Today’s readings focus on two related narratives. First, we’ll consider Jonah’s prophetic message to the pagan people in the great city of Nineveh, over seven centuries before Jesus’ birth. Second, we’ll unpack Jesus’ message to the Jewish people as He journeys toward Jerusalem. As we will see, there are strong similarities in these accounts. For instance, both Nineveh and the Jewish people are called to repentance. We will also recognize several ironic differences. Only one of the two repents. Read on…
Read Jonah 3:1-10 – The Pagan Response – Repentance and a 40 Day Fast
God had a mission for Jonah, the prophet. He was to go to the Assyrian capital city to preach. God instructed him, “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Rather than follow God’s command, Jonah booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, “away from the Presence of the Lord.” Perhaps Jonah was operating on the premise, “out of sight, out of mind.” Apparently he had not heard the words of the Psalmist, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me…” (Psalm 139:7-10a). God, fully aware of Jonah’s deception, sent a storm which ultimately led to Jonah’s being thrown off the ship. Jonah’s resistance was born from his disdain for the pagan Gentiles in Nineveh. He didn’t want to have any part in their salvation. God had other plans. As Jonah, buried beneath the depths, was swallowed by a large fish. While in the belly of the sea creature, Jonah prayed for deliverance. After three days, God had the fish spit up His prophet on the shore.
God’s sense of humor is on display in chapter 3. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” God gave Jonah the same instructions. This time, wait for it, wait for it…he accepted! Jonah entered the city which was three days journey in length. After one day into the city, the message was delivered. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
Much to Jonah’s chagrin, the people responded to his message by believing in God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth. The king joined the people by donning sackcloth. He even sat in ashes. To make things official, the king decreed that man and beast should fast and wear mourning clothes. They were to repent of their evil and violence so that they might not be destroyed. When God saw their response, He withheld His judgement.
Did you get all of that? A prophet comes out of a watery grave after three days, travels the first of three days into the city and preaches repentance, and the pagan Gentiles respond by repenting and observing a 40 day fast. God extends His grace and the people do not perish. Wait a minute. This is starting to sound familiar…
Read Luke 11:29-32 – The People’s Response – Rejection and 40 years until Judgement!
On the way to Jerusalem, a crowd gathers around the Lord. Jesus offers an assessment of the spiritual condition of the people. “This is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” The description, “evil generation,” was also given to Israel during the Exodus. God had shown them sign after sign of His power and Presence. Yet, time and time again, they refused to trust God. Because of their unfaithfulness, God decreed, “Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers…” (Deuteronomy 1:34-35). God’s judgement came upon that unfaithful generation and they died in the wilderness during their 40 year pilgrimage. Nineveh was also described as “evil.” They were given 40 days to repent. Rather than turn from God, they believed and turned to Him. Rather than incur God’s wrath, they entered into a fast.
As Jesus addresses His own people, they too demand a sign from Him (Luke 11:16). What Jesus faced was like the Exodus, when God’s signs to the people were obvious and overwhelming, yet they wanted to see more before they would be satisfied. Jesus had fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes. He had healed the sick, raised the dead and calmed the sea. Jesus declares to them, “As Jonah was the sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Just as Jonah was buried and “brought forth” on the third day, so Jesus will be swallowed up in death and buried. On the third day, He will also be brought forth in Resurrection power. This will be the sign to the Jewish people.
Next, Jesus calls to witnesses against the people. The Queen of the South is the Queen of Sheba, who came to Solomon bringing gifts and seeking to hear His wisdom (1 Kings 10:1-13, 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). She responded to her experience by praising God who chose Solomon to be King of Israel. Jesus says, “Someone greater than Solomon is here!” Then, Jesus calls Nineveh as a witness. Like the Queen, Nineveh responded to God’s appointed one in belief and repentance. Jesus says, “Something greater than Nineveh is here!” Why would Jesus refer to the Queen of Sheba and Nineveh? Because they are both Gentiles and pagan. Yet, they responded to the word and to the sign!
Tragically, save for a small number who followed Jesus, most of the Jews rejected Jesus. They did not recognize His death and resurrection. As those in the Exodus fell on their 40 year pilgrimage, some 40 years after Jesus’ Resurrection, in 70 AD, God’s righteous judgment fell on Jerusalem. The great Holy City was utterly destroyed by the Babylonians. The Temple was laid waste. Not one stone remained on another. Thousands died. Simultaneously, the church of Jesus Christ was emerging and growing across the Gentile world.
Oh that the Jewish people would have responded by repenting and fasting. As we consider our evil generation, may we, like Nineveh, repent and enter into this 40 day season of fasting with sorrow for our sins. May we never be so locked up with pride that we miss the sign! Jesus offers us a cross to carry. And, He gives us another sign – a promise – nothing less than an empty tomb awaits us. How will you respond?