Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Christmas Eve

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them…
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:7, 9

The book of Jonah finishes with a question: if Jonah is willing to die in anger over the death of a tree he did nothing to nurture, then how much more should God be willing to do for the many He has made who do not know how to save themselves? Jonah is ready to die because of his anger; God is ready to die to end the enmity between us and Him.

We are born into enmity. Babies inherit the conflicts of their families, the age-old divisions between nations. Even those born into relatively peaceful relationships are nonetheless born into a world that is at war with itself. Jonah’s storm may have been orchestrated by God to get his attention but the whole fabric of our world today, glorious though it is, reminds us that even our weather does not function as it should; something is deeply amiss in how all things relate to each other. And in Jonah’s case that stretches to his complete failure to love his neighbour, even his failure to love God as he should.

But tonight we remember that another baby was born, into our enmity, into this rage of being flesh, yet came to end that enmity. A child came not to inherit all these griefs or participate in them but to lead us out of them, to put to rights the world itself and all relationships within it. We do not see all of this as reality yet; we wait in longing for it to be made complete. Yet on Christmas Day the hope is inaugurated; the little child leads us on to the day when we shall see Him as King, shall beat our swords into ploughshares and our flesh will no longer rage against us or God.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 25

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah 4:10-11

Jonah concludes in an oddly unresolved manner. For a story that could have finished at several different moments, it finishes here: Jonah still angry, his tree not restored, and only a question to conclude the dialogue between Jonah and God. But what it reveals is the intimate concern that God has for His creation. We see the apparent chaos of that creation – storms at sea, wild sea creatures, raging heat, worms that eat and destroy. Yet we also see the Creator deeply involved in His creation, and thinking of it, like a father for a child. Jonah’s petty rage over the tree dying is nothing compared to God’s care for the Ninevites who “cannot tell their right hand from their left”, a description that reminds me of Jesus’ concern for the crowds who were “like sheep without a shepherd”. Jonah in the end cares primarily for his own little kingdom; God cares for all His creation.

Perhaps that explains the animals. For me, the oddest part of the whole book of Jonah has always been the final line – “and also many animals”. Why do the animals need to be mentioned? Well, when we view sin as only harming humanity, the animals seem out of place, but if we remember that all creation suffers because of sin then the animals belong here. They too long for creation to be restored. And God is their creator as well as ours. They were not made in His image but they were made for His glory and He called them good. So of course their creator does not want to destroy them in a senseless shower or smoke. God is concerned for all He has made.

As Christmas draws ever closer, let’s remember this fact: Jesus’ Advent does not just save humanity; it restores creation. This is why the famous carol “Joy to the World” contains the words, “And heaven and nature sing” – because all creation declares Jesus’ Advent to be good. Jesus is making creation good again.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 24

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

Jonah 4:9

Again, God asks Jonah if his anger is right, this time his anger about the destruction of the plant. And Jonah, oblivious to the way God is directing the conversation, insists that his anger is right, something I often insist upon myself when I am angry. The anger fills me with its own self-justification. All other context, all nobler concerns, fall away at the moment of anger.

Yet why is Jonah angry about the tree? And why angry to the extent that he no longer wants to live? If I were the one speaking to Jonah, I might suggest that his anger about the tree was really a diversion, that it was really Nineveh’s forgiveness that was angering him. But I think something else might be at work here: an anger at God’s decisions with His creation, to the extent that he wants to opt out of a life lived on God’s terms.

God forgives Nineveh but destroys Jonah’s tree: the whole thing goes against Jonah’s sense of what justice should look like. We often rail with Jonah about how the world works, and in Jonah’s position we might feel much the same as he does here. But Advent reminds us of two things that can speak to the Jonah in us: first, Advent agrees, with the voice of a longing creation, that the world does not work as it should, and Advent looks forward to the Creator decisively making it right again. Second, Advent declares that we are wrong about what is good and just for the God of the universe to do, because the God of the universe judges it right not to leave us to our own autonomous devices but to enter creation and turn the human fabric on its head.

Join Jonah in waiting to hear how God replies to our raging, longing flesh.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 23

When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:8

There’s a parallel moment to this in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah, after defeating the prophets of Baal, finds that Queen Jezabel is still out to get him. In a burst of adrenaline he runs and runs into the desert and finally, after an extensive time of not eating and reaching what today we would call complete burnout, he calls on God to take his life. It’s an interesting parallel: Elijah has been deeply zealous for God and has risked death multiple times; Jonah has fled from God, been spared death three times – once from the storm, once from drowning, once from the fish – only to reach this point of “burnout” because of God’s mercy. Yet this is not how the story feels to Jonah. To him, God has been unreasonable: God has shown kindness to Nineveh after all their evil and now has taken away the comfort he had amidst the heat and the discouragement of seeing your enemy get away with murder. In Jonah’s mind, he has been zealous for God; yet his idea of what God wants or expects is fundamentally flawed.

