And, as I’ve said in other years, we recognize that the six Sundays in Lent are not really a part of the forty days of Lent. These Sundays—as all Sundays throughout the year—are “little Easters,” opportunities for us to celebrate the resurrection.
Sunday is a time for us to remember that the days between now and Easter are less about sorrow for sin and more about thanksgiving for God’s grace and mercy. They are less about our failure and more about God’s faithfulness.
We see ourselves as we are: people with limitations, constrained by our unique abilities and disabilities, constrained by what we have and what we lack, and by that final limit—our death.
On Ash Wednesday we were confronted with our own mortality. In the light of the hard truth that we will die, we were invited to turn once more to the living God. That won't change the fact that we will die, but it might change how we live.
We see ourselves as we are: separated from God, separated from one another, separated even from the best in ourselves. We do all sorts of things as a result of this separation: some of them look good, some we call sinful. All of them point to the reality that we fall short of the glory of God; we fall short of what we would like to be; we fall short of what we need to be. We stand in need of forgiveness—human and divine.
Now, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are invited to repentance—a good, religious word that means to turn in a new direction.
Rabbi Michael Lerner offers this practice for people of all faiths, or none: “Carefully review your life, acknowledge to yourself who you have hurt and where your life has gone astray from your own highest ideals. Find a place where you can be safely alone, and then say out loud who and how you've hurt others and how you've hurt yourself. In the case of others, go to them and say clearly what you've done and ask for forgiveness. Do not mitigate or ‘explain’ — just acknowledge and sincerely ask for forgiveness. Repentance,” he says, “is a kind of a mid-course adjustment to get back on track.”[i]
We look at ourselves and begin to see that the gift of this season is that it pulls us out beyond our self-preoccupation. As the days of Lent progress, our attention shifts away from ourselves toward the God revealed to us in the very human Jesus. We encounter Jesus who shows us the human condition in stark relief: alone, hungry, tempted, seeking to bring healing and compassion into a world of brokenness and hate, betrayed suffering, dying. It is said that in Jesus God became like us so that we might become like God. We look away from ourselves and encounter God with us in Christ.
The God revealed to us in Jesus is full of compassion, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.
And maybe that’s just what you needed to hear this morning. Maybe that’s what you came hoping to hear. We come before God in our broken human condition. We come before God as our limited, sinful, human selves. And we find God there to listen, to forgive, and to renew us.
So the story of Jonah comes to us in these early days of Lent, reminding us of all that repentance offers us.
We entered this story about half way through this morning—hearing the third chapter of this brief, four-chapter book.
Sometime earlier, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, a great city in the Assyrian Empire—in what is today Iraq. Jonah was to warn the people of this wicked city that God's punishment was at hand.
Jonah, angry that God would show mercy on such people, hopped on a ship heading for Tarshish, in southern Spain, probably the farthest point away from Nineveh to which he could sail. Jonah was running from God because he wanted nothing to do with the mercy of God—certainly nothing to do with sharing the mercy of God with those whom he didn’t like.
The trip, as you probably know, didn’t go as planned.
Bad weather comes up. Then there’s the only part of the story that most people know.
The sailors in the storm-tossed boat discover Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of their danger.
At his suggestion, they throw Jonah overboard.
Scripture tells us that “God provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah.” We might desire something better than that for ourselves in difficult situations. Jonah probably did. But a fish is what God provided.
Inside that fish for three days and three nights, Jonah prays to God. And Jonah, who is running from God, ends his prayer ends with the affirmation: “Deliverance belongs to the LORD.”
After this, Jonah repents—that is, he turns in the opposite direction. He heads toward Nineveh.
That encounter with the fish isn’t really the awful part of the story from Jonah's point of view.
What really upsets him is what those Ninevites do once Jonah gets to town.
You know, Nineveh really was an evil place. Another prophet, Nahum, called it a vile and bloody city. When Nineveh's end came, would anyone feel sorry?[ii]
Certainly not Jonah. And as far as he can tell, God wouldn’t have any regrets either.
