Sermon Text: A Whale of a Tale
If I'd been that whale, I would have thrown up, too.
Most people know the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale. But do you know it's a comedy? With God as a Trickster?
I take the book of Jonah as a parable, a joke with a pointed message, a sermon religious people really need to hear. And that might be why the rabbis included it in the Bible.
God tells Jonah to go east and preach to the Ninevites. But Jonah runs away. He boards a ship heading the opposite direction. A terrible storm comes up and the sailors decide that God is angry. Jonah admits he's the reason. He tells the sailors to toss him overboard.
So they toss him overboard, and the big fish swallows him up. In the whale's belly, Jonah actually writes a psalm asking for help and sings it to God.
The whale gets a bad attack of acid reflux. You can see why. Jonah's personality would curdle milk. The whale can't stomach Jonah, and barfs him up on dry land. Near Nineveh, as it turns out. So the world's most reluctant preacher walks into town.
I picture his skin bleached white from the whale's gastric juices. Maybe he had a chunk of half-digested seaweed hanging off his ear. And he tells those Ninevites to repent. Strangely enough, they do. They change their ways and ask God's forgiveness. And God grants it.
Jonah hates every minute of this. He wants God to smite them. So Jonah goes off and sulks. He sits under a plant on a hill and looks down at that city. He hates it, and he gets snarky with God:
"I knew it! Didn't I tell you? That's why I ran away! I knew you would be all gracious and merciful. You won't punish these people like you should. They are rotten and don't deserve to live! But you just have to show them your steadfast love. Well, if that's how it goes, just take my life. Let me die of humiliation. I'd rather DIE than see these people experience your love and mercy."
(I'm not making this up....this is how the book of Jonah goes!)
God is not done playing tricks on Jonah. Jonah is sitting under a shady bush, and God makes it wither away, just like that. And a hot east wind comes up, and the sun beats down, and Jonah was already in a bad mood. So he prays for death.
Now God teases Jonah some more. God pretends not to understand. God pretends that Jonah is not being sulky and petulant.
God pretends Jonah actually feels sorry for the dead bush. So God says, "Jonah, are you angry about the bush? Are you sorry for it? That is kind of you. But if you pity this one small plant, what's wrong with having pity on that great city down there? What about all those people? Maybe we should feel some compassion for them, too...the people and their children and their animals."
That's how the book of Jonah concludes. I'm not making this up! This book is a comedy, a long joke, a parable. It's a subversive parable, at that.
The idea is to stretch the minds of God's people. The Chosen People often think, "It's just about us." Jonah thinks God loves only the good people, our people. But in this gem of a book from the Hebrew Bible, God's love encircles EVERYONE: Jonah, his enemies, the animals, and even the plants.
The circle is bigger than Jonah thought. The circle is bigger than many Jews thought. The circle is bigger than many Christians think. The Jonah story asks us, "What is your God like? How big is your God? How big is the compassion of your God?"
There is a letter a little boy wrote to God that I read years ago. I've never forgotten it. I've quoted this letter by heart in sermons and at funerals, because it's just too good NOT to share. The boy wrote this:
"Dear God, How big is your heart? Is it bigger than Europe? Or Canada? Wow! You must be a real giant! Love, Barry." That kid would have understood the book of Jonah.
I have a book called Field Notes on the Compassionate Life. I found these words in that book:
The core business of Jesus, Inc. or Mohammad, Ltd. or Moses Corporation or Buddha, LLC is surely not to sell tickets to heaven or to peddle get-out-of-hell-free cards, but to distribute every kernel of wisdom from their ancient storehouses that might help us to love each other.
Spiritual teachers throughout history have insisted that we each possess the requisite piece of equipment: one standard-issue human heart.
Jonah wanted to exclude the people he did not like. Jonah wanted God to smite all the undesirables. Jonah rejected more people than he accepted.
But I LIKE the God pictured in the book of Jonah. This God has a wicked sense of humor. This God is fun. And this God has arms stretched out...arms open in welcome, arms around us and underneath us, arms around all people, and animals, and plants.
I like that God!
And I hope churches and Christians and religious people of every kind will make the circle bigger. I hope they will open their arms. I hope they will open their hearts.
If we can do it, I guarantee it will mean a whale of a good time!