Ash Wednesday: Repentance

Lessons: Jonah 3:1-10, 2 Peter 1:2-11, Matthew 6:16-21
Hymns: LSB 915, 607, 610, 627, 839

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      The book of Jonah certainly presents some challenges and some great blessings to all who read it. The blessings are numerous. God demonstrates His patience with a city filled with evil and with Jonah who not only tries to run away from his calling to serve as a messenger of God to Nineveh but also becomes upset over the city’s wonderful response to the Word of God. Jonah didn’t like seeing the city repent, and yet God remained patient with him. Also, students of Hebrew typically translate Jonah first because its Hebrew is about the easiest in the Old Testament. Jonah getting swallowed up by a fish and spit out on dry ground is one of those true stories every child learns who attends Sunday School.

      But the book also presents some challenges. Some don’t see how God could save Jonah by sending a great fish to swallow him up and spit him up on dry ground three days later. Even the city of Nineveh posed a problem for hundreds of years. It was described as the capital city of Assyria, yet there was no archaeological evidence to prove its location. Critics of the Bible used their inability to find the city as a way to disprove not only the book of Jonah but also the entire Bible. Then, in the 1840s the city of Nineveh was found buried along the Tigris River. What Jonah recorded in Scripture was proven, yet again, to be sure and certain. The Bible critics have been silenced on this point.

      Those who are challenged by the Bible’s teachings need not be. For God does not lie; His Word is truth.

      Not only has archeology finally demonstrated what students of the Bible have always known, but Jesus Himself confirms the book of Jonah. Let me read to you from Matthew 12:38-41, “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.”

      Just as Jonah was swallowed up by the great fish and spit up on dry ground, so also Jesus died on the cross, His Body was buried, and He rose from the dead on the third day. This connection is no accident; God intended Jonah’s stay in the belly of the fish to foreshadow our Lord’s rest in the grave. And just as the belly of the fish could not contain Jonah forever, or eliminate him, so also the grave could not contain our Lord’s body or cause it to see decay. For, as we shall celebrate after our forty-day Lenten journey is completed, Christ Jesus is not dead, but risen. He lives and grants us the victory.

      We need this victory because, without it, we would all die and suffer an eternity in Hell. That’s what we all deserve due to our sin. That was the destruction coming upon the Ninevites. God was going to destroy them if they don’t repent in 40 days. Yet, He wanted to warn them. So He raised up for Himself the prophet Jonah to serve as the messenger. Jonah tried to avoid this calling and fled, trying to cross the entire Mediterranean Sea by sailing in a ship from the Promised Land to Spain. But God would not have it. After the people threw Jonah overboard, God rescued Jonah through the fish and had Jonah go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which was about 500 miles from Jerusalem. Assyria was the strongest and largest country in those days; and they posed a threat to the Israelites.

      Yet, God wanted them to turn from their evil ways. So through Jonah, He gave them a warning: If they don’t repent in 40 days, they will be overthrown.

      Remarkably, they repented. God the Holy Spirit brought about their contrition. On their own, they would have mocked the idea. They were, after all, the world’s superpower; who could topple them? And why should they repent?

      That arrogance is displayed all too frequently today. Many think they can do no wrong because they were baptized and confirmed. They’re busy finding faults with others, but they find themselves flawless. They assume they’re pretty good people and have no need for repentance.

      In light of this, let’s take a look at the important topic of repentance. The Ninevites thought they were fine. Holding to false gods and engaging in immorality, they simply lived the same lifestyle as those around them. As long as everyone is doing it, they reasoned, it must be ok. But God was not ok with their godlessness. And so God sent Jonah to them.

      That is the first step toward repentance: being warned and being taught. Had they not been warned, they would have engaged in no repentance. But since God warned them of their upcoming destruction, they made no excuses but immediately proceeded to repent. God teaches repentance in the Bible and He sends ministers to call sinners to repentance. God did so through the judges He raised up in Bible times, through the prophets He sent, and, famously, through John the Baptist, who proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Jesus also preached these words. Thus, faithful pastors keep on preaching repentance. And God wants you to heed the call to repentance.

      For the Ninevites, repentance was not only turning from their idols and immorality, but it involved sackcloth and ashes. Sackcloth was coarse cloth made from woven camel or goat fur. It was itchy and uncomfortable. The ashes demonstrated their sorrow for their sin. The Israelites had similar customs. And while we don’t typically don sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate our repentance, we do as the repentant believers of the Old Testament did: we turn from our sins. As baptized believers, our sins are daily drowned and die through contrition (sorrow for sin) and repentance.

      God seeks repentance because He does not want us to harm ourselves or our neighbors with our sin. And it is part of the way in which God restores us sinners into His favor. For the repentant—those who have been crushed by the weight of their sin and believe in Christ Jesus—receive Christ’s forgiveness with great joy.

      We are liberated and set free from our sin. God seeks repentance because He wants us to see the impossible weight of our sin and to turn to Him in complete reliance for our salvation.

      You see, the purpose of repentance is to ultimately to lead us to salvation through our Savior Jesus. The unrepentant do not receive Christ’s forgiveness. But Jesus is brought to repentant sinners through the Word. The repentant go to the Lord’s altar and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus for their forgiveness. The repentant are absolved with the forgiveness Jesus earned on the cross.

      When sinners repent toward one another, relationships are restored and strengthened. The one who hears the repentance of another forgives that person.

      God was ready to destroy Nineveh. But then they heard Jonah’s cry for repentance as he travelled through that great city, and they turned from their sin in repentance. God spared the city; Nineveh was not destroyed. You could say they were restored. Their standing with God was certainly restored.

      The same occurs with us. God restores us as He presents to us our Savior Jesus who paid for our sins on the cross. