Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 10

“What I have vowed I will make good.

    I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.'”

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah 2:9b-10
Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman

And here we arrive at the point that the children’s bibles are always leading: Jonah leaving the fish for dry land and “making good” what he has “vowed”. Yet there’s something quite curious about this moment in the story that we miss when we know it too well: the juxtaposition of salvation and vomit. It sounds sacrilegious, but there it is in the Bible. Jonah declares that salvation comes from the Lord, and then God commands the fish to vomit him up. If anything, in this moment of scripture vomit is the way in which salvation occurs: God saves Jonah from death inside the fish by being vomited up.

The fact that we might be squeamish at the idea, that discussions of vomit do not fit neatly inside our theology, says two things. First, it shows that we are uncomfortable with our own bodies, a fact that points both to the vomit-free glory that we instinctively feel we deserve. If our bodies as they are, inclined towards all kinds of abject and unpleasant fluids and the like, are all that humanity has ever or will ever know, then our discomfort seems odd. I have Philip Yancey and C.S. Lewis to thank for pointing this out to me. But secondly it also shows that we really don’t understand just how physical and visceral God’s saving work for us is. God gets down in the mud to make Adam. God breaths into Adam’s nostrils. God walks in the garden to find Adam naked and ashamed. God enters a womb and spends nine months drinking amnioitic fluid and kicking against his mother’s stomach before entering the world kicking, screaming, covered in blood and vernix. God spends thirty-three years as a man, experiencing all the glories and indignities that this entails, including the particularly awkward teenage years. And then God is nailed onto a cross, with scars that He still bears into eternity, has to heave Himself up and down, up and down, for hours in the body’s desperate bid to keep breathing, and then, as He dies, a soldier stabs Him in the side and blood and water flow from Him out onto the ground. The story of scripture is physical, earthy and messy. So yes, vomit and salvation go together, because God is not afraid of our mess.

But there’s another curious thing about this verse and a half that relates again to this word “vomit”. The Hebrew word qow is used only a handful of times in the Old Testament, unsurprisingly. Most of the times that it is used, it’s metaphorical: a figure of speech to describe land rejecting people from its midst. These three uses from Leviticus will show you what I mean:

Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Lev 18:25)

And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. (Lev 18:28)

Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Lev 20:22)

In these three verses we see a story of God rejecting the people who lived in the land before Israel because of their sins, and the warning that He will do the same if they fail to follow His commands. And the image that God uses here is of the land vomiting out the people.

Well, here Jonah – a prophet of Israel – is vomited out, not as rejection, but as salvation. Jonah disobeyed God, but he has returned to Him and so the fish vomits Jonah out onto land – but significantly, not onto Israel’s land, but onto land near Nineveh, the capital city of his worst enemies. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and He chooses whom to save and how.

Yet this fact is as uncomfortable for us as reading about vomit: we do not want to confront what it means for salvation to be entirely on God’s terms, not ours. And Jonah, sad to say, still doesn’t get it, as he washes the fish vomit from his clothes and sets foot once more on dry land, determined now to do the right thing.

Count It Loss

Whether misplaced or stolen, the effect is the same:
the search, the panic, the retracing of steps,
the sense that not an object but an organ,
not a possession but a position,
has vanished, without trace.

Whether passing or lasting, the search seems boundless.
The mind must run to what-ifs because
you never know: the cushion may disguise it, yet
tomorrow may also bear more disappointments
and soon it may be clear,

it is gone. And for now, at least, it is.
You might as well prepare:
its absence now defines you. The gains it bore
now weigh you down, your mind ever turning
to carve possibilities like pillars of salt.

Throw off. If it returns,
the bond must not return with it.
You have lost yourself; rejoice, held securely,
if tomorrow proves lost,

if found.

Catechism 33

Should those who have faith in Christ seek their salvation through their own works, or anywhere else?

No, they should not, as everything necessary to salvation is found in Christ. To seek salvation through good works is a denial that Christ is the only Redeemer and Savior.

(New City Catechism)



the chasm is too wide, the gap

too vast for any Good to bridge.

            All vain

attempts to straddle death with works,

however beautiful, are only


                        in an infinite sea.


            And know this:

all the ladder-clambering to

which the dying soul will turn


ascend the smallest rung,

can only slip, and slander grace

            which lifts

                        the sinner from her knees.


            And nothing

in our best attempts, our finest deeds,

our kindest actions, whitest fleece,

                        can near

the width of grace’s arms which span

the heavens and the earth to take

            our filth

                        into its cleansing grip.

Catechism 32

What do justification and sanctification mean?

Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.

(New City Catechism)

First, declared –
First a righteousness which comes
            from above
in shower, blood,
            avenging love.
                        First the gavel’s pound upon
            the bench declares
Then the change –
            “As you are, and
                        have been called –
now be each day. Now live a life
                        worthy of
this calling, worthy
            of this Life.”
                        First the calling, first New Life,
            then life transformed
                        by Spirit.

