What are you avoiding, Jonah?

Image of boy hiding behind door

A sermon on a survey of Jonah, for Kensington Community Church in San Diego, Calif. Accompanied by a satirical adaptation of the book of Jonah (written with the help of ChatGPT) and a performance of LeGrand’s Misplaced Faith. Readers may benefit from reading the scriptures and listening to the music in-line with the sermon below.

Jonah 1: Drama Queen edition
So there’s this guy named Jonah, and he’s a prophet—a messenger of God.

One day God tells Jonah, "Hey, you know Nineveh, the capital city of your nation’s worst enemy? I’m sending you to go tell 'em to shape up. Tell them they need to turn from their violent and wicked ways, or I will overturn them. Their whole city will be shaken up like a snow globe."

So Jonah takes out his map, looks at Nineveh—about two days’ walk to the east—and then… and then he starts walking west, to the sea port. 

Jonah gets to the port and locates the ship going the furthest-west he can find, then asks if he can hitch a ride.

Jonah sets sail, but God's like, "Oh, no, you didn't!" and sends a mega storm to mess up Jonah's little cruise. Worst storm you’ve ever seen. The sailors are losing it, throwing stuff overboard, praying to any god they can think of.

Then the captain finds Jonah napping below deck, totally unfazed. The captain's like, "Dude, are you for real? Get to work! Or at least to praying!”

But nothing works. The sailors draw straws to see who the gods are mad at, and you guessed it: Jonah gets the short straw.

So Jonah goes, “well, you see, I worship the God of earth and sea. And God told me go to Nineveh—”

One of the sailors is like “wait wait. You’re running, aren’t you? Running from God? You told us you worship the God of earth and sea, and you didn’t want to walk on earth, so you went to the sea?”

So Jonah fesses up: “Oh, this is all my fault. God has it out for me. Just throw me to the waves!”

“...no?,” said the sailors. “Grow up, go home, and face your God. Don’t leave us with blood on our hands. We’re turning this ship around.”

But Jonah insisted: “Shame, shame, shame on me! This boat’s hopeless as long as I’m on board. Throw me in the ocean already!”

So the sailors pray that God will forgive them and toss Jonah overboard. Then God sends a massive fish to swallow him up.

Suddenly, the sea chills out.

The sailors gasp. "Okay, that's one powerful God.” 

They started worshiping God and promised God they would never be as foolish as Jonah.

Then Jonah prayed to his God from the belly of the fish.
Misplaced Faith by LeGrand
Jonah 2: Drama Queen edition
“In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God.
    He answered me.
From the belly of the grave I cried, ‘Help!’
    You heard my cry.
You threw me into ocean’s depths,
    into a watery grave,
With ocean waves, ocean breakers
    crashing over me.
I said, ‘I’ve been thrown away,
    thrown out, out of your sight. 
I’ll never again lay eyes
    on your Holy Temple.’
Ocean gripped me by the throat.
    The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight.
My head was all tangled in seaweed
    at the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root.
I was as far down as a body can go,
    and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever—
Yet you pulled me up from that grave alive,
    O God, my God!
When my life was slipping away,
    I remembered God,
And my prayer got through to you,
    made it all the way to your Holy Temple.
Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds,
    walk away from their only true love.
But I’m worshiping you, God,
    calling out in thanksgiving!
And I’ll do what I promised I’d do!
    Salvation belongs to God!”

Then God spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah on the seashore—back where the whole story started.

What are you avoiding, Jonah?

Jonah as satire

So if you missed the introduction earlier, you might be… surprised by the tone ■■■■ ■■■■■■ took when reading Jonah for us.

But I promise you it’s not a disrespectful reading of the scripture. If anything, I think it’s one of the most respectful readings of Jonah—because it most honors what the author of Jonah was trying to write.

All books of the Bible have their own genre—history, poetry, prophecy, legend, gospel, and so on. And the Book of Jonah, while named after a prophet, isn’t like most books of prophecy. It isn’t a record of the words of the prophet, it’s a story about the prophet.

