Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
You know who wasn’t a failure, though? Jonah. Jonah was the most successful prophet in the entire Bible. He was so wildly effective that he went a day’s journey into this city that was three days walk across and sort of mumbled his message and left, and the ENTIRE. CITY. REPENTED. Nineveh was so penitent even the cows and goats wore sackcloth and fasted. Can you imagine what those other prophets would have given to have even a 10th of Jonah’s success? And yet, Jonah—the most successful prophet in the entire Hebrew Bible—ends this story crying in his beer. He should have been elated; he should have taken his show on the road and had the adulation of thousands, but instead when we leave him he is moping in the desert.
The Ninevites got it. They knew that if God said God would overthrow the city, God would do just that; and so they prepared themselves. The totality of their repentance is incredible, and it only becomes more so when we consider the context. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, the empire that had conquered Israel and exiled God’s people. They were the stereotypical bad-guys, the Nazi Germany of Jonah’s time. As conquerors, everybody would have believed that Assyria’s gods had defeated Israel’s God. And yet, when they heard this vague warning mumbled by the foreign prophet of a defeated God, they listened.
Jonah, on the other hand, a faithful Jew and a prophet, knew what God was capable of. He knew that God always gets what God wants. He learned this lesson the hard way with the fish. He knew that if God wanted to overthrow Nineveh, then it would be overthrown; but he failed to follow that line of thought to its logical conclusion. Jonah failed to see that God did not want to destroy Nineveh; God wanted to put an end to Nineveh’s wickedness. God wanted Nineveh to repent; and just like with the fish, God always gets what God wants.
The story of Jonah is a story of hope; not just any hope, but eschatological hope. Eschatology is the study of things having to do with the end. One of the messages of Jonah’s story is that in the end, God always gets what God wants; God’s will is always done. The Ninevites realized this and prepared themselves by repenting. Jonah did not repent. He did not prepare himself for God’s mercy. Instead, he clung to his anger and hatred of the Ninevites, and as a result, while the “bad guys” rejoiced in their salvation, he pouted in the desert. Ironically, the hero of the story is the only one who does not listen to the message God gives him, and the only one who ends up in despair.
As readers, we are intended to take that message to heart: God always gets what God wants, so be ready for it. That is the eschatological hope—the hope that, no matter what the situation may seem to be now, God always wins. Repentance, then, is not just about turning around or giving up our wicked ways; it’s about seeing which way the wind is blowing and turning our sails to catch it. It’s about casting our lots with the winning side, even when it looks like we’re outmanned and outgunned. Repentance is about hope in the face of overwhelming odds—hope that God’s vision for the health and wholeness of all creation—God’s kingdom—is not only coming, but that it is inevitable.
This is Jesus’ message: the kingdom of God has come near, and now is the time to repent, to get ready for it. As part of that message, the first thing he does is to start calling disciples. I don’t have to tell you how remarkable it is that they dropped everything so quickly to follow. Like us, they had bills to pay, mouths to feed, reputations to uphold, family obligations to fulfill. They picked up to follow Jesus not because of his charisma or the promises he made or because they thought it discipling would be more lucrative than fishing, but because of their eschatological hope that God’s kingdom is coming; that God always gets what God wants.
This is what St. Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians: the things we celebrate and mourn here, all the stuff we have, all our dealings with the world in its present form—all of it will be gone, replaced by God’s vision of a just and peaceful creation, the vision that God has been working to bring about ever since the very beginning. We can be like Jonah, nursing our old animosities, clinging to our old allegiances, but we know how well that worked for him. Or, we can be like the Ninevites and the fishermen: we can read the writing on the wall and prepare ourselves for God’s kingdom now so that when it arrives, we’ll be ready for it. Paul’s message is to let that eschatological hope of God’s inescapable vision for the wholeness of creation shape everything that we say and do, to let it form our very being.
We have a word for that being formed by the hope of God’s impending vision; we call that “vocation,” or “calling.” Vocation isn’t just for prophets and priests and missionaries; some of us are called to leave our nets and follow, like James and John, but some of us are called to stay in the boat and keep fishing, like Zebedee. A vocation can be a career like being a doctor or a fisherman or an accountant or a carpenter, or it can be something else. There are lots of people who punch the clock day in and day out to support their vocation of creating art or raising children or volunteering. In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner describes vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” Whatever a vocation might be, it is the place where the skills and talents and passions that God has given us allow us to contribute in our own unique way to the world that God is creating. Vocation is participating in hope.
It reminds me of my dad’s garage. My dad is a woodworker. When I was growing up, he was out in the garage many evenings and weekends working on some project or another, and I was usually out there helping him. Most of the time, “helping” meant simply keeping him company or, more often than not, staying out of the way. However, I was also there as an extra set of hands to hold or carry or fetch things, and as I got older and could use tools, I could actually help him get things done a little more efficiently.
Dad also has a hot temper. When something broke or fell apart or didn’t come out right, he would blow off steam by shouting. But as a child, his anger frightened me, and sometimes when he got mad, I would quietly slip out.
Except one time when this happened, as I began to leave, Dad stopped me. “Don’t leave,” he said, “I don’t like it when you leave. It hurts me.” I think that’s what it’s like with God and us. We may not be very good help, sometimes our “help” may even cause more work for God in the long run; but because God loves us, God wants to work with us on this project of creation. This beautiful world of ours is God’s labor of love, God’s magnum opus, and in God’s grace, we are not only allowed to be a part of that work, but God’s deepest joy is to work alongside us for the healing and wholeness of creation.
Jonah made the mistake of not seeing that. He held on so tightly to his own vision of the way things should be that he could not even celebrate his success as the most effective prophet of all time. He reluctantly did what God told him to do because he feared the consequences if he didn’t, and what was intended as hope became instead misery. His story encourages us to look ahead towards God’s goal, God’s vision for creation—God’s kingdom—and to joyfully anticipate what God is doing. His story invites us to repent: to set our eyes on God’s prize and join in where we recognize God inviting us to participate, both as individuals, and as a congregation. The stories of Jonah and Jesus and so many others give us eschatological hope: hope that, one way or another, God always gets what God wants; hope that God’s kingdom is coming, that it cannot be stopped; hope that we might get to contribute to its arrival.