Alleluia! To Us a Child Is Born!

"Virgin Mary Consoles Eve," Sister Grace Remington, www.mississippiabbey.org
“Virgin Mary Consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, via http://www.mississippiabbey.org

 

Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.
Revelation 21:3

During Advent our congregation read the book of Jonah, that sometimes-ignorant, sometimes-faithful, always-stubborn prophet who called the wayward city of Nineveh to turn away from their past and accept God’s second chance.

We’re complex people like Jonah. Sometimes we’re even like the people of Nineveh, we don’t know our left from our right, or up from down.

Whether we’ve created our own difficult reality by our actions, or whether others have put us in a tight spot, we all know what it is to live and walk in darkness.

So we look for light. We pray earnestly for second chances. We ask for God’s mercy to come even to lowly folks such as ourselves. We yearn to see God’s justice executed on those who actively work against it.

We grasp about for light, and we long to behold Jesus.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

But it’s easy to get confused about Jesus. Not because Jesus is confusing or because God is unknowable. But because we’re an easily confused people.

Having seen so many paintings of a crucified Jesus, young Asher Lev asked his mother whether this was the Messiah.

 

Marc Chagall, "White Crucifixion," 1938
Marc Chagall, “White Crucifixion,” 1938

 

“No,” she says, “He was not the Messiah. The Messiah has not yet come, Asher. Look how much suffering there is in the world. Would there be so much suffering if the Messiah had really come?”

A trenchant critique, to be sure.

Time and again we look for Jesus to come in glory, in power, to right wrongs on a different timetable than God seems to have in mind… but time and again Jesus insists on coming in humility, in squalor, in seemingly insignificant interactions, even showing up in the midst of a fight. He doesn’t eliminate suffering; he gets born right into it, and takes part it in it himself.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

Still, some days we’d rather skip past his first coming and go straight to the ending, his second coming when he makes everything right.

We keep wanting him to show up in full majesty, draping white robes behind him, as he smites the naysayers and draws his people out of a dark world and unto himself.

But year after year he keeps being born in a stable, to an unwed mother, next to unbathed animals, with astrologers as front-pew worshipers.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

One poet sums it up nicely in four lines:

They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes, and lift them high:
Thou cam’st a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.

Rather than eliminate suffering in his first coming, Jesus participates in it. He takes on vulnerable, imperfect human flesh. He becomes one of the so-called least of these. A child. A poor child.

He doesn’t vanquish the darkness all at once… he’s born into it, and lets loose every now and then with a ray of light, a glimmer of hope. Indeed, for those who have eyes to see it, there is great light coming from the most unlikely birthing story you’ve ever heard.

Jesus was born into this world as it is, not yet as it should be. This is good news for our confused and dark souls. Even our hearts can become a home in which the Christ-child can dwell. Even we can bear Jesus as Mary did and bring him to all the world. Christ has come, a “little baby thing” to dwell with us, as we are, to be our God, to make us his own.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

The Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, Bishop Dorsey McConnell, is a favorite preacher and writer of mine. He says it well for all of us:

But the Christ Child has a life of His Own, and He will be born even in as dark a stable as that of my own heart. …I suppose I will just have to let Him have His way….And I know He will have His way with you as well. Whatever you’re afraid of in your own life or soul, just remember: He’s been born in darker places. Give Him so much as a square inch of your shadows, and He will fill you with His light.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

What Jonah, Honest Toddler, McNulty, and Choose Your Own Adventure Novels Have in Common

Honest ToddlerI have Honest Toddler to thank for helping me keep my wits about me as the father of three young kids. Here’s a recent Facebook status of this all-too familiar personality:

Good Morning! Wow it’s like it has been forever. …. Anyway for breakfast I’ll have 6 plain pancakes … on the red plate. Not the red one with the green trim or the brick colored one, RED. Yes, the one that shattered yesterday. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. God help you if I see a crack. Also, I would like my pancake intact but in bite-sized pieces. Don’t break my pancakes but please cut them. I want them undamaged but in small pieces so I can eat. Do you see what I’m saying? Perfect but altered. It’s not hard. Follow your heart but keep in mind that if you get it wrong I’ll make today hard. Ok I’ll be in the family room sitting in your lap while you also cook in the kitchen. Love you. (so hungry)

Toddlers can somehow seamlessly embody two (or more) mutually exclusive desires at the same time.

