But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.
I am not a morning person. I seldom awaken before the dawn. I’d rather stay up late and sleep in. Some would call me a “Type B” person, in contrast to the “Type A” person who falls asleep promptly at 9pm every evening, arising cheerfully every morning at dawn.
At dawn, many strange things occur. One of the most remarkable events which begins at dawn around the world is what Emmy award-winning sound recording expert, Gordon Hempton calls the “vanishing dawn chorus”. Every morning at dawn, birds begin to sing. Hempton traveled around the world to record this birdsong at dawn, recognizing that in many places in the world, this song is lost among louder human sounds of industry, freeways, machines and loss of bird habitat.
At dawn, God surprises us. Sometimes we are surprised by God’s grace, sometimes by God’s severe mercy. Jonah is surprised by both: first by the grace of God in the gift of a big leafy plant offering Jonah shelter from the midday blazing sun. Then at dawn, Jonah is surprised by another act of God, an act of severe mercy, in providing a worm to eat at the plant so that it withered.
The book of Jonah is full of surprises. God’s compassion is full of surprises. Ordinarily we would view a worm that eats a big leafy plant as anything but a gift from God. There are many “worms” which eat away at the gift of life, taking away what we love. We tend to see these “worms” as threats, enemies, irritants, pests, dangers, opponents; as anything but gifts from God.
In the Pacific Northwest, the “worm” in Jonah, chapter 4 would be a slug. Slugs are infamous for eating our garden plants. Every Pacific Northwest gardener has their own approach for dealing with slugs. If you don’t deal with them, they will kill your garden. If you love gardening, and love the greening of your yard, you don’t like slugs.
Get up at dawn on any day on the north Oregon coast, and you’ll find slugs crawling over your pansies, eating away at your plants, feasting on your labor of love.
Life withers. We are mortal. What we love shrivels, fades, rots, gets consumed by pests, and eventually dies. I love St Paul’s view of our life within mortal creation as expressed in his letter to the Romans. “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
The word Paul uses in Greek in Romans 8:20 which gets translated in the NIV as “frustration”, is MATAIOS, which can be translated as “vanity, instability, futility, emptiness, transitory, mortality.” In context, Paul is saying that all creation, including Jonah’s big leafy plant and our own bodies, and even stars and galaxies, all creation has been subjected to mortality, instability, by its transitory nature.
Nothing in creation lasts forever. It all is subjected to change, to decay, to mortality. Even majestic mountains erode and fall into the sea over time. Why did God subject beautiful, “very good” creation to mortality, to instability? Paul tells us it was subjected by God’s will “in hope”, with a positive, future purpose, that there would come a time when all creation, including Jonah and you and me along with wildflowers and galaxies, will be set free from the “bondage of decay”, and brought into the full freedom and glory God intended from the beginning.
So God provides a worm. The worm withers the plant. We are given another reminder that what we set our hearts on most often will pass away. Whenever we set our heart on what is not eternal, we will face disappointment, loss, grief, sadness, frustration, futility.
Yet, “in hope”, life springs a new. We are designed by God for immortality. We live by hope in God’s amazing future and glorious new life, as most clearly seen in the resurrection of Jesus. The dawn chorus continues to beckon us out of our darkness, out of our sleepy grey mornings, into the brilliance of the new Day coming. As the Psalmist sings as the new day dawns, “Awake, my soul! I will awaken the dawn” (Psalm 57:8).