Our futures are not foreclosed – the kingdom of God can break them open

Liz Stuart, 7 November 2021

Jonah 3: 1–5, 10; Mark 1: 14–20

I wonder if you remember an iconic photograph that emerged from President Biden’s inauguration. It was of Senator Bernie Sanders, wearing a face covering, dressed in an anorak with hands encased in brown woollen mittens, slumped in a chair. Thousands of memes were created out of that image, but my favourite Photoshop had him sitting under a tree in Nineveh. It so accurately captured the petulant fury of Jonah that the people of Nineveh, to whom he was so reluctantly sent, actually listened to him, repented, and God had mercy upon them.

Jonah couldn’t bear the fact that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love – a God who relents from sending calamity. He felt it undermined his role as a prophet, which presumably he understood as proclaiming disaster rather than encouraging repentance. He dares to think that God has got it wrong, and he would rather die than admit otherwise. The book of Jonah ends with this prophet, who could claim to be one of the most successful preachers of all time, seething with resentment.

Jonah is a warning to us against several temptations: to second-guess God, to think we understand fully what we are called to do in his name and, most dangerously of all, to seek to raise the drawbridge on his grace and mercy and shut some out of it.

We can also shut ourselves out of God’s grace by various means, one of which is by believing that our futures are foreclosed. Every Jewish male in Jesus’ day aspired to be a disciple to a teacher, but only those with sufficient proficiency in the Torah could realise those ambitions. While disciples generally had to earn their own keep with a trade of some sort, that was not how they were defined. They were defined first and foremost as a disciple to a teacher. Some scholars believe that Jesus began his ministry as a disciple of John the Baptist, and it is only when John is imprisoned that Jesus sets out of his own ministry of teaching and seeks his own disciples.

The fact that the author of the gospel of Mark identifies Simon and Andrew and others as ‘fishermen’ marks them out immediately as failures on the discipleship front; they were not good enough to be disciples of a teacher. Yet here comes Jesus and he calls them, and they follow. In that moment they do not care about their failure or the professions which define them as failures. At that moment, in that encounter with Jesus, they show repentance – metanoia – which literally means, to change your mind. They decided at that moment that their future was not foreclosed, that failure did not define them and they were going to follow this teacher who didn’t seem to care about their qualifications. Like the people of Nineveh, they suddenly realise that God can break open their futures. This is what the kingdom of God does.

We must not hug our failures to ourselves so tightly that they become our identities.

So, we must not hug our failures to ourselves so tightly that they become our identities. Just as Nelson saw no signal, Jesus sees no failures, and he has great things in store for us. Nothing about us prevents Jesus from wanting us to follow him and we should not let our failures, past or present, perceived or real, stand in our way of responding to him. And nor must we be like Jonah resenting those who change their minds, shrug off their failures and respond to God’s call and God’s endless mercy. We must, as Jesus exhorts us, believe the good news for ourselves and for others.