Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 25:4-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20.

Turning Over Stones

Here are some stones I have overturned to see what ideas are underneath. I hope you can grab hold of something, pull -- and discover that it has some homiletic roots for you.

If only the evangelist, John, had hung out with Matthew, Mark and Luke (a.k.a. the founding members of the First Century Judean street gang: The Synoptics) while he conceptualized his Call Story of the first disciples!

Having preached extensively last Sunday on the first interaction between Jesus, Andrew and Peter according to John who paints an impressive scene taking place on the banks of the Jordan River in the region of Bethany some 23 miles northeast of Jerusalem and 10 miles north the Dead Sea, I am opting not to preach this week on the first interaction between Jesus, Andrew and Peter according to Mark who places this encounter some 85 miles north on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Instead, my homiletic musings will come from my reflections on the first reading -- from the Book of Jonah.

Only once every three years do we read from the Book of Jonah, and it happens on this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B. The whole book of Jonah tells a magnificent story totaling only 48 verses and 1250 words. This morning we have only heard 6 of those verses and about 130 of those words -- and they just might be the only six verses and the only 130 words from the Book of Jonah that cast him in a heroic and righteous light. If the mother of Jonah was given the book to edit, I think we would end up reading the verses we read this morning. However, the fact of the matter is that Jonah would have benefited from a few more months in prophets finishing school. Clinically, he might be tagged with some serious authority issues.

What we hear of this morning is Jonah getting his orders from the Lord and of his execution of those orders with great precision and grace.

What we do not hear is that this is the second time this mission has been given to Jonah by the Lord -- because he botched the first attempt royally!

The instructions were simple: Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me. Amazingly, the immediate reaction to this God-given mission to Jonah is to flee in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Why? Because Jonah knew two things: First he knew that he hated the Ninevites. They were citizens of the capital of the Assyrian empire -- Nineveh -- the city to which all of the loot and prisoners of war were taken when the Assyrians sacked the Israelites a couple centuries before. When the city of Nineveh was mentioned in a First Century Judean coffee shop, everybody spit on the ground and dreamed of its destruction.

Second, Jonah knew how merciful, compassionate, and forgiving God could be to the sincerely repentant person -- or to a truly repentant city. In a sense, Jonah was afraid of the mercy of God; not because of its scarcity, but because of its abundance! If the Ninevites sincerely sought the pardon of God through their repentance Jonah feared that God would, indeed, grant them forgiveness. With this particular mission, Jonah did not want to be a successful prophet, whereas in so many other books of the Bible other prophets were in constant fear of being UNsuccessful.

So, God points in one direction and Jonah begins his journey in the opposite direction. He packs his bag, hightails it to the shipyard in Joppa, jumps on a ship and buys a one way ticket to Tarshish -- a city which was on the coast of what is today Spain -- some thousand miles away from where God wanted Jonah.

Sometimes in life we have to do what we are supposed to do -- no matter what ugly feelings creep up inside ourselves. If we go on the run, like Jonah, it seems like nothing will go right. Like Jonah, we get tossed around on the ocean in a violent and ominous storm and before long those around us are ready to throw us overboard in order to find some peace and stability!

If you remember the story of Jonah, this is what happens -- he gets tossed overboard because he is literally about to drag everybody else down to their deaths -- because he did not do what he was supposed to do. He was paralyzed by two things: hate of the Ninevites and his fear that God just might forgive a repentant Nineveh.

Hate and fear will do that to us every time.

When Jonah gets spewed upon the shores of Joppa after being swallowed up by a big fish, God seems to calmly repeat the mission at hand: Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me. And, this is where the story begins for us in the first reading.

Life can be like that. God gives a mission, we run the other way, we hit a wall, we end up where we started, God gives a mission.

We are told that Nineveh is so large that it takes three days to walk through it; yet Jonah only gets a third of the way through the city probably halfheartedly announcing -- Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed -- when the entire population -- 120,000 citizens repent! They are all fasting, they are all covered in sackcloth -- even the animals! In fact, in no time the king of Nineveh himself is dressed in sackcloth and sitting on a pile of ashes.

Is Jonah now gleaming with thoughts of capturing the Prophet of the Year Award? No, rather we read that -- This was greatly displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry!

Even after a successful mission, Jonah is still filled with hate and fear -- and hate and fear continue to paralyze him.

What can you and I learn from Jonah? We can learn that we have to do what we are supposed to do. We can not successfully run from the call of God. If we try, we only end up in storms or winding up where we started with little to show for our wayward journey. We learn that hate and fear paralyze.

They may not be brand new lessons in life; but they are good lessons to reflect upon now and then. Are you or am I avoiding that one thing in life that we know we are supposed to be doing? Has God given us a mission that we are ignoring? Are we in the midst of a storm because of our ignoring God? Do we feel paralyzed by hate or fear?

If we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing, this can be the day when we make a start. When we say to God -- Yes, I will do the right thing -- With the help of your love, I will conquer hatred -- With the help of your courage -- I will conquer fear.

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