At least according to many scholars, Jonah sits debatably alone among scriptures as a book of parody or maybe even satire.

And it’s deeply humorous, full of exaggeration, hyperbole, word play. God says “if the Ninevites don’t turn, I’ll overturn them.” The whole image of the sea calming the moment Jonah is off the boat. Jonah the prophet does exactly the opposite of what you expect a prophet to do. Not to spoil the plot but there’s a moment later where we’ll learn about cows that repent.

It is such a funny book that when you read commentaries on Jonah that try to avoid the “humor” interpretation, you get chapter titles like “scientific speculation about the veracity of Jonah’s fish claims.”

So I’m sold on the satire-slash-parody interpretation.

But then I’m left with the question: what’s the point of the satire? What actions are being parodied? What’s the agenda of its writer?

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you. No one can, really—it’s not like the author ends the book with an interpretory note saying how we should understand it.

But here’s the context I can provide:

The real Jonah

There does appear to have existed a real-life prophet named Jonah. He was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, prior to the Babylonian exile. This is an oversimplification but it’s fair to say that this would be like saying Jonah lived on “the right side of the tracks.”

The Northern Kingdom, at this point in time, is ruled by King Jeroboam. The nation is expanding in wealth and power and influence; it’s at the most prosperous time in its recorded history. The Northern Kingdom is slowly growing to become the dominant force in the region. And at least according to scripture, some of that expansion came by less savory means; like any situation where wealth starts to appear, the King wasn’t always the most just in his methods of commerce and war.

The job of a prophet, according to the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is to “hold God and man in a single thought.” To be the interpreter, translator of God to the people and to some extent, vice-versa.

Jonah comes along and prophesies to the King at the time that he has God’s favor and would keep winning battles and keep expanding.

And then shortly after, one of Jonah’s colleagues, Amos, confronts King Jeroboam and says “actually, God wants to reverse that prophecy.” Amos says that God will take away Jeroboam’s power and take away all the gains he has made because Jeroboam because of what a terrible king he is.

Amos’s prophecy kind of tracks with scripture generally; like, God is always sending people to cast the powerful down from their thrones and lift up the lowly.

The narrative Jonah

And that’s the last we hear of Jonah, outside of this dramatic tale, in which God gives Jonah the job of going to those people he told Jeroboam he would conquer.

Jonah gets what to me sounds like an easy, satisfying job—he’s going to tell his enemies “God is on my side, and if you don’t turn from your wicked ways, God will overturn you”—and proceeds to have a crisis of faith.

And don’t get me wrong—I’m not unsympathetic to the whole faith crisis thing, to the experience of feeling like God isn’t playing the role God is supposed to play in our world. I know that feeling intimately. Sometimes it really does feel like we are all God’s children, and he left us alone at the theme park after dark.

But that’s not what Jonah is experiencing. Jonah’s God is not absent, and Jonah’s God isn’t even unhelpful. Jonah’s God is saying “I am going to deal with your enemies. Go give them my message, that they need to become people of peace, or else.”

And Jonah will have none of it!

No, instead, Jonah tries, futilely, to avoid the unavoidable God. He tries to avoid God so thoroughly And the only thing that avoidance does is make Jonah’s situation worse—he’s back to where he started, still has to make it to Nineveh, but now he’s got a healthy dose of trauma inside him and the whale’s stomach acid all over him.

It’s like when your car’s check engine light haunts you for months, and you keep meaning to take it in, but you avoid it because you’re too afraid of what the bill will be, until the car catches on fire on the freeway and the mechanic says if you would’ve brought it in when there was just a little leak a year ago it would’ve all been fine but now if you want to drive that car it needs a new engine and so you wind up with a car payment at 21… not that I know what that is like.

Okay maybe I do know what that’s like.

Am I Jonah?

