8 In God is my safety and my honor; *
God is my strong rock and my refuge.
9 Put your trust in him always, O people, *
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62)
On this third Sunday after the Epiphany, as we are invited to reflect on those moments when we catch a glimpse into the deeper meaning of life, the lectionary offers us some fishing tales! These are not regular fishing stories, of course, they are stories where fish and fishing play a role in God’s coming to God’s people.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus goes to Galilee, after the arrest of John. He sees Simon and his brother Andrew fishing and calls them to “Follow him and he will make them fish for people.” The Gospel of Mark tells us that immediately they dropped their nets and followed him. This is repeated a little farther upstream where he sees the brothers Zebedee, James and John. When Jesus calls them, they too turn their backs on their job and their family and follow Jesus.
The story we hear of Jonah is a bit different. If we only read the short passage assigned for today, we might think that Jonah, like the fisherman in Mark, drop everything and respond to God’s call. But that would be a mistake.
I loved telling this story with my seventh-grade class at St. Patrick’s. We both understood what it meant to try to dodge a request or order to do something like finish their homework, or practice their piano, or clean up their room. They probably had done something similar to Jonah—maybe not the distance, but the intent of the action.
You see unlike the stories of the fisherfolk in Mark, Jonah resists when God calls to him to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, the powerful capital city of the Assyrian Empire. The city’s people are in deep need of repentance. Assyria had repeatedly demonstrated their taste for cruelty and God wants Jonah to go to them and seek to turn their hearts.
Jonah not only resists, when told to go east to Nineveh–current day Mosul in Iraq–he heads west, as far west as he can go—to Joppa and jumps on a boat and heads toward Tarshish. On a map this is apparent that he is not responding positively to God’s command.
But Jonah is mistaken that God is contained by borders or landmass. God is not trapped in a temple nor limited to a country. As soon as Jonah boards the ship, a huge storm comes up.
Jonah believes that he has escaped God’s reach and so falls asleep in the ship’s hold. Meanwhile the crew prays to their own gods for rescue and begins throwing things overboard to lighten their load. When the captain find Jonah and wakes him up, he confesses that it is probably his fault that the ship is in danger. He tells them to throw him overboard. They try every other option, including trying to out row the storm. But eventually toss him into the sea, –where the storm immediately subsides. The crew, shaken to their core, gives thanks and offerings to the God of Jonah.
Jonah meanwhile is swallowed by an enormous fish where he sits and reflects on his prior decision around God’s word. He begins to pray for God’s mercy. With all his wrestling and moaning, the fish develops severe indigestion and spits up—vomits Jonah back on to the land, where we find him in the reading today in the reading when 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.’”
This time he goes to Nineveh, a city so large and fierce that it takes three days to walk across. Standing somewhere in the middle of this enormous metropolis, Jonah preaches a sermon of five words in Hebrew, “‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
The response is electric. Immediately, the rulers and people of Nineveh believe God and begin to fast and put on sackcloth and ashes—symbols of repentance—even the animals. When the sack-cloth covered people and animals bellow out their repentance. God changes his mind about the punishment.
You would think that Jonah would be overjoyed. He has just become the most successful prophet in the Bible. He has brought about a mass conversion, the likes of which a mega evangelist could only dream of.
But Jonah is not overjoyed. In fact, he goes away and pouts under a bush. He says to God, ‘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.” Jonah does not flee God because he is afraid of being unsuccessful in Nineveh. He flees because he rejects God’s mercy on the people he considers his enemies. And yet God continues to care for Jonah and the Ninevites. We find that no people or no place, are considered by God to be unredeemable or forsaken.
Two types of seeking—one sought and rejected and sought again and grumbled about and sought again. And one sought and “immediately” received. Do you hear this resonate with your life? Are there times when God seeks you out and you are in the spirit, feel the desire, feel equipped and immediately call that relative you have meaning to call, or jump in the car and take groceries to a friend, or write a check to an agency serving the community, or volunteer to dish out ice cream to some children at an end of the school year party. And are there times when you just want to stay in, turn off the news, cover yourself with a blanket, lock the doors, and head for Tarshish? Me too.
But the truth of these fish stories is not about how we compare to the disciples or prophets of the Bible, but to recognize that though we may fall short and run away, God never stops seeking us out to love us and to help us follow.
Sometimes Jonah does what God tells him to do. Sometimes Simon and Andrew and James and John drop everything and follow Jesus. Sometimes. Our response to God is always a one step forward and two back sort of journey. But God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love meets us where we are, never abandons us, offers us the way to life, and redeems our recalcitrant ways.
These stories remind us that it is God’s promise to us that is important. As Barbara Brown Taylor so accurately puts it, the story of the call of the followers in Mark’s Gospel is a miracle story. Jesus calls and the fisherfolk follow “immediately.” This is not because they are superhuman. In Mark’s Gospel they will doubt, deny, and abandon Jesus. They are just as fallible and as human as the rest of us. They follow Jesus because Jesus makes it possible for them to do so. Taylor writes, “This is not a story about us. It is a story about God and God’s ability to not only call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow–able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food.”
Jonah runs away, rejects God’s search, and then complains when God is merciful. But God never turns away. God shows up. The hope of the Gospel is not finally, a word of obvious victory, but rather of sustaining and courageous hope.
God never gives up on us or the world that God created good. God continues to show up where we least expect. God is here and the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near—even and perhaps especially when it does not look that way. The promise of the Gospel is not that God will be with us only when we behave and follow and get all things right. But that God is with us always. God seeks us out always. There are consequences in turning away from God’s love, but God’s aim is always healing and redemption.
As we turn to our Annual Meeting today, we get to reflect over what we saw and embarked on last year. But also we long to discover where God is calling us now. How will God seek us and lead us from this place today? How will God call to us in other people and places? These readings today describe God’s call to us to embrace the message of good news and to carry it into both the familiar and the unfamiliar parts of God’s kingdom. There are no guarantees of success or security—but we have been given the possibility of joy in living into the wondrous and holy adventures of companionship with God.
May we go out together, putting our trust in the one who has brought the kingdom of heaven near. God always seeks us. May we say, “Yes” to the one whose mercy and love endures forever.
 Barbara Brown Taylor. Home by another way. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1999, 40.