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.