In therapy this week, before things really started, I was making small talk about this sermon. And my therapist, Dr. ■■, just kind of nods… then we begin the session and we talk about this reflection exercise I said I’d do and haven’t done… and then we talk about this absolutely annoying work phone call I said I’d make but haven’t… and about how I’m supposed to send my car insurance company a picture of my renewed driver’s license but I keep avoiding logging in to their website… and about how I never remember to check my mailbox… and about how I have, without exaggeration, 741 unread text messages… and about how I am keeping a whole separate checking account open because I can’t seem to work up the courage to call the student loan company and tell them I changed banks…

and then he says something along the lines of “you have joked about your avoidance issues since January, Jonah.”

How dare he.

I should tell Blue Shield not to pay him for this week.

But after holding for just a beat, it brought me to something of a soft heart for Jonah.

My personal approach to the scripture shifted; I no longer saw myself in the satirist making fun of Jonah-the-religious-elitist, but instead, I saw myself in the satirized, in Jonah, the prophet who desperately wanted to avoid doing what he knew he had to do.

I mean think about it; at this point we don’t yet know why Jonah ran. All we know is God told Jonah to go east, and instead he went west.

Why wouldn’t Jonah go be a part of God’s plan to transform his enemies into his ally? Why wouldn’t he want that?

Shouldn’t it have been good news to Jonah, that God was going to cause his enemies to turn?

When I catch myself avoiding things like Jonah, it’s not usually the substance of the thing that’s the problem. It’s not like the tough phone call I had to make this week was an issue because it’s 2007 and I’m low on my daytime minutes with Cingular, or like the reflection activity I avoided doing was just too hard to do—too much journaling for a Saturday morning!

No, I’ve learned that every time I’m avoiding doing something, the thing I’m actually avoid is something I know I will feel, or I guess sometimes just something I fear I will feel, holding me back.

And when I’m trying to get past my own avoidance, the only reliable tool I’ve ever had is identifying that feeling and facing it head-on. Maybe it’s fear people won’t like me for doing or saying something, or fear I’ll wind up with a big bill I can’t afford, or shame about the fact that it’s been so long and I haven’t replied yet, or any number of reasons.

And I wonder if it’s a feelings issue for Jonah, too. Maybe Jonah was just surprised by God’s request, a little shaken up and confused, disoriented.

Maybe Jonah feels scared. Maybe Jonah is making assumptions about how evil the Ninevites are, and he’s afraid it will be dangerous to go preach to them. He’s afraid they might hurt him.

Maybe Jonah feels frustrated, hurt that God had his last prophecy reversed by Amos.

Maybe Jonah feels isolated; like all the other prophets got to stay at home and preach to their own people, but he has to go on this mission from God alone.

Maybe Jonah feels a little insecure, a little inadequate. Worried he won’t be a good enough prophet, and he’ll get to Nineveh and no one will actually listen to him, then God will have to destroy the Ninevites and it’ll all be his fault, their blood on his hands.

So maybe we can try this: maybe let’s have pity on Jonah and help him face these feelings head-on.

Let’s get under the hood and troubleshoot why his little light isn’t shining.

At this point in the story, Jonah is in a vulnerable state. He’s in deep distress covered in seaweed and whale vomit.

He just prayed out all these big feelings to God, then he promises God, “if you get me out, if you give me a reset, I’ll do exactly what you say. No more avoiding.”

He’s started to talk to God about his feelings, but we haven’t seen him actually say why he won’t go to Nineveh. And honestly, if my own experience with avoidance is any guide, maybe it’s because Jonah doesn’t fully know himself yet.

So let’s help him out.

When we listen to ■■■■ read the conclusion of Jonah’s story, take note of the feelings you hear. What do you think these last few scenes feel like for Jonah, as he re-emerges on land, emotionally and physically vulnerable, then goes on to try to finally follow God’s command?

Jonah 3 & 4: Drama Queen edition
Okay, so round two of Jonah's adventure, and this time he's all business. God's like, "Jonah, head to Nineveh, they're in deep trouble. Make sure you cross every square inch, tell everyone: turn from your ways or God will overturn you." Jonah's like, "Cool, God. On it!"

So he strolls into the city and realizes it’s massive—it would take three days to cover the whole thing!