It’s important to distinguish what Jonah feels here from ongoing mental illness and suicidal ideation. These need to be treated sensitively and with great awareness of their complexity. Jonah seems more to have held wrong ideas about God and his place in God’s economy, and the discouragement, anger and burnout he feels here are symptoms of that false theology; and this is something that many struggle with unknowingly for a long time, often only becoming aware of it when we reach a crisis point like Jonah does here. At these moments of crisis, we need to interrogate our own assumptions about God, looking beyond what we declare to look instead at what we live out as true. In practice, that’s to say, what do we actually think about God and who we are before Him?

While this might be a frightening thing to confront, it need not be: Advent teaches us that God, whatever else we may think of Him, is a God who has chosen to be near to us, chosen to make Himself known to us, chosen the frailty of our flesh, our vulnerability, the way we burn beneath the heat of life; He has chosen to be one of us.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 22

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:6-8

First in these verses I am struck by God’s kindness to Jonah, seeking to “ease his discomfort” from the heat even in the midst of Jonah’s temper. Then I am struck by what seems petulant of God – to strike the plant and make the weather even hotter. Somehow I think I would be more comfortable with God never giving Jonah the plant than by Him giving it then taking it away. To human eyes, Jonah’s anger over this at least makes sense: he has felt the comfort of God’s presence with him and then the burning discomfort of God’s presence against him. In Advent we might ask the challenging but necessary question: is God-with-us always a source of comfort? For Jonah, it seems to be both; and I think that’s the point.

God will explain Himself to Jonah at the end of this chapter, and so we won’t preempt the answer yet. As I hope we’ve seen again and again in the book of Jonah, there’s great value in taking Jonah’s story as he experiences it, step by step. And this step – of feeling angry at God for the seeming inconsistency of His actions towards us – is something that many of us no doubt can relate to, little though we might like to focus on it. It makes us uncomfortable because it is unpredictable; it is outside our control. We are happy to give things up to God’s control if we can predict what God can do. But, as we’ve seen in Jonah’s story, we aren’t just content with that: we often think we can dictate to God the terms and choose to opt out of His will (sail in the opposite direction) if we predict what He will do (save Nineveh) and don’t like it much. Which means, in reality, that we don’t want to surrender to God at all. We only want Him as a means to our own ends.

Trusting in an all-powerful God does not mean trusting in our ability to predict, and understand, His actions. Trusting in a good God doesn’t involve that either. If God knows all, and is perfectly good, then our imperfect, incomplete minds will often hit against a failure to understand what He is doing. If He were to always act on our terms, He wouldn’t be all-powerful or perfectly good. He wouldn’t save Nineveh. He wouldn’t save us either. He might be predictable, but in the end we would not like the result.

It’s much less comfortable, much more unpredictable, trusting in God on His own terms. It means taking the shade and the scorching heat, the flourishing vine, the aggressive worm. It means accepting that God-with-us will be sometimes different to what we expect because His presence is not only providing for us but most of all growing us – to be more like Him. And in the end it means – least predictable of all – the wonder of grace.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 21

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:6-8

One of the reasons why Jonah has so little grace for the Ninevites, I suspect, is that Jonah does not actually realise he needs grace himself. It’s one thing to know you need saving in a crisis; it’s another to recognise that you didn’t deserve to be saved, that you were the architect of your own crisis. Jonah as we see him in Chapter 4 has not learnt the lesson of grace that we might expect of him, and this seems odd. Surely if we had experienced what he had, we would come out different on the other side?

There’s a whole array of reasons why we can experience remarkable circumstances of grace yet not become people of grace. One of the reasons I am coming to identify in my own life is a sense of entitlement. We fail to see grace for what it is because we think we are entitled to it. Many of us think it because we “aren’t perfect but aren’t as bad as other people”. We might think it because we judge that the good we do outweighs the bad. Jonah probably thought it because of his national identity as part of God’s chosen people, a people for whom sitting underneath the shade of their own tree or vine had often been an image used by God to describe the flourishing He would give them as part of His covenant with them. But His covenant was always one of grace and always meant as a light for all the world, not, only Israel. The nations were meant to ask: “Who is this God who has come to dwell with His people?” The fact that the people were not themselves extraordinary should have made the covenant He made with them all the more remarkable. But Jonah wants it for himself and his people; he wants the shade of the vine for his own comfort while he watches his enemy fight it out alone.

