The Third Sunday of Epiphany - Reflection

‘Jesus said ‘Come, follow me’.’ - Mark 1:17

Brothers and sisters, it’s 1917, World War One has been raging for three years. The Germans have pulled back and the British think they have got them on the run. An offensive is planned, and in twenty-four hours men and boys will go over the top. So begins the recent film called simply ‘1917’.  However, all is not as it seems, and aerial reconnaissance has observed that the German army is not in retreat. Rather, the German army has made a strategic withdrawal where they are waiting to overwhelm the British with artillery. Two young British lance corporals—William Schofield and Tom Blake—are ordered to carry a message calling off the scheduled attack that would jeopardise the lives of sixteen-hundred men. This message would literally save the soldiers. 

It’s a cracking film and well worth a watch, and it’s also reminiscent of the true story of Jonah. Thousands of people will die in Nineveh if God’s message doesn’t get through; but unlike the British soldiers, Jonah doesn’t follow orders. You probably know the story, we studied it a few years back. God tells the prophet to ‘go’ and the disobedient Jonah runs in the opposite direction. It takes a storm and a gigantic fish—both sent by God—to get Jonah into the right place before the prophet is offered a second chance. This is where today’s first reading picks up. Will Jonah take this second chance to do the right thing, or will he run away again? Notice two things in this short passage: first, God’s word is spoken; second, there is a response. First, God’s word is spoken, Jonah 3:1: ‘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.’ Our reading begins with God caring about a pagan city. The people of the city of Nineveh hate—and I mean hate—Israel and the God of Israel. They’ve been fighting Israel for ages, and taking Jewish people as slaves, all while following made-up gods. This is a heck of an assignment, no wonder Jonah ran in the opposite direction! However, after running away, surviving a terrifying storm and being eaten by a fish Jonah has come to realise that he was just like the people of Nineveh. He needed to repent, He needed to turn around—quite literally—just as the Ninevites do. God has been merciful and kind to Jonah, and now God wants to give Nineveh the same chance; how can Jonah refuse? God is going to Nineveh; will Jonah come too? Yes! ‘Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord’.  Jonah hears the word of the Lord and responds correctly this time. Jonah travels to Nineveh—and like the soldiers in the ‘1917’ film—Jonah is sent with a message; and—just like the soldiers in the film—Jonah doesn’t get to make up the message himself. He was told by God: ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ Jonah is not free to choose for himself what he will say. Jonah—having been turned around—now takes God’s word to the city, declaring: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ What happens?… the people repent, they turn around too: ‘The Ninevites believed God […] When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened’. Jonah, is a wonderful book and one I recommend that you read through on your own.

Come with me now—with the story of Jonah fresh in our minds—as we hear the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. This year the Gospel of Mark is the main book which the whole Church is studying. It was the first Gospel that was written and our reading records the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. What’s in Jesus’ mind, what is His priority, what is He all about? It turns out, He is thinking about fishing! ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ Now, fishing is nor something I’ve ever tried, but I must admit I like the idea of it… at least the version in my head where you sit quietly in a beautiful spot, listening to the waves lapping on the lakeshore, drinking, perhaps, a bottle of beer, and chatting to a friend. However, if that’s what you have in mind when you hear Jesus talk about fishing well, think again. I assume that even my romantic version isn’t quite so nice in reality but when Jesus talks about fishing, He means the hard work, the back-breaking work of catching enough fish to sell to the supermarket in order to pay the rent. This is on-a-boat-in-sizeable-waves fishing. This is working-through-the-night fishing. This is hand-burning, muscle-straining, back-breaking fishing pulling in—they hope—fish by the net-load fishing. In other words there is something of Jonah being sent to Nineveh about Jesus’ call to FISH for people. Not, it turns out, the only similarity. Jonah was sent with a message, an uncompromising and stark message of repentance, a call to completely turn around. What is Jesus’ message? What is Jesus’ priority? What is Jesus’ mission according to His first recorded words: ‘Repent and believe the good news!’ God is again speaking—this time in human form—and His message hasn’t changed and neither has His way of getting the message out. As in Jonah’s day, God used an ordinary person as His spokesman, so nothing has changed—in this way at least—as God calls ordinary men and women to take His message to the world. Last week we heard Jesus’ message of ‘Come and see’; this week we hear the second step: ‘Come and follow me’. You see God is not One Who just sends others to do His work. God has always and will always go first calling on His people—those who have come and seen—to follow Him, going where He goes, speaking to whom He speaks to and facing the dangers He faces. What God achieved in miniature through one man, Jonah, to one city, Nineveh, God will achieve on a global scale, through all those who make up His Church. It’s the same message of repentance delivered by the same means, through the words of individual followers. Followers made up principally, not of polished professionals, doctored theologians, or highly effective public speakers, but of ordinary men and women, who, as likely as not feel like running in the opposite direction. When explained like that, when explained as equivalent to soldiers running through a battlefield, or a prophet going to another country, or even the back breaking work of professional fishermen, it perhaps doesn’t sound very attractive, and yet, the group of Jesus followers, called the Church, is the most successful and enduring group to have ever existed. What makes the difference is that all those who make up Jesus’ team have had an experience like Jonah of receiving love and mercy when they don’t deserve it, and therefore knowing first-hand the joy of turning around. I’ve experienced it, Fr Jordan has experienced it, and so have many of you. You have come, seen, and chosen to follow and now our Lord calls us out into Chorley, to those who need to hear the Good News, to those who need to turn around and repent, and asks us, once again, to: ‘Come and follow Him’. I’m up for it! Are you? (from Fr Mike).