Again, this week, we have to look back so that we can look forward. We need Jonah to help set the context for Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Let’s outline the possibilities of response to the invitation to follow. Let’s be reminded that there isn’t an inevitability of response when we issue that call. Perhaps, if we dare, even point out that some of the devout, some of those hearing this word, may be inclined to run away rather than to follow. Jonah was a prophet; Jonah worked for the Lord. And still, when faced with the call to follow into what he thought was dangerous, or futile territory, he ran away. Rather than dropping everything, he gathered up his fears and ran for it.
The lectionary text is Jonah 3:1-5, 10, but you need to tell more of the story. Remind the hearers of Jonah’s choices first. But don’t forget God’s story too. Remember, the Bible is really about how God never gives up on us, even though we might seem imminently give-up-able. The text begins “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”
A second time, did you hear that? The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time... because the first time didn’t go so well. The first time the Word came, Jonah went ... the other way. God’s Word said go; Jonah’s feet said no. And for his troubles, he got a sea cruise berthed in an inside cabin with no view and a pervasive smell (and don’t get me started on the plumbing!). But that was then; this is now. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” And this time, he decided he’d better go in the direction the Word pointed.
The problem was it pointed toward Nineveh. Yikes. If there was ever a town you didn’t want to go, it was Nineveh. If there was ever a place full of the wrong sort of folk, it was Nineveh. You know some cities have a side of town you’re told you ought to avoid? Well, that’s the good side of Nineveh. No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go. They didn’t like him, and he didn’t like them; and they were both happy keeping things that way. Except... “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”
God has a thing for lost causes. And it was a cause God was trying to enlist Jonah in. So Jonah went, dragging his feet all the way into a city that was “a three days walk across.” He walked one day and was a third of the way in. He planted his feet on a busy street corner and muttered his eight-word sermon while picking fish bones out of his beard. “Check that off the list,” Jonah thinks to himself and turns to make his way back out of town. Ready to duck the rotting vegetables and pointed sticks, he hunched down and then realized that the city was eerily silent. His eight-word sermon froze people in their tracks. They were staring at him with that “deer-in-the-headlights,” “hand-caught-in-the-cookie-jar” kind of glaze. And one by one, they turned. First they turned in and didn’t like what they saw. So, next they turned out and began grasping at straws. They put on sackcloth as a sign of how bad they felt. They poured ashes on their heads. Whole families, whole neighborhoods, turned. That’s what repent means, you know; they turned. They were heading in one direction and then because of a word, well eight words, they turned a whole new direction.
That’s the fishy bit, at least as far as anyone is concerned. How could that possibly be? How could a few words turn a life around? It is almost too incredible to be believed. Why, if we were to accept the possibility of such a thing, then we would find no situation beyond our ability to affect; we would find no life beyond the possibility of redemption; we would find no excuse to wash our hands of anyone at any time. Because we just might have the word that would cause their lives to turn around. No, it can’t really be possible in the real world. The real world is hard and cruel, and there are good guys and bad guys, and we know who is who. We live a world different from Nineveh, at least the Nineveh that Jonah found or helped to create. No, our world is a world of hard work, back-breaking labor to get anywhere. The kind of world guys like Simon and Andrew, James and John lived in. Men who knew their trade, who knew what mattered, who kept their noses to the grindstone. Right? Well...
They must have known him before. Or maybe they heard about him. It just seems incredible that with a word - follow me - that they would follow him. It seems like there must have been more than that. More to it than we see. It seems too fishy. Too unbelievable.
There is power in words. God’s word certainly, but even in our words. Knowing this, we now have the responsibility to use our words, to turn lives around. Our own certainly, but others as well. We have an obligation and a joy; we have been given a gift that we can’t horde, that we can’t keep secret. It is a part of the gift itself that we share it. It is woven into the fabric of love that it is shared, multiplied infinitely until all know what we know, all know who we know. Even those we don’t think are worthy of it.
That was Jonah’s problem. That’s why the word had to come a second time. We discover in the final chapter that Jonah’s reluctance came from the fact that he was afraid that God would love the Ninevites as much as God loved him. He was afraid that God would forgive the citizens of Nineveh as he had forgiven Jonah. And that burned him up. God’s grace was fishy to Jonah. It was too incredible, too encompassing, too accepting. After all, Jonah was caught up in that net of God’s love. Who knows who else might be included?
“I’ll make you fish for people,” says Jesus. But before they could fish, they had to be caught. This means we are all fishers and fish at the same time. Hmmm. Something’s fishy. “Follow me,” he says; and we follow. Most of the time, some of the time, we follow. And as we do, we live an invitation. Follow with me. Follow as I follow. And we might even find ourselves in downtown Nineveh. Follow me.