Sermon given at Trinity Reformed UCC in Mountville on June 28, 2008
The Jonah story is exaggerated and silly, and it uses humor to prove its point. The audience, original and modern, is presented with a series of reversals that play with our expectations of what a prophet is and what one should do.
Jonah is the only prophet to run away from God. He is also the only prophet who says so little and yet causes the most frantic reform in the Bible. The entire city, royalty to common folk and even animals, all repent and wear sackcloth, a symbol of Middle-Eastern mourning. Consequently, Jonah is angry and wants to die. The story is fascinating at the literary level and that is part of the reason the story is so popular in both Jewish and Christian circles.
I hope to give some understanding of this story in our modern context, following Nancy’s sermon series, “Is this your idea of a good time, God?!” To attempt to wear Nancy’s shoes and follow in her footsteps, I’m gonna need a lot of prayer. So please, pray with me now.
Most Loving and Most Gracious God, you are indeed with us both in the speaking and in the hearing of these words, may this speaking and may this hearing, be light and benefit to all.
I was raised on Winnie the Pooh. My aunt LOVED these stories and my sister and I were fed a healthy diet of the Hundred Acre Woods every time we stayed over. I loved Tigger, he was always so positive and energetic. Eeyore was his opposite. Eeyore is a clinically depressed donkey in great need of therapy. This is our modern Jonah. You see Jonah is introduced and his name, Jonah of Amittai, in Hebrew roughly translates to “Dove of My Truth” giving a hint of what is to be expected of Jonah in the story; namely to fly to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrians, and give God’s truth. However, DOVE has another connotation in the Hebrew mindset. Doves “cry” or “complain.” So let us being our reimagining of the story of Jonah.
God comes to Eeyore and says “Go to the capital city of Iran, Tehran, and let them know that I’m not liking what they’re doing. You see I’m a subscriber to the Human Right’s Watch and I know what’s going on in there. You need to go and let them know that they better stop or I might lose my cool and smash ‘em.”
Hearing this Eeyore immediately books a flight to Alaska. Eeyore is fast asleep in first class and his plane is somewhere over British Columbia when a storm rocks the plane. We’re not talking a little turbulence, we’re talking passengers from coach bouncing their way into first class, and nothing makes airlines angrier than coach class people trying to sneak into first class. Everyone is shouting and yelling and praying to God in his or her own way. But during all this shouting, yelling and praying, Eeyore is sound asleep. God lets it be known to the pilot that Eeyore is the cause of all this distress, so the pilot comes and questions Eeyore.
“Who are you and why are you on my plane?” asks the captain.
“I’m Eeyore, a Christian.” Says Eeyore. “I think I’m causing this turbulence because I’m supposed to be going to Iran, not Alaska. You guys better give me a parachute and toss me out an exit door.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says the Captain. “We’ll get around this.”
The captain tries every trick he knows, he tries going around and above the storm, to no avail. The funny thing is, is that when he radios other planes, his plane is the only one experiencing problems.
“Oh bother,” Says Eeyore. “I told you to throw me out.” And that’s what the captain does. As soon as Eeyore is given a parachute and leaps from the door, the storm dissipates and the passengers have a silky smooth ride the rest of the way and vow to double their tithes when they get home.
Meanwhile Eeyore is in free fall. He’s thinking to himself, “why does this sort of thing always happen to me.” He’s just about to pull the cord on the parachute when he’s swallowed by a giant pelican. This makes Eeyore even more depressed. On the third day in the muck and guts of the pelican, Eeyore gets it. He erupts in a song of thanksgiving to God for giving him a second chance. This of course, gives the pelican indigestion, and Eeyore is vomited out on the city limits of Tehran. Eeyore got another chance. He then goes to Tehran, and he declares their peril and warns of the impending doom. He travels all over the city, three days with his sandwich board and haggard look (hair still kinda matted from Pelican stomach juice). Think of a caricature of a Times Square prophet.
And an amazing thing happened. The Iranians listened. They paid attention. A preacher’s dream fulfilled. They repented. In fact this is arguably the most successful prophetic mission recorded in the scriptures.
They closed the massage parlors, the back room bars, and shut down the drug cartels. They stopped the child abuse and ended the domestic violence, they provided shelters for the homeless and built affordable housing, they implemented health care for their elderly poor, a program you could actually understand. They put an end to arms production, they made peace with their neighbors and stopped torturing prisoners in clandestine locations, they stopped the terror squads that were taking people hostage, and in every respect cleaned up their act. The Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah, himself repented and ordered everyone to join him, to put on sackcloth and sit in ashes and pray for mercy. They repented, and turned their lives around.
And as if that weren’t enough, so did God. God repented. God saw the sincerity of the Iranians, the turn-about that they had made, and it moved God. Moved God so much that God repented of the idea of destroying them.
Now this is the point at which a lesser story might end with those familiar words, and all lived happily ever after. But instead this story has one more chapter where we discover more about Eeyore than we ever wanted to know. We find out why it was that he headed for Alaska the first time when God had sent him to Tehran. And why was that?
Because Eeyore didn’t like Tehran, couldn’t stand the Iranians, didn’t want anything to do with them at all, least of all to give them warning of God’s displeasure, or any opportunity to avoid the well deserved judgment that was coming upon them. After all, they weren’t even Christians, and what was the point of being a Christian if God does not love you more than God loves your enemies? And they didn’t repent of being Muslim, they’re still Muslim! What’s the point?! If God is just, then God could not forgive the Iranians, Eeyore reasoned. Eeyore thought he should defend God’s honor and keep God from showing mercy on a nation that Eeyore was sure God hated. After all, if Eeyore hated Iran, God must too.
After the Iranians repent, Eeyore speaks in anger at God, “I know that you are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Was this your idea of a good time God?” Eeyore had hopped a plane for Alaska because God was asking Eeyore to do something that turned his stomach, to show mercy to not only non-Christians, but to America’s enemies, the ranking nation in the Axis of Evil.
Most of us are more like Eeyore than we might be ready to admit. We have our systems worked out as to who is favored by God and who is not. We know the good guys from the bad guys. Just like Eeyore.
God answered Eeyore. God answers us when we get caught in this type of “Eeyore” thinking. God firmly asks Eeyore, “Who are you? Who are you to think that I have no concern for the Iranians. In that great city of Tehran there are 7 million people who did not know their right hand from their left, and you think that I would forget them? Do you think I’m just the God of America, and not the creator and sustainer of all peoples?”
The redemptive message of Jonah is a powerful one. It leads to coexistence and harmony, yet it shows the painful process of opening one’s self to God. In this story we recognize that we’re all children of God. We must fully identify others and ourselves as children of God. We are all connected in the divine web. AMEN.