Now, while Jonah repented, you still get the sense that his heart still isn’t in his work. He only begins to go into the city. And when he opens his mouth to give the people God's warning, well, he isn’t very forceful.
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s all he says. And in Hebrew, that message only took five words. If nobody listened, that would be all right with Jonah.
If you’ve ever had an enemy, you probably know what it’s like to hope for ill fortune to befall someone. Madeline L’Engle reflected on this, saying: “When somebody has hurt us or done something wrong most of us are too filled with outrage to want that person to repent. We want that person to feel terrible, but not to turn to God and be made whole and be forgiven. Much of the time we show that we do not know the meaning of forgiveness any more than Jonah did in his vindictive outrage at the people of Nineveh.”[iii]
The half-hearted prophet finally visits the great city. Maybe you can understand his reluctance.
And the people of Nineveh do something surprising.
Repentance happens even to the worst of us. Somehow, often in spite of all the preaching and scolding, what can only be called the grace of God breaks in. We change our minds and head in a different direction. Like the people of Nineveh, we take a second chance.
I don’t think it’s because anyone actually believes Jonah. His words are unconvincing.
The people of Nineveh believe God.
Through those weakly mumbled words the Word of God somehow gets out.
Not just the people who happened to be nearby when Jonah spoke, but everyone right up to the king and his nobles—everyone repents. They put on sackcloth, they fast, they don't even drink. And it isn’t just the people. For good measure all of the animals of Nineveh are covered with sackcloth.
The king says “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.” Everyone needs to turn—and apparently everyone does. In showing the power of a group of people to turn around, this story prevents our faith from succumbing to cynicism and despair about the world. Perhaps if we stand up for what is right, entire communities can change. Perhaps entire nations can change.
This great city takes a second chance and discovers something—a new hope that allows them to look ahead.
In a way that’s what repentance is about. We cannot change the past, but through repentance each one of us is given the power to shape the future. Individuals and communities can, if they wish, foil destiny and celebrate free choice.
Repentance takes a chance on what might lie ahead, asking along with the king of Nineveh, “Who knows? God may relent and change God's mind.” There is nothing mechanistic here. Repentance doesn’t automatically guarantee rescue. Turning in a new direction comes with a question—“Who knows?”
Looking to the future, Ninevah repents.
And yet, there is something even more astonishing in this story.
God repents—God! The mind of God is changed by the actions of sinful human beings.
An impassive God, a God unmoved by human action is foreign to the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Again and again we encounter the God who changes plans for destruction because God's love for all the creation is far greater than God’s anger.
When you think about it, this is far more astonishing than being swallowed by a great fish. And for many people today, harder to believe. God is willing to put the past behind and look toward the future.
Elie Wiesel puts it this way: “The lesson in Jonah is that nothing is written, nothing is sealed: God's will itself may change. Even though punishment has been programmed it may be cancelled. Therein lies the beauty and grandeur of the Jewish tradition: Every human being is granted one more chance, one more opportunity to start life all over again. Just as God has the power to begin, we have the power to continue by beginning again—and again.”
It is not the sackcloth and ashes so much as what the people did that touches the loving heart of God. And that, of course is just what Jonah feared all along. He knew that God is always ready to change God's mind and not carry out punishment.
The God that Jonah served so reluctantly is merciful. In Hebrew, the root of the word for mercy means “womb.” It speaks of the motherly love of God who cares for all creation, including, as the end of this story tells us, the people of Nineveh who, evil as they were, didn’t seem to know their right hand from their left and for the many animals there as well.
Nineveh the great city, greatly wicked, repents. We might expect that to happen.
But here's the surprise: God, whose forgiving love is even greater, repents as well.
The great city of Nineveh could repent.
Even God could repent and do something different.
A Jewish commentary says that when Jonah saw the mercy of God toward the repentant Nineveh, he sought divine forgiveness for his own flight. I like to think so. I like to think that even Jonah could discover the warm mercy of the God of second chances and turn in a new direction.
Because, who knows? If Jonah could, maybe, just maybe, we will too.
[ii] Limburg Hosea‑‑Micah, pg. 151.
[iii] Madeleine L'Engle, A Lent Sourcebook, pg. 96.