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 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.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 5

J.M.W. Turner, “Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”

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.

(Jonah 1:11-16)

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.

Advent with the prophet Jonah: Day 2

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Jonah 1:1-3

The book of Jonah begins with a prophet refusing his divine mission and going the opposite way. Growing up I always understood this to be because he was lazy or contrary or just plain disobedient. Most likely he didn’t want to see his enemies repent and be saved. You see, the detail in God’s message for Jonah that we often miss is that God is choosing to warn Nineveh ahead of time, and He would only do that if He wanted to give them a chance to change their fate. This is precisely what Jonah, an Israelite threatened by the growing Assyrian Empire, doesn’t want the Assyrians to get: a chance to change. Like so many of us, Jonah wants God to be merciful but on his terms not God’s. And like so many of us Jonah doesn’t see that the very thing he resists is the very thing that can save him: God’s mercy to the least deserving.

There’s another irony in what Jonah decides to do. In sending an Israelite prophet to another country, God is showing that He isn’t some local deity with strict parish boundaries but the God of all people. And in resistance to this Jonah tries to run away – to where? Away from God? Away from His mercy?

I am like Jonah because I want God to act on my terms. I am like him because I want a mercy for myself that I do not dispense to others. I am like Jonah because, in refusing to be a bearer of mercy to others, I fail to experience it fully myself. And this is the root of anger.

If indeed anger has a single root. In my experience it feels more like a rhizome, sending out shoots in many, tangled directions until it is nearly impossible to remove. Perhaps it isn’t for me to uproot. Perhaps, like Jonah, I just need to stop and listen, or stop and be: to listen to the word of mercy God has given, and to be a person shaped by that mercy.

Advent is about expectancy – expecting God to act in saving us. But that expectancy has to begin with us reorienting our expectations to align with Him. And so we stop running and we listen to what God has to say.

“Do not despise the day of small things”

On days of frustration, beware
the futile fury that burns
when queues are as long as red tape
and parking spaces are few.

On days when nothing’s achieved, beware
the muted rage that despises the stranger
for taking your place in a lane or a line,
that resents the day for passing.

On these dog days of shopping malls,
keep your eye upon the prize.
A broken heart He won’t despise,
and the day has grace for us all.

Sow a seed and water soil;
give thanks for sun and everyone:
the ones that drive you out of self,
that thwart your ticked To-Dos.

Brave the crowd at Centrelink;
Futility destroys the proud.
Remember now, you are not king.
Crown mercy in this day.

Damascus Road Prayers: Prologue

Landscape with olive trees and yellow flowers, Serjilla, Syria
Landscape with olive trees and yellow flowers, Serjilla, Syria

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one true God.

Glory be to Him; and may His grace and mercy be upon us for ever. Amen.

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, by whose glory, the heaven and the earth are filled; Hosanna in the highest. 

Blessed is He who has come, and is to come in the name of the Lord; glory be to Him in the highest.

(Prologue for daily prayer, Syriac Orthodox Church)

It is a wild and rainy day in Melbourne as I sit down to write this first post, God willing, of a new series – and the rain is fitting, because my poem for today takes inspiration from a hymn by 4th century poet and theologian, St Ephraim the Syrian, a prayer focused on the story of Noah.

O God of mercies Who didst refresh Noah, he too refreshed Thy mercies. He offered sacrifice and stayed the flood; he presented gifts and received the promise. With prayer and incense he propitiated Thee: with an oath and with the bow Thou wast gracious to him; so that if the flood should essay to hurt the earth, the bow should stretch itself over against it, to banish it away and hearten the earth. As Thou hast sworn peace so do Thou maintain it, and let Thy bow strive against Thy wrath!

Wrath is not a concept that our world likes to hear about, but in the context of Syria as it stands today the words seem to have a powerful immediacy. We can easily imagine Syrian believers today joining the congregation of Ephraim’s day responding to the priest with:

Stretch forth Thy bow against the flood, for lo! it has lifted up its waves against our walls!

As communities of Christian believers who have stood strong in Syria for nearly 2000 years leave their homes, possibly never to return, we need to stand with them in this prayer: a prayer for a land sorely besieged by the floods around it, desperately in need of our prayers and our solidarity with them.

