Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it.”
Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting and mending nets, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction! When Simon and Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s Scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation, of how God is always calling us to larger life – and our very mixed and not always very impressive or heroic responses!
And certainly, in Scripture, it seems that most people whom God calls, don’t immediately leave their ‘nets’ and follow. Most of them, like me, are more like Jonah. Or like Moses. He tries to wriggle out of it when God calls him to confront Pharaoh: ‘O Lord, I’ve never been eloquent: I’m slow of speech and tongue.’ Or poor Jeremiah. ‘O Lord, truly I don’t know how to speak, for I’m only a boy.’ Or poor Isaiah, in the midst of a stunning vision of heaven – ‘O Lord, woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.’ But after the Lord cleanses him he does manage to say, ‘Here am I Lord, send me.’ We used to joke that he was probably feeling more, ‘Here am I – send HIM!’
I wonder about your own experience? Have you had an occasion in your life when you sensed deeply that God was calling you? Perhaps a niggling voice that would simply not go away; an inner conviction that the way you were living your life was not right or no longer giving you life? Perhaps it was an inner prompting to maybe make a radical change. Frankly, it’s not often very welcome. ‘O Lord leave me alone. I could never do that. I’m comfortable where I am, comfortable with who I am.’ But generally, God does not stop calling us, prompting us, convicting us. Jonah tried to escape to the ends of the earth, but God followed him. Rather like that ‘Hound of Heaven’ in Francis Thompson’s famous poem: ‘I fled Him down the nights and down the days… I fled Him down the arches of the years…I hid from… those strong Feet that followed, followed after.’
What is often the thing which we most resist, is the fear of renunciation. What needs to GO? When God calls a person in Scripture, the call is nearly always accompanied by the need to renounce, to let go, of something: To say goodbye to a part of our life which is no longer ‘life giving.’ Simon and Andrew were in the middle of casting their nets in the sea when Jesus called them. And we read, ‘They immediately left their nets and followed him.’ James and John were in their boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, when Jesus called them, and they immediately left their boat, and left their father, and followed him.
But the renunciation which so often accompanies God’s call in Scripture, is not some life denying mortification, it is the giving up of something, the willingness to let go of something good, to offer something dear, in order to receive something ‘even better.’ The renunciation is always accompanied by a promise; a promise which is related to what has been given up. It’s almost as if, if we don’t relinquish something, there is simply no room for what God longs to give us. So, in Genesis, when Abram is called by God to leave his country and his kindred and his father’s house – a terrible renunciation, to go on a long journey to a strange land, it is accompanied by a promise; a promise related to the renunciation: God will make him father of an even greater family : ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.’ And when Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John to leave their fishing and their families behind, to follow him, their renunciation was accompanied by a promise related to what hey would leave. They would no longer be fishing in the sea, but would now be fishing for people. And by leaving their family behind, they would go on to be ‘fathers’ of the Church.
When God calls us, disturbs us, invites us, it is a call NOT to become a totally different person, but to become more fully the unique person God created us to be. When God calls us, it is always to larger life: To a life more expansive, more abundant than we can possibly imagine. But to inhabit that larger life, we usually have let go of some of the outward forms which ‘contain’ our lives. They are simply too small, too constricting. We’ve outgrown them. It’s rather like Jesus’ image of putting new wine into old wineskins; the wine will burst; The wine will burst the skins and the wine will be lost. When Jesus calls us to larger life, it’s like he is filling us with new wine, and suddenly our life has to change. What we have grown familiar with is simply too narrow, too constraining, and we need to let it go.
An image that comes to mind is that of the lobster. The lobster is completely encased in a very hard shell. This protects the lobster, but it also prevents it from growing. And so, with very great courage, the lobster breaks out of its familiar and protective shell, knowing that this will make it incredibly vulnerable, because it so longs to grow. And in its first five years of life it does this up to twenty-five times! It takes the considerable risk of letting go, ‘renouncing’ its shell – for the sake of larger life.
I believe God is also calling each of us to larger life. But it is not just individuals who have to ‘let go’ in order to embrace larger life. It is true for families, communities, and nations. And this image of the lobster has come to mind during these past weeks in the life of our nation. When there is a general election, when there is a change of government, we too, as a nation, become vulnerable. And we saw just how vulnerable when that crowd attacked the Capitol. But now the change has happened. The inauguration celebrated the start of a new administration. But it seems to me that for our country to grow into larger life, both our political parties need to shed the shells which inevitably harden during the conflict of an election. They should no longer feel the need to be defined by, or ‘confined’ by, the slogans and rallying cries of the election. Rather, to be open to grow and to change. Cardinal Newman wrote, ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ That is true for our nation, and it is true for each one of us.
We are at the beginning of a new year. A good time to look with searching honesty at our lives. How am I being called by God to grow and to change? What is there in your life right now which is restricting your growth into that larger life to which God is calling you? Perhaps certain habits, compulsions, attitudes, behavior, which have become familiar and comfortable, but which have hardened into a kind of shell, stopping you from growing. Perhaps God is inviting you to break that shell, to take some risks, to be vulnerable, uncomfortable, and open to new growth. What might that look like for you? It might mean giving something up, renouncing something. But with every renunciation, like those fishermen leaving their nets behind, there is always a promise; a promise of abundant life, beyond our wildest dreams.
So, bring your hopes and dreams for this year to God in prayer. Listen carefully to the voice of Jesus calling you on – ‘Come, follow me’ – and step out into that larger life for which you were so lovingly created.
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