January 24th, 2021 homily on Jonah 3:1-5 and 10, and Mark 1:14-20 by Pastor Galen Zook
How many of you have ever trusted someone or something to get you where you were going, but you ended up in completely the wrong place?
In January 2013, a 67-year-old Belgian woman, was driving to pick up a friend in Brussels, about 90 miles from her home. But based on the faulty directions she got from her GPS, she drove all the way to Croatia—nearly 1,000 miles away. The journey took the woman across five international borders. She stopped several times to get gas and take naps, but she kept pressing onward until she hit Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
After a few days her son got worried and called the police, who located Sabine by following her bank statements. She told a Belgian reporter, “I was distracted, so I kept going. I saw all kinds of signs, first in French, then in German, and finally in Croatian, but I continued driving because I was distracted. When I passed Zagreb, I told myself I should turn around.”
Now maybe you’ve never accidentally driven all the way to another country before, but probably all of us have followed someone or something that led us astray.
In situations like that, it’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve made a mistake, and it’s even more frustrating to have to turn around and go all the way back. But eventually we need to face up to the fact that our trust was misplaced, we went astray, and we need to turn around and head in the right direction. Stubbornly continuing forward will only take us further and further away from our intended destination.
Jonah and the Ninevites
In the book of Jonah we have a story about a people who were headed in the wrong direction. The people who lived in the city of Nineveh, were a violent people, known for their brutality and oppression. They worshipped false gods, and they participated in all sorts of idolatrous rituals. They were very much going the wrong way, they just didn’t know it.
Jonah, the prophet God called to go and warn them of the coming judgment, was also headed in the wrong direction. Rather than going to Nineveh as God commanded, Jonah purposefully went the other way!
Later on in the book of Jonah we find out why. We find out that Jonah knew that God is a loving and gracious and compassionate God, and he was afraid that if the people of Nineveh repented and turned back from their sins that God would forgive them.
And so, rather than going north-east to Nineveh, which would have been about 725 miles from where he started, he instead got on a boat and headed off to Tarshish (which is in modern day Spain). 3,000 miles away from Nineveh!
Of course he never made it to Tarshish, because while he was on the boat a great storm arose. The sailors tried everything in their power to keep the ship afloat, tossing cargo overboard in order to lighten the load. Eventually they come to suspect that someone on the boat must have angered the gods, and they drew straws to find out who it was. Jonah drew the short straw, and was forced to admit that he was running from God. He told the sailors to throw him overboard, and after much protesting, they complied. Jonah would have drowned, but God sent a great fish to save him, swallowing Jonah whole and depositing him on dry land three days later.
The 3 days and 3 nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the whale was a sort of turning point for Jonath. He realized that he could not continue running from God, and so he agreed to go to Nineveh. (He did not, however, repent of his negative thoughts and feelings towards the Ninevites!)
And so, when the whale spit him out on dry land, and God called him a second time, he headed directly to Nineveh, delivered God’s message to the people of Nineveh, telling them that in 40 days they would be overthrown. And then Jonah sat down to wait in gleeful anticipation to watch God destroy the city.
God however, did not destroy the city, because the Ninevites repented! They turned away from their sinful ways. They cried out to God and God heard their prayers, and forgave them, just as Jonah feared would happen.
It’s All About God
Now if these few verses from Jonah chapter 3 were the only part of the story that had been recorded, we would think of the prophet Jonah as an effective evangelist. A model missionary. A successful preacher. Just think of it — a whole city converted after he preached a sermon that was only 8 words long! If these 6 verses were all we had, and if there was a Preacher’s Hall of Fame, Jonah would be in it.
But set in the context of what we know about Jonah, how he at first ran from God’s call, and that even when he did proclaim God’s message to the people his heart really wasn’t in it, we realize that this story is not really about Jonah at all. It’s not a story about how wonderful Jonah was, or how effective he was as a prophet. It’s not a how-to manual for evangelism. Nor is it even about the Ninevites — for although they did repent and turn from their sins for a time, history tells us that as a people they did not continue to worship God for very long.
Instead I believe this story is all about God. It’s about a God who calls, a God who invites us to follow. A God who sees the potential in us even when we don’t see it in ourselves. A God who invites us to participate in proclaiming God’s Word. A God who invites us into relationship, a God even of second chances (and in many cases, third, and fourth, and fifth).
It’s about a God who is loving and compassionate, who works even through the most reluctant of messengers. A God who forgives even the most violent offenders. A God who hears and sees. A God who continually calls and invites us to join in God’s mission.
We see this at work in the life of Jesus, who called Simon and Andrew and James and John to follow him.
“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” (Mark 1:16-20).
Now there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Simon and Andrew and James and John were fishermen. Fishing is an honorable profession, and by participating in the fishing industry they were following along in their fathers’ footsteps, which I’m sure made their families very proud.
But most likely when they were young, they had dreamed of traveling the world, setting off on adventures to foreign lands. Perhaps as teenagers they had wanted to become civic or social leaders, working to bring about positive change in the world.
Perhaps their parents had hoped or dreamed that at least one of them would become a great religious leader — perhaps a teacher, or prophet, or preacher.
Almost all young Jewish boys in those days were taught to read the Scriptures. The best and brightest among them were tapped to become scholars or teachers of the law. Others who wanted to continue on with their religious education might seek out a rabbi who they wanted to follow or emulate, hoping that that teacher would take them on as their disciple.
But the fact that Simon and Andrew and James and John were young adults by this point means that in many ways, it seems they had missed the boat (pun intended!) to do or become anything other than fishermen. Their dreams of traveling or changing the world, their hopes of making a difference, or leading others to greater understanding or worship of God had been laid by the wayside. Now they spent their days casting nets into the sea, hoping to catch enough fish to feed their families for one more day.
God of Second Chances
That is until Jesus came along, and called and invited them to do the very thing that they had been longing to do all along. It wasn’t too late after all, they weren’t too old, they hadn’t missed the boat. There Jesus was, calling, inviting them to follow. And they heeded and obeyed.
Of course, Jesus’s invitation to follow Him that day was met by more invitations. He continued to invite them, and they continued to follow. He invited them to join him when he ate with sinners and tax collectors, invited them to watch as he performed miracles, invited them to participate as he fed multitudes and to listen as he taught and preached to thousands upon thousands. Eventually he sent them out to teach and to preach, to heal, and to carry on his mission. And they did, in fact, become fishers of people.
Most likely Simon and Andrew, and James and John had no idea what they were getting into that day. And indeed along the way they made countless mistakes, said a lot of things they shouldn’t have said, messed up again and again. But Jesus was always there, ready to forgive, inviting them to follow him.
Because, as in the story of Jonah, this story is not really about the disciples. It’s about God. It’s about a God who continually invites. A God who sees the potential in us even when we don’t see it in ourselves. A God who is trustworthy and true, who will not let us down. A God who will not lead us astray.
A God who invites us into relationship. A God who works even through the most reluctant of messengers. A God even of second chances.
Would you choose to follow Jesus this morning? Whether for the first time, or hundredth or thousandth time, would you commit to following Jesus wherever he leads you?
There are a lot of things and people we can put our trust in in this world, but all of them will let us down at some point. Only Jesus is trustworthy and true. Only Jesus is worthy of all of our worship and devotion.
He’s calling you this morning. Will you follow?