Jonah 1:17 – 2:6, 2:10
Rev. Dr. Robert T. Carlson, Jr.
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 21 2018
There is a picture of me in one the family photo books, taken, I suppose, when I was not quite 2 years old. This photograph shows me sitting on the floor in the living room, holding a book in my lap that is almost a big as I am. Beside me is a stack of more books. And beside the books is my mother, sprawled out on the floor, her hair disheveled, her eyes closed. In the photo book, my father has written a simple caption beneath the picture: 3:00 a.m.
The story that was told to me was that sometime before I turned 2, I learned how to climb out of my crib. For a number of weeks, I would climb out of my crib, grab books off the bookshelf and read—or at least page through these books—in the middle of the night. I suppose my sleep-deprived parents consulted their copy of Doctor Spock’s Baby Book looking for tips on how to break me of this annoying habit without breaking my spirit. In a few months, my younger brother was born, and my guess is that the need for sleep prevailed over any concerns about breaking my spirit. But a couple of times, as I heard my father retell this story, he turned to me and said: “It was like something was calling you to grab those books in the middle of the night. Nothing else would comfort you.”
For my father, this story became a story he used to explain my vocation as a minister. I suppose that had I become an accountant, he would have told a story about how I played with the adding machine in his office as a child. Vocation is a word that has dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is not dull at all. Vocare is the Latin root word, and it means to call. Our vocation is our calling. We like to think that we choose our vocation, but in another sense, our vocation often chooses us. It is about listening and hearing. Our lives are full of all sorts of voices, each one calling us in a different direction. What voice do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for? Do such voices come from within or from an outside source?
The notorious theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, once told a reporter, “I am happy to be a Christian because being a Christian gives me something to do.”[i] By Hauerwas’ standards, this answer is appropriately flippant and obtuse. I still like the definition put forward by another Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner: “The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work that you need most to do; and that the world most needs to have done…. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[ii]
Jonah heard God calling him. The Word of the Lord came to Jonah, telling him to go to Ninevah, that great city. Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. More than Egypt, or Babylonia, the Assyrians were the mortal enemies of Israel—the people who ultimately destroyed what was left of the northern tribes and reduced the people of God to Judah alone. Being called to Ninevah—even being called to cry out against its wickedness—is not what Jonah wanted to hear. It was a place that no one from Judah wanted to go. So Jonah promptly books passage on the first boat going in the opposite direction.
It is a voyage that is beset by storms and it is not long before the sailors figure out that Jonah—and Jonah’s God—is the source of these storms. So they pick him up and throw him into the sea. But as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew, the Lord provides. And so the Lord provides for Jonah too, provides a big fish to swallow up Jonah; and for three days and nights, Jonah is in the belly of the fish.
Jonah’s is a preposterous story for modern ears to hear; a fairy tale, a myth, child’s play. Yet the story itself is resurrected in every age because the truth in this story speaks so powerfully to us. As Carl Sandberg writes:
“IF I should pass the tomb of Jonah
I would stop there and sit for awhile;
Because I was swallowed one time deep in the dark
And came out alive after all.” (Carl Sandberg, Losers)
It is our human condition to experience alienation and isolation—to run and hide from the holiness of God, to avoid encounters with the other, whether that other is a neighbor, or is the Ultimate Other, the Mysterious One, God. In this life, we all, sooner or later, live through the storms and floods, we are swallowed up, and sometimes left for dead.
To hear that Jonah is in the belly of the fish for 3 days and nights is to read that fish as the tomb where the body of Christ was laid before his resurrection. Jonah becomes a type for Jesus Christ. Jesus himself will tell the crowds, “The only sign I will give you is the sign of Jonah.” In his own prayer, Jonah compares the fish with Sheol—the abyss, the Pit, where the dead experience separation from God. Authors, philosophers, and theologians have imagined Jonah and his fish as a young woman surviving Auschwitz, or a man confined to the cancer ward. Herman Melville did not have his Captain Ahab swallowed by a whale, but the whaling ship he captained becomes no less of a prison for himself and his crew. The bars of this prison are made of Ahab’s obsession with the great white whale.
