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Epiphany 3B Sermon
Mark 1:14-20, Jonah 3:1-5, 10
24, 2021


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Jonah 3:1-5,10

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.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. This verse has been used by missionaries all over the world as the basis for their call to bring new disciples into the Christian fold. People sent out to evangelize people in foreign lands for Christ see themselves walking in the footsteps of Simon, Andrew, James and John. The analogy works to a point - casting our nets, the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are about the task of gathering new Christians who not only will become themselves fishers but will enjoy the gift of eternal life in heaven. The analogy does fall a little short, however, when you consider a few other things.
For example, people who fish are about the business of death. When we fish, we are taking a living being out of its habitat - literally the fish out of water - and this creature will be losing its life, either slowly as it gasps for air, or quickly at the filet knife. I am not sure if, on the surface, this would be such a wonderful basis for our calling to follow Jesus and share the good news. When thought through to this conclusion, the old Sunday school song, “I will make you fishers of men if you follow me,” suddenly becomes somewhat strange.

There are some aspects, though, to this analogy that are worth lifting up as valuable. To be sure, fishing does have to do with death, but doesn’t discipleship also? In baptism we talk about dying to the world and our selfish interests so that we might live in God’s presence. In this way we could consider our calling to fish for people as a noble one - one which involves a new lifestyle, a renewed relationship with the one who created all things and is still at work in the world. In baptism we die to sin and rise to newness of life, so sharing that gift with others is a lot like fishing, isn’t it?

Secondly, consider that in scripture the sea was a symbol for the chaos we experience in the world. The bodies of water in which people fish are often unpredictable. On Lake of Gennesaret, or the Sea of Galilee, where these four cast their nets, storms could form and blow in hard with very little warning. Besides all of this, the sea was considered the abode of Leviathan, that great monster who lurks and preys upon those who may find themselves in peril there.

I discovered this week a new insight - a few of the Old Testament prophets use fishing to symbolize God’s judgement. Jeremiah 16:16 begins, “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them …” all of this in order to doubly repay for peoples’ iniquities. Ezekiel 29:4 proclaims judgment on Egypt by saying, “I will put hooks in your jaws and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales. I will draw you up from your channels, with all the fish of your channels sticking to your scales.” And Amos 4:2 says to the cows of Bashan on Mt. Samaria who oppress the poor & crush the needy - “The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.”

Considering all of these images - the sea as a place of chaos and danger, fishing as divine judgement on the abuse of riches and power, and the reality that this all involves some kind of death of one kind of existence, what does it mean that Jesus invites Simon, Andrew, James, John, you and me into this shared mission of fishing for people? Consider the message that Jesus first shares when he begins his earthly ministry, found right here in verse fifteen of our Gospel reading: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.” With that promise in mind, the call to fish for people is the call to join in the work of God in the world. This is a little bit different than the nuances that come with fishing for people as missionaries - folks who preach in foreign lands to believe the right things so that they can go to heaven after they die! This is an invitation to common folk to join Jesus in the struggle to confront and possibly overturn the existing order of power and privilege. This is a call to partner with God and with each other to work for justice in our communities. The Kingdom of God as Jesus talks about it here is not so much a geographic place or set time in history. The kingdom of God is the authority to rule or reign in your life and relationships with your neighbors based on love and mercy. And the time is fulfilled, not out of some linear understanding of time marked by minutes, hours, days, months or years; rather it is time as in a season - when conditions are ripe for something to happen. The time is right for God’s reign of love and mercy to be the authority under which we live in the world today.

For many of us American Christians, this is not such a welcome image. This kind of fishing involves each of us dying to a certain type of life in order to be part of God’s reign of love. We are a lot like Jonah - when we pick up his story in our first lesson today, he has just been spat out of the great fish onto the shore. The fish swallowed him after he was thrown overboard by a captain of a ship caught in a great storm. He was on that ship because when God first called him to go to Nineveh, he went the other direction. The people of Nineveh were brutal enemies of Israel. It would eventually become the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians destroyed the northern Kingdom and did despicable things to the cities and people there. Jonah did not want to go to their capital and warn them of God’s judgement on them - he just wanted God to sweep in and destroy them all! That is often our wish when we disagree with someone or see terrible acts or abusive lifestyles lived out around us. But the judgement of this reign of God is different than the judgement we would pronounce if we had our way. It is a judgement that calls for repentance and a new heart. God’s call to the Ninevites to repent results in God relenting of the plans to destroy them. This is not what Jonah wanted, and it is why he fled the other way.
What if this is what is being fulfilled? What if the Kingdom of God involves a call for all to repent and be changed, even those who have hurt us by what they say, do or believe in. What if the call to repent is also there for you and me because of the ways we have hurt others by what we have said and done and believed in? And what if Jesus’ call to fish for people is an invitation to not run the other way, but to help to change the world so that it is a loving place rather than a place of hostility and elitism? What if repenting and fishing is about adopting a new heart and mind which are shaped by God’s loving authority in our lives calling us to wrap our selves around this new reality? That all makes the call to fish for people very different because it involves us examining our lives and repenting just as much as the ones that we are trying to catch with our hooks and nets.
Last week I took my new friend, Abdu, to pick up his grocery order and to run some other errands. Abdu, you may remember, is in Columbus attending law school at Capital. He is a blind man from Ethiopia, a refugee who came here via a Lutheran congregation in Florida. Abdu told me that the orthodox Christian church in Ethiopia observes something called, “The Fast of Nineveh.” This fast happens a couple of weeks before Lent - this year it will be February 3-5. It is three days to commemorate Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish. It is also modeled on the fast that the king of Nineveh proclaimed for his people, in order to repent so that God might relent from punishing them. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church blog, “During these three days we shall look at our lives and show remorse for our disobedient natures and follow in the footsteps of the prophet Jonah and the people of Nineveh. This fast is about getting rid of our bad habits, just like the mariners who threw most of the cargo from the ship into the sea, to lighten the load and to make the ship sail safe. This fast is about casting off our worldly desires and cultivating virtues. Just as the captain awakened Jonah from his sleep, let us also be awakened from our spiritual sleep and call upon God during this three day fast.”

The time is fulfilled. As Paul wrote, the present form of this world is passing away. As fishers in God’s church, we are invited to not only share the news that the time for God’s love to reign is here and now, but we are also to consider what it means for us that this is the case. God is about the task of changing the world into a loving place. May we be part of that change so that we all experience the good news that Jesus shared and calls us to share. Amen.