Sunday, January 25, 2015

God's Holy Joke

Jonah 3:1-5, 10


        I suspect there is no one here that has not heard the story of Jonah.  Folks who can’t name five books of the Old Testament know the tale of the whale. Or was it a big fish? Even the best of stories can be ruined with distractions over details. That is why jokes are such a beautiful vehicle for storytelling.  Once the hearer realizes humor is at the heart of the message, facts are dismissed as nonessential. Unfortunately, carefully crafted jokes are becoming unfashionable. A few years ago The New York Times wrote, “In case you missed its obituary, the joke died after a long illness. Its passing was barely noticed, drowned out by the one-liners that pass for humor these days.”

        I am sure this is debatable but in my mind no one writes better jokes than those descendants of the house of David.  Allow me to name a few of my favorite Jewish comedians: Grouch Marx, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Gilda Gadner, Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, and I am just getting started. My descendents are from Scotland. For the life of me I can only come up with one Scottish-American comedian, Stephen Wright, but I am not even sure he counts. His mother was Italian and Stephen was raised Roman Catholic. I am also from the South. You tell me, is there any comparison between Sid Caesar and Larry the Cable Guy?

Jewish comedians have that wonderful talent of making self-deprecation an art form. Those of us who read the Bible know our Hebrew friends didn’t discover this talent in vaudeville or Comedy Clubs. It is in their blood.

Humor has always been a big part of the biblical story. Adam has to eat an apple to discover he is naked. The Tower of Babel would have never passed an OSHA inspection. And how many jokes have we made about Noah?

 Well here is another. If you switch the first two letters in the Hebrew spelling of Noah, what does it spell? The answer is Jonah. Is this coincidence or the humor of a Jewish story teller? One man hears God, runs toward God, and floats. The other hears God, runs from God, and sinks. But that is only the beginning of Jonah’s problem. Like any good satire, it is a complicated story.

The joke is a response to the question, “Who does God love?” That is a strange question. Doesn’t God love everyone? What about the terrorists that killed the satirical cartoonists in Paris? Does God love them? What about Franklin Graham who successfully blocked Moslem students from praying for peace in the Duke Chapel by having major donors threaten to withhold financial contributions? Does God love Billy Graham’s son? Does God hate murder and extortion unless it happens to be performed for a holy cause?  How on earth can we have this conversation without getting angry?  …….           Easy, we can tell stories!

“Jonah, go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.”

“God, why do you care about the Ninevites?   They are the worst bunch of parasites to ever walk the face of the earth. They are a bunch of no good terrorist who would rather kill than talk of peace. Besides, if they repent, they might want to move into my neighborhood. Do you have any idea what that would do to the real estate values?”

“No more excuses Jonah. You think I love only you?”

Jonah started to answer but then realized it was a rhetorical question. So Jonah runs away, not to save his life, but to save his reputation. He had no desire to be known as the guy who invited a Ninevite home for dinner.

When I was in seminary I had the honor of studying with Mark Achtemeier. Taking after his parents, Mark has become a noted conservative Biblical scholar. For fifteen years he was as the professor of practical theology at Dubuque Seminary. Mark was the darling of conservative Presbyterians. Then Mark began to address the issue of sexual orientation and how particular scriptures in Genesis and Romans should not be considered seriously considering the overriding theme of the Bible. Recently Mark reversed his earlier beliefs and has even become a proponent for gay marriages. Publications like the Presbyterian Laymen have tried to throw Mark under the bus by condemning both his scholarship and his faith. He no longer teaches at Dubuque.

When one breaks ranks with the status quo things can get ugly. Jonah was well aware of this. Nobody had anything good to say about Nineveh. To become their advocate was more trouble than Jonah desired. So the joke begins. To avoid trouble Jonah ran straight into chaos, first in the force of nature and second in the belly of the whale. Jonah moans and groans so loudly he gave the whale indigestion. The creature of the deep promptly threw up and Jonah landed on dry land. But nothing had been settled. Like a Jewish mother who pulls her head out of the oven only when her son agrees to go back to medical school, God says, “Now that we agree, why aren’t your bags packed.”

