“Who knows?” said the king of Nineveh. Jonah had come preaching. He came against his will. There is a certain madness to preaching, at least the kind of preaching God demands. Jonah knew they wouldn’t like it, so he set out in the opposite direction. Chapters 1 and 2 of Jonah tell quite a tale, but it’s chapter 3 set before us tonight. Jonah announces, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
What must he have expected? “Some will laugh at me, and others will kill me.” For his instructions at the beginning were, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” This is no generic message of a far-off judgment day, nor a generic indictment of sin. To name sins as sins causes scorn, anger, rage. Take a side on moral questions, such as abortion or homosexuality, and you will find out quickly who your friends are – and who your enemies are.
Jonah was walking into the heart of the Assyrian empire and condemning them. He knew what would happen. It’s a suicide mission.
Except, he was wrong. What happens next is a greater miracle than Jonah’s previous rescue from the belly of the great fish. What happens next is a greater miracle than the parting of the Red Sea, the manna from heaven, or Jesus walking upon the water. The greatest miracle that God works is repentance, the transformation of a human heart, broken by the hammer of God’s Law.
So Jonah is bewildered by the response to his own sermon. The king of Nineveh repents. He proclaims a fast. Not just abstaining from chocolate or wine; they were to eat nothing. “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.” Whatever you are planning on doing for Lent, whatever you are planning on giving up – it is nothing compared to this. A total fast of food, wearing of harsh garments, and then what is most important: turning away from sin. Fasting is foolish if it has not the goal of freedom: freedom from sin, freedom from lust, freedom from greed, freedom from gluttony.
“Ah,” you say, “but that was for the King of Nineveh and those awful people. I don’t know much about them, but they must have been bad if they needed to do all of that to get back on God’s good side.” But you – no need for anything extreme, right? No need for anything radical. Forego a few beers, do without a few pieces of cake, and you’re good to go. I mean, you have money to make and mouths to feed, classes to teach and troops to lead.
Your repentance is small because you think your sins are small. But the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday isn’t addressed to some ancient bunch of hedonistic Assyrians. It’s to people who think that religious duties are fulfilled by avoiding the big stuff—flat out murder and adultery—while keeping a corner of your heart off limits to God. There, in your heart, you’ll gladly nurse grudges and ogle women in passing. There, in your heart, you’ll resent your boss and the president, and justify all the the things you’ve held back from others: your friendship, your forgiveness, your time and treasure.
Before Jesus talks about fasting, or praying, or giving alms, He tell us that your hastily murmured, “What a fool!” is you committing murder. Your lingering glance at the televised singer is you committing adultery.
So somebody did you wrong, right? Somebody hurt you and now you won’t talk to them. Somebody told lies about you and now you’re justified in rudeness, yes? Our Lord says something very, very different: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Mt. 5:44-47). The question is not how bad was the King of Nineveh to lead him to declare a total fast; the question is, how bad are you? “You must be perfect,” Jesus says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).
You are not perfect. You are the King of Nineveh. You are the king of sin. You are Jonah, running away from God’s will. You are David, caught in adultery with Bathsheba. You are Cain, murdering your brother. You are Ham, mocking your father. You are Peter, boastful but then running away. You are James and John, vying for supremacy over others. You are the King of Nineveh. You are the king of sin.
And the ashen crosses on our heads confess our solidarity with him. We are in the same boat. Our city is about to be overthrown, and we deserve it. Our life is forfeit, and we deserve it. Our marriage is ruined, and we deserve it. Our church is ruined, and we deserve it. Our prayers are weak, and we know it. Our kindness to others is calculated, and we know it.
We are the king of Nineveh. We are the king of sin.
It’s not the fasting that we should ultimately imitate. It’s not the sackcloth that we should ultimately imitate. It’s not the ashes that we should ultimately imitate. It’s repentance. The King of Nineveh turns from his sins, in hopes that God might turn from His wrath.
But he doesn’t know. “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger.” Who knows? We know, of course. We’ve heard enough preaching to know how this game ends. The preacher makes us feel bad, and then he tells us nice things about Jesus. Then back to the usual, and repeat.
But the certainty of God’s mercy is no license to sin. So let’s make this Lent different than every Lent we’ve been through before. Our goal should not be to endure some self-denial only to embrace whatever we gave up again. Your problem isn’t chocolate. It’s sin. Serious sin, insidiously meshed into your daily habits, thoughts, feelings, desires. Forty days till Nineveh is overthrown. Forty days till you are overthrown. Forty days to die.
And then, at the end of the forty days, we see what our sins get us. We see where it all ends, all of our greed and gluttony, fake smiles and false words, all of our light fasting and hastily mouthed prayers. It ends with a bloody Jesus, alone. He repents. He repents for us. He turns to God and says, “Father, forgive them,” and then turns to us, the miserable thief, and says, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”
So the ashes answer the question, “Who knows?” I feel the ashes, and know I’m going to die. But I see the cross, and know I’m going to live.