The wolf will live with the lamb,Isaiah 11:7, 9
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.
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.
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.
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”Jonah 4:9
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
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.
For this demon who harms men and corrupts them is particularly anxious that his servants not gaze up to heaven but instead that they be bent over to the earth and make bricks inside themselves from clay.
(Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses)
At the moment of exhaling, he sanctified
the clay he shaped by his outbreathing, yet
sacred clay was only ever for shaping, not
to be shaped by. Instead
my eyes are always turned groundward and I
play in the mud pies of my mind despite
the heavenly witness that clamours for me with its voiceless speech
and, for lack
of willing human witnesses, rocks
clear stony throats to shout.
“Not too many poets has it been given…to live one of their own poems.”
(G.K. Chesterton, St Francis of Assisi)
If I would be Francis, troubadour to God,
before I can sing Creation’s canticles, I must tend
to the sleeping children in my room
and die again, again to the self
that craves to be higher than them.
Only then can poetry shine,
until then being only words.
At the beginning God expressed himself.
(John 1:1 – J.B. Phillips Translation)
The urge to speak, to connect:
is it heresy to find this in the Immortal,
the all-sufficient? Having
no need of us, and yet
He speaks –
is Word. And we,
the subjects of His sentences,
are warmed by the light of His present tense,
this way, and that,
choosing darkness and silence
yet crying out to the night to hear us.
Hear us. Here with us,
in word, in deed,
in breaking bread.
where, on the shore, He had
already assembled, as a table,
prepared for expected guests,
a charcoal fire, some fish laid out,
and, being himself the bread,
a loaf laid for good measure.
No need, of course, for the fish they brought.
No need, either, for that excess in their boats.
To feed seven mouths plus His,
that net-bursting horn of plenty was,
as old Judas, wilting, would have had them know,
not quite au fait.
Yet fitting – that He who made Leviathan solely to frolic
should choose to play with the resources of Galilee
to make much of these staples,
to invite, to delight,
and in the olive branch of this table set
in the presence of friends and enemies
to ask, as the mercy-cup overflowed in the background,
Simon, do you love me?
You create and give; I take and arrange
words like atoms, rhythms like pulses
and the matter of your cosmos like
the setting of a table:
an act of grace here, a wilderness feast.
You create and I, created, imitate.
More, I steward
the tones you have embedded in our movements, our speech.
I listen and echo
the hidden poundings of the muted heart,
as a host at table might –
Here, a space is left for you.
And then I point,
first to you who, poised at the vast edge of nothing,
said, Let there be.
And then, second, to the open arms,
the nails, the wood,
the carpenter carved up to make
a home for us.
And so it starts over: our spinning way
Around the sun; our cycle of light, dark,
Hot, cold; plants losing, gaining leaves and bark.
If we hear what the seasons have to say,
It will be only their incessant bay,
Their insistant reminders – at the park
Or down the street – to heed the spark
Of summer light, and the dying winter day.
If dull the repetition, or senseless
The way we never move on or remain,
I will take a toddler’s view and address
The new day with the delight its maker
Feels when he sets the sun’s circuit to recur,
That this – all this – can happen again, again!
entwined with the gull’s wing
in pink seastring
among polished shellflakes
where the dog inspects the ocean’s rip
and the children tag along.
beside you with the waves’ murmur
as ever-renewing current speaks
of voices long ago which said,
Here shall you go; no further.
And it hums
in the morning wind which blows
like tumbleweed over
the criss cross of the sand.