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.

Christmas Day: Last Last Thing

After all we have done and left undone,
after joy, after grief, after unbelief,
after wrapping paper scattered on floor,
after food is gone or stashed away,
after conversations thrive or starve,
after bombs are thrown and names are known,
after fire and flood, after duties done,
after every going down of Sun,
the darkness still has not overcome,
the darkness will not overcome.

Advent 23: In Darkness

he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead.
(Psalm 143:3 KJV)

One Christmas,
my brother and I sleeping on
fold-out beds in our grandparents’ living room,
I found myself awake
well past the usual hour, and
my thoughts like the room plunged
in obsessive black, save
for a red electric glow from some
unidentified source, I knew no
comfort to tether me
to the physical facts of things – that here
I was, and there my brother was, and
upstairs my grandparents slept and
somewhere out there was the lapping of the sea,
only knew
the daggers my nighttime mind turned inwards
and the sheer obsidian
absence of light,
and though morning and my brother’s voice
restored me to earth, the night
with its limitless black save
that relentless red glow
have clung to me since
as the knowledge of Hell.
I must have a light
that can dispel such a dark.

Advent 8: The axe is lying at the root of the trees

Truth be told, we forgot all about the axe.
Busy with our landscaping and renovations, we
neglected our gardens, all tangles of weeds
and fruit trees budding nothing while we poisoned the soil.

No surprise to find that it should come to this,
the moment of reckoning when our garden would judge.
Yet we were golden and glimmering,
felt eternal for too long.
The ending was never a flicker of thought,
the last things were the last things
on our minds.