Preached on January 21, 2018 at All Saints’ Church, Brooklyn at Evening Prayer, 5pm
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
The Old Testament story this evening is a very brief snippet of the story of Jonah, or as it is popularly known, Jonah and the whale. But if you know anything about bible scholars, the kind who like to tell you that what you learned in Sunday School was wrong, then you know it wasn’t a whale, it’s really a Big Fish.
This passage is just a tiny little part of the story, and it includes what I think might be the worst sermon in all of the bible. Jonah preaches to the people of Nineveh: Jonah’s big sermon in the center of the city is not quite as eloquent as Jesus’s famous sermons on the mount or the plain, Jonah’s sermon is just, in a strangled voice: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it. That’s all it takes for the whole city to be convinced, to repent, to do what God wants for them.
You never really get the full story of Jonah in the lectionary, so I want to take this evening to celebrate what is one of the only truly funny, intentionally funny, I would argue, stories in all of the bible. Because humor, in this life of ours where we are, at our best, just trying to figure out what God wants for us, and why everything can, at times, seem pretty awful — humor is something that brings us joy. That reminds us that something outside of our control will always ensure something good peeking out of the darkness. For me, laughter is like an involuntary reflex, bubbling up, like when a doctor checks that your knee bounces against your will when she hits it, laughter reminds us that we’re alive, and that God loves us.
So here’s the story of Jonah. He is a curmudgeonly little man, who for no reason really, God chooses to be a prophet. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach to them and get them to repent. Jonah is uninterested in this task. He thinks Nineveh is dumb, he has worse problems in Tarshish. He says no. So God sends the famous big-fish-not-whale to swallow Jonah up, and while Jonah is in there he laments his fate, and then the fish spits him out, and God tells him to go again, and Jonah is like, “UGH FINE!” Which is where we greet the story and hear this terrible sermon, which VERY ANNOYINGLY to Jonah works. And so, in his frustration, this is what Jonah does, I’ll read the last chapter of Jonah in full:
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush,* and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 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?’
That’s it, that’s the end of the story. It’s really funny top picture grumpy Jonah under a bush. And God’s point seems to be pretty simple. God is kind of just like, “yeah, exactly, Jonah. Stuff is kind of terrible and it’s hard because people are actually pretty stupid. But you can be grumpy and angsty about it or you can laugh about it and do the best that you can.”
I do like to imagine that if the story were to continue, Jonah 2, if you will: Jonah would start laughing. Jonah would laugh and laugh until his sides hurt. That he got swallowed by a big-fish-not-a-whale and then got spit out and then got grumpy about a bush, but ultimately his crappy little sermon saved 120,000 people … and also many animals.
My question for you, then: What crappy little annoying thing is God calling you to do? This is actually a very serious question. What is so very frustrating and boring to you, maybe because you know you won’t really be THE BEST at it, or because it seems hard, or because perfect is the enemy of the good for you, so you are sitting down in the desert waiting for a bush to grow up around you instead of just getting on with it and doing it? Because Nineveh, aka the world right now–full of pretty dumb people and also a lot of animals–needs you. We need you to cry out from the center of the city whatever that thing is that you know to be true. And if you can find some humor in it, too, all the better.