Jonah’s story hit close to home just this past week. We witnessed the belly of the beast in a Lansing court room, where more than a hundred young women told their stories—relived their experiences of molestation and abuse at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar. To watch just portions of their testimony on the evening news was enough to chill us to the bone. To go further and read the transcripts will leave you speechless. Jonah’s prayer asks: “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me… how shall I look again upon your holy temple?”
How can we go on? It is not just a personal question for each of these young women, it is a question for our entire community? Where can we look for redemption, for a rescue, for hope? How can we come out alive after all?
Mark thinks that he has seen hope walking along the shore line of the lake known as the Sea of Galilee. The strange, charismatic man called Jesus sees Simon Peter and Andrew throwing nets into the water, for they were fishermen. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed.
A little further on, there are James and John fishing with their father, Zebedee. Zebedee had a thriving fishing business, complete with hired hands and a couple of sons to take over the business when the time was right. Jesus walks by, calls out to the boys to follow him, and they leave everything and everyone in the boat and did just that; followed Jesus.
Mark’s story about the call of disciples is just as preposterous as Jonah’s. Try to figure it out. Scholars going as far back as St. Jerome have tried to make sense of this story. The disciples must have heard Jesus teach before. They must have seen him heal. Maybe they could sense the divinity of Jesus even from a distance. How could such a call evoke obedience like this? It makes no sense to us. Would we leave everything behind, if all we have heard is this enigmatic call from a stranger? I don’t think I would.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer concludes that “this encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus…. Jesus gives them no program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. Fishers of people is not a cause that seems worthy of our devotion.” Bonhoeffer concludes that faith does not precede obedience. We like to think that if only we had more faith, then we would go out and feed the hungry, house the homeless, and serve the gospel. But Bonhoeffer insists that it is in obedience that we find our faith growing. What we need to do first of all is follow Jesus.[iii] As John Calvin puts it, “Men and women stray and wander in this world, as if on a vast and troubled sea, until they are gathered by the Gospel.”
Fishing is a pleasant way to spend a morning, especially when the air is clear and the sun is warm. But if you are the fish—the ones being netted—the coming of the fishers is ominous. We so quickly identify with those fishers—James and John and Andrew and Peter. But before they became fishers of people, they were netted—netted so quickly and so thoroughly that they lose everything they once held dear; leave everything behind and follow this unknown and compelling voice. So it is with us. Before we become the fishers, we are first netted, caught. It often feels more like the belly of a great fish than the bonds of love. From Jonah we learn that the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out on dry land. This does not sound like the resurrection we were hoping for. Those who are caught in the discipleship of Jesus will find great joy, will come to walk in the light and life of God, but likely not until we come to know what it is like to be netted, to be swallowed by something dark and frightening.
Being a Christian gives us something to do, Stanley Hauerwas says. Which is a way of saying that we are called to a faith that calls us to obedience and action. To live by faith is to trust what is not self-evident, and such trust is costly. To live in hope is to defeat the forces of evil that would render us cynical, suspicious, and filled with despair, fear, and anger. To act out of love is to take everyone at their best, their most sincere and most vulnerable, and to refuse to be moved from the conviction that all can be knit together by what God calls good. We are afraid, after all, that if we live by faith, following Jesus, while others operate according to this business-as-usual world, then those forces are likely to crush us, just as they crushed Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that finding our vocation requires us to take seriously the fact that the One who calls us is not a God who creates and then leaves us to figure it out on our own, but a living Lord who calls us anew, daily, to himself.[iv] Jesus said,
“We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
And every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is the same Word, and that Word is Christ. In the end, that is our vocation—the calling of all of us—the calling to be Christs. To be Christs in whatever way we are able to be. To be Christs with whatever joy and gladness we have, with whatever faith we can muster, and in whatever place, among whatever brothers and sisters we are called to. There are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken unless we speak them. There are deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless we do them. That is our calling, our vocation—our destiny and destination—to which we were all of us called even before the foundations of the world. Amen.
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church; Seabury Books; New York, NY; 2013
[ii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC; HarperCollins; San Francisco;1973.
[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics; Augsburg Fortress; Minneapolis; 1949