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 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.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 16

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.

Jonah 4:1

It’s all too easy to judge Jonah. Easy also to declare that, because all anger is at its heart a desire to be in the place of God, it should simply respond to a biblical rebuke and go away. Seeing anger this way, however true it might be, achieves remarkably little. Once when I was angry at a colleague, another colleague described the trigger to my anger as “a test to see if I respond in a godly or ungodly way”. Quite apart from the pastoral insensitivity, it’s essential a truism. All conflict tests how we respond. And it’s not only anger that stems from our desire to be in the place of God; all human sin begins there too, as Genesis 3 will tell you.

No, it’s one thing to know the theological root of anger; it’s another to know just how anger works in the human mind and how to speak into it so that it defuses. I doubt anyone stopped being angry simply because they were told too, any more than anyone relaxed because they were told to take a chill pill. We love dispensing useless truisms. I think the book of Jonah invites us to go a little deeper than that.

You see, Jonah has been angry all along. This is the first time he’s described as such, but the very next verse will tell us that Jonah ran away because he was expecting this of God. So Jonah has no doubt already been playing over in his mind the way this will turn out when God acts just like he predicted. And the thing about predicting things that will make you angry is that you’re no less angry simply because you anticipated it; quite the opposite. In fact, you’ll be more angry because you’ve already experienced the anger the first time you anticipated it and now you’re doubly angry that it happened even after you anticipated it. Anger fuels itself on our own thoughts, continually bringing them back to the surface wherever it can and consuming us in the process.

And why is Jonah angry? At its simplest, because he hates his enemy, and he knows that if God forgives Nineveh then he will have to do the same, and it’s easier to burn in self-righteous indignation than to humble yourself and be wrong.

But this, as we’ve seen again and again so far, is where the Gospel begins. You see, Jonah’s anger is, in a way, quite right. Nineveh doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But Jonah is wrong to be angry because he is not the one whom this should anger. Jonah doesn’t deserve forgiveness any more than Nineveh. It’s God who has the right to be angry, and God, Advent reminds us, is not angry with us any more. Because all of that rage against our fragile flesh is going into the life of a tiny baby – still, as far as Jonah is concerned, centuries away from being born, yet His birth, death and defeat of death are the reasons, those centuries earlier, that God could forgive Nineveh, could forgive Jonah, could forgive me and you.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 7

Adam Willaerts, “Jonah and the Whale”, c.1620

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.

Jonah 1:17-2:1

There’s a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth that has particularly held on to me since I first read it 20 years ago. It comes at the point when Macbeth decides that the only way to allay his tortured conscience is to simply accept that he must continue as he has started:

I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

It might seem an odd quote to mention here, and a disturbing one at that. But I’ve always seen Macbeth as a play much more about mental illness than about murder, and there are many resonances with what Macbeth says here and, say, anxiety or anger. There’s physically a point when we are consumed by either emotion so quickly and decisively that it would be far harder to calm down than to simply let the feeling run its course. And indeed this is how our bodies sometimes respond; if we fail to breathe properly for long enough while in panic, our bodies eventually shut down so that we have time to reset. Or sometimes when we are angry it takes something dramatic, like punching a wall or having someone react strongly back at us, to make us “snap out of it”.

As with anxiety and anger, so with ignoring God. We begin on a path of huffish indifference, and then it continues until, even in the midst of a storm, we don’t think to pray. And it takes something monumental to get our attention, to break through our indolence and pride.

So it is with Jonah. Again, the scene that awaits us is so familiar that we tend to rush towards it. The children’s Bibles that I read my sons often do: Jonah is in the fish, they seem to say; let’s quickly make him pray and then get out of the fish and do the right thing at last. But that’s not how it goes, at least not how it feels for Jonah, who like Jesus must remain in the tomb for three days before returning to the land of the living. And who knows at which point in the three days Jonah starts to pray; but this, significantly, is the first time in the whole book that Jonah talks to God. The book begins with God talking to Jonah, but at no point in the first chapter does Jonah himself talk to God. Only when God has sent a life-threatening storm and then a giant fish to swallow him does Jonah pray.

It shouldn’t have taken a storm. It shouldn’t have required Jonah to be thrown into the water. It definitely should not have warranted much time at all inside the fish’s belly. But Jonah, like me, takes a long time to shake out of his rage against God and turn towards God instead. Why? Because he, like me, would much rather call the shots than be called to join in what God is doing.

