Jonah 3:1-10

Mark 1:14-20

I’ve been thinking about the presidential inauguration on Tuesday. It was a historic event at any rate, one that may have been joyous or tragic, depending on your political views. Specifically, it depends (for some of us) on the ways we would prefer to care for people in poverty. Some see government programs as the way to do economic justice, while others resist this approach. We don’t want to be forced – taxed – into sharing with others, we’d prefer to do it voluntarily. There’s a reasonable mistrust of government in that position: the federal government is far too big for us to believe that it’s doing what it should be. There’s something deeper there, too: we need to feel like we’re a part of solving the world’s problems, not like we’ve given our duty over to the government.

There are good counterarguments to be made, of course (but keep listening, because it’s not that simple). First, the government is huge, big enough that it can reshape the whole playing field. Second, the decisions we make through the government are binding on even the least charitable of us, so they help us make sure that everyone contributes their fair share. In a democracy, the government’s decisions are ostensibly our own decisions, so you might say that government is the shape of our responsibility, not an abdication of it.

But it’s not that simple. Even if the government perfectly reflected the will of the people – which it simply does not – it would not be that simple. People resist government taxes because their property is constitutionally protected, and there’s value in protecting our individual liberties. We resist because we don’t want to be told to do what we already know is right. We naturally resent power exercised over us. We resist because there are other ways of caring for the poor: people frequently vote against government aid programs with one hand and give to charity with the other. It’s not so simple, because we need to identify with the decisions we make. We need to know that we made the difference our decisions made.

This need is why we identify so strongly with call stories like the one we read today from Mark’s gospel. Jesus invites the disciples – that’s you and me! – along on this faith journey. We come to the Bible seeking many things, perhaps especially a role and sense of identity in God’s story. We come to the Bible looking for work. I noticed that Grace Lutheran Church in Hermantown has the same idea in these economic times: their church sign this week reads, “No one in the Bible encountered God without getting a job!”

So Jesus gives the disciples work, and it’s fishing! That’s great, right? The incarnate Lord calls us to sit in a boat all day discussing the weather? Well, the fishing that Simon, Andrew, James, and John did wasn’t any more recreational than taconite mining. It was backbreaking labor, but now at least it had a deeper meaning. The call can give our work meaning. If we identify our work (our self) with God, we know we’re making a difference.

That’s how it goes in our popular giving narratives. Martin Luther King Day is a national volunteer day. President Kennedy got elected by calling on us to “ask what you can do for your country.” Many of you remember Victory Gardens, where we increased our food production by more than 40%. Those gardens may have won World War II, and they sure “won” the Marshall Plan. But they had a greater meaning than just the food they produced. They were a way to participate tangibly in the war effort. Whether they’re realistic or not, we need these stories that connect us with that bigger reality.

That’s one reason I’m happy to plant my little backyard garden – it lets me feel like I’m doing something to battle the looming food crisis. I know I won’t solve the problem alone. In this climate and with my level of horticultural skill, I won’t even feed the two of us (let alone the “Williams Addition”). But getting my hands in the dirt keeps me connected with the problem, and I feel like I’m somehow part of the solution. It’s work that makes my prayer real.

That sounds to me like Nineveh’s fast. In response to Jonah’s prophecy, the king called on all the people to pitch in. He had signs printed with Smokey Bear in sackcloth, saying, “only you can prevent the wrath of God.” He calls on the highest and the lowest of his society: the king himself rolls in the ashes, and even the animals wear sackcloth. Everyone repents. So God changes His mind and doesn’t destroy the city. Much to Jonah’s dismay, the fast and repentance worked! Or did it? Maybe Jonah’s lament in chapter four is right and God was going to be merciful all along!

There’s much to unpack in this great little story, but Jonah was right: God’s mercy was planned from the beginning of the story. He’s also wrong: the people’s fast swayed God’s decision. Our esteemed forebear in the faith, John Calvin (who turns 500 this year), left us a legacy that oversimplifies things. He’s best remembered for preaching the idea that all things are under God’s control. That’s completely true, and as believers, we trust God’s power and mercy. Anything that happens in life is God’s free gift. But it’s also true that God is always in conversation with us. Especially in the Old Testament, God seems to make up the world’s story as She goes along.

Nineveh’s prayer works. God repents. God really did plan to destroy the city, and He really didn’t follow through. Was this because all the people fasted? Was it becase the king, who is responsible for everyone in the city, fasted? Did God sneakily plan this all along? Whatever happened, the people participated. They belonged to the city’s work. They needed to feel engaged with this great crisis. We need to feel connected to that kind of great work, even if we decide rationally that God doesn’t need our help to make it happen.

Maybe God doesn’t need our help. The Sovereign of the Universe, after all, ought to be able to do with or without us. But we need to help. I struggle with this, when I think about prayer. The prophets remind us that God doesn’t need our worship, as if She’ll starve to death if we don’t offer meat on the altar. I struggle, thinking about the scale of the problems that face our world – that face just this church. What’s my role in this? What role can any of us play in this? But I need to help, and I’m convinced right now that God wants my help. She doesn’t need my, but She desires it. I’m feeling right now that what we need is what God passionately desires for us and from us: joy, service, gratitude, and love. Our gifts and our prayers are not in vain just because God is big enough to survive without us. Each gift we give and prayer we offer is a great joy to God’s heart.