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The 3rd Sunday After Epiphany; Jonah 3:1-5,10; Mark 1:14-20

Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call.

That’s the Collect we prayed today. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Thirty-five plus years ago, in the late 1970’s, I first began to get the ideas that I would later, very much later(!), understand as the call of God to ordained ministry. I was very comfortable, teaching and doing engineering research at University of Waterloo, and giving that up was the furthest thing from my mind. And yet, I had experiences that caused me to question what I was doing; questions like, “Who am I; what is this all about; is this all there is; why are things as they are”? I was also head of a residence, responsible for 400 students, and found that my background in science and mathematics really hadn’t prepared me to understand humans, including me. I’d started reading and even some formal study in psychology, and when that didn’t really help, I began to read theology.

Something kept nagging, and in the secret of my heart I might admit that I was being urged to at least think about giving up my comfort and venture out into some dark yet exciting unknown. In the privacy of my mind I even heard the word; “priest”. But logic told me that the study required was difficult at my age, and besides, the Church would not want an academic engineer on the wrong side of 40! So, I did what any sensible human struggling with vocation does; I decided that what I was meant to become was a pastoral counsellor – counselling of students was something I was already doing, and could continue (with better qualifications) without having to change my life very much. It was at this time that a friend, who perhaps knew more than I did what was going on within me, called me a “reluctant follower of God.”

So I went off on about 3 years of part-time counselling training, while still doing full-time professoring – I had considerably more energy then! Unfortunately (or fortunately?) pastoral counselling training is heavily concerned with knowing oneself – if you don’t know yourself, you can’t hope to know others. One is expected to be involved in both group and personal therapy. Put more bluntly, they never leave you alone, but keep pushing for you to face who you really are! Rather than being the answer to my inner turmoil, this was adding to it, until finally I gave up, to get everyone off my back, and at least considered theological studies.

At which point some of those close to me, colleagues and friends, said, finally, you’re accepting what we’ve seen all along. One of them knew the Archdeacon, another the then diocesan Bishop, and gave me introductions. Doors suddenly opened, as if by magic. I found myself a Postulant for Ordination, without knowing quite how. O yes, I still had to go to seminary for three academic years, which I did over about 4 years while, still, doing full-time professoring, but that turned out to be a lot of fun, as well as a terrific experience.

The rest is history. It’s still fun, and a terrific experience. Except, there is a part of me that even today is disgruntled at how simple it all was when I finally gave in to what God wanted from me. Why didn’t God just tell me it was going to be simple and fun in the first place? I’d have been a much less reluctant follower!

As last Sunday, today’s Old Testament and Gospel lesson are concerned with the call of God. The Gospel of Mark makes it seem simple. Jesus comes to Simon (Peter) and Andrew while they are working at fishing, tells them he wants them to fish for people instead, and immediately they drop their nets and follow. And a while later Jesus comes upon James and John, tells them the same thing, and they too drop their nets, and follow. If only it were that simple for everyone!

There may be some for whom the call of God is as clear as it was for Simon, Andrew, James, and John. (But of course, there is absolutely nothing in the Gospel of Mark that compels us to think that this is the first time Jesus and these four have met. It is equally likely they have known each other for some time. Who knows how much prior discussion, debate, argument may have happened, until this moment, when Jesus declares, “The time is at hand, … follow me!”) However it came to be that these four left everything and followed Jesus, seemingly without a second thought, my own experience and that of many others is not unlike that of Jonah.

The Book of Jonah is really a short story; in most Bibles it occupies less than 3 pages! Yet, it is one of the jewels of the Old Testament. Within a few hundred words, it captures the human experience of God’s call. Let’s explore it in its fullness, rather than just in the excerpt that we heard read this morning.

The call of God comes to Jonah, telling him to go to Nineveh (Persia)and to prophesy its doom. Jonah does what any sensible human being does when God calls. He goes to his travel agent, buys a ticket on the first boat going out of town in the opposite direction, and sleeps in his stateroom, pleased at having avoided the whole unpleasant thing!

But God is not easily avoided. A great storm comes, and the terrified sailors lighten the ship by throwing cargo overboard, supposedly as a sacrifice to their gods. Then, they wake Jonah, so that he too can pray to his God. Jonah is not stupid, and knows it is his God that is causing the storm, something the sailors also quickly discover, and he asks them throw him into the sea. The sailors are not murderers, and they try to avoid killing Jonah, but nothing stops the storm, so they do as Jonah asks, and the storm ceases.

God is not done with Jonah. Drowning is not for him, that would be too easy an out from the will of God! Instead, a great fish swallows him, for 3 days and nights. There, Jonah submits to God, and the fish vomits him out onto dry land.

God then calls a second time for Jonah to go to Nineveh (which is where we came in). He goes, still much against his will, and prophesies that God will destroy the city. And the king of the Ninevites takes the warning seriously, commands repentance, they repent, and God spares them (which is where we left the story). This is not pleasing to Jonah! Having gone to Nineveh, unwillingly, to predict its doom, he is not happy to have God second-guess him. In a sulk, he goes and sits in the hot desert sun, to die in protest. But God grows a plant to shelter him, and then withers up the plant. When Jonah protests on behalf of the plant, God asks whether the plant is worth more than the Ninevites, about whom Jonah is not concerned. The message is one of the sovereignty of God, who can do as God pleases. And the overall message is that God’s call is not to be ignored, or avoided, but requires a response. That response is not so much faith, as conversion.

Faith is a very broad term. I have faith medicine will eventually conquer cancer and other serious diseases. I naively have faith the government will eventually be forced to deal with homelessness and poverty, and give us a national drug plan. And I can have faith in God, in the sense of believing that God exists and may even be of some significance to me.

Andrew, Peter, James and John have faith before Jesus called them. As Jews, they have faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jonah has faith, faith enough to know to leave town when he hears the call of God – a faithless person would simply ignore this strange voice. In reality, there is no person without faith; the decision that there is nothing to believe in can only be made in faith! No, the subjects of today’s Old Testament and Gospel stories had faith; they needed conversion.

“Conversion” from the Latin conversio, means “turning back.” Thus conversion means not just having a faith to live by – everyone has that, even if it is to believe there is nothing to live by – conversion means changing the content or object of one’s faith. It is possible to have faith without being converted. It is possible to be a “good Anglican” without being converted to a life in and for Christ. It was possible for me to be a good professor, engineer, even pastoral councillor, without following Christ’s call for my life! I can have faith, and still determine my own life; because my faith is in my ability to determine my life. Or I can be converted, and turn over my life to Christ’s control!

Very few of us are able to give up that amount of control. Jonah did it only after an encounter with a large fish! Andrew, Peter, James, and John did, but as we read the rest of the New Testament, only with difficulty and frequent lapses. Me? I am still a reluctant follower of God and Christ, continually struggling to take control of my life back, and continually struggling not to do so. And yet, that is to what Christ calls us; conversion. We are not just called to have faith; in God, in Christ, or anything else. That is relatively easy. No, we are called to turn over our lives to Christ, to put on Christ, to let Christ live within us; a very difficult thing indeed.

And yet, that is what we prayed God would do to us, earlier:

Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call.

Copyright ©2018 by Gerry Mueller.