January 25, 2015 Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 Mark 1: 14-24
Rev. Catherine Purves
I’m really not that popular. But every so often I’ll be sitting in my office here at church and the phone will ring. The phone seems to ring most when Adele, our church secretary, isn’t here to answer it, so I answer it myself. In the middle of this call, my cell phone starts to ring. I look down to see who is calling and it’s almost always Andrew or one of our children. So then I’m torn. I have a person with a problem calling me on one phone and a member of my family is calling me on the other. It really gets bad when someone then comes to my office door and starts knocking. Which call should I answer?
Foolishly, I tend to try to respond to all of them. I flip open my cell phone and say, “Just a minute.” Then I tell the person on the church phone that someone is at the door. And then I try to stretch across and open the door with my third hand. Usually, I end up dropping the cell phone and dragging the church phone across the desk until it starts to fall off the edge. Lunging to keep that from happening, the person at the door isn’t sure whether to come in or turn and run away. No wonder I’m not that popular.
We sometimes forget that answering one call will require us not to answer another. So, answering a call involves us in some kind of sacrifice. In my own telephone predicament, I had to choose to ignore either my family, the person knocking on my door, or the individual on the other line. I couldn’t respond to all of those calls at once, and when I tried, it didn’t work out so well. When we read our two Scripture passages today, you may not have noticed that several choices were being made in response to a call. Some were ‘yes’ choices, and some were ‘no’ choices. The way that the stories were written almost makes it sound like these were easy choices, but, in reality, they involved significant sacrifices and some genuine risk.
We read these stories now with the benefit of hindsight. We know that things worked out well for the city of Ninevah. We know that the disciples’ decision to follow Jesus was the right one. In reality, both the city and the fishermen were giving up a lot and risking everything in a mad gamble that, in the one case, God would relent and not destroy the city, and, in the other case, that Jesus would actually end up being the Messiah.
In order to make that one choice, the people in Ninevah had to repent completely and give up their old way of life. They had to wear sackcloth instead of their fine clothes. They were fasting instead of feasting. They were embracing the God of Israel and rejecting their old gods. In order to make their one choice, the fishermen had to give up their livelihood, their commitments to their families, and their established way of life. They had been comfortable businessmen with their own boats and hired hands, houses and wives. Now they would become itinerant apprentices to an unproven rabbi and holy man. They too gave up one way of life for another that was far less secure.
Deciding which call to answer couldn’t have been all that easy. That they made the right choice doesn’t mean that it was a simple choice or an obvious choice. Jesus told his potential followers to repent and believe, and to drop everything and follow him. Jonah announced that in just 40 days his God would destroy Nineveh because of their sin. When faced with similar choices, it is probably just human nature to try to compromise. Like the predicament I have often faced with multiple ringing phones, people sometimes try to half respond to every call that they hear.
Can you not just see the people Nineveh being tempted to say a prayer to their household gods while they were putting on sackcloth and fasting to appease the God of Israel? Cover your bases, right? It almost sounds reasonable to start by repenting and refraining from your worst sins while continuing to indulge in and enjoy your lesser sins. Does that strategy sound familiar? And do you think that the disciples might have been tempted to try to continue to work at their family fishing businesses while taking occasional day trips with Jesus? Perhaps they could follow him on the weekends and get on with the rest of their lives Monday through Friday. Does that strategy sound familiar?
The word “repent” and the call to repentance are central to both our stories. The word repent doesn’t actually allow for such compromises. It is an all or nothing kind of word. It’s a real mistake to read the word “repent” in the text, and to think the word “regret.” Neither Jesus nor Jonah were thinking in terms of an “Oops. I’m sorry. I’ll try a little harder next time” kind of regret. They were calling people to repent, and that means a total transformation of life and an undivided commitment to change. That’s what repentance involves. That’s what following Jesus means, turning away from an old way of life and fully committing yourself to something new. There can be no going back; there can be no compromises; and, as was the case for Nineveh and for the disciples, there can be no delay.
I can remember an old comedy sketch from back in the days when Bill Cosby was still thought to be wholesome entertainment. He was telling the story of Noah and the Ark. God was rattling off instructions about how the Ark was to be built. This was obviously a big and an expensive undertaking. Noah was complaining that his neighbors were beginning to make fun of him for having an Ark in his driveway, and he was coming up with one excuse after another for why he shouldn’t have to drop everything and do what God wanted him to do. Finally, God interrupted his procrastinating Ark-builder. “Noah,” “Yes, Lord.” “Noah,… how long can you tread water?” Ah, that puts everything in a different perspective, doesn’t it?
The call to repent that Jonah proclaimed in Nineveh and that Jesus announced by the seaside had that same kind of urgency and demanded that same kind of unconditional response. “The kingdom of God has come near!” Jesus proclaimed. “Forty days more,” Jonah shouted. “Repent!” That’s one call that you can’t put on hold. That’s one call that demands your full attention. When you answer that call to repent, then everything is going to have to change.
So what is the modern equivalent of putting on sackcloth and fasting? What would it mean for us to drop our nets and leave our boats and follow Jesus? What does it mean today to repent? What does it mean today to answer Jesus’ call and to follow him? What makes you think that these things should be any different today? Maybe it’s because we are so used to juggling multiple calls in our lives and we are so adept at making compromises. For some reason, we have become satisfied with “a little improvement” when what is called for is “full repentance.” We’re willing to offer Jesus some of our time, but not our whole lives. And we are all now masters of postponement. The real repentance will start …soon. I’m going to begin a new life and follow Jesus right after I… Does that strategy sound familiar?
How long can you tread water? How long can you afford to wait? Forty days? Or is this perhaps the call that you have to answer today? No matter how many other phones are ringing, and no matter what else is going on in your life, this is more important. Repent! Turn your life around! And start following Jesus. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” So “repent and believe the good news.”