Catechism 30

In Christ Alone large-500x500

What is faith in Jesus Christ?
Faith in Jesus Christ is acknowledging the truth of everything that God has revealed in his Word, trusting in him, and also receiving and resting on him alone for salvation as he is offered to us in the gospel.
(New City Catechism)


Price paid – rest.
            The promise lies in deepest past:
Adam’s offspring crushes heads
            of serpents
                        with his heel.
Rest, receive:
            the Word tells all a soul must know.
Adam’s stain to stainless death,
            many sons
                        brought glory.
Trust the truth:
            though sin clamours at our ears,
better words are spoken in
            the blood which
                        pleads for us.

Catechism 29

Francisco de Zurbarán -Agnus Dei
Francisco de Zurbarán – Agnus Dei

How can we be saved?

Only by faith in Jesus Christ and in his substitutionary atoning death on the cross; so even though we are guilty of having disobeyed God and are still inclined to all evil, nevertheless, God, without any merit of our own but only by pure grace, imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Christ when we repent and believe in him.

(New City Catechism)


Without excuse, I

testify within me to

this daily sickness,

this ever-reaching backward

to the garden’s first death-fruits.


Without excuse, I

cannot grasp my way towards

what once should have been.

Too late, I have only death;

but rich mercy intercedes.


No excuse and no

justice: righteousness given

to the least righteous.

Perfect life lived in my stead,

lived on this beggar’s behalf.


How can we be saved?

No excuse, we cry, desperate.

The answer, senseless,

replies: only faith, only

grace which pays infinite price.

Catechism 27


This next question from the New City Catechism is a hard pill to swallow. It touches on what for me has long been one of the toughest questions of faith: the doctrine of election. The Bible is full both of invitations for all to come and also clear teaching that not all will come, and indeed that God has chosen for some not to come to Him. It can turn our heads and hearts inside out as we wrestle with it, yet in this poem I have tried to focus myself – and, I pray, you as you read it – on the goodness of God which shines through all these struggles through the gifts of common grace.

Catechism 27

Are all people, just as they were lost through Adam, saved through Christ?

No, only those who are elected by God and united to Christ by faith. Nevertheless God in his mercy demonstrates common grace even to those who are not elect, by restraining the effects of sin and enabling works of culture for human well-being. (New City Catechism)


It hurts
            to hear
that some are lost.

It stings
            to know
that grace has cost.

It cuts
our minds to know

that not all shall be saved.

And yet
            this grace
shines through it all:

that God,
            the sovereign,
makes and rules

the work
            of hands
in spite of all

the dirt, the sin we wrought.

To trust
            His grace:
in this is peace.

To seek
            His face
and righteousness

is all
            that we
with broken minds

can hope or need to do.


Crispin van den Broeck - "Pentecost"
Crispin van den Broeck – “Pentecost”

What wind swept through the house that day –
what dawn arose,
what day became?
What life shone through the shuttered doors
and lit a dancing flame?

What trifold truth unloosened tongues –
what fractured past
now set aright?
What joy made sober men seem drunk
and woke the town to sight?

What destiny set feet to roads –
what Comforter
bound burdened soles?
What promise made the rough road smooth
and stretched from pole to pole?

What anguish sings in spirit songs –
what waiting now,
what hope to come.
What Pentecostal flame burns still,
bright vigil of the Son.

“Shriven” – Streaming Page CXVI Day 7

Today is Shrove Tuesday, a day simultaneously associated with pancakes and confession of sin. It is also the day before Lent begins, with Ash Wednesday’s focus on repentance: a day of feasting before the fast begins. Today’s song, the final track from Page CXVI’s “Lent to Maundy Thursday”, is a beautiful reflection on the love and grace of God, a perfect way to prepare our hearts for the beginning of the Lent season. If you have enjoyed what you’ve heard of the album in the past week, it will be released any moment now. (Due to the vagaries of timezones, I am posting this before it hits the 4th of March in the US.) Go to the band’s website for updates on availability.

Here also is my final pre-Lent poem. I am looking forward to sharing more Lent reflections with you over the next forty days. God bless.


Shrove Tuesday

Shrivelled, riven, sick with sin
  and grieved with griefs too deep, too dim -
I crawl, I climb, I cannot climb;
     I call, my God, I call.

I love the Lord; He hears my cry
  and drags me, dumb, out from the tomb;
my soul, my soul, destined for death -
     He lifts, my soul, He gives...

Sunken, shriven, sick within
  and barely breath left to breathe in -
my God, my God: I cry, You cry,
     and save my soul from sin.

October’s End

What, are we in limbo –
The street filled with skeletons
And faces deathly white?
Pallid, strangely festive,
Sun still high, dusk not yet set –
All the in-betweenness of life
And death combine in suburban street.
Scout Hall silent for once in the week
And houses ring with trick or treat
Before the day the faithful pray
And make oblation for the dead
And for the lost ones, limbo-dreading,
Souls unsure of where they stand,
The cost already paid and yet
Strange parties rage, the in-between
The only place we know.