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.
Deprived of the ordinary markings of days - drives to work, birthdays, people to celebrate - we cling more fervently to organic signs, the constant shifts in the garden, which trees have blossomed, which ones have leaves, how tall the pea plant has grown, how white its petals.
These and the aphids signal time: those and the snails migrating, the worms beneath the compost, the dead bird by the granny flat, rising and falling daily tallies, who died youngest, who's all clear and how long until - we cannot say - only greet other pilgrims on the way, and pray.
Winter sets in, rubs his damp feet all through the laundry, wipes his everwet hair with each handtowel, breathes ice on my windscreen, cries soggy complaints on my feet.
And somewhere we are lost between fire and candle, lost in the long, slow ordinary that yawns in between. Days blink; you miss the moment of daylight, the chance to dry out and be.
Only blessing spans the gap between now and the length of days you long for, creeping up to you in beggar's clothes, with a leper's lips and the nagging daily reminder that you are caught in finitude, built to stretch in timelessness, bound by time, to give of time, to bide time, to abide.
Kneading after the kids are asleep and the day's tidy-up's done,
kneading unresolved jobs and disappointment into positive dispersal of yeast through dough,
kneading prayer, kneading thought of friend in need, kneading the loss of this or that hope, kneading hope.
And pounding, pounding heaven's door like a breadboard, pounding grace into slack and crumbling day, pounding the gate of coming kingdom, pounding the weight of the season, the wait of the harvest, the slowness of leaven, the tarrying rise.
And waiting. Dough sits before the heater. The day's done, and morning will show what will rise, what still waits.
Meanwhile, pluck tomatoes ripe from the garden. Watch the quinces shed their fur, turn late-summer-yellow, and burst with promise while cockatoos eye them off. Check the peaches. See the opening flowers on the lemon tree. Cut the roses, deck the table. Water, plant and wait. Number days and count the joys and trust that tears shall cease.
I know this day well, have often lived here,
yet rarely for good reason, only
the wounded pride of disappointment,
the failure of God to sate expectations.
Licking my wounds, embalming my life goals,
I sit beneath a Jonah tree and await the explosion.
Nothing comes, only Sabbath:
the time for waiting, for preparing spice and oil,
ready to have all expectation
destroyed and rearranged.