First, we have two fish stories. We have Jonah, who many of us probably remember has something to do with a giant fish. And then we have four of Jesus’ earliest disciples, who happen to be fishermen. And when Jesus sees them fishing, he says to them: “I will make you fish for people.”
Secondly, these are two call stories. God has called the prophet Jonah to go into the city of Ninevah and cry out against the Ninevite’s wickedness. And in our Gospel, while Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God, he sees four fishermen fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and he – a rabbi – calls out to them: “follow me,” asking them to become his disciples, or his students.
The third theme these stories seem to share is that when we look at the stories as given to us through our assigned lectionary readings this morning – without any additional context about the people involved – they both seem to be picture-perfect call stories.
When Jonah hears God calling him, he listens, immediately gets up, goes to Ninevah, and cries out to the Ninevites, proclaiming their impending destruction for the wickedness of their ways. And they repent.
And in our Gospel, when Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John hear Jesus calling them, they immediately get up, drop their fishing nets, and follow Jesus as he travels across Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and bringing healing to the sick and the suffering. And they leave everything they have and know behind them without any knowledge of where they are going or what will come next.
You see, it looks as though this morning we have two neat and tidy call stories, with what appear to be confident, obedient, and qualified people of God who respond to God’s call to go and proclaim the good news of God’s love and to do God’s work in the world.
But if we look beyond the lectionary readings this morning, we will see that these calls stories are far from neat and tidy, and the people being called are far from perfect.
You see, when Jonah was first called by God to go and speak to Ninevah, instead of going, he jumps on the first ship he can find that will take him to Tarshish, a city that is in the complete opposite direction of Ninevah. And he goes down into the hold of the ship to hide out, hoping to escape God’s presence. But God sends a great storm upon the sea, and – as the winds strengthen and the sailors can’t seem to get the ship back to land – Jonah is eventually thrown overboard. So God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. And while Jonah is sitting in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks to God for hearing his cries. And so God hears his prayers again, speaks to the fish, and the fish ends up vomiting him up onto dry land.
This is where we come to our lectionary passage this morning. God calls out to Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah. And so this once very disobedient Jonah, who is now covered in sea water and fish puke, happily goes to Ninevah to tell them about their wicked ways and their impending destruction.
No, this is not a neat and tidy call story at all. This story is rather quite messy… and probably pretty smelly.
Now, when the people hear Jonah’s cries, the Ninevites – ALL of them – even the animals – begin to fast, cover themselves in sackcloths, and cry out to God, repenting of their evil ways. And when God sees they have turned from their old ways, God forgives them and decides to no longer bring about calamity upon them.
Now, you would have thought that Jonah would have been ecstatic about this news. And you would have thought that he would have learned his lesson by now and turned from his old ways.
But you would have thought wrong. And the messiness continues.
Jonah is extremely displeased with this news. How can God give those undeserving Ninevites a second chance?! And so out of anger he shouts at God: “Please take my life away from me. For it is better for me to die than to live.” Then he stomps off and finds a shaded place to sit just outside of the city where he can pout and wait and watch what will happen to the city, hoping he gets his way after all.
But (Spoiler alert): he doesn’t actually get his way.
So Jonah’s call story is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess. But God still sees the potential in Jonah, and God continues to show up for him and to call him to participate in God’s work.
And while our Gospel call story this morning isn’t quite as messy as Jonah’s, it still isn’t the picture-perfect scene with picture-perfect people it seems to be at first glance.
You see, in first century Judaism – particularly in the region of Galilee – there was a very extensive process a man would have to go through in order to become a disciple – or a follower – of a rabbi. There were several levels of religious education, beginning at age 4 or 5. Only the top students coming out of each level of education would continue onto the next level, and only the top of the top of the top would eventually be eligible to follow a rabbi (and even then, the rabbi would not necessarily choose to take him as a student). Since Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all in the fishing trade, they would have only finished as far as the second level of education and may have only been through the first level of education.
And so these four fishermen had not made a typical rabbi’s cut. They were not the top students of their day. They did not have an extensive resume – scriptural knowledge, interpretations, or religious lingo – that would have enabled them to continue climbing the educational ladder. And so they were definitely not qualified to become a rabbi’s disciple.
And yet, for some reason, Jesus thinks otherwise. For some reason, Jesus sees a great potential in these average, ordinary men fishing in the Sea of Galilee. And so when he sees them fishing, he stops and he calls out to them: follow me.
And immediately, these average fishermen do just that. They drop their nets and – even though they most likely were covered in smelly fish guts – they follow him.
But even though these ordinary fishermen seem to be obedient at first, if we read on, we will see that they – too – continue to be far from perfect. The disciples often misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, question his authority, doubt his promises, hide out when they get scared, and some even betray and deny him.
And so, in some ways, like Jonah’s call story – this one, too, is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess.
But Jesus still sees the potential in and the gifts of these disciples, and he doesn’t give up on them. He continues to love them, to show up for them, and to walk alongside them in all of the beauty and the messiness of this difficult call.
I just love these two fishy and messy call stories.
Because they seem more like real life.
And just as God saw the potential in Jonah and continued to show up for him – even through all of his grumpiness, failures and mistakes – and just as Jesus saw the potential in those four ordinary fishermen and believed in them, so does God see and believe in each one of us – no matter how little qualified we may feel, no matter how grumpy we might get, and no matter how imperfect we may be.
In just a little while, we will celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace. And I think it’s quite appropriate to do so as we look at these two biblical call stories.
Because a baptism is a call story. And – as we have seen with Jonah and the early disciples, a baptismal call story is a life-long journey that is nothing close to neat and tidy.
But in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our messiness and fishiness. Who loves us through all of our grumpiness, our failures, our struggles, our doubts. In our baptism, we are called and welcomed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims – a Kingdom that is full of grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We are welcomed into this Kingdom of God, and nothing and no one can keep us from it.
When we celebrate the baptism of one of our own at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, we do this here in community. Because we are not expected to pursue this baptismal life alone. Rather, in Christ, we are called to live this baptismal life together. In Christ, we are called to see and affirm the image of God in one another and recognize the potential and the gifts of one another. We are called to share in each other’s joys, help carry one another’s burdens, and walk alongside one another in all of the messiness that takes place as we live out our call to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the world.
And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that we are all beloved children of God, and that by grace, God calls each one of us.
And even when we are covered in stinky fish puke and guts, Jesus will still see that we are – indeed worthy of this call – and he will continue to say to us, “follow me.”