A Tale of Two Fish

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
January 25, 2015
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

Word cloud courtesy wordle.net

Jonah 3:1–5, 10 • “The LORD’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.) Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. … God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.

Mark 1:14–20 • After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

I. BEGINNING

So, I’ve got a business proposition for you.

Come with me on an exciting venture. I can’t promise you we’ll make a lot of—or any—money. I am not sure how long we’ll be away from home. You’ll probably have to quit your job or at the very least take unpaid leave. Indefinitely. I am not sure where we’ll be staying along the way. But it’s okay, I’m sure we’ll find folks to put us up. Oh, and one last thing, we’ll likely make a lot of people angry with us.

Sound good?

No? I never do get a lot of takers. At least not among folks who have jobs. I could probably talk a bunch of college students into that, but would likely lose them once they found out it wouldn’t count as an internship.

II. ONE FISH

So, I’ve always been amazed at the success Jesus has with an offer just like that. Jesus is walking along the shores of the Galilee and he sees Simon and Andrew, fishing.

“Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him.

Right away! That’s amazing. Fishing is a big business in Galilee. It’s hard work, but it’s a living. And they leave their nets right away and follow him. We know from scripture that Simon Peter had a mother-in-law, thus a wife, and I wonder what they thought of this decision. Without even so much as a “Let me check with my wife or make sure we have enough saved up,” Simon and Andrew are off. Following Jesus to who-knows-where, doing who-knows-what.

And then, to demonstrate that this was not a fluke, Jesus walks a little further down he sees James and John, Zebedee’s sons.

At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers

Jesus is four for four in getting people to leave everything behind and follow him. It’s astonishing.

I dare say that most of us would not leave our fish behind. We would be much more likely to make some kind of arrangement whereby we could follow Jesus on the weekends or arrange for some kind of deal whereby we could still draw a salary. Get a grant for a leave of absence. Or maybe he’ll take a check instead? Is there somewhere we can just donate to? There are plenty of those stories in the New Testament: the man who is called but needs to bury his father, the rich young ruler reluctant to give away everything he has and follow Jesus. There are plenty of much more accurate examples for us.

Even when I was discerning a call to ministry, I decided quickly that I was only going to apply to Wesley Seminary. I had lived in Washington for eight years already and it had become a home. Okay God, I thought, I’ll go to seminary, but I ain’t moving. I sure as hell wasn’t about to just leave all those fish sitting there in the boat unattended. All those bills unpaid. That’d be just so irresponsible. And trust me, SallieMae would find me.

But Jesus calls the disciples to follow him and they do. Leaving behind their nets, their boats, their family, and a whole lot of fish. The calling of God will frequently ask us to do the same, but the fish we are currently fishing are hard to leave behind. We are so much more reluctant to leave behind our nets and the things we’re fishing for in order to follow Jesus.

III.  TWO FISH

But what if I sweetened the pot a little bit on my earlier offer? Would that make it easier to leave everything behind?

What if I said that God had made up her mind to destroy Al-Qaeda but was going to send us there to warn them so that they might not be destroyed, but spared? Or ISIL? How would you feel about that opportunity now? You have to leave everything comfortable behind and go off on a mission you’re probably less than enthusiastic about.

That’s the offer that Jonah was given. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn that Great City that judgment day is coming and that they should repent. The great humor of the Jonah story is that he gets on a boat that is going as far away as possible as he can from Nineveh—all the way to Tarshish on the southern coast of modern-day Spain. Literally as far as the ancients thought the world went. That’s how far Jonah is trying to get away from Nineveh.

See, Jonah knows that God is merciful. And knows that he’s a fairly effective preacher, beside. He knows that he’ll be persuasive and the Ninevites will all repent and be spared. And that’s precisely what he’s afraid of.

Jonah and the Great Fish

See, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the empire that had afflicted the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah for years and the mightiest imperial power for a while in the ancient world. Who had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and scattered the people and resettled the land with their own people (in clear violation of the Geneva Convention, by the way), causing the ten northern tribes to be henceforth known as “The Lost Tribes of Israel.” They had also besieged Jerusalem under the leadership of Sennacherib, and tried to starve the city into submission. They were a constant menace to the people of Israel and Judah. There’s a reason why Jonah didn’t want to save them. And I dare say that many people given the opportunity to save al-Qaeda or ISIL would be just as reluctant. (I know that these are not exact analogies, given that we are the mightiest imperial power in the world today, but they are the closest thing to Assyria in most Americans’ emotional estimation, if not in true military estimation.)

