an important small change


I wish someone would write an account of how those who put together the Revised Common Lectionary came to their decisions as to what should be read from week to week, which passages went together, and even what should be left out of the regular three-year cycle.

I’m sure the reason no one has done that is I am a part a small niche market that would doom the book to poor sales, so the mystery will remain largely unsolved. Nevertheless, some weeks, like this one, give us an interesting juxtaposition of two passages that are telling different stories and yet have a sort of strange harmony.

The Book of Jonah is one of the more intriguing parts of scripture, and one that has seeped into popular culture. You don’t have to have grown up in church to know about Jonah and the whale. Jonah was a Hebrew person whom God called to go the town of Nineveh, which was where the modern town of Mosul, Iraq is today. That also means it was inland and west of where Jonah lived. Instead, he ran to the port of Joppa (part of Tel Aviv today) and caught a ship to Tarshish in southern Spain.

Perhaps you know the part about spending three days inside a big fish who spit him up on dry land. Exactly what dry land we don’t know, but we do know God came back and told him—again—to go to Nineveh, which he did, and that’s when the part of the story we read happened.

Despite the fact that Jonah didn’t like the Ninevites at all, they heard what he had to say and responded to God. As I heard another preacher say this week, God even uses complainers to spread the love. Good to know, I suppose. Also good to notice, that one man came to town and changed everything.

In our gospel account, we get a similar snippet of a fuller story. Mark jumps from Jesus’ temptations to John’s arrest—those things didn’t not happen directly in sequence, or at least that appears to be the case when we look at the other gospels. For Mark, what matters most is that John’s arrest seemed to call Jesus to action. It was the catalyst for him to begin his public ministry. And the way he began was to call others.

We often think of John the Baptist as Jesus’ warm-up act, but John had a bigger role that than. Some suggest we would do better to see him as a mentor more than an opener. John was preaching a baptism of repentance; Jesus began by saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!”—also a message of repentance. They were both saying the same thing.

From the start, Jesus began building a community, as we see in our passage. As he walked through town, he called out to Peter and Andrew, and then to James and John, to leave what they were doing (which was carrying on the family business of fishing) and go with him so they could learn how to catch people.

Mark says all four of them dropped what they were doing and followed him, leaving their fathers and other workers a bit perplexed, I imagine. But, like the people of Nineveh, when they heard a call to change the way they were living they responded by changing. Nonetheless, it was not a Moses-on-the-mountain kind of moment; it was a conversation among friends after breakfast.

When we read either story, we tend to focus on what was happening with Jonah and Jesus, but let’s look today at those who listened to them—and really heard what they were saying.

We talked last week about the word repent, when it’s used in the Bible, having to do more with making a change in your life and less with the sense of shame and regret that the word carries in English. Our stories carry a bit of both. Jonah went to tell the Ninevites their lives were so atrocious that God was ready to destroy them, so they needed to make big changes. Jesus didn’t use the word repent when he called the boys from their boats, but he called them to a drastic change of life: drop what you’re doing and come with me.

In both cases, the people responded. They dropped what they were doing and chose a different path.

So here the questions: How do we learn to open our hearts like that? What does it take for us to change? To repent? How do we break the routines of our lives so the Spirit can flourish in us?

Perhaps the changes we are contemplating do not feel as drastic as it seemed to be for the Ninevites or the soon-to-be disciples, or perhaps they are, but both examples remind us of the consequences of important small changes, because even though both events come across huge in scripture, they are relatively small moments. Whispers. Conversations. Choices.

Let me offer a different example.

Our house was built in 1795, which means, among other things, that we have very little storage space. The early Americans may have fought for freedom, but they didn’t care much about closets. Soon after we moved into our house eight years ago, we bought a bathroom cabinet at IKEA in New Haven.

If you have shopped there, you know that means I had to put it together using instructions translated from Swedish, illustrations that are open to interpretation, and an Allen wrench, one of the banes of human existence. If Hell is a reality, it will include the distribution of Allen wrenches.

I put it together and the door wouldn’t close correctly. The sexton from the church came over and corrected my mistakes, but it the process, the small magnet that held the door closed got lost. I made one unsuccessful trip back to IKEA to see if they had a spare one and then it fell off my radar. The door has hung slightly ajar for eight years.

Until a few nights ago when we saw a commercial for (I kid you not) Monkey Magnets, which are small door magnets that are self-adhesive and install easily. I ordered them, they came in on Thursday, and I fixed the door without telling Ginger. I wanted to see if she would notice, which she did. She thanked me and said, “I feel loved when you do stuff like that.”

My call to repentance didn’t come from anyone as angry as Jonah or as inspiring as Jesus; I responded to a television announcer. Still, the impact on my life and my wife was profound, even with a small change.

The analogy may be a bit strained, but the point is the decisions that can change our lives and open our hearts to both the Spirit of God and the world are not necessarily as enormous as walking away from your job in the middle of your shift. Hearts are mended and lives are opened by important small changes, by moments when we step into God’s call on our lives.

Even our passage this morning describes a small moment: Jesus was walking by and said, “Come with me,” and they did. They could have said no, but they didn’t, and their lives were never the same. What important small changes are calling us? What will we drop, leave behind, pick up, see, hear, or find? Amen.



  1. Thank you Milton for sharing your words. Good food for thought about what I need to change in my life. Small changes can and do make a difference to us and others.

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