Go to Nineveh! And proclaim to it the message that I tell you!
Now, I’ve got to tell you, I know this is in the Bible and all, and I know we’ve been taught to take the Bible seriously. But, come on! This is a funny story! It’s full of irony, and hyperbole. But we miss a lot of it, because we’ve been taught to take things in the Bible so seriously.
And then some of what we miss is due to translation, like in verse 3. We read, “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city.” Sounds impressive, no? But what the Hebrew actually says is something more like: Nineveh was a large city, even for God!
It’s a joke, you see?
There’s no such thing as a city that’s too big for God. We’re meant to get a chuckle out of it, to say nothing of the idea of a prophet who runs away from God, or a fish that’s big enough to swallow a man whole, or that that man can live in the belly of that big fish for three days. Or, and this is my favorite of all, the vision of a prophet who has just been vomited up on the shore, dripping with sea weed and digestive fluids mixed with sea water coming into your city to announce your destruction!
And then there are the verses that got cut out of our reading, verses 6-9, which describe how far the Ninevites go in their repentance. Not only do they fast, and cover themselves in itchy sackcloth, but they cover their animals in it, too! I can just see some poor cow out in the field covered in sack cloth thinking: “What did I do to deserve this?” I mean, come on! How could you not get a laugh from this story?…
But then, here’s the other side. The story of Jonah, as silly as it is, still carries an important message. Under all the silly details, there’s the message of God’s persistent love for all that God has made, even the Ninevites! Even whoever it is we consider to be our greatest and worst enemies. God desires that all should repent and come to the knowledge of salvation, and there’s nothing that God won’t do to make that happen! God’s call extends to all people, and, in the end, there’s nothing you can do to get away and no length to which God won’t go to in order to reach you…
In our Gospel for today, we continue to read about Jesus calling his disciples. Last week we read about Phillip and Nathanael. This week it’s Simon and Andrew, James and John. He comes to them as they’re working along the sea of Galilee and says: “Follow me, and I’ll make you fish for people.” Literally, though, Jesus says: not “follow me”, but “come behind me.” And here Jesus uses the same word he’ll use later, at Caesarea Philippi, when he rebukes Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan.” The place of a disciple is behind the master. Jesus goes ahead, and we go behind. Jesus is the leader, the trailblazer, and we follow along the way he prepares before us.
Just as Jesus goes into Galilee, proclaiming the nearness of God’s reign, we’re meant to go out with the same message: “Repent, and believe the good news, because God’s reign has come near.”
Repent, which means both to turn, and to return. Turn away from the ways of the old Adam and old Eve within you, and, believing the good news, return to the ways of life, and love, and grace – the ways of the God who’ll do anything to redeem you, including becoming truly human, suffering under Pontius Pilate, being crucified, and dying on a bloody Roman cross…
But here’s a tricky part. The call to discipleship living, to following behind Jesus, isn’t always about turning away from sin, or from things that are evil, or things that lead to death. Sometimes it’s about leaving behind something far more basic than that, maybe even leaving behind something good, if that thing has taken an inappropriate place in your heart, or in your life.
When Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John, the call isn’t to leave behind an evil life. They’re married. They have families, and work. Their lives are good. God doesn’t only call us to leave behind the things that are negative, or hurtful, or sinful. God’s call is to leave it all behind, to let nothing stand in the way.
Luther tells us in his explanation of the 1st Commandment – You shall have no other gods. – that our God is whatever we fear, love and trust above all else. Whatever or whomever we fear, love and trust in most is our God, and if there’s anything or anyone we wouldn’t be willing to leave behind for the sake of the Gospel, then that thing has displaced God’s place in our lives…
It’s exactly this type of all-in, nothing withheld, kind of discipleship that causes Paul to write what he does to the believers in Corinth about the urgency of living in a world that’s passing away. Whether you’re in mourning, or you’re rejoicing. Whether you have much, or you have little. Whether you have dealings with the world, or you hide yourself away. The present form of this world is indeed passing away, revealing a new creation, the reign and rule of God in Christ who calls us to come behind him, and to live more and more into the reality of his call: The reign of God is near. Repent, and believe the good news!