This is why we need Advent, and why I am taking such a circuitous route to get there. Because what God has done in Jesus is so counterintuitive, so contrary to what we would demand of God in our pride, that, if we are to have any chance of seeing God’s work for what it is and participating in it as we should, we’re going to need to learn to listen to God in the midst of our rage. Praise God that He sends storms and whales. Praise God that He has come himself into this rage of being flesh.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 6

God of sea and dry land,
God of Nineveh, Bethlehem
and the belly of the whale,
God of heights, God of depths,
God of my darkest abyss:

I have made
myself my god.
I must

I have blocked the channels where
You reach me in my darkest hour.
I have clenched my fist to fight
in place of Your hand charged with life.
I must go I-don't-know-where
to find that You are everywhere.
I must enter deepest night
to find that You alone are Light.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 5

J.M.W. Turner, “Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”

The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

(Jonah 1:11-16)

I wonder what Jonah expected at the moment of being thrown into the raging waters. He seems at this moment to recognise his responsibility, to know that he is the cause of the storm, so perhaps he expects that, when he is thrown overboard, the storm will end. But what does he expect will happen for him personally? He certainly could not expect what comes next – the part to the story that is so well known that I want to delay it a moment longer before looking at it. He could never have seen that coming, and so I want to pause at this point of uncertainty. I want to freeze on Jonah at the very point when he plunges into the sea: what does he expect at that moment?

He knows, as we saw in yesterday’s passage, that his God is the “God who made the sea and the dry land”. And so no doubt he expects that God has control over the sea as He does over all things. But what does he think will happen when he is thrown at the mercy of this all-powerful God, after having defied and run away from Him? Is Jonah’s only thought one of freeing others from the storm, or does he consider what might happen when he hits the waters and goes under?

Perhaps he doesn’t think that far ahead. One of the effects of anger is that we become unable to think outside the constraints of the thing that has made us angry. The kind of intensified emotion that our brain experiences in times of anger actually shuts off the brain’s ability to contextualise, and so we often find ourselves stuck in a catastrophic present moment, unable to think of elements to the past, the present or the future that might alter or at least ameliorate our responses. Jonah, I suspect, does not think of very much at this moment apart from seeking an end to the storm. He makes it as far as recognising that he needs to face up to God, but there’s no sense that he expects mercy or restoration from God, simply justice: a black and white model of retribution, no doubt the same model that has led him to think that the Assyrians do not deserve forgiveness in the first place.

And so Jonah plummets into the waters, and in a moment the sea is calm. What then? Does he take a breath, relax, and wonder if all might be well? Or does he find himself plunging deeper, moving further out of control even as the waters above the surface become still? Sometimes this is all we can do, to plunge into the abyss, in the hope that we will find God there. Yet this is the very thing that we needed to do in the first place, that we were unwilling to do: to plunge into the chaos of our thinking and instability, with God there to navigate it for us. Instead, we chose anger, resentment, running away. The abyss never left us, even when we tried to silence it or disguise it with rage. Now we have to face it; plunging head-first, we enter the abyss, and find that God has always been there, waiting for us.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 4

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee”

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

(Jonah 1:7-12)

The first thing that Jonah admits to is that he is defined by relationship with God – and not just with the god of his people but with the “God who made the sea and the dry land”. Most ancient religions had different gods for the sea and the land. The sea was associated with a chaos that needed to be subdued in order for dry land and human life to exist. Other gods managed the harvest, the storm, war, peace. Jonah’s God is a God of unity, and of everything. He cannot pick and choose which bits of his life he allows God to rule. And he cannot defy God and expect the world to be unaffected.

As anger turns us inward, it can create the illusion that we are worlds unto ourselves. We can try to ignore the impact that our anger has on others, and we can also ignore our responsibilities to others that continue even while we are raging internally. Jonah, a prophet, is called to be God’s messenger. He has refused one opportunity to be that messenger for Nineveh, and here, on the boat, he is failing to be that messenger to the others on the boat. In a book filled with irony, another irony appears here: that the others on the boat show greater reverence for Jonah’s God than he does. Compare this with Paul, who used violent storms at sea as opportunities to share God’s message with his companions on the boat. Compare this even with the fearful disciples who knew that shaking Jesus awake could rescue them from the storm. Jonah’s response is much more the one I must admit that I am inclined towards: an inward-focused denial of my responsibility to others as a person of God.

The turning point for Jonah is to accept responsibility – to recognise that his disobedience to God has not just been a matter between him and God but between him and others, even him and creation. The earth is impacted by our sin, and so are our relationships. And when we rage against God, we make ourselves gods of our own little, internal kingdoms, failing to see the storms that we have made around us and the lives that are threatened by our failure to pay attention.

The answer? Stop ignoring the storm. Enter the storm. Because the God of sea and dry land will be there in the storm, waiting for you to speak to Him.