Sunday, January 21, 2024
Can you think of a time in your life where you had to make a decision to go one way or another? Have you ever thought back to that time and wondered how your life would be different if you chose something else? Most of us probably come to terms in embracing what is rather than wondering or worrying about the “coulda woulda shouldas” of life, but it is sometimes interesting to look back and wonder, “what if?” As we continue to reflect on God’s call in our lives, today we’ll think about the big word “discernment” in trying to determine which direction to go next or what decision to make next in our lives. How does our faith help us to say “yes” to God, even when it might mean saying “no” to other things?
We get a snippet of the story about Jonah in our first reading today, and we learn that “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” What if Jonah had just done what God asked him to do the first time? There wouldn’t be much of a story for us to learn from! As a refresher, at the beginning of Jonah’s story, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, but he says, “No,” and tries to get away from God (as if you could do that) by getting in a boat heading to Tarshish, somewhere in modern-day Spain, we believe. He goes basically as far as he possibly can in the other direction of where God wants to send him, to Nineveh, in modern-day Iran, capital of the Assyrian empire, Israel’s worst enemy at the time. Many of us can probably relate to Jonah because God is asking Jonah to do something very difficult, akin to asking a Ukrainian to go to Moscow today and ask the entire city to “repent.” Jonah tries to say no to God, but God persists and gives Jonah another chance to say “yes.”
God calls a second time. Dealing with being thrown overboard in a storm at sea and sitting in the belly of a large fish for three days gets Jonah thinking that maybe saying “no,” to God was the wrong answer. Yet he says “yes” to God the second time pretty reluctantly, saying, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” He doesn’t include any message about the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness, God’s mercy or slowness to anger. Somehow, the Ninevites respond positively anyway and actually turn from their evil ways, putting on sackcloth and fasting; and God spares them punishment. Jonah, wanting revenge like most of us on his enemies, is angry with God for not following through, and God teaches Jonah another lesson that it is God who calls and God who is in control, not him. That’s the story of Jonah in a nutshell – it’s not a long book to read if you want to review the story for yourself this week, just four chapters. As Jonah looks back on this whole experience of saying “no” and then reluctantly “yes” to God, I wonder if he regrets any of his decisions? Jonah says “no” initially to God because he’s focused only on the consequences of saying yes. He’s not thinking about the consequences of saying “no” to God, nor the possibilities God might open up for him and for the people of Nineveh in responding positively to God’s call, even if it is a challenging call.
A big part of listening and responding to God’s call is the word “discernment” – figuring out what to say yes and no to, discerning whether this is God’s voice or someone/something else asking us to do something. Jonah is like most of us in that he is obviously not perfect in recognizing and responding positively to God’s call. He learns a lot about who God is and who God wants him to be through his story. I always hope for Jonah, because his story ends abruptly, that he ends up learning to trust God more fully and trust in God’s mercy instead of focus only on the negative consequences for himself or for others. I hope that for us, too!
Our gospel offers a different perspective on God’s call, because Simon, Andrew, James, and John follow Jesus “immediately,” Mark tells us. We wonder how they could possibly do that? How could you leave your job and your family behind just like that? How did they know so quickly that Jesus was who he said he was and worth taking such drastic measures to follow? Did they take ANY time to discern whether this was a good move to follow Jesus or not? We’d like to say that if Jesus, the only Son of God, our Savior, showed up today and asked us to follow him, we would respond immediately like the disciples, but it’s hard to imagine we actually would! Unlike Jonah, it seems that these four disciples are focused on what they can gain in following Christ rather than on the negative consequences of following him.
To be sure, there are negative consequences in following Jesus and saying “yes,” to God. Mark tells us that Jesus calls these disciples “after John was arrested.” John is arrested for proclaiming a similar message to Jesus, which Jesus continues here, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The disciples know the following Jesus will be risky. As faithful Jews, they know that God calls people, like Jonah, to do difficult things sometimes. Perhaps they’re also thinking about what they will miss out on if they don’t follow him, too. Both Jonah and the disciples’ call story challenge us in our own discernment to recognize God doesn’t call us to be comfortable or to do the easy thing. In fact, saying “yes” to God means saying “no” to other things that may be easier to say yes to!
Both Jonah’s story and Jesus’ story today include the theme of “repentance.” Repentance means to turn around or go the opposite direction; God’s call to repentance specifically means God asking us to turn from one thing and go in the other direction, like Jonah does. Stopping what we’re doing or turning around to go a different way than planned isn’t easy, usually. But both of these stories also include good news. God offers mercy and forgiveness to the Ninevites who repent of their evil ways. Jesus calls us to repentance and to “believe in the good news” that following him, despite the challenges, is lifegiving, transformative, and worth the risks. As we consider how we follow Jesus and answer God’s call today, these stories help us reflect not only in what we need to say “no” to (bad habits, negative influences and people, activities that distract us from faithful living), but what are we saying “yes” to in following Christ? Healing, forgiveness, mercy, unconditional love and welcome, justice, a way of life that really is life. God may call us to something difficult, but God always offers blessings and good news alongside the challenges. When we think of the fruits that we receive in turning from unhelpful and unhealthy things and turning TO Christ, it makes it a bit easier to see how we might more immediately follow, repent, and believe in the good news. May the Holy Spirit guide us in our discernment! Amen.