Hearing the Call

Rev. Paula Norbert

We have these lovely themes today…of waiting in silence for God, and of God’s call that goes out to Jonah, one the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as to the early followers of Jesus who became his trusted companions on the journey of healing and hope. The passages from Jonah and Mark present two completely different reactions to God’s call. Jonah’s resistance on one hand, and the openness of Simon, Andrew, James, and John on the other, raise an important question for us: are we more like Jonah, or John? Or both? In the Psalm, we hear these lines, “For God alone, my soul waits in silence,” reminding us of the blessings which may come when we allow ourselves to rest and just listen. It can calm our souls and allow us to hear the voice of the Divine in ways we may not expect. It strikes me that we cannot hear a call if we don’t sit in the silence and listen, if we do not open our ears and yes, our hearts, to truly listen. If our lives are always filled with noise, or our minds are cluttered with so much that weighs us down or distracts us or diverts us, then we cannot truly hear the voice of our Creator and the ways in which we are invited to respond to the call of the Spirit for a deepening spiritual relationship. Let us pray, O Holy One of silence and mystery, let these prayers, these readings today, awaken within us the desire to listen to the deepest places of our hearts where your still speak to us of love and peace. Amen.

Today, we read from the 3rd chapter of the Book of Jonah, but his story really begins in the opening verses of the very first chapter of this book in the Hebrew Scriptures as God calls out to Jonah to go to Ninevah and tell the people there to turn away from their wicknedness. Jonah is a prophet, but a deeply reluctant one, probably more so than any other biblical prophetic figure. Moses and Jeremiah might put up some resistance at first, but Jonah takes noncooperation to a whole new level. I’m sure you may recall that Jonah tried to flee the voice of God and ended up in the belly of the whale where he prayed to God for understanding and mercy. That is the story most of us remember about Jonah, but it is only shortly after Jonah is spit out of the whale that our passage today begins. The entire book centers upon Jonah and his relationship with God. In chapter 3 today, we hear the story of the second time that God to calls out to Jonah, imploring him again to deliver a message to the people in Ninevah. God is asking that Jonah tell the people to turn toward God and away from all that is ‘godless’ in their society. The prophets of old and yes, of today, are often the voices who call people to a new vision, who remind them often in the most uncomfortable ways that the things that they have chosen to value…selfishness, greed, prestige, power or anything that becomes more important than caring for one another are not the things which keep us in right relationship with God. We don’t always want to hear these voices nor did the people of earlier times. It’s hard to hear the things which challenge our comfort and security, but when we listen to the call and imagine ways we may best respond can bring amazing things into our lives.

The real challenge is that Jonah has a message of repentance to those who have oppressed him and he doesn’t want to share it. Can we blame him? His reluctance to accept the role of the prophet does not make this story special. His determination and zeal in resisting his assignment does. Jonah says no to God and the call of God on his life.

Jonah, who will experience many grace-filled moments for himself, objects to God’s grace extended to his oppressors. Commentator Douglas Stuart notes, “Throughout the book, Jonah displays a readiness to receive mercy and blessing himself and yet a stubborn reluctance to see his enemies, the Assyrians, receive the same.” If the book of Job is an allegory that attempts to address why good people suffer, then the book of Jonah demonstrates what it looks like to love your enemies. We know that Jonah was called to speak up to those who had caused him injury and oppression. It doesn’t appear that it is the fear of being ostracized which silences him, but rather it is the contempt for those who will hear his message which makes him resistant to sharing the good news.

It is the second time when Jonah is called that he does respond. He shouts to all within hearing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Given his own history and feelings toward the people there, we might imagine Jonah declaring this with a sense of triumph as he walks through the city with a message of impending gloom and destruction for his oppressors but the passage also focuses on the response of the people in Ninevah. The story isn’t only about him. The people of Nineveh deserve attention, and their response is important and inspiring. Stuart also notes, “The Ninevites needed only that initial word, so ready were they to turn from their evil practices. Jonah’s words reached eager ears right away.” It’s interesting to consider that they were eager to hear what he was preaching; perhaps these people were yearning for such a message. Perhaps they knew what they were doing was wrong. They recognized that they were on the wrong path but did not know another one to take. This idea of their readiness indicates that on some level, the people of Nineveh were waiting for God to speak. They were looking for guidance and an invitation to choose a better way.

In the Gospel passage from Mark today, we revisit the story of Jesus calling forth the fishermen to become ‘fishers of men.” It’s always remarkable to consider how open they were to Jesus’ invitation and willing to just drop everything and get up and follow him. What was it within their hearts and in their life stories that allowed them to respond so willingly? Barbara Brown Taylor called this story in Mark a “miracle on the beach”: these fishermen have never met Jesus, and yet after hearing just two words from him, they “immediately” leave everything behind — family, friends, livelihood — and follow him. It is clearly a story about God’s power to move us, to turn us around, to miraculously make disciples in the blink of an eye; and at the same time, it’s a story about the sometimes sudden, life-changing power of faith. It’s also important to note that Jesus doesn’t say, “Believe in this way of thinking, and follow me” or “Sign on to this cause, and follow me.” He simply says, “Follow me.” Another way to read this passage is to say, “Wait a minute: no-one ‘drops their nets’ and walks away from everything they know without being good and ready to do so, without some deep, pre-existing longing for a different life altogether.” The passage invites us to wonder about those fishermen, about what it was that prepared them, that made them so ready to hear Jesus’ invitation, drop everything, and go. Jesus simply calls out to them, “Follow me” but he doesn’t provide a lot of the details. As one writer observes, “There’s no program here, no plan, no persuasive set of promises. Only a call to companionship, to closeness, to living together along the Way.”

In these stories from scripture this morning, we are reminded that God is always seeking a response from us, that throughout time, God has wanted to be in loving relationship with creation and that Jesus himself needed companions for the journey upon which he was embarking.

Do we believe, do we trust that God is still speaking to us? I think the call can come in a variety of ways and that our invitation is to make the time to listen- Listen to that spark within us that tells us something is important; listen to the powerful response of our hearts when we have been deeply moved by something and feel the need to respond; listen to the new ways that God may be reaching out to us in moments of stillness and silence. If you look back on the journey of your lives, can you recall a time when you heard a call? Did you try to run from it as Jonah did or did it make so much sense that you immediately said yes? If we remain open, that quiet voice of God may yet be calling out to us…