SJF • Epiphany 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When God saw what the people of Nineveh 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.
A few weeks ago, just prior to the Iowa caucuses, I was watching a CNN interview with some undecided Republican voters. One of them said something that amused me: “I think the country is heading in the wrong direction. We need to make a 360-degree turn!” You understand, then, that the reason I found this amusing, of course, is that a 360-degree turn puts you heading exactly the same way you were before you made the turn, maybe even a little dizzier than before — what this voter wanted was a 180-degree turn. I can certainly understand how dizzy undecided voters were in the Iowa caucus. In the weeks leading up to it and since we saw an electoral merry-go-round and roller coaster ride of a campaign — and the campaigners! One day one was in the lead, only to plummet on the next. No wonder people are feeling confused!
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But whether you are a voter or a cruise ship captain, if you really feel like you’re heading in the wrong direction, it’s the 180-degree turn you want. One thing I’ve experienced in years of traveling is that it is sometimes the sign on the other side of the street that you have to turn around and look backwards at to see that is the most helpful in getting you turned the right way round. Fortunately in these gymnastics I’m not the one driving!
I raise all this because our readings today strike the note of the second theme of Epiphany. The first theme, about which we talked last week, was belief. And in response to belief comes this second note — conversion, or tousethe classic word, repentance.
We see this perhaps most vividly in the story of Jonah — although the first part of Jonah’s story isn’t part of our reading today. You will recall that Jonah had tried to run away from God when God first gave him the task of preaching to the people of Nineveh. He headed 180 degrees in the opposite direction from Nineveh, out into the Mediterranean Sea. He learned his lesson in the belly of the great fish. Then God commanded him, as our reading begins this morning, a second time to do as he was told and to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. And when he did head the way God commanded, and preached repentance, the people believed him — that’s the note of belief that we sounded last week. They believed, but not only did they believe him but they too repented. And I mean major repentance! The whole population of that great city — a three day’s walk across — a lot bigger than the Bronx! — fasted and dressed themselves in rags as a sign of humility and repentance. And then — surprise, surprise — even God changed direction — changing his mind and withholding the calamity he had said he would bring upon that wicked city for all its past sins.
This wonderful story of changing directions tells us three powerful truths: you can’t run away from God; you can change your ways and turn your life around; and even God will change in response to your repentance and amendment of life.
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When we turn to the reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians we hear Paul sounding a bit like Jonah himself, announcing that the time has grown short and the end is near as the present form of this world is passing away. But while Jonah called for clear repentance — a complete 180-degree turnabout — Paul seems tobedescribing a somewhat different new direction. He does not tell people to walk away from their wives or their sorrows or their joys or their possessions or their businesses. Rather he counsels all of them to adopt what I’d call “an alongside attitude” towards all these things — more of a 90-degree relationship, or like parallel lines — continuing alongside all of them but at a little distance, perhaps arms’ length. For all these things, Paul assures them — everything about life as we know it — will be fundamentally changed by God when God comes. The change of direction is more in an attitude of detachment, than in actual movement in the opposite direction. The world, it seems, is to be taken with a grain of salt — not clutched to the breast, but held lightly. We are called to travel lightly through this world.
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Our gospel passage also involves taking a new direction. Jesus starts, again much like Jonah, preaching repentance to the people by the Sea of Galilee. But then he encounters Simon and Andrew and something changes in the nature of the call he issues. He offers a call to go in a totally new direction. Unlike the call of Jonah to the people of Nineveh, this new direction does not involve sorrow or repentance for what is past. Unlike the urging of Paul to the Corinthians it does not involve keeping a light hold on what is now. The call of Jesus is a call to let go of what is now and walk into the unknown future that is not yet. He calls Simon and Andrew and then James and John to come and follow him into a new life, in a totally new direction into a totally new world unlike anything they have ever known. He calls them, in short, into the kingdom of God. This is a call to a higher life. Not any kind of degrees — 360 or 180 — not left or right, or north, south, east or west; but up — up into the life of Christ, being, as John said,“born from above.”
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We all receive different calls in our lives — the calls can be like all of those we heard about this morning. When we have done wrong God does call us to make that 180-degree turn and repent — and has promised to forgive when we do so.
We are also called, as Paul called the Corinthians, to sit lightly with this world, this world that is passing away: our relations and our possessions are only ours for a time and we will one day have to part with all of them — and they with us — when we pass from this life — and so best to cultivate that sense of detachment, as Saint Gregory the Great once said, “To possess the things of this world without being possessed by them.”
Finally, God also calls us through Jesus Christ, in his own direction — towards him who is the shepherd and master of our souls. We have all received these different calls in our lives. But this last call — the call to the new life in Christ — that’s why we’re here this morning. Jesus calls us to follow him as surely as he called Simon and Andrew, and James and John. He calls us to walk in his way: he makes us his disciples and equips us to make disciples of others — to fish for people, as he told those fishermen.
Brothers and sisters, we share in that apostolic work as fishers of people. Even as we are drawn along in the great net cast out by those who have gone before us, we too can reach out our hands to offer help to others to bring them with us too. We may not be able to tell them with a certainty where we are heading. The only certain thing is that if we follow Jesus we will be with him where he is. And where ever that is, isn’t that the place you want to be? With all your heart and soul, with Jesus? Idon’t know about you, but as the old song says, “Where he leads me I will follow... I’ll go with him, with him, all the way...”+