I have always loved Jonah’s story. He is probably one of the most juvenile characters in the Hebrew Scriptures. When God tells him to go to Nineveh, he runs in the opposite direction. Only when God makes the seas roar, and he is swallowed by a fish, does Jonah call out for God’s mercy. Jonah finally submits to God and goes to Nineveh as he is told, but then he throws a temper tantrum at God when God forgives Nineveh. He is angry God doesn’t punish the city, and so he storms off to pout. When a bush giving him shade withers, he ramps up his tirade. God asks if Jonah has any right to be angry, and Jonah, in classic toddler style, whines, “Yes! Angry enough to die!” You can almost imagine him stamping his foot, pouting his lower lip, and furrowing his brow.
Jonah is easy to make fun of because his behavior is so incredibly immature and self-centered. We laugh at his adult-sized temper tantrum because we all know adults are too old for that sort of behavior. But that is what is tricky about Jonah too. Deep down, in places we do not like to talk about, we know Jonah’s experience all too well. When we are really honest, we can confess that may or may not have thrown an epic temper tantrum in our adult lives too. Whether over the reoccurrence of an illness, the death of a loved one, a lost cause, the job we did not get, or the love that was not returned, we have all had our Jonah moments. Though we publicly all can say, “Silly Jonah, when will he learn?!?”, privately, we all think, “That sounds uncomfortably familiar. I hope no one noticed my temper tantrum!”
Of course, at the end of the day, Jonah does what he is told – witnesses to the people of Nineveh, as God requests. But in the drama of Jonah’s story, we often forget one minor, and yet central component of Jonah’s story. Nineveh is the Rockstar of this story. Nineveh, for all its sinfulness and shame, has no problem admitting Nineveh is wrong. When Jonah tells Nineveh the city will be overthrown if Nineveh does not repent and change its ways, the people immediately believe God. They proclaim a fast, and everyone – adults, elders, and children, put on sackcloth. Even the king of Nineveh immediately rises from his throne, puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes. He decrees that everyone in the city – humans and animals – will fast, be covered in sackcloth, and cry out their repentance to God. He declares, “All shall turn form their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change God’s mind; God may turn from God’s fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
The king of Nineveh and the people of Nineveh are quite unlike most modern recipients of judgment. In Nineveh, no one holds a press conference to defend their motives and actions. No one holds a counter-protest to the judgment. No one even argues with Jonah or asks, “Are you sure?” Nineveh is told a cold, hard, ugly truth that exposes their deep sinfulness and grievances, and instead of getting defensive, Nineveh drops everything. They stop in their tracks and change their ways. They take the judgment with sobriety and honesty, and they make a change. Though we like to give Jonah the attention, the real heroes in this story are the king and people of Nineveh.
When Jesus talks about repentance in Luke’s gospel today, and when the Church talks about repentance in the season of Lent, this is the kind of repentance we are talking about. Jesus basically shares that he is to the people of Israel as Jonah was to the people of Nineveh. He is their sign that repentance is needed. The people of God are to use Nineveh as their guide for what true repentance looks like. Jesus’ instruction and Nineveh’s example come at an opportune time for us. We have managed to work ourselves into a time of finger pointing and name calling. Our division is found on the political scene, between denominations of churches, and even in our families. We have presumed that we are Jonahs and everyone else is Nineveh. The reality, though, is much scarier. We are not Jonahs. We are Ninevehs. Jesus is the Jonah of our time, calling us into repentance and renewal. We can follow the model that Nineveh set for us, dropping everything to evaluate our sinfulness and changing our behavior immediately. We can sit in sackcloth and work to deeply understand the role we play in sinful behaviors. We can invite our neighbors to sit with us as we both work toward repentance. That is what Lent is all about.
So how do we repent? How do we take this time of Lent as a time for intentional, dramatic, meaningful change in our lives? The psalm appointed for today gives us a few clues. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” First, we ask God for help. We ask God for help, because we know our God will enable us to do the work God has given us to do. The psalm also tells us to bring others into our journey, “I shall teach your ways to the wicked, and sinners shall return to you.” We not only bring our broken, sinful, hurtful selves to God, we witness our work to others, using our own vulnerability and humility as an entry to shared journey. And then we sing. “Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation. Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” We use our mouths to praise our God – a God who can change course, who can see the repentance of God’s people and take away the horror of judgment.
That’s why I am grateful that we are together tonight. We come to God across denominational differences and we sit together in worship. We hear the witness of Nineveh tonight, and then we start the work of emulating Nineveh. First, we hear Jonah and Jesus’ word of judgment, letting God create in us clean hearts and renewing right spirits in us. Then, we turn to our neighbor, and work on creating a community of repentance, working to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves. Finally, we turn to those not gathered here tonight – those who may not have a church home, and we share our witness. We share our witness of how we have been a people of sin, and how we are hoping to change our ways. And we ask if they might help us on that journey – not taking the judgment of Jonah out into the world, but taking the repentance of Nineveh out into the world. Listening to our neighbors, working together for meaningful change, and creating a city that is humble enough to know that God may relent and not let us perish. God will renew a right spirit within you, will give you the joy of God’s saving help again, and will sustain you with God’s bountiful Spirit. Thanks be to God! Amen.