St. Mark's Episcopal Church

124 North Sylvia Street - Montesano, WA, 98563

Epiphany 3




Epiphany 3

Mark’s gospel does present things in a straight-forward, uncomplicated manner.  He tells us in a story that Jesus says to a couple of commercial fishermen, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 

Simon and Andrew do – and Jesus does.  A little further on, Jesus encounters James and John, also fishermen.  He calls to them, and they, too, simply follow with no hesitation, and begin to fish for people.

Easy for them, we say.  They seem to have no wives and children they’re abruptly abandoning, and they can trust the hired men to help their father in the family fishing business.  There’s no indication that anyone is clinging to them as they walk away with Jesus.  They don’t have meetings to go to, no volunteer work to hold them back. God must wish that everyone would be so willing, so eager to follow Jesus. 


The New Testament isn’t the first place we encounter people whom God is calling to follow. The Old Testament, too, gives us stories of such people. 

Like Jonah.

When the Lord calls Jonah, telling him to go to Nineveh, he jumps right up and promptly boards a ship, a heathen ship by the way, that’s going – wait for it – in the opposite direction from Nineveh.  It‘s heading for Tarshish, someplace which is definitely not found on the way to Nineveh.

Jonah’s story is really different from that of Simon and Andrew and James and John.  We do know that Nineveh is to the northeast of Israel.  But we don’t exactly know where Tarshish is.  Scholars think it was supposed to be at the end of the world – clear to the west – way far away – maybe where Spain is.

So, God comes to Jonah and says, “Jonah, go over to Nineveh and preach.”  What we don’t hear is Jonah saying, “Yes, Lord!  I’ll go wherever you tell me to go, and do whatever you want me to do, and say whatever you want me to say.” 

Now there’s no love lost between the people of Nineveh and the people of Israel.  No Israelite (and Jonah is an Israelite) would have wanted to go to Nineveh.

Listen to what God wants Jonah to do.  God says, “Cry out against Nineveh, for their wickedness has come up before me.”  What a great opportunity it is for Jonah, a chance for him to look down his nose at those Ninevites, to lord it over them, and tell them how really wicked and evil God says they are.

However, Jonah refuses to go because (are you ready for this?) he’s afraid the prophecy might work!  Figure that one out!  He’s afraid they might listen and repent, and God would forgive them, and then where would we all be?   With us as the good guys, and the violent, sinful Ninevites as the bad guys, we know where we all stand.  But if  they repent, our world would turn upside-down. Can’t have that!

Hence Jonah gets on a boat, hoping to go where God is not.  And what happens is the basic story that we learned in Sunday School.  Jonah’s thrown overboard in order to appease some angry storm god, and he’s promptly swallowed by a big fish.  Well, maybe he isn’t literally swallowed by a big fish.  At one time the expression “to be swallowed by a big fish” was equivalent in our day to being “in a pickle” or “between a rock and a hard spot.”

As the story goes, for the traditional three days and nights the fish, not having a supply of Tums handy, suffers badly from indigestion, and finally spews Jonah up onto the shore – the shore of Nineveh.  You can imagine Jonah wailing “Nineveh!  Oh, damn!”

There,” says God.  “Let’s try this one more time.  Read my lips. Get. Up. Off. That. Sand.  Go to that great city of Nineveh.  Proclaim to them the message I give you.”

By this time Jonah’s pretty worn out from his adventures; he doesn’t have the energy to resist any more.  So he goes to the big city of Nineveh – to the supposedly exceedingly large city of Nineveh that requires three whole days to walk through – which makes it about 60 miles across, or so the story tells us.

Modern archeological excavations reveal that Nineveh was actually about three miles across.  But if we can swallow the bit about Jonah having been in the belly of a big fish for three days, we won’t quibble about walking across a 60-mile-wide city.

So, Jonah goes to the exceedingly large city and delivers his sermon – a one-sentence, five-word sermon.  What a preacher!  In Hebrew, 5 words.   For us, 8 words. “’Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’  There.  Are you satisfied, God?  I’m done.”

The response to the world’s shortest sermon ever is the greatest response in the Bible.  The people of Nineveh immediately repent!  They start fasting; they put on sackcloth; they dump ashes on their heads.  All the city’s residents, from the king down to the very cattle, repent.

Jonah should be impressed with himself.  He has succeeded 110%, counting the cattle, 110 per cent!  But instead, he gets angry and depressed and wants to die.  He whines and he pouts: “I knew this would happen!  That’s why I headed for Tarshish instead of Nineveh.  I knew you were a God of mercy.  I knew you were forgiving. I knew you loved losers like those Ninevites.  I coulda predicted what would happen.”

It was easy to predict, and Jonah clearly doesn’t like it. He wants his God to beat up their god.  Because a world with such clearly defined good guys and bad guys must have a different god for each side, right?  Surely a single god wouldn’t embrace both sides.

Yet we so often do see the world as being divided into sides.  It’s not just the Ravens against the Patriots.  Not just the Warriors against the Celtics.  Not just the Republicans against the Democrats.  Remember the Cold War, with the Free World against the Iron Curtain countries?  Afghanistan against the Iraqis.  The Arabs against the Israelis, and vice versa.  The Jets against the Sharks.  Each side sees itself as the good guys and the other side as the bad guys. 

It’s been 3000 years since Israel met the one God.  But we’re still dividing up the world, and what might surprise us is that our God works both sides of the street.  If the world is good guys versus bad guys, then darn it, there oughta be a god for each side. Right?  But no.  We follow the Lord our God.  And the Lord our God is one.

So.  If we all follow one God, how do we end up on different sides?  When I was a younger worshiper, listening to the preaching of wise priests, I was sure that they knew all the answers.  When I got called to study for ordination, I thought, “Aha!  Now I’ll get the answers to all those questions.” 

Instead, I think I just got more questions.

But the bottom line is that we don’t need to have all the answers.  We just need to follow Jesus.  Knowing that God was among the Ninevites, we can take heart.  If God is their God and also our God, the line between the good guys and the bad guys blurs.  And thus the sides are not so distinctly divided.

No matter how much we divide up the world into opposing sides, the story of Jonah reminds us that if there is a place in God’s heart even for the Ninevites, then there is a place for all of us. 

So anyone, Ninevite or Israelite, high church or low church, Democrat or Republican – we’re all called, like James and John and Simon and Andrew, simply to follow Jesus as Lord. 

So don’t head for Tarshish.