Feb 26, 2018

More than a fish story

The imposition of ashes.
We observed Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018, with a litany of repentance, the imposition of ashes and an Old Testament from Jonah 3:1-10.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you. So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

“The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”
Jona and the great fish.

Perhaps most people when they hear the name, Jonah, think of the story of Jonah and the whale, or more accurately, the great fish (the Greek philosopher, Aristotle classified whales as fish, but nowadays we understand the whale to be an aquatic mammal, not a fish). But there is more to the book of Jonah than this fish story, as interesting as it is. Jonah found himself in the middle of a violent storm in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and cast overboard because he fled from God’s call to preach to the city of Nineveh. This great city, so big it took three days to travel from one side of it to the other, was the capital of the Assyrian Empire in what is now northern Iraq. The Assyrians at that time were the greatest military threat to God’s chosen people. In fact, the Assyrians eventually would conquer and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. They, in turn, would be conquered by the Babylonians (from southern Iraq) who would then take the people of the southern kingdom of Judah into captivity for 70 years (but that’s a story for another time).

Presumably out of fear and hatred of his people’s enemies, Jonah refused God’s call, but found there was no escaping God’s wrath (in the form of a storm) or God’s mercy (the great fish actually saved Jonah from drowning), After his deliverance from the depths of the sea, Jonah heeded God’s call. And the people of Nineveh responded! There’s even more to the book of Jonah than that, but let’s stop there, because it relates to our Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 12:38-41.

“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you. But he answered them, An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”

A sign, a great miracle, in fact, would be given to them and to the world: the Lord’s resurrection, prefigured in the story of the prophet Jonah. The belief in His resurrection would be for that generation and for all generations to come the touchstone by which the followers of Christ will be distinguished from their enemies. In both cases of Jonah and Jesus, a man came back from certain death to call people to repentance of their sins with a promise of forgiveness.

The Ninevites listened and listened to the call to repentance that Jonah preached. Notice that they were given 40 days to repent or their city would be destroyed. They showed their repentance by fasting, dressing in sackcloth and sitting in ashes, according to ancient custom.

The observance of a 40-day fast before Easter by Christians is recorded as early as 331 AD. The ceremonial application of ashes to the head as a public expression of repentance was practiced in the third century AD.

Jesus is greater than Jonah and His message is for all nations. He who repents and trusts in Jesus will not avoid only the destruction of a city, but eternal death. As the church, our mission is to call all men to repentance and eternal life in Christ. But, we must not forget to repent and seek absolution ourselves.

Of course, in the days that followed our Ash Wednesday service, we heard details of the shooting at Parkland, Florida, high school. As a matter of fact, one of those who died was a young man from Venezuela. Although he came to the United States with his family as a toddler, 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver became a U.S. citizen in January 2017. He told his friends he was proud and wore a black bow tie and, long pants and a black vest for the swearing-in ceremony. We remembered him and the other victims in prayer on that first Sunday in Lent.

The folloing week, tragedy struck closer to home as a young woman from our community was shot with a pistol just down the block from our mission. We remembered her and all other victims of street crime and hunger in this time of national crisis in Venezuela on the second Sunday in Lent.

There are despisers of the faith who ridicule the offering of prayers for the victims of the violence that is in the world. Only political solutions can solve these problems. On the contrary, political solutions are only temporary at best, and always have unexpected consequences. The real problem is the sinfulness of the human heart, which cannot be changed by legislation. We have the sure promise that God listens to prayers in the name of Jesus, and that through preaching of the Word, repentance and baptism, and the work of the Holy Spirit, hearts can be changed. Jonah did not exprect the Assyrians to repent (and hoped that they would not; but that’s another story). But repent they did and, what’s more, the majority of the modern-day descendants of the Assyrians are Christians.