The Sign Of Jonah
A Series Of Special Services for Lent
by Dr. Reed Lessing
Fifth Week Of Lent: About Face!
If this has happened once, it has happened a billion times. A couple are in a car, and one of them tells the other to turn right at the next junction, and by mistake, the spouse turns left. When he or she realizes what has happened, he or she says, “I’m sorry dear, I went the wrong way.” But if that is all that happens, it isn’t enough. Saying “sorry” isn’t getting them any closer to where they want to be; it isn’t even stopping them from getting further away. To get where they want to be, they need to stop the car, turn it around and go back on to the correct road that had been pointed out for them to take in the first place. That is repentance; it is an about-face!
The people of Nineveh are a powerful, arrogant, violent, wicked people. Jonah is a little guy from a weak nation at the edge of their soon-to-be empire. They might have strung him up for condemning their great city. But they don’t. They listen to him. Mind you, it might be easier to listen to a prophet who has recently spent the last three days in the belly of a fish. His skin and hair are bleached white from the digestive juices, his clothes are half digested, there is a dried-up piece of kelp hanging off his left ear. I might listen to a guy like that who says: “Repent, or God will do to you what he did to me!” Whether Jonah showed up like that or cleaned himself up a little before arriving, the people of Nineveh hear his message and believe it. They recognize that they have been doing great evil, and they repent.
While we see just a little regret in Jonah for his disobedience, his flight from God, in his request to be thrown overboard, and his prayer in the belly of the fish, the Ninevites demonstrate the greatest example of corporate repentance that we find in the Bible. They hear Jonah and spontaneously respond in faith. They declare a fast, they remove their clothes, put sackcloth on their bodies and ashes on their heads, and go about mourning. This fast of regret and mourning is complete in that from the least person in the city, to the greatest, they all fast. Everyone is moaning for their sins. Even the king, when he hears the news of their impending doom, gets off his throne, removes his royal robes, puts on sackcloth, and sits down in the dust. In all humility and contrition, he trades his robes for rags and his throne for the dirt. We’re talking about one of the most powerful men in the world at the time. Even he repents in contrite (and PUBLIC) humility. Imagine a current world leader doing that!
The king of Nineveh sets a royal decree that wasn’t truly needed. He told the people to do what they were already doing; to fast and wear rags. He extends the fast not just to people, but to the animals as well. Nineveh goes from this powerful, arrogant, wicked city to become a city of massive mourning. You couldn’t hear yourself think in Nineveh in those days! Have you ever heard a hungry cow? All of Nineveh’s cows and sheep and horses would have been complaining loudly, the people would have been sitting in the streets calling out to God to forgive them, babies would have been crying for their mothers to feed them! What racket—the heaven-heartening racket of repentance!
God empowers a change of heart, and a change in behavior. The king doesn’t just call the people to fast and mourn, he calls for a change in behavior. He says in v. 8: “Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.” The Ninevites repent and believe. Like a dry haystack into which a pine-knot torch is thrown, Nineveh explodes into repentance. Martin Luther’s response to Nineveh’s repentance was to say that God could well have uttered what Jesus exclaimed when he saw the faith of another Gentile: “In no one in Israel have I found such faith!” (Matt. 8:10).
Luther wrote: “If Jerusalem had done this, as it did in the days of David, Solomon, Ezekiel, and Josiah, it would not have been so miraculous, since it had the Law, many prophets, many God-fearing kings, princes, priests, and other excellent people who daily preached and admonished.” What is so amazing is that these Gentiles repent so quickly … so completely. In Hebrew, Jonah’s entire sermon to them is a mere five words! Five words … resulting in an utter change of heart! Greatest Sermon Ever! Or at least the most effective!
Comparing the reaction of the people of Nineveh to Jonah’s reaction to God’s word is downright satirical! Jonah, the prophet of the Most High God, turns tail and runs. The godless people of Nineveh turn from their sin and run to the Lord! This is the power of God at work! God empowers an about-face.
J. Edwin Orr, a professor of Church history has described the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the Welsh Revivals of the nineteenth century. As people repented they did all they could to confess their wrong-doing and to make restitution. But it unexpectedly created serious problems for the shipyards along the coast of Wales. Over the years workers had stolen all kinds of things, from wheelbarrows to hammers. However, as people repented, they started to return what they had taken, with the result that soon the shipyards of Wales were overwhelmed with returned property. There were such huge piles of returned tools that several of the yards put up signs that read, “If you have been led by God to return what you have stolen, please know that the management forgives you and wishes you to keep what you have taken.”
Can you imagine if that type of repentance came upon our town; it might do a number on our economic system!
The repentance that we see in Nineveh is nothing short of a miracle. It is impossible even to imagine that Nineveh would repent at the sound of this reluctant prophet’s voice. It would be like Osama bin Laden repenting at the word of Jimmy Carter. It would be a miracle, but not impossible for God. In the same way, when we repent of our sin, it is a miracle in our hearts that we have heard the gospel and responded positively.
Nineveh’s change evoked the LORD’S change. The verdict of the Lord changes from “guilty” to “innocent” … from “no” to “yes.” Our God changes from condemnation to grace, finally for the sake of Christ. The “YES” of God, made evident at the open tomb, where God’s verdict on Jesus (who had become sin for us) is shown to be a resounding and eternal “NOT GUILTY,” changes everything! What an awesome and life-giving about-face!!! It means we survive!
Author Ken Sande tells the story of Thomas Edison’s ability to delegate big tasks when others would have refused. When Edison and his staff were developing the incandescent light bulb, it took hundreds of hours to manufacture a single bulb. One day, after finishing a bulb, Edison handed it to a young errand boy and asked him to take it upstairs to the testing room. As the boy turned and started up the stairs, he stumbled and fell, and the bulb shattered on the steps. Instead of rebuking the boy, Edison reassured him and then turned to his staff and told them to start working on another bulb. When it was completed several days later, Edison demonstrated the reality of his forgiveness in the most powerful way possible. He walked over to the same boy, handed him the bulb, and said, “Please take this up to the testing room.” Sande then comments: “Imagine how that boy must have felt. I can imagine that he was a nervous wreck. And I do not doubt that Edison was also a nervous wreck.”
But that is not how it is with you and God! When God forgives the past, it is gone. There is no nervousness. There is no worry: “What if I mess up again?” There is only the peace and joy of knowing that the past is forgiven and the future is full of the promise of our crucified and resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ, who creates all things, including you, new! Turn around, and you will find your loving Father, smiling, and waiting to receive you! Amen.
By Dr. Reed Lessing. © 2010 by Creative Communications for the Parish. 800-325-9414. creativecommunications.com.