Jonah enters, goes about a day’s walk, and then stops and preaches the shortest sermon you’ve ever heard: "In forty days, Nineveh shall be overturned!" 

Skips the whole “turn from your ways or” part, and goes straight to condemning them.

Then he gets off his soapbox and starts walking home.

The Ninevites, from the rich folks to the nobodies, they all panic. They go full-on burlap mode, fasting, and begging for forgiveness.

Even the king repents. He declares a citywide fast. Everyone's committing to follow God’s loving ways. Even their cows worship God and commit to nonviolence.

Despite Jonah’s pathetic sermon, the Ninevites heard God’s call. They turned from their violent ways, and God’s heart warmed towards them. No need to overturn Nineveh.

But Jonah? Well, he's not having it.

Jonah throws a hissy fit, saying, "I knew it, God! I knew you were the forgiving type. That's why I ran in the first place!" 

“Whatever, God. If you won’t kill them, just kill me! I’m better off dead than witnessing this sappy story.”

“Jonah!”, says God, “Jonah, what do you have to be angry about?”

Jonah stomps out of the city, pouting like a toddler, and finds a little sand dune to sit on and mope.

God makes a tree appear out of nowhere to provide Jonah shade, and Jonah's suddenly all like, "Life’s good!" 

Then God sends a worm to eat the roots of the tree, followed by a scorching wind to overturn it.

Jonah no longer thought life was good. So he prayed, “Just kill me already!” 

And God’s like, "Why the drama over a tree?" 

Jonah's like, "I have every right! I'm dying here!"

God drops the mic:

"You didn’t plant that tree, water that tree, do anything to earn that tree. It just… grew there for you. 

“And you’re upset about it withering away. 

“A tree, overturned. 

“But because I care too much about a whole city of clueless people and their cows to not give them a second chance, because I wouldn’t just smite your enemies no questions asked, because Nineveh turned and I didn’t overturn them, I’m the bad guy? Get a grip!"

What are we avoiding, church?

So when you hear that, what did you hear Jonah say was keeping him back from bearing his little light?

“I knew you would forgive them!”

But what does that mean? Why is forgiveness a problem?

What feelings does Jonah have that make God’s forgiveness Jonah’s grudge? Cause again, Jonah’s God is not absent, and Jonah’s God isn’t unhelpful. Jonah’s God is saying “I’m going to restore your relationship with your enemy.”

What does he feel when he hears that?

Is there an anger, an inner bloodlust, a desire to see his enemies harmed? Does he feel a sense of injustice at God’s forgiveness, desiring punishment for his enemies?

Is he critical of God, or maybe disappointed that God’s solution for his enemies to no longer be violent, and not instead for him to rule over his enemies.

Is there a project of his own hateful self, of the self he refuses to believe can be redeemed, can be better? Maybe this is bringing up shame for him?

Maybe he’s afraid he’ll start to get compassionate for the Ninevites and see himself in them? Maybe he’s worried he’ll have to confront inside of himself all the things that God has forgiven him of, all the ways he’s been violent?

Maybe he’s realizing what the Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber once described, a realization that God is the God of all and if we ask God to smite our enemies, we must confront the fact that we, too, are somebody’s enemy.

The truth is, I don’t know. None of us know.

But I do know that when we aren’t sharing the light, when this little light is put under a bushel, when we are avoiding God’s instruction to be a light to the world, or even just when we’re minimizing it, there’s a reason.

This little light

We’ve talked for four weeks now about how we share the light God has given us. We’ve learned about why we can share the light, we’ve learned ways we can share the light, we’ve learned more about that light.

But if we want to live into the call to share it, we have to figure out—both as a church and as individuals—why we aren’t just actually doing it.

It’s not money or resources. This church gives faithfully; we have all the resources we need.

It’s not time. We are a church that volunteers plenty for things that matter to us and ourselves.

I don’t know what it is. But I do know we’ve got to figure that out, and I do know that my own experience suggests there’s some emotion there.

And whatever that is, I know we have to confront it. Together.

Lest we end up finding ourselves washed up on a seashore covered in whale stomach acid.