But when the prophet Jonah hears God’s call, he’s more like a high school drop-out! When God calls him to go to Nineveh to prophesy against the enemy of Israel, he actually packs his bags for the other side of the world! He rushes to the nearest shipping port, buys a ticket to sail the friendly seas, making sure to carry his passport, so as to flee the country, as far as he can possible go! Jonah is so relatable!
Remember what happens next? God makes a giant storm to rock the boat. So the sailors start throwing luggage overboard to lighten the load, but God stirs up the waters all the more! Then the sailors pray to their many and various gods for a reprieve, but to no avail. Finally they figure out it’s got something to do with Jonah, who they discover is resting comfortably down below in the hold of the ship! So Jonah, the reluctant prophet, speaks for the first time in this tale, and admits that yes, the God that he knows, is creating the storm, because, as a Hebrew, he “worships YHWH, the God of heaven, who even made even the sea and the dry land.” This terrifies the sailors all the more, but Jonah matter-of-factly tells them, that in order to calm the waters, they should feel free to, throw him overboard, knowing that God is really angry, at him. So, in the last scene of Act 1, the sailors are swinging Jonah by all fours, even as they pray now to YHWH, Jonah’s God, asking for forgiveness, before they give him the heave-ho into the deep of the Mediterranean Sea.
And sure enough, the storm ceases, and the sailors, in total awe of this God, pledge to worship YHWH alone, from that moment on. And, as for Jonah the chapter concludes that, “the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
The two pairs of Galilean brothers that Jesus calls, who are quite familiar with the sea and its fish, show none of the reluctance to follow, that Jonah did, on the day their Rabbi invited them to “break with business as usual.” (Ched Myers) Jesus has come in the name of YHWH, the maker of heaven and earth, to call us into the dominion of this God, which, in Jesus, “has come near.” And business as usual is challenged already in these opening verses of his public ministry. For example, no one’s ever thought to put these two pairs of brothers together in the same boat! It’s significant, you see, that Peter and Andrew actually have no boat. They are the 99% who live a subsistence life, working each day to bring home the bacon, or in their case, the carp and mackerel, enough to feed family their “daily bread.” James and John, on the other hand, have a boat, a family business passed down from their dad, Mr. Zebedee, and capital and pay roll enough to hire servants. That puts them, not quite in the 1%, but, in the rare, in those days, middle class.
And so, as Jesus gathers disciples, we find they will be from many walks of life, different economic, ethnic, gender, sexual and social classes. But what brings them together, is their response to the good news of God in Jesus, above everything else. “Business as usual” was disrupted as soon as the dominion of God moved in! The brothers turn around from their old ways, and “come after” Jesus, “immediately.” Something new is being created: your kingdom come… on earth as in heaven.
When Jonah’s three days of solitary confinement in the belly of the big fish are over – preserved but not pickled, apparently! – God has the fish spit Jonah up, literally throw-up, on the beach, on the “dry land,” God’s created safe space, “made” for us. And then, “the word of the LORD came to Jonah a 2nd time.” You didn’t think God was giving up, did you?! Turn around from your defiant disobedience, says our persistent God to Jonah! I heard you on the boat confessing your faith in me! Do not be afraid to go to Nineveh, your enemy, and say what I ask you to say.
Now Nineveh, was the elephant in the room. This is the story of going to your enemy and telling them they are wrong. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the country that had conquered Israel brutally, and was known for torture and being, well, merciless. Jonah didn’t want to ask them to be forgiven, not to mention he was rightly afraid for his life, if he even showed up there!
Nineveh was a massive metropolis, three days walk across, was the claim. Jonah walked for one day and figured, close enough! And he “cried out” what was the shortest message of any of the OT prophets, saying simply, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Instead of arresting Jonah, as he feared, it was worse yet. The evil Assyrians “believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small,” repented. And even the cattle, and the goats, and the sheep, were said to, “put on sackcloth!” And they prayed loudly and movingly to the God of Israel, renouncing their terrorist ways, turning around and “going after” now, the sovereign God of Israel.
What an odd and funny story! A fish saves a disobedient prophet by swallowing him for three days. The evil torturous Assyrians act like ladies and gentleman, dressing up their herds of animals in sack cloth and ashes to repent along with them. And, God changes God’s mind! Is God clueless or just terribly irresponsible? How can justice be served in the face of such mercy? How on earth can human beings hope to make sense of such a God?
Jesus is odd and funny in his own way too. ‘Business as usual’ is broken up. “The call of Jesus,” as Ched Myers said, “disrupts the lives of potential recruits, promising them only a ‘school’ from which there is no graduation.” Which is good news, of course, because now we begin a new life with him, that is forever. The invitation is a free turning around from all that enslaves us, to enter the gates of mercy and the power of love.
So how does this affect us? Where are we in the story? Sure, we are Jonah, sometimes reluctant to answer the call and follow, taking a doomed cruise ship just like the Costa Concordia, running dangerously ashore. But we are also the brothers and sisters of diverse backgrounds that want to go after Jesus, with all our hearts and minds and strength, leaving our small boats behind. And, we are the Ninevites, who turn around and trust God to pardon and forgive us.
In God’s story, we are the chosen ones, here in Andersonville and Edgewater. A unique diversity of every kind, which God has made – the people that God calls into one boat – Jesus does not let us drop out! Rabbinic schools, much like our universities today, let their students self-select who they wanted to follow and enroll with. But Jesus does his own calling, knocking on our door, calling us by name, insistent that we follow. He calls us: the lost and the lonely, the rich and the poor, the outcasts and winners. He turns us around from what we were doing, and makes us into that bright shining beacon, an Epiphany Star, so that others will see him, in us, and together we leave ‘business as usual’ to make a difference in God’s world, to live in the joy of divine dominion.