I want to wear that shirt, but I don’t want it covering my top half.

I want milk on my cereal, but I don’t want my Cheerios to be wet!

 

 Nuanced Characters

 

I have a hard time knowing what to do when someone I’m responsible for wants me to do their top button, but at the same time leave it unbuttoned.

McNultyBut when it comes to literature, film, music, and narrative TV, I love highly nuanced and complex characters.

I appreciate people like Elsa, Jimmy McNulty, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, any character by Flannery O’Connor.

Good literature, good film, and good TV all blur the line between “good guys” and “bad guys,” because those categories aren’t so clear in real life.

Jonah’s a fascinating character in that regard. We’re not really sure what to make of him. Is he a good prophet, a bad prophet, or some of both, depending on the day? His portrayal is not an even one, or an easy one to detect. He’s a bundle of contradictions and love and judgmentalism and frustration and eagerness and obedience…. He runs away from Nineveh, but then goes flying towards it, preaching repentance as he walks into the city. And then with his message successful, he flees the city again, to watch it from afar.

 

Jonah: Loves God’s Compassion (for him),
Hates It (for others)

 

Jonah / Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel
Jonah / Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel

God’s compassion is what Jonah loves most about God… when it comes to Jonah. It was God’s predisposition toward second chances, after all, that has kept Jonah alive throughout this book.

Jonah shows in Jonah 4 that he knew one of Israel’s creeds quite well: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” And he rightly takes the shade-giving vine as God’s provision for him.

But if God’s provision and compassion toward Jonah is what keeps Jonah coming back to God, the Lord’s mercy toward despised others is what keeps Jonah running away from God.

Three times in this chapter Jonah tells God he’d rather die than watch his repentant enemies receive God’s clemency.

It almost makes you think about Peter’s three-fold denial of knowing Jesus. Jonah tries to deny God the opportunity to forgive whomever he wants to forgive.

 

Even the Animals

 

Jonah is angry enough to die. But God is concerned enough to save a clueless city…. even the animals!

Like in Jonah 4:11. Another translation follows the word order of the Hebrew a little more closely than the NIV, and punctuates the book’s ending with a mention of the animals!

“Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!”

A Heathen Animal of Nineveh, Pre-Repentance
A Heathen Animal of Nineveh, Pre-Repentance

Animals—there they are again! Putting on their sackcloth and mooing their repentance to the Lord.

Jonah loved the whale that saved him, but the worm that ate his shade—this animal he hated.

A vine that came up overnight, that Jonah had nothing to do with—he latched onto and cried when it withered. But a city full of hopeless people… well, he wanted them to wither like that vine… to go down into the depths and be consumed by worms.

But God loves all that he has made—evildoing humans, whales, worms, withered vines, and cursing sailors. Not one being is outside the scope of God’s loving care.

 

Good Theology, Bad Heart

 

Jonah gets a lot of things right. He’s right, I think, to be so angry at the perpetrators of injustice and oppression. He’s like every other God-inspired prophet who railed against those who tipped the scales to keep others down.

And he’s right about who God is, in verse 2 of the final chapter of the book: “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

But not everything in Jonah’s head has made its way down into his heart. His theology at the beginning of this chapter sounds right, but he wants to apply the attributes of God just to himself.

It’s as if Jonah turns God’s words against him. He recites a well known formula, an articulation of who God is, but in a mocking tone of voice. In conflict resolution terminology, that’s called invalidating.

He’s like the prodigal son, who can’t stand watching lavish grace poured out on people who should have long ago forfeited the opportunity by their behavior. He’s the good guy, they’re the bad guys–why would God show them favor?

Which leads to an important question: Whom is God for? For whom exactly does God intend his salvation?

 

Whom is Christmas For?

 

And we might seasonally appropriate that question: Whom is Advent for? Whom is Christmas for?

Whose Light?
Whose Light?

It would be easy in a season of preparation, to tend so much to our own hearts and lives, that we think only of how we receive Jesus for ourselves. We can spend so much time tending the vine, that we forget about the city we live in.

And we may be tempted to keep God’s compassion to ourselves and begrudge him when he shows mercy to those who have wronged us (and then turned to God). Well, we just wanted to see them get what was coming to them!

A Jewish commenter on this passage says, “It is not unusual for people to be so intent on the punishment of others that they lose their own way and are disappointed when people change their ways for the better.”

