Call and response (take 2) – Jan 21, 2018
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20
Call and response. Every year in this season after Epiphany we hear stories of beginning… baptism and calling are the ever present themes. Today we hear several call stories and several different responses to those calls.
We begin in the Old Testament and the prophetic book of Jonah. We hear from chapter 3, when “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” It’s Jonah’s do-over, his second chance, having already been through 2 chapters of misadventure. More importantly, we hear the story of the Ninevites. Let’s take few minutes to review what has already transpired in this classic prophetic tale…
The Book of Jonah starts with a sudden call from God. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah,” the story begins, telling him to “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah’s response is unequivocal. Immediately, he flees from the presence of the Lord by boarding a ship sailing to Tarshish, in the opposite direction, away from Nineveh. When God first calls Jonah, Jonah’s response is to flee.
But the boat ride doesn’t go well. A storm blows in and threatens the ship. Jonah’s fellow sailors are at a loss about what to do. They question Jonah and end up crying out – calling – to the Lord to spare them and to spare Jonah, as they throw him into the stormy sea. The sailor’s call; the Lord responds… God responds by sending a large fish to save Jonah.
Inside a big fish, Jonah then calls out to God in the hope of a less smelly salvation, confident that the Lord will hear his voice and respond. Indeed he is correct, for the fish spews Jonah out onto the beach. Jonah calls for deliverance and God responds…
But God isn’t done with Jonah yet. Today we hear: “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.’” God’s call and God’s message hasn’t changed, and Jonah gets another chance, a second chance, to change his response. It seems Jonah has learned the lesson because this time, Jonah does as God commands. The key Hebrew verbs, used in both chapter 1 and 3, to describe God’s command to Jonah are: arise, go, call. This second time around, Jonah immediately does the first 2: Jonah gets up – arises – and goes to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. The narrator makes sure to let us know that this time things are different… Jonah responds to God’s call by exactly and immediately repeating the first 2 actions: arise, go.
We have to wait for a verse to find out if Jonah actually fulfills the third and last part – the call. The narrator leaves us in suspense for a moment, describing the “great” city of Nineveh, before telling us that Jonah indeed fulfills God’s call completely, by calling to all in the city: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It is one of the shortest and most generalized prophetic calls in all of scripture. Jonah doesn’t offer any reasons as to why the Ninevites will be overthrown. Jonah doesn’t preface his message with any divine mandate. There is no “Thus sayeth the Lord,” no “an oracle of the Lord.” Jonah doesn’t even repeat the original difficult message that “their wickedness has come up before me.” It sounds like Jonah has made up his own words of judgement so we might wonder if Jonah is, in fact, responding faithfully to God’s call. But still, Jonah calls to the Ninevites as God commanded. How will the Ninevites respond?
We don’t have to wait long to find out, for the response comes in the very next verse: “The people of Nineveh believed God; they called a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” Jonah called and the people respond, immediately, with their own call… a call to repentance for everyone in the city. Jonah’s prophetic word comes to pass as the city is indeed ‘overthrown’, though not in the way Jonah had intended. The city is overthrown, turned, by the repentance of the people. When news of it all reaches the king, in the verses we didn’t hear, he deepens the call to repentance in the hope and the possibility, that “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” The people and the king call for action… and the Lord responds by changing “his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” Call and response.
Our story of call and response from the Gospel according to Mark today follows a much different path. We’re very near the beginning of chapter 1 and the story has been a whirlwind from the start. Mark’s good news story of Jesus Christ begins with John the baptizer appearing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. An adult Jesus suddenly appears to be baptized and is then driven immediately into the wilderness of temptation. With John’s arrest, it is now Jesus’ turn to proclaim the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The next act of Jesus’ ministry is to call disciples. Brothers Simon and Andrew are first. Jesus sees them out fishing and calls: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, they leave their nets and follow. Next comes brothers James and John who are mending nets on the lakeshore when Jesus calls. We don’t even know what Jesus says. All we know is that they leave their work and their father behind, and follow Jesus.
The actions of these 2 sets of brothers are nothing short of reckless. Jesus calls; they respond, immediately, and follow. They leave behind their work, their families, their lives… to follow this as yet unknown man who calls to them. Jesus has yet to heal anyone. He has yet to teach… not only some profound, enticing, alluring or inspiring message, but he has yet to teach anything at all. All Jesus has done is be baptized, proclaim the fulfillment, the arrival, of God’s kingdom, and call the people to repent and believe in good news. As yet, there is no evidence of where it might all lead. There is no testimony of one who had been healed. There have been no miracles. And yet the 2 sets of brothers ask no questions. They express no doubts. They don’t say anything at all! They take no time to wrap up what they’re already doing, or complete their responsibilities. They don’t wait to see what their friends do or if their following will lead to success. Call it incredible faith… or sheer recklessness, but they simply act. They respond. Immediately.
The story of God’s call and these first disciples’ positive response takes 7 verses… or less, depending on how you count. How different it is to the story of Jonah, which goes on for 4 chapters. It takes 2 full chapters, including the ill-fated boat ride and sojourn in a fish, before Jonah gets his do-over and responds positively to God’s call. And when Jonah finally fulfills God’s command and the people of Nineveh respond… immediately… the story isn’t over. Chapter 4 has Jonah getting angry with God for God’s change of heart. Jonah is angry that God is, well… God: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” So Jonah leaves the city to pout outside the walls. He wants to die… he is angry enough to die. And the story ends abruptly with God chastising him once again. Arguably, Jonah never does get it. Instead of finding joy in the positive response of thousands in Nineveh to God’s call through him… instead of gratitude for the mercy and grace of God’s willingness to change the plan, Jonah feels only resentment and lives in unhappiness.
Call and response. It is a never-ending cycle in our relationship with God. God’s calls us to participate in a mission of love and service and we respond as we will. We call out to God in times of struggle or fear or trouble and God responds with peace, courage and help. God calls us to repentance and faith and we respond as we will. We call to God in our guilt and shame and God responds with mercy and forgiveness. It can come in a multitude of ways… through the quiet whisper of God’s Spirit in our hearts or through God’s word put in someone else’s mouth. What is God’s call to you today? How will you respond?
The example of the Ninevites and of Jesus’ first disciples is to respond immediately and positively to God’s call. Not to wait for circumstances to change; not to delay until we know more or have more to offer; not to pause until we feel like it or have more time; not to defer to finish up what we’re already doing; not to hold back and see how it goes, to find out if others will follow or not, to determine if it might be successful or popular. Not anything, but to respond to God’s call with action. Immediately. Call and response.
The good news today is that if we don’t respond immediately… if we’re reluctant or scared, or procrastinate for any reason, or flat out run the other direction, we need not worry. God’s call will come again. Our God is a God of second chances. And so I wonder…
What is God’s call to you today? How will you respond?