At Advent, as we remember Jesus coming as a light for the whole world, it’s a challenge to think: are we seeking that light purely for our own benefit or are we seeking to be beacons of that light to others? We can start by being amazed that the light is ours to enjoy and share in the first place, and then ask God to show us how we can be His beacons and light-bearers. Otherwise it’s too easy to slip into entitlement and think, “I know there is grace for all people, but God didn’t need to use it much on me.” It’s not hard from there to become Jonah preparing to watch Nineveh be destroyed even after escaping his own destruction purely by His grace.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 20

Are you right to be angry?
The question smarts like a slapped face.
Wrong wording.
Whether or not I am right, my anger
deserves the time of day.

So turn a sullen, smarting cheek.
Stare into the raging haze.
Grace taps your chipped shoulder.
Grace takes the heat from your brow,
yet inwardly you burn with a summer sun
that has no room for grace.


Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 19

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.

Jonah 4:5

Jonah, like me, has no answer to God for his anger. He can give the reason for it, but when asked if it is right he can say nothing. Instead he sits sullen and waits to see if he gets his own way. Instead of talking with God or having compassion on the people he was sent to save, Jonah thinks of himself, making a shelter from the sun, and seats himself with a good view of the impending fireworks from heaven.

Why? Does he think that God might change His mind and decide to destroy Nineveh after all? And if He did, what would that mean for Jonah, already saved himself by the very grace he now wants to deny Nineveh?

Jesus’ first sermon has something to say to the Jonah in us all:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

This doesn’t mean that we can never call anyone else to account for their actions, but it must be viewed through the prism of the grace we have all received. Jesus goes on to say that we cannot remove a speck of dust from another’s eye while having a log in our own eye. The image of someone trying to lean over to remove a speck from someone’s eye while whacking them with the log in their own eye has always made me chuckle. The other implication is that the eye, the means by which we see reality, is clouded by our own sin if we do not attend to it first.

Jonah in his anger cannot see anything else, least of all his own sin or the goodness of the grace that has saved both him and the Ninevites. Anger places everything other than its object in a massive blind spot, and as any driver or cyclist knows, blind spots cause crashes. I too need to be slower to spot others’ failings and quicker to check my own blind spots. And to do that, this Advent I want to slow down and listen to God asking me: Matthew, are you right to be angry?

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 18

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah 4:4

The answer, of course, has to be no. No, it isn’t right for Jonah to be angry. He has just identified one of God’s must defining characteristics for Israel – His mercy – and framed it as a problem, something to “forestall”. So no, this anger is not right. Yet God doesn’t tell Jonah he is in the wrong. Instead, He starts a dialogue with him, and it’s one of the most intimate images of God conversing with humanity that we get in the bible: Jonah petulant and sulky, and very much in the wrong, and God gently, patiently drawing him into conversation, opening him to to grace.

We will see more of what God has to say to Jonah and what this means in the coming days, but today I want simply to sit with this Advent truth: that God, in His righteousness, has not come to us to condemn us but to be near to us and to draw us to Him. Like the father gently questioning Jonah, God has come to walk, sit and dwell beside us. He has personally entered our lives to draw us into His life, and He meets us here as we are, messy anger and all, ready to change us with Emmanuel’s tender love.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 17

He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:2-3

I’ve heard many interpretations of the book of Jonah that offer various reasons for why Jonah does not obey God at the start, one of the more popular ones being a desire for comfort, an unwillingness to step out into the unfamiliar or challenging. These are not entirely wrong – there’s value in them – but here Jonah tells us why he fled. He knew that God would giving Nineveh and couldn’t bring himself to be God’s agent of forgiveness.

We can judge Jonah, but the truth is that loving our enemies is significantly harder than we think. Jonah would have had ever earthly reason to not want the Nineveh’s to be spared. At a human level, his response is totally understandable. The problem is not how Jonah feels but what He does with the feeling. Instead of taking in to God, he runs away from God. Like one partner in a marriage throwing up their hands in defeat and saying, “What’s the point talking about it?”, Jonah has decided that God is incorrigibly forgiving and he no longer thinks there is any value in talking about it. And so, instead of coming to God, he runs.

This kind of thinking, whether about God or any other relationship, only ever leads to festering resentment. When we harbour grievances that we never take to the other, we can only be driven further apart as the grievances grow. William Blake describes this kind of scenario in his poem “A Poison Tree”:

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

How much worse when that growing anger is between us and God, the source of our life. How can we hope to receive grace and comfort from God when we refuse those very things out of resentment?

I have been there with Jonah many times. It’s a place I slip back into all too easily. Not only do I fancy that I know better than God but I refuse to speak to Him about it, no doubt because at some level I know that a minute of talking to Him and I’ll soon realise how little I know after all. Yet God’s grace is about to be made even more intimately apparent in this book as He takes sulking Jonah and gently persists in opening him up to the one thing that can salvage him: dialogue with God.