Most of us probably think it would be wonderful if we simply received a clear command from God. In my experience of giving spiritual direction, people keep seeking for what God wants them to do. They ask God for signs, for some clear manifestation of God’s will, for a voice that would tell them what to do…like the disciples in today’s gospel who hear Jesus call them by name and invite them to follow him. That is what we want. Yet, when people in the Old Testament actually do hear God call them, they are not usually as happy as we imagine they should be.
We get a small fraction of the story of Jonah for our first reading today. I love the story because Jonah is so much like us. He wants to serve God, but on his terms rather than God’s terms. Do you remember the story? God says to Jonah, “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” Nineveh is not a Jewish community. It is a large foreign city located in present day Iraq near Mosul. So, what does Jonah do? Jonah does exactly the opposite. He drops everything and races off to Joppa and boards a ship to Tarshish, apparently trying get as far from God’s words as possible.
Then we get the part of the story we all remember as children. God sends a terrible storm. Jonah admits to the ship’s crew that he is fleeing God. He says, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea and then the sea will calm down for you, for I know that this great storm has come upon you because of me.” When nothing else works, with great reluctance, they toss him overboard. The sea turns quiet. Jonah does not simply float, he is swallowed by a “large fish,” traditionally thought of as a whale. Sitting inside the whale gives Jonah plenty of time for reflection. He prays about what he has done. God hears Jonah and saves him by having the fish vomit him on to the shore. Where God tells Jonah a second time to go to the great and sinful city of Nineveh to announce God’s message. Jonah submits at last and the whole city is converted. Which simply makes Jonah mad for he really wanted the whole thing to go down as he had predicted. He thought no one would believe him unless the worst possible scenario came to pass. God then gives Jonah a little experience of a shade tree dying to teach him that if Jonah is upset about the death of a little tree, how much more would God be concerned for the people of Nineveh and desire their reform. God asks Jonah, “Am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?”
While many desire a particular or unique call from God with clear directions, I think the reality is that we already know what God is asking of us. God has not hid his will from us. Jesus is clear in his teaching. We know the commandments. We simply need to live them out. We are loved. In return, we are all to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to make that love concrete, actions more than simply words and feelings. These are God’s terms, not ours. This is God’s call to us.
How will you put your love into action this week? Say “yes” like Peter, rather than run away like Jonah. It will be in living out the call to love God and neighbor that you will come to know your unique role and hear God call you by name.