So yes, Jonah gets on a ship headed to the other side of the world. God sends a Great Wind to cause a Great Storm on the sea and the sailors cast lots to figure out who is the cause of this misfortune: sure enough, it’s Jonah. So they toss him overboard where he is swallowed by a Great Fish. In popular understanding we always refer to it as a whale, but the text says plainly, “a Great Fish.” And it is the fish who delivers Jonah back east to go to Nineveh. Somewhat unceremoniously. The New Revised Standard Version says the fish “spewed Jonah” out. A better translation is “vomited.” Though for pure comedic effect worthy of this scene, I think “barfed” would be funnier.

Because the lesson becomes clear: when God says, “Go to Nineveh,” go to Nineveh. And if you’re reluctant, it’s the fish that’ll get you going in the right direction. (Though it may not be in a dignified manner.)

So, our second fish then represents the places of grace that we’d rather not go to. The people we’d rather not extend that grace to. The ever-increasing boundaries of the circle of God’s love.

IV. JESUS FISH

Perhaps it’s no accident that the oldest symbol of Christianity is the fish. The familiar “Jesus fish” that adorns the bumpers of cars all across America, is an ancient sign among the faithful. Initially, it started as a secret code allowing Christians to identify each other: one would make one arc of the design; the other would continue the drawing. The whole image was based on wordplay. In Greek, the phrase Iesous Christos Theou Hyios S?ter mean “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” and the initials of which spelled out the Greek word “Ichthys,” which means “fish.” It was a handy little symbol and a handy little code. And given that a number of the disciples were fishermen and Jesus called the disciples to be fishers of people, it worked out well. Compared to the cross, which is an instrument of state torture and execution, the fish remains a far “friendlier” symbol for the church. Indeed, our mascot Wes, is a Jesus fish, and is frequently smiling.

But I wonder if this historic symbol of Christian faith might not take on new significance for us. Reminding us of the sacrifice we’re called to make and the places we’re called to go. To remind us that our faith is not a faith of comfort, free of consequence, nor is it a faith of convenience.

But it is a faith of power.

V. NEW FISH

Jonah went to Nineveh after all and preached there to a people he no doubt despised. And they responded and were saved. God said to Jonah, Go to Nineveh and fish. And that fishing, that witness, transformed Nineveh.

We are called to do the exact same thing. See, the image of the fish is an important symbol for Christianity, but the fish it represents are not the fish of our business and our enterprise. It does not represent the fish of our commerce, the fish that we spend our days and nights trying to catch with nets. The concerns of the world that weigh us down. The busyness that consumes our lives. These are the fish we are so busy trying to catch. But these are not the fish our faith is about.

The fish that symbol represents is not even that great fish that gives us a course correction, that carries us and unceremoniously vomits us up on the shore and sends us on our way. That fish, vital as it is, is not really what that symbol is pointing us toward.

The symbol of the fish is pointing us elsewhere, to that Ichthys, to Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. To the one who left everything he had, and would give up even more, for us. The one who put fidelity to God above fidelity to human power. Who put mercy and righteousness—the ‘weightier parts of the law’—above pure legalism and rite. The one who witnessed to a radical understanding of the people of God. The one who himself went into the places and to the people no one else wanted to go. To the Ninevehs great and small. To the sinners, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, and outcasts. And proclaimed to them a God who loved them already. The one who was willing to demonstrate the solidarity of God to such a degree that he was willing to suffer and die to show us God’s heart. That is the fish that is at the heart of these stories for us as Christians.

And thus, we are called to be like that. To leave our places of comfort, to reach out in love to those on the margins, to witness to a God greater than any of our limited conceptions can grasp. To testify to the love, mercy, justice, and grace of God with our whole being.

I’m not saying that we all have to quit our jobs; for some of us, our work is our place of discomfort. Rather, it is more in our willingness to leave behind the familiar, the predictable, the safe, and the “we’ve always done it that way.” A willingness to leave that behind and to venture out to places wouldn’t have ever expected.

I suppose it’s fitting that fish gather in “schools” because even as disciple-fish, we have much to learn. But perhaps it was those fishermen, those first four disciples, who can teach us. For they would give all to follow Jesus, eventually their lives as well, and in so doing, would help to spread the knowledge and love of God from one end of the known world to the other. Inviting us to swim along and to be part of the transformation of the world itself.