The wolf will live with the lamb, 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.
Isaiah 11:7, 9
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.
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 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?”
“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.
Calendar flaps decked with chocolate each day;
Shops tinsel-lined as though God intended
The season to dazzle our wallets away.
Advent is not for the first-fruits of commerce,
Nor is it for month-long pre-parties and drinks,
And not for fluoro-lit reindeers dispersed
In gardens, despite what the suburbs may think.
No, Advent is waiting: for succour, for light.
Advent is silence, four centuries’ thirst
And prophecies ringing on into the night.
Christmas appeases, but mourning comes first:
Emmanuel promised, but light not yet here;
Our night-time rejoicing, till dawn shall appear.