Sermon: When God is a comedian

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
24th of January 2021

Jonah 1:1-3; 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-11.

Today is the Sunday before Australia Day and at the request of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress the Uniting Church observes this Sunday as a Day of Mourning. The prayers we pray, the hymns we sing, and the Picture Book I have just read to you are all part of that. But I could not give up the Revised Common Lectionary readings, or the chance to reflect on them today. The lectionary only gives us one reading in three years from the Book of Jonah, and I cannot give this opportunity up. There aren’t many books of the Bible that are laugh-out-loud funny, but the Book of Jonah is one of them.

The Lord tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against it because of its great wickedness. Like many people called by God, Jonah is less than enthusiastic. Moses reminded God that he was a stammerer; Jeremiah said that he was only a boy; very few people called by God had the response we heard from Samuel last week: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ But unlike Moses and Jeremiah, Jonah does not argue with God. He simply takes off in the other direction. The Lord wants Jonah to go to Nineveh in the East; Jonah flees to Tarshish, the furthest known point in the West; for Hebrews the far end of the world.

Not that Jonah can really be blamed for this. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It represented all that was hateful, repugnant, and cruel in those empires which had oppressed Jonah’s people throughout history. The Assyrians themselves were known to be bloodthirsty, specialising in sacking and looting. Nineveh was not the sort of place to which an Israelite prophet would hope to be sent when the Lord’s call came.

So Jonah takes a ship to Tarshish. If he imagines that the Lord cannot see what he is doing his eyes are soon opened. The Lord creates such a mighty storm that Jonah’s ship threatens to break up. Each of the sailors on board cries to his own particular god, and they wake the sleeping Jonah and tell him to pray to his god, too. When this doesn’t help, the sailors cast lots to find out on whose account the storm has come, and the lot falls on Jonah. The sailors ask him about himself and he tells them: ‘I am a Hebrew, I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ The sailors are terrified. They ask Jonah what to do, and he tells them to throw him overboard. The sailors don’t want to, and they try everything else first, but in the end, they cry out to God: ‘Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you,’ then they pick Jonah up, and throw him into the sea. The storm ends, and the sailors offer a sacrifice and vow to the Lord. The prophet has become an accidental evangelist as God uses Jonah’s disobedience to reveal himself to pagan sailors.

Jonah, of course, doesn’t die, and this is the bit of the story that everyone knows. God provides a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah stays in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. The fish isn’t a punishment; it is God’s way of saving Jonah from drowning. And it is in the belly of the fish that Jonah undergoes a conversion experience. He thanks the Lord for not leaving him to drown, and acknowledges that deliverance belongs to the Lord. Then the Lord speaks to the fish and it spews Jonah out onto dry land. If Jonah had thought that he was too good to prophesy to Gentiles, he has discovered his mistake as he finds himself on a beach covered in fish vomit.

Now we are back at the beginning again, with the Lord telling Jonah to go to Nineveh. And Jonah now agrees, although not very happily, to do as the Lord commands. He begins to walk through the city, prophesying. Just as Jonah was an unwitting evangelist to the sailors, now he becomes a reluctantly successful prophet. Jonah’s message is that ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ It is far from good news, and Jonah does not even offer the people of Nineveh the hope that if they repent the destruction will not happen. And yet the people of Nineveh immediately proclaim a fast, and everyone in the city puts on sackcloth. It seems that it is not the strength, boldness, courage, or cleverness of prophets or disciples that allows God’s message to be heard, because Jonah is none of these things.

Finally Jonah’s message reaches the king himself. ‘When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.”’ If you do not think that Jonah is a comedy, just imagine all those animals wearing sackcloth. Then the king says something very profound: ‘Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

Now we see why Jonah fled from the Lord’s command and took ship for Tarshish when told to go to Nineveh. Jonah is a man with a strong sense of law and order, but with little sense of love. And he wants his God to be like that, too; he wants a God who is as narrow, as intolerant, as self-righteous as Jonah himself. But he knows that this is not what God is like. He tells God: ‘“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”’ Jonah still, despite his conversion experience in the belly of the fish, doesn’t get it. He may have stopped running from God, he may have obeyed God’s command and prophesied to Nineveh, he may have been astoundingly, overwhelmingly, successful in his preaching, but he does not like it. He sees the people of Nineveh being disobedient and evil and immoral and he wants them pelted with fire and brimstone. These people do not even know who the God is who is threatening to punish them! Jonah knows that it is the Lord, while the King of Nineveh simply refers to ‘God,’ like the sailors each crying to their own gods in the storm. Jonah wants these ignorant Gentiles to receive the punishment that they deserve! Instead they repent and God relents. And so Jonah sulks. He goes out of the city and sits down. God makes a bush grow to give Jonah shade, and Jonah is happy about the bush. But when dawn comes the next day, God sends a worm to attack the bush and it withers. When the sun rises, God prepares a sultry east wind, and the sun beats down on Jonah so that he’s faint and asks to die. Jonah is not a happy prophet. In fact, he is a sulking, childish prophet.

This book of the Hebrew Scriptures is amazingly universal. One biblical commentator says of it that ‘all the characters of this story are likeable, the pagan sailors, the king, the populace, even the animals of Nineveh, all except the only Israelite on the stage – and he a prophet!’[1] And yet this funny little story of a sulking prophet has been collected in the Hebrew Scriptures, sitting in our Bibles between the prophecies of Obadiah and Micah. Collected with the prophetic books of Amos and Micah and the rest of the twelve Minor Prophets, the story of Jonah is a critique of the prophets from within. For anyone who reads this book, Jonah is us.

The sulking Jonah is the patron saint of every religious person who wants God on their own terms. He is the lord of everyone who wants God to punish those wicked people over there. This is, at one time or another, all of us. We want God to reward those we see as good (including us) and punish those we see as wicked. We want God’s justice, especially if that means our enemies are condemned. But story of Jonah tells us that God’s love and God’s mercy outweigh even God’s justice.

We do not know whether Jonah comes to accept God’s perspective. The book ends with God’s explanation to Jonah of God’s actions: ‘Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”’ We do not know if Jonah heard, understood, and accepted God’s explanation. We do know that we see in the Book of Jonah God’s extravagant, unbroken concern for both the evil and the complacent, for Nineveh and Jonah, for Jews and Gentiles, for our enemies and ourselves.

Today’s reading from the Book of Jonah is not one of the readings suggested for the Day of Mourning. I did not initially think this laugh-out-loud funny book had much to say to the Day of Mourning. And yet, as so often, the Scriptures have surprised me. We see in Jonah the same sort of religious bigotry that sadly came to Australia with many of the missionaries who saw the spirituality of the First Peoples as something that needed to be defeated and replaced with Christianity, rather than as something from which they could learn; missionaries who did not understand that the Gospel could be expressed through the Law of this land. In the immediate and complete response of the people of Nineveh to Jonah’s message, a response of everyone from the king down to the cattle, the conversion of an entire population and its government, we see the appropriate collective response of a nation that has done wrong. In today’s Prayer of Confession we prayed that we might have the grace to make a fresh start. The Book of Jonah shows us what that can look like.

The comedy of the Book of Jonah is a revelation of God’s love and concern for the whole creation, whether we think that parts of the creation deserve it. On this Day of Mourning it reminds us that God insists on destroying all the barriers that we humans try to build between us. When we walk together as First and Second Peoples, we are following the way of the God who told Jonah that He was concerned both for His chosen people and for all the people of Nineveh. So let us continue walking together. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Father Edward J O’Heron, ‘You can run but you can’t hide’ US Catholic, Sept 1994.

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