Throughout Lent we are looking at what we can learn from different Old Testament characters. Pastor Karl talked about Ruth for the first two weeks of Lent and now we find ourselves spending a couple of weeks with Jonah. We have seen Jonah disobey God’s message to go to Nineveh and end up in the belly of a big fish. Over a period of time in the big fish Jonah is transformed, so God has Jonah spit up on dry land.
This week we find two stories of forgiveness within the 3rd chapter of the book of Jonah. The chapter begins with Jonah receiving God’s word for a second time. God gives him the same exact instructions as he did the first time. This time around, Jonah decides to listen to God’s word and bring a difficult message to the people of Nineveh. God forgives Jonah even though he didn’t listen the first time and went far away from God. So Jonah spends three days in Nineveh telling the people that the city will be overtaken in 40 days. The people believe the message that Jonah brings them and decide to change their evil ways. God sees that the people of Nineveh were sorry for the sins they had committed. So, God forgave the people and did not bring upon them the destruction that had originally been planned.
I admit to being a bit of a techie. I look forward to the latest and greatest bit of technology that comes out. The piece of technology that I have come to enjoy more than other ones is my TIVO. I love that I can rewind live television. It such a great piece of technology. As a Cubs fan, it allows me to rewind to watch the Cubs hit that home run again. Sadly, I don’t expect to hit the rewind button much this year for those. But it is a great piece of technology to be able to watch something I just saw over again.
How many of us wish we could have these rewind buttons on our lives? How great would that be?? I would love to push the rewind button when I get in trouble with Laura at home. I should not have said that I would take out the trash when I feel like it. How many times do we wish we could rewind so that we could go back and take away something we had said, undo something we have done, or redone something we failed to do properly?
Jonah is given that chance in our story, he is in a way, able to hit the rewind button and make sure he listens to God’s message this time around. God forgives Jonah’s previous lapse of judgment and allows him to carry out the original mission. There is no indication that Jonah is pleased about this second chance, in fact we get no response at all from Jonah. All we know is that he went off at once to Nineveh (maybe he finally realized that he was not going to escape God.)
Nineveh is one of the cities that is linked to sin throughout the Old Testament. This city would have fallen in the same category as Sodom, Gomorrah, and Babylon. All of these cities represented sin and wickedness. Nineveh’s values would have been the opposite of Jonah’s (and therefore Israel’s) values. This was a wicked place filled with wicked people. This was not anywhere near that land of milk and honey of Israel. These people are the enemy. However, even though the city is wicked and sinful they are given the opportunity to change their ways. Just like Jonah they are given a chance to hit that rewind button and change their ways. They are given that second opportunity. Jonah said that God would give them forty days (often 40 days in the Bible means a long time). God knows that this change will not happen overnight, so they are given time to repent. If they are willing to turn away from the things they have done wrong, God will forgive them. Since there is so much sin and wickedness in this city, surely Jonah’s message won’t matter. However, Jonah’s message from God seems to have gotten through because we are told that the people of Nineveh believed God. So, the people of Nineveh fast and put on sackcloths. Fasting would have been an indication of regret and also would have designated a specific time of mourning. The self-humiliation and irritation of wearing a sackcloth would have been an outward sign of piety. As you can imagine sackcloths are not the most comfortable piece of clothing in the world. But wearing this piece of clothing would have been an indication that they were willing to make themselves uncomfortable before God. In other words, the people of Nineveh took their repentance seriously. They were truly sorry for what they had done, so God granted them forgiveness from destruction. They genuinely wanted to change their ways.
When we are not genuine people know it. I don’t consider my younger brother Jimmy an expert at reading body language, but he could see right through me when I truly mean “I’m sorry.” Sadly this was something I was saying quite a bit to him growing up. Whether it was because I hit him with something or dropped him out of our 2nd story window (a story I have shared before). But he knew when I truly meant that I was sorry and when I didn’t really mean it. It was incredibly difficult for me to do. When we are truly sorry about the wrongs we have committed we are required to be vulnerable. This is often really difficult to do. At least I know it was for me as the older brother.
In his book, Blue Like Jazz, theologian Donald Miller takes an interesting approach to forgiveness. He describes attending Reed College, which is one of the smartest college in the nation (I think they have more Rhodes scholars than any school in the name per student), but also has the highest percentage of atheists of any college in the U.S. Every year they have a festival that is an excuse for everyone on the campus to party (not out of the norm). However, Miller and a few of his Christian friends thought it would be an interesting idea to set up a confession both in the center of campus and paint a sign that said “confess your sins.” You could imagine how well this would go over at any college campus let alone a campus with a small percentage of Christians. However, there would be a catch instead of having people confess their sins to these Christians in a confession both, Miller and his crew decided that they would be the ones confessing to the people that came into the both. Miller ended up being the first one in the confession both expecting this to be a huge failure and he figured they might be lucky to make it out alive without the confession booth being burned down. After a little while, the first guy sat down in the both. Jake sat down and said, “Is this the place that I tell you all the juicy things I have done this weekend.” Miller paused for a moment and said, “No, actually I am going to confess to you.” So Miller began “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. He went on and on until the person listening said, “It’s all right, man” as his eyes started to water, “I forgive you.” Jake said. This went on for hours with people coming in expecting to confess their sins jokingly only to find out that they were the ones receiving the confessions. Miller said there was something so powerful about confessing these sins to people and hearing them forgive him and Christians as a whole. These conversations opened people up to dialogue that was not possible before. When we confess our sins to one another and receive forgiveness, we create something that is holy. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with one another, we enrich our relationships with one another.
We worship a God who is willing to forgive. A God who is willing to hit the rewind button on our lives. We see the evidence of this in the 3rd chapter of Jonah not once but twice. God could have said forget it, when Jonah went as far away from him as possible, but God allows Jonah to complete his mission. God could have condemned Nineveh and its wickedness, but God forgave the city when they repented from their evil ways. There are times in our lives when we have the need to own up when we fall short of who God wants us to be. There are times when we just get it wrong. We call someone a name we wish we had back, we aren’t there for a friend when we say we will be, we do something that falls short of God’s expectation for our lives. However, when we repent, when we say we are sorry, God offers us forgiveness and brings us back into a right relationship with him and hopefully a right relationship with the people or person we have wronged. When we are willing to own up to our wrongs and sincerely ask for forgiveness God will bless us. So may live with the confidence that we worship a God who has a never-ending capacity to forgive us and bring us back into relationship with him and one another.