In aid of this, and inspired by Johnnie Moore‘s call for the Western church to tell the stories of our Syrian brothers and sisters, I have decided to put together a series of poems structured around the ancient Syriac Orthodox daily prayers and the hymns of St Ephraim: an attempt to unearth some of the rich beauty of Syria’s Christian history, to remind us what is threatened, and what a powerful contribution the Syrian church has made to the Christian world.

So here is my first offering. I hope it might be a blessing to you as you read it today.

Damascus Road Prayers: Prologue

Father –

the bow is in the sky, but the floods fall still.

Our walls have stood, but now they totter.

The olive branches are wilting;

no doves fly here any more.

Father –

Noah turned away wrath with his prayer, with his sacrifice.

We are the sacrifice. We have stood, and stood.

Father, where –

where is mercy’s refreshing?

Heaven and earth are full; we are pouring

libation on broken ground, our pots empty.

Father, the mercy

which turned its bow upward…

Turn in Your mercy. We turn now to You.

From Ashes: Sonnet

Though fearfully and wonderfully made,

There are abscesses where my dirt is stored:

See here, the time I learnt to cry, to wade

In mud and mire, and hurt of my own accord.

Though Grace has breathed its breath in me, I still

Retain the sick fruit of Adam’s broken soil;

In pain, in guilt, in deeds of death I till

What many days will buckle at my toil.

Distorted are the instincts of my breath;

Upended are the ways I read my years.

Reorder, Grace, and open up what death

Has stultified, now brackish from these tears.

Take heart, poor soul; the future comes in flood,

Revivifies the past with mercy’s blood.

Lent 37: Thursday of Fifth Week

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons


Look, the shepherd separates:

sheep from goats He divides,

bone and marrow He prises open,

hearts’ deep secrets He dissects.


Look, the true ones walk

through streets and feed the poor.

The children give their food to dogs,

the princes clothe the naked…


Look; deep inside, now look.

Secret acts reveal our secret thoughts.

When none around you look, He sees.

The shepherd separates.

“Were you there…?” – Streaming Page CXVI Day Three

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? None of us today can answer “yes”. Yet the truth and power of that moment is never diminished, how much time stretches between us and it.

Today’s track from Page CXVI’s “Lent to Maundy Thursday” combines two old hymns: “Were You There?” and “O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”. May it help us keep preparing our hearts for the truth of Easter.

Friday Before Lent
    I was not there;
my heart cannot prepare
for sights like these:
the way Love trembles on its throne,
and mercy sweats blood.

    I was not there,
and in my absence there is guilt:
the nonchalance of one who sits
a safer distance from the fright;
yet Love knows I would have been
as blood-thirsty as the rest.

    I was not there, 
yet Love draws further
than the bounds of space and time,
into my desperate present where
the love of Jesus lives.

    I was not there;
my soul cannot prepare
itself for what it finds:
mercy thick with knowledge, rich
in wisdom before time, grounded, deep
into each present cry.

Catechism 8


(Detail from "Moses" by Rembrandt van Rijn)

What is the law of God stated in the Ten 
You shall have no other gods before me. You 
shall not make for yourself an idol in the form 
of anything in heaven above or on the earth 
beneath or in the waters below – you shall not 
bow down to them or worship them. You shall not 
misuse the name of the Lord your God. Remember 
the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Honor your 
father and your mother. You shall not murder. 
You shall not commit adultery. You shall not 
steal. You shall not give false testimony. 
You shall not covet.
(New City Catechism)

So we begin
what clutching hands at apple trees do not know:
    accepting that there is Someone
        much higher than the heights of all
    our striving and our pride.

Bow down before
    no other god:
not what your hands have wrought or what you 
    not that which eyes find pleasing nor
         what beauty holds out towards you
    or serves your present aims.

The depths are yours
    to plumb, to swim,
yet all within is His. The water’s mirror
    shines back to you your face; do not
         mistake creature for Creator
    or love sea more than Son.

Heart humble and
    contrite, know the
joy of boundaries set out by love. The waters
    stay where He commands; so we too
        can rest within parameters
    carved deep with mercy’s law.