The plans I have for you

Itching ears may long to hear,
All is well. Everyone relax.
But truth is rarely so welcome, or simple;
more often we hear All is not well before it is well.
More often the doctor diagnoses before healing;
the exiles must first be exiled
before coming home.

All shall be well. All manner of things
shall be well. But first we must learn
the difference between "well"
and the "fine" or "not bad"
that we utter without thought
when passing in the street.
Well is a deep, unfakeable truth,
a nature of being that has passed through the fire,
and, refined by the fire,
knows that His love
is there, even in fire.

Valedictions

Once the new year came
in a traffic jam, at Borneo's mouth,
when the crowds who'd fled early to escape the rush
now bid each other a happy one
between their cars across the street.

Another time it came while I
and a friend were lost in the midst of things,
driving from one house to another where
the champagne was chilled
and the view guaranteed.
Instead we drove
through a ditch and came
out at a set of lights where the lights
skipped across the shop rooftops.

Now I try convincing my
three boys that there's no party on,
while they fight through bedtime, crazed
from a day of irregular food and cars.
And where many can't wait to see it go
and say good riddance to the year that's been,
I suspect I'll say good night and catch
the fireworks from my sleep.

But after years and years and years
of deserts, each new year the same,
fighting to smile while others raved,
to see the evening slip to sleep
while my children slowly do the same,
I cannot say good riddance, only,
Thank You, thank You Lord.

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 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 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.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 14

This is the proclamation [the king] issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

Jonah 3:7-9
It may be that -
after the hate and division
the sins of omission
the clickbait, the baiting -
at the end of our waiting

we find
that our foe
is kneeling beside us
and the walls once inside us
can crumble at Mercy's
soft subsonic shout

and Nineveh's ashes
Jerusalem's ashes
Washington's ashes
Australia's ashes

are as a fragrance poured forth
which I Am shall adore
and all of our knees
shall climb to the floor

and all shall be well
when Mercy beats hell
at the sound of ten thousand
knees hitting the ground.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 11

Jan Luyken, “Jona voorspelt de ondergang van Nineve” (1712)

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Jonah 3:1-4

One of the greatest challenges of seasons like Advent and Lent is the way we must consciously withhold the pleasure and consolation of what follows: the joyful feasts of Christmas and Easter. Not that we forget how the story ends, that the centuries of waiting end with the Messiah’s birth, or that the three days in the tomb end with resurrection, rather we experience the spiritual fruit of these seasons of waiting and longing. These seasons also point us to present, ongoing realities in our lives that need to be brought into line with the bigger salvation story: yes, the Messiah has come into the world, but we also need to be reminded that He will come again; yes, Jesus has conquered death, but we also need to be reminded that our bodies will die before they are raised to new life. These realities are not made simple and easy to digest just because we know the end of the story; instead, we often understand them more by following the drama of the story through to its conclusion. Sitting with our own mortality teaches us to cherish the resurrection more. Sitting with Israel in its period of waiting teaches us to celebrate Christmas more fully and to learn to turn our longing eyes to Jesus’ return and not to the false hopes of this age.

So it is with stories like Jonah. The narrator moves so quickly over extended periods of waiting that we might miss them: Jonah waits three days and nights in the fish; Jonah travels through Nineveh for three days prophesying their doom; Nineveh is given 40 days warning of their impending destruction. And notice that Jonah does not even offer hope for Nineveh, simply warning: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Yet the hope is implicit in the warning. Only a cruel God would give forty days for Nineveh to contemplate their doom without giving them any chance to repent. Besides, as we will see in the coming chapter, Jonah has always expected that the story will end not with destruction but with restoration, because that is the nature of God, to have mercy.

Yet there’s value in sitting with judgment for a little longer than is comfortable. If we don’t accept that we deserve the same fate as them, we won’t rejoice at the news that we’ve been spared. Moreover, we’ll be like Jonah, believing that we ourselves deserve mercy but others don’t; and what then? No hope of us being agents of God’s mercy in a world crying out for it.

One of the traditions that the church has had over the ages in the season of Advent is to contemplate the “last things” that face all people. It’s counter-cultural in an age – in a year – that wants Christmas to come early. But it’s a reminder that we need: we are mortal; we are not in control; we don’t “deserve better”; but God has given us what we don’t deserve because that’s the kind of God He is – righteous and just, but abundant in ridiculous grace.

Let me invite you to sit with the Ninevites for a moment today and remember the place you should be in, but for God stepping into our mess.