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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.