Jesus came into the world, offering light and life to anyone who would turn away from the darkness and turn toward him. And there are some really scummy people included in this invitation. How do we feel about that? What do we think of God’s way too liberal compassion? (I mean, he should pace himself more, right?)

Will we hide it under a bushel? Is God’s grace a proprietary character trait, only meant for the people of God? Jonah tried to hide under a vine, a divinely created shelter that he wanted only for himself.

But God sent a little worm to eat that thing up, in an effort to shake Jonah out of his self-focused slumber.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

 

I like these stories with nuanced characters, ones whose interior lives are complex. I think this sort of storytelling is truer to the human condition.

And I resonate with Jonah. He gets it some of the time; other times, not so much. He really has a hard time just letting God be God.

One other thing that good storytellers do, besides writing full and complex characters, is to write compelling endings.

You can probably recall endings to novels that left you with goosebumps, because the last few lines of the story actually described a new beginning:

 

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

 

After all, tomorrow is another day.

 

Where the Wild Things AreMax stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him—and it was still hot.

These stories show characters with the hope of boats going on, even if into the past… they show the hope of a new day, the hope of a still-hot dinner, waiting in his room.

The narrator of Jonah is writing a new beginning into the end of the story.

But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?

This is no tidy conclusion. It’s a question. It’s a rhetorical question, and we know the answer, just like Jonah knew the “right answer” in verse 2. But even as a rhetorical question, it invites—even demands—our response.

We have no idea how Jonah ends for Jonah. We don’t know if he’ll continue in his anger, or if he’s changed for the better.

Choose Your Own AdventureBut it really doesn’t matter… because it’s not just Jonah’s new day that the author concerned about… it’s ours. This is not The Great Gatsby or Gone with the Wind or Where the Wild Things Are. Jonah reads much more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where you, the reader, decide how the story ends for you.

The conclusion to Jonah requires our participation.

God has compassion on evil agents of empire when they come clean. The compassion that was always ours is now theirs—we have decide if we’re okay with sharing.

We are left with having to answer God’s question ourselves. The main character of the book of Jonah has always been God, with Jonah the most prominent supporting actor. But now we become the supporting cast, as we hear God ask:

 

“Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

 

Should I not be concerned about people who are killing each other, enslaving the innocent, beating the helpless, oppressing the poor, and destroying the environment?

 

Did I not come to earth to set despised evildoers free, too, should they accept my love?

 

Do you have any right to be angry at my gratuitous acts of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection for the life of the world?

 

Is this not the way, God asks, of my breaking in on earth, that I should have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and compassion on whomever I please?

 

This doesn’t mean there won’t still be justice, but do you have any right to be angry, God asks, when I decide to save the ones who should be smitten down?

 

The book of Jonah all boils down to that burning question: What will your response be, O reader, to the ways and work of God? Can you only accept it on your own terms, and keep God’s grace close to home? Or can you see Jesus as coming to earth for everyone, a gift of love for anyone who would believe?

Jonah ends here—but for us, the revelation of God’s concern for oppressors is not a period, but an ellipsis….

 

When Jesus comes, will we receive him largely for ourselves? Or can we receive him on his own terms, and open our hearts to his compassion so that we overflow with love toward even the most corrupt parts of God’s creation?

 

The skilled storyteller invites us now to take up the pen…

…to write—and to live—our response.

 

Reading Jonah, Receiving Jesus in Advent

Jonah into Sea
Jonah Thrown into the Sea, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

Advent is a season of preparation, of expectation, of taking stock before the Christ comes.

In his mercy Jesus came into the world to save a wayward people. In his mercy Jesus comes to us each day and dwells with everyone—woman, man, and child—who calls on his name.

Jonah—that recalcitrant prophet who finally cried out to God from inside a giant fish—knew God’s mercy. It was probably a deep appreciation of God’s grace and a desire to share it with others that led Jonah to the prophetic vocation in the first place.

Yet the book of Jonah shows a follower running in the opposite direction of his Lord.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity,” Jonah will say in the fourth and final chapter of the book bearing his name. “That is why,” Jonah said, “I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.”

Reading the first few verses of Jonah, we think he is fleeing from God because he has to call a powerful, godless empire to repentance—and that would involve some serious risk to the prophet’s life! But at the end of the book, Jonah reveals it wasn’t fear for his safety that led him away from Nineveh; it was fear that this heinous people would actually accept and receive God’s mercy.

