This Sunday's first reading comes from the book of Jonah, 3:1-5, 10. It tells of God calling to Jonah, the prophet, and commanding him to go to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance. Jonah warns the inhabitants of the city that the Lord would destroy Nineveh in forty days. The people hear the message, begin fasting and wearing sackcloth, and because of their repentance God did not punish them.
On the surface this reading seems to be about repentance. And so it is. The people of Nineveh repented of their evil ways and so avoided God's punishment. But it's also about another form of repentance. It is about the repentance of Jonah. You see, Jonah did not want to be there.
The book of Jonah is one of the shortest in the Bible. It falls between Amos and Micah, and in my little pocket edition of the Bible it fits on just two pages. It is easy to flip right past it and never know it is there. But take ten minutes of your time and read it. Most of us no doubt know at least part of the story. The name "Jonah" to us conjures up images of a giant whale, swallowing the prophet whole. But that's only part of the story.
The book begins by God calling Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach there against the wickedness of the people, just as in today's reading. Only Jonah does not go. He tries to flee from God. In fact, he goes so far as to board a ship bound for Tarshish, which is in modern-day Spain -- about the furthest place on the map from where he was. In other words, he was trying to go to the ends of the earth to escape the call of God.
But it did not work. God found him, and caused a storm to rock the ship until eventually the sailors were forced to toss Jonah overboard to prevent God from destroying their vessel. Once in the waves, that is when the great fish rose up and swallowed the prophet whole. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days (a foreshadowing of the three days Christ spent in the tomb), before praying to the Lord, after which the fish vomited him up on the shore.
And it is here that today's reading picks up. For the second time the Lord called Jonah and commanded him to go to Nineveh. This time Jonah obeys, and the Lord's work is done.
Today's gospel reading (Mk 1:14-20) also tells of men who were called by the Lord. Simon and Andrew; two fishermen, busy about their business, casting their nets into the sea of Galilee, hoping for a good haul. Jesus walks by and sees them. "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men," he says. And so Simon and Andrew abandoned their nets, and followed Jesus. They heard the call of the Lord and responded to it. As did the brothers James and John, whom Christ found mending their fishing nets with their father, Zebedee. They heard the call of Christ and left their father there in the boat, mending the nets. John and James had a higher calling.
What is your higher calling? What is God calling you to do? Are you ready to drop everything and respond to that call, as did the fishermen in today's gospel? Or are you hesitant and fearful, like Jonah? For even though Jonah refused, and even tried to run away and hide from God, the Lord never ceased to call him. He was with Jonah on the ship. He was with him in the belly of the fish. His call to Jonah never ceased, and when Jonah finally did answer the call, his works glorified the Lord.
How long have you been running from what God is calling you to do? He is still calling you. It's not too late to answer.