Whipped, and with no alternative but to follow God’s plan, Jonah heads for the big city.  Once there he marched straight to the Palace. Jonah will deliver the message, but he is just going to say it once and he will only speak to the one guy who under no circumstance is going to care what some Jew from Jerusalem has to say. Jonah timidly approached the King and in a voice so squirrelly it would make Woody Allen proud said, “I know you have plans for Friday night. You and the guys are probably going to execute some spies from Syria but I promised my God I would tell you if you don’t repent by sunset your whole town is toast.”

Jonah stepped back and expected to be the warm-up act for the Syrian spies. Of course that is not what happened. The King of Nineveh had a dramatic conversion proving once again it is God who saves and not sermons.

Well you would have thought Jonah’s favorite dog had died. He tore off his clothes and ran out into the desert in disgust. He looks up in the sky and in a speech directly aimed at the Almighty Jonah screams, “I knew you would do this. It doesn’t matter how bad someone is, you are ready to forgive. You don’t give a second thought to who is rich or poor, where they grew up, what color they are, or even what they believe. If you had your way you would let everyone into your kingdom no matter who they are.”

God responded, “ I am gracious, and merciful, I am slow to anger and my love is steadfast. Plus the last time I checked it is my house and I get to make the rules.”

A disgusted Jonah went further into the desert. He wasn’t going to hang out with the Ninevites. He couldn’t go home and tell his neighbors what he had done. So he found a small shade tree to protect him from the sun. Jonah sat down and sulked at what a miserable experience this whole odyssey had been. And God added the punch line. God killed the tree.   (stop)

I like to think I am a pretty good Biblical Scholar. I might be a better historian.

Fact - The Assyrian empire, whose capital was Nineveh actually existed. The Empire rose to prominence around 800 B.C.  Nineveh was conquered and sacked by the Persians around 620 BC. It was a warrior state known for both its might and cruelty. 

Fact - Jonah was an obscure character that lived during this time but nowhere in the history of this empire is there mention of a King bowing down to Yahweh, the God of Israel at the request of a lone Israeli prophet.

Fact - The book of Jonah was written four hundred years later. This fictional tale was written to remind the Hebrews of the wideness of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The questions of we should be asking about the Book of Jonah are not was it a historical event or was Jonah swallowed by a whale or a big fish. The question the book prompts us to consider is how large is God’s mercy and forgiveness. In simple terms, “Who does God love?”

The problem is no story and no question is all that simple. Today the ruins of ancient Nineveh have been replaced by the city of Mosul. It is the second largest city in Iraq and six months ago was captured by ISIS. This group has decided this modern day Nineveh will become the centerpiece of their plans to hold northern Iraq. So what is the word of the Lord to us from this ancient book of Jonah? For the original readers, Jonah was a satire on the rigidity of human nature when it comes to humanity’s inability to understand the complexities of other cultures. The message of Jonah was if God really intends salvation for all people, then we must at least talk to our enemies.

Perhaps the book of Jonah is not just a tall tale about ancient feuds. Perhaps it is a black comedy that speaks a word of truth to our present day dilemmas both in the world and in our conflicted communities. But even so, Jonah was satire. It remains over the top. In the year 815 B.C. no one went gone to Nineveh and in the year 2015 no one in their right mind is going to Mosul to speak of peace. Better to follow the tried and true path that eventually leads to the bloody exchange of cultures that have only been taught to hate those who are different. 

So we make Jonah a children’s story. We argue over the species that swallowed Jonah rather than explore the wideness of God’s mercy. We choose to laugh over the death of a plant rather than weep at our inability to put a human face on our enemies. And why shouldn’t we? We know everything we need to know about those folks who have sworn to kill us. Besides, talk is cheap.     (stop)

Friday, at Duke University, a day after the call for peace from the bell tower of the chapel was cancelled due to pressure from prominent religious groups, students gathered on the steps of the chapel. Many were Moslem, many were not. Prayers were uttered, peace was maintained, and after the service, words of reconciliation were exchanged. The gathering promised to be the beginning of a longer conversation between Christian and Moslem young people who claim the same God. But it was more than that. It was a gathering of folks who had heard a joke about a man named Jonah, and together they laughed.

May the God of all people be praised.     Amen.


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