Christianity Faith Spirituality Spirituality in the Ordinary Suffering

What Jonah Tells Me About Advent

Advent is about waiting. It is the time between the “now” and the “not yet”, the darkness before dawn, the grain of wheat in the dark, silent earth. The night voyage. It is a time of waiting on the promises of God.

One of my favourite stories is Jonah and his giant fish and how he was told by God to go and preach repentance and ashes to the people of Nineveh. Now Nineveh was the superpower of the age, a terror to all around. It would have been like being sent to the Soviet Union to stand on a soapbox in Red Square, or to unfurl a democracy banner in Tiananmen Square. You wouldn’t be there long before the security police not-so-subtly invited you for a nice long chat somewhere dark and secluded.

Unsurprisingly, Jonah made a run for it. He headed for Tarshish. That’s around where Gibraltar is, which was as far as a Jew could imagine going – the end of the world. I don’t know what a modern equivalent might be. Anchorage? Some village up in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea? Ulaanbaatar?

Anyway, he had it away on his toes, and must have breathed a hearty sigh of relief as he saw Joppa port shrink into the distance. In my imagination, it always happens at sunset – appropriately for an archetypal night voyage. Though of course, ancient seamanship being what it was, people preferred to sail during the day and tie up somewhere safe at night as they edged their wary way to the far side of the world.

Of course, as is well known, he had not, in fact, gotten away with it after all. A storm blew up, as they do in the Mediterranean, and they had to lighten the ship. That done, all that was left was to entreat the protection of their various gods.

Into this chaos of waves and wind, baling and wailing, the captain shouting orders and small animals being sacrificed to the assorted gods of the sea, steps Jonah. I imagine a rather resigned expression on his face as he says: throw me off the ship, and the storm will stop.

As I recall, the sailors weren’t too keen on this, but, after some time, they did as he asked, and tossed him over the side, and, as he predicted, the storm stopped, and they sailed away in peace. Did they feel guilty, I wonder? Or did they think that Jonah had got what was coming to them, and he shouldn’t have endangered them all like that, trying to run away from God? Anyway, they sail off into the unknown, leaving Jonah to his watery fate.

I really resonate to his plight – thrown off the ship by his erstwhile shipmates. He must have expected death – the death that, perhaps, he felt he deserved for trying to run away from God. His story isn’t all that much like ours here – it isn’t easy to hear God, and if I really did hear, hear his voice like the still, small voice after the trumpets and the whirlwind, I like to think I would do what I was told.

It was an interesting fate, given the particular significance of the sea in the Old Testament. The sea was the haunt of Leviathan – the great monster that represented all the chaos of the world, everything which is opposed to God. It’s a bit of a leap for us, from a seafaring civilisation, and much given to worshipping the beach, to imagine the discomfort that the Jews must have felt at the thought of the sea. Perhaps the best way to enter into it imaginatively is to  imagine yourself on a tiny, one person yacht in the Great Southern Ocean, waves like lead-gray skyscrapers flecked with foam thundering down on your pathetic little boat. If she is swamped by one of these mountains of water, you are doomed. There is no-one within thousands of kilometres to help, and you will surely die, swallowed up, gasping for air, down deep down into the dark and airless depthless ocean, never to be seen again by the people who love you.

So it would have been quite surprising for Jonah to find himself swallowed by a giant fish. Well, obviously – that would surprise anyone. It isn’t really what we expect of fish. But in the context of the Jewish worldview, it would have been nothing short of astounding. It would be like some cynically sexy pop star coming up with some profound and original thought, like walking through the desert and finding not just water, but a cool little café serving iced tea, like checking your bank balance the day before payday, only to find tens of thousands of dollars there. You would suspect some mistake had been made.

Anyway, there he is, in the belly of the fish. Waiting.

Scripture doesn’t make clear how quickly he perks up. One verse has him in the fish for three days and nights, and the next has him rejoicing:

I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Jonah 2:2-3

However, I find it a little hard to imagine that it was quite as efficient as that. Let us assume that he didn’t immediately flip to the happy ending. Rather, let us assume that he sat there for a while in that smelly, slimy, dark place and felt thoroughly sorry for himself.

That, I think, is the interesting point. When you are capable of sitting in the belly of a fish and sing songs about how good God is, the work, it seems to me, is largely done.

It is the positive side of liminality. Liminality is the waiting time, the dead time, the bush is burned out and black, and the green shoots of new life have not yet appeared. Bad things have happened, but you aren’t sure if even worse stuff is yet to come. Being faithful, living in hope in this situation: that is the challenge.

I am not terribly good at this waiting. But, sometimes, waiting is all there is. There is a saying attributed to Mohammed: Trust in God, but tie your camel. That seems to capture this well for me, this oddly active waiting. I can’t just hide in bed with the blankets over my head, I have to get out and hustle, try to solve my various problems. But ultimately, I have to release ultimate responsibility for it. I take comfort in Jonah, who had to spend a while in the fish before he could being to trust. Trust is hard, and I wish I didn’t need so much of it.

So, this is Advent. Christmas is coming soon. It’s hard to quite get our heads around Advent – not just because it is wall-to-wall Christmas parties (and summer holidays here in Aus), but because we know the end of the story. We know that Jesus is born, and everything that flows from it. The real waiting, the hard waiting, is waiting when we don’t already know the answers, when we have to wait in trust for we know not what.

This is what remains for me at the moment: to act as though I trust, when I don’t always (or even often) have trusting feelings. Things are tough, and could even get tougher – that’s the reality. In Sacred Space, which I use as my regular pattern of prayer, it often asks something like: if God was trying to tell you something through your life, would you hear it? I want clarity, letters of fire in the sky, an ecstatic vision. But all I have is the facts of my life as they present themselves. I try to do my part of this, and wait on God, and trust that God will be able to bring good out of my semi-employment.

And that, finally, is why I love Jonah. He knew what he had to do to save everyone else on the boat: his was a trust that transcended his own life. But it wasn’t the sort of heroism which pretends to have no fear: he cried out to God in the sea. He didn’t pretend that it was a matter of no interest to him whether he lived or died. He stepped out – leaped out – in faith. He didn’t know what was going to happen, but his trust was able to bring him to that point. We don’t know whether he felt faithful or not – all we know is what he did.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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