The same God of mercy who had drawn near to Jonah and won his heart now wanted to draw near to the unworthy city of Nineveh.

 


 

A King and Savior drew near—to one of Israel’s most despised enemies in the 8th century B.C., the Assyrian Empire. And—hope against hope—Nineveh’s king repented and called the rest of the city to “give up their evil ways and their violence.”

Our King and Savior now draws near—through our remembrance of the Incarnation, a scandalous act of God’s lavish mercy to the undeserving. The Incarnation would culminate in the crucifixion, an act by which Jesus would draw all people to himself—from sacred Jerusalem to Gentile Nineveh, from Main Street to Wall Street.

Our King and Savior now draws near—through the promise of Christ’s second coming, to be at an hour which no one knows, at a time when we least expect it.

Our King and Savior now draws near—in daily interactions with neighbors, in world events, among the least and the last, and to our own hearts.

The book of Jonah teaches us who have accepted God’s mercy that we are to extend God’s lavish love to everyone. We should not begrudge God’s grace given to those we most despise.

That’s easier said than done.

Reading through Jonah, we do well to pay special attention to what it reveals of its main character (Jonah’s God), to Jonah’s internal struggles (and how it resonates with our own), and to the repentance of unlikely characters (the sailors, the Ninevites).

And may we each consider, as we meditate on the unfolding of God’s mercy, from Jonah to Jesus:

Our King and Savior now draws near—how do I receive him?

 


 

The above is adapted from an introduction I wrote for my congregation as part of an Advent Reading Guide to Jonah. (A number of us are reading a chapter of Jonah each week of Advent.) More on Advent and Jonah to follow.

“Jonah” (A Poem by Bonhoeffer)

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

 

They screamed in the face of death, their frightened bodies clawing
at sodden rigging, tattered by the storm,
and horror-stricken gazes saw with dread
the sea now raging with abruptly unleashed powers.

“Ye gods, immortal, gracious, now severely angered,
help us, or give a sign, to mark for us
the one whose secret sin has roused your wrath,
the murderer, the perjurer, or vile blasphemer,

who’s bringing doom on us by hiding his misdeed
to save some paltry morsel of his pride!”
This was their plea. And Jonah spoke: “’Tis I!”
In God’s eyes I have sinned. Forfeited is my life.

“Away with me! The guilt is mine. God’s wrath’s for me.
The pious shall not perish with the sinner!”
They trembled much. But then, with their strong hands,
they cast the guilty one away. The sea stood still.

 

–“Jonah,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written from prison the year before his death

Our King and Savior Now Draws Near—How Shall We Behold Him?

advent wreath

 

Keeping Advent is counter-cultural. To be sure, Advent has been integral to the culture of the Church for at least a millennium and a half. But if we used to complain about seeing Christmas displays and shopping specials before Thanksgiving, now it’s not unheard of to hear Christmas music in mid-October at Stop & Shop. Not exactly Advent-y.

In a society where Black Friday deals (and now pre-Black Friday deals) seem to outpace a few moments of meaningful reflection, how can we be faithful in preparing our hearts for Jesus? “Our King and Savior now draws near,” declares the Book of Common Prayer. We, the people of God, are expected to respond—want to respond—“Come, let us adore him!”

This King draws near when we don’t expect him, maybe when we weren’t even watching. But God’s mercy is like that—unexpected. Unpredictable. And meted out to all the wrong people.

Jonah certainly thought of God’s mercy that way. Though a prophet—whose vocation was to proclaim God’s message of deliverance—he resisted God’s call, because he was angered at the Lord’s grace toward the evil empire of Nineveh. How much more offended might he have been at the scandal of the Incarnation, and at the universal, saving power of the Cross?

Jonah is an obvious counter-example as we seek to pursue a faithful response to God’s mercy. On further examination, however, we find ourselves more like Jonah than we want to admit.

At the church where I minister, we’re keeping Advent together, a season of expectation and inward preparation. Each of four Advent Sundays I am preaching from a chapter of Jonah. My hope is that we can engage Jonah’s inner turmoil as a springboard to inwardly reflect and prepare our own hearts for the coming of God’s great mercy, as revealed to us in his incarnate Son, Jesus

 

Our King and Savior now draws near—how shall we behold him?

 
 


 

The above is adapted from a letter I wrote to my congregation in advance of Advent. Keep coming back here for more posts on reading Jonah and receiving Jesus this Advent.