January 25, 2015 – Fish stories for all ages

Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 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.

Jonah

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

***

Epiphany 3 Jan 25, 2009   Luke 1:14-20, Jonah          Fish stories for all ages

*******

Jesus walks along the lakeshore and calls four fishermen, saying “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” They leave their boats and nets behind and follow him.

Because – these fishermen know the story of Jonah. Fisherman Peter’s full name is actually Simon Peter, Son of Jonah (true fact). Fishing is their business. And what bigger fish story is there anywhere in the bible than Jonah? And nobody knows the Inside Story of fishing – like someone who’s been inside a fish… three days.

***

The word of the Lord comes to the prophet Jonah, saying ‘go to Nineveh, and cry out against it for its great wickedness…’ Jonah goes to the port city of Joppa and books his boat ticket – heading the opposite direction from Nineveh. Then he goes below deck, finds a bunk, and falls asleep.

God sends a mighty storm to get Jonah’s attention. Which takes quite awhile. The ship is tossing and turning, but Jonah sleeps soundly. The crew of the ship figures out quickly – this storm has come because of divine judgment on somebody aboard this ship. They start casting the cargo overboard to lighten the load, keep the boat afloat. They cast lots to see who’s the cause of this storm. The lot falls on Jonah – who, to his credit, readily admits, “I’m the culprit – throw me overboard. I’m the one running from God.”

The pagan sailors have been praying to their various gods to save them (to no avail, of course). They’ve tried to row to shore to drop Jonah off on land, but the seas are too tumultuous… They don’t want to dump Jonah in the sea. (Ironically, it’s pagan sailors who show compassion – not Jonah.) But finally, when the storm won’t let up, they pray forgiveness, and throw Jonah overboard.

(In yet another ironic touch, the sailors now pray to Jonah’s God, maker of heaven and earth, convinced by the storm of God’s power…And…)

(Even if all we remember of the story of Jonah is the radically-condensed Children’s Reader’s Digest Version, we probably know the next part:) God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah’s in the belly of the big fish, three days and nights… Till he repents and prays… Right?

Well, actually – Jonah’s kind-of-sort-of-prayer inside the fish does resemble a psalm, and has some beautiful lines – but we never really hear a word of repentance from Jonah for disobeying God and going the opposite direction.

Still, God orders the fish to spit the prophet out on land. And God’s word comes a second time now, to Jonah, saying, “Get up, Jonah, go to Nineveh – and say what I tell you to say.”

Jonah goes to Nineveh – starts walking – hollering, “forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Remember that the prophets of Israel normally say, “thus says the LORD – such and such will happen – unless you repent and turn aside from evil.” But Jonah doesn’t even mention the name of the LORD – nor say anything about what Nineveh could do to escape disaster.

Yet just these few words from Jonah– “forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown”– somehow does the trick. (Probably three days in the belly of a big fish does make you look like someone… who must be taken seriously.)

Now we hear – “The Ninevites believed God… declared a fast… all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth… sat down in the dust… issued a proclamation: …Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks…eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. (And) call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and… violence. Who knows? God may yet relent…change his mind… turn from his fierce anger so we will not perish.”

And sure enough – all Nineveh repents. And God sees Nineveh repenting. And God repents. God turns aside from judgment. Mission accomplished. Now Jonah can go home and live happily ever after. Right?

Well, actually, the bible tells us – Jonah is flat-out furious. Jonah prays to God, once again, the bible says – but this (quote-unquote) ‘prayer” sounds more like a temper tantrum than a prayer, as Jonah says, ‘This is exactly what I was afraid of… I knew you’re a gracious, compassionate God – slow to anger… abounding in steadfast love… a God who relents and turns aside from sending disaster….That’s what I hate about being your prophet! I’d rather die than see Nineveh get saved.’

***

We should probably mention – Nineveh was a major city of Assyria, the regional super-power that conquered northern Israel and colonized it. Israelites and Ninevites were bitter enemies. Jonah’s distressed about helping God save Ninevites. (We may remember – biblical Job of old notoriously gets angry with God when bad things happen to good people. But biblical Jonah gets angry with God when good things happen to bad people.)

And God says to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?” But Jonah won’t even speak to God. He stomps off to the outskirts of town, builds a shelter, sits, waiting and hoping, that God will change his mind again, and smite Nineveh.

Instead, God sends a gourd-plant that grows quickly and gives Jonah shade from the sun. (Where ancient Nineveh once stood is now part of Iraq – where 100-degree weather’s normal, and 120 degrees isn’t unusual.)

Jonah’s happy for the shade of the gourd vine. But next day, God makes the vine wither, and notches up the heat still higher. And as the sun blazes, and a hot wind blows, Jonah says again, “it’d be better for me to die than live.” God says to Jonah, “is it really right for you to be so angry about this little gourd plant?” “Angry enough to die,” Jonah says…

“You’re so upset about this plant,” God says. “Shouldn’t I be concerned about this city full of 120,000 people, so clueless they can’t tell their right hands from their left? Not to even mention all these sheep and cattle, cats and dogs? (All the animals of Nineveh – wearing sackcloth and ashes!? Even God’s impressed!)

***

And Jonah is a story that still speaks to us across the ages.

Jesus himself uses Jonah as a double-parable (in Matthew and Luke) – talking about Jonah, three days in the belly of the fish, and the Son of Man three days in the tomb. Talking also about the men of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah – and woe to this generation, that isn’t repenting fast enough far enough in the presence of Some One far greater than Jonah.

And the story of Jonah still speaks to us across all the ages because – well, sometimes we Christians still act just a bit like Jonah. We too sometimes head in the wrong direction when God says things we don’t want to hear – like “love your enemies and pray for them…” Like ‘be reconciled to your neighbor if you want to be reconciled with God…’ Like “preach the good news of God and Jesus all the time…Whether you feel like it or not…”

The story of Jonah also still speaks to us always because Jonah was very right about one thing. He knew all along… God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, quick to forgive, and God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Wrong-way Jonah reached a wrong conclusion from knowing this – thinking God’s mercy towards people he, Jonah, despised was reason enough for him to die – so very eager he was… to see bad things happen to bad people. But he was right about God’s fundamental nature…

And yet again this big fish story still speaks to us today, because – In spite of all the obvious reasons not to…God keeps using Jonah. Even in spite of Jonah’s running away from God; in spite of all Jonah’s fussing, feuding, whining and complaining – still, even so – God keeps using Jonah.

(Reminding me of all the times I’ve gone fishing or turned on a ball game…When Jesus was telling me to go, share a word of grace and truth with someone, somewhere in some direction I didn’t want to go…)

And reminding us also… That God catches a whole city full of people – using nothing but wrong-way-seaweed-in-his-beard-reeking-of-fish-breath-Jonah – as God’s own live bait… Catching a large city full of certified sinners – in the nets of divine grace… in spite of the shortcomings of the chosen messenger.

And Jonah still speaks to us today because even the first-round-draft-choice-fishermen, who, remembering Jonah, know to come when they’re called and go where they’re sent – still remind us of Jonah at times. James and John want to call down fire on a Samaritan village that refuses hospitality (Luke 9); Simon Peter, son of Jonah tells Jesus he must not take up his cross and go to Jerusalem (Matthew 16); and all the disciples argue, more than once, about which of them is the greatest. Jesus has to correct them all and humble them all more than a few times.

But just like God sticks with wrong-way Jonah in spite of all his obvious failings – so also Jesus sticks with all of us – whom he has also called and chosen.

And God is still fishing for all manner of people in all manner of places that bear some resemblance to Nineveh of old – towns and cities, villages and suburbs full of people, who may know how to launch a rocket to the moon, split the atom, and fix a computer in outer space – but still don’t always know their right hands from their left when it comes to the things of God –

But who, because all people are made in the image of God – are still fully capable of repenting and returning to God –

Even with the help and examples of ordinary folk like you and me.

And God will catch plenty of folks with us, even us – as long as we keep following Jesus. Not Jonah.

Because at the end of the day, God’s good news is really not about how good or bad we are, or they are. Our call and our commission to fish for people is really all about the Good News of God’s steadfast love – God’s constant mercy – God’s gracious presence – God’s kingdom, among us and coming in fullness – thanks to God’s amazing grace… for all…

This is the Good News. God’s Very Own Good News, given through Jesus Christ our Savior.

Thanks be to God. Amen.