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 15

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah 3:10

This should really be where the book of Jonah finishes. And in many children’s bible versions, it does finish here. The narrative arc of the disobedient prophet turned good is concluded. We have a happy ending. Roll the credits over scenes of Ninevites rejoicing.

Of course, it doesn’t finish here: all of Chapter Four still lies ahead of us. But it’s worth pausing here nonetheless because it’s a natural break in the story and, really, one of the most remarkable details in the story.

The book of Jonah embarrasses many people because of its miraculous details, namely the storm calmed by the sacrifice of Jonah, the swallowing by the fish, the return unharmed to dry land. Many feel that the book cannot be historical because of these details. Yet the conversion of Nineveh is every bit as miraculous. The Assyrian Empire was known for its brutality, and not long after this story is set the Assyrians would conquer the kingdom of Israel despite this momentary turn to Yahweh. Is this also a fiction? Nationalistic propaganda from Israel? Not likely: the fact that the story doesn’t end here but goes on to show Jonah’s petty reaction to God’s mercy undermines the story as a national confidence boost.

Yet it strikes me that, whether or not the story is fully historical fact is not the most important thing to say about it. I am confident that it could be true. The miraculous details should not embarrass us, not if we base our lives on the belief that someone rose from the dead. But the story serves its purpose whether or not the specific details are historical fact.

You see, the book of Jonah functions as a very powerful test of what boundaries we put around grace. It asks us to imagine our worst enemies, whoever we consider least deserving of forgiveness – the Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin, Attila the Hun, the drunk driver who killed our family – and says, “Now go and tell them to repent, and watch me save them from their sins.” The reality is, God has done this, and does this every day. And it should make us uncomfortable, far more than the question of whether a man can be swallowed whole by a giant fish and live. It should make us squirm, and then we should reflect that this, just this, is the very thing that has happened to us. And we should imagine ourselves with the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the drunk driver, the Ninevites, and Jonah, glorying in the illogic, the recklessness of it all.


If words fail, being only breath,
Look to the one who was himself
The Word, though many said not.
Look to the one whose last
Breath, crushed by Satan's
Knee, was "Forgive."
Look to Him
And keep

Good Friday

Lent ends with a mirror:
I am the mocker, the spitter, the thief.
Like a child resenting their small role in the pageant,
I greet grace with a petulant, What about me?

This is me.
My role is the soldier with the reed and the crown,
the voice crying, Crucify! and, Messiah, come down.
I’m Judas and Pilate, am Herod, am the priests;
am the nails in the feet and the spear in the side,
am the object of all mercy’s most prodigal gifts,
am the face of Christ shining in victory.unnamed

From dust and ashes (After a poem by Nelly Sachs)

We travel through cosmic debris.
All the time a war wages – starshower missiles,
misguided asteroids.
The mayhem is our doing.
Harmony – meant to be sung –
ended with us.
Begin again with us.
From ashes we stand,
cupped hands opened to receive,
to re-enter Your orbit.

(Inspired by this translation of Nelly Sachs:

Rainy Day Sermon

Saint Paul – Rembrandt van Rijn

The text is darker in this weather,
     more emphatic, as though
while he wrote,
         outside prison walls Saint Paul
            saw the fall
of some Ephesian rain-drops and thought:
            If my plea should fall on hard soil…

Did he see the runaway slave
     in the wet, uncertain,
standing at
         his master’s door, with letter
            dripping ink
on solid Colossian stones, and fear
            a silent and stony reply?

Raindrops soften soil. Outside is damp,
     garden drenched. Too much heart
is a flood
         when heart hears abject pleading.
            Letter drips
today with softening truth, and yet
            for all my rain I still am clay.


Acknowledgment sounds with our morning yawn:

We have been in need; we have been held safe.

And the quiet of the dawn routine declares

That we are weak, are strangers to this day.

Awaken slowly. Infants in the world,

What will you do now? Fresh from the night’s grace,

Will you shake your horn’s fist at the first sight

Of anguish lurking at the silent light?

Forgiven much, enrage. The open space

Of day defies you. If all now unfurled,

How would it be to wait, to be, to say

Yet not my will? Grace’s true cost lies there

And we are not prepared. Our kinship chafes

As we seek love, reluctant, through the dawn.

Northbound at dusk

Jeffrey Smart painted this dying day:
burnt orange in floating smokestack steam,
needle-lights stretching in fluorescent dream,
the sojourn of light sinking in silent sway.
Daytime paints its canopy away
and minutes pass in inches as we glean
each moment, weigh each instant gram by gram.
Apologies buy flowers; much to say,
yet time is rare. I wish that now could be
a canvas on a wall that we could share.
I cross the bridge; I mount the street of bells.
Ascend, descend; the sound within us swells,
and expectation greets the seated air.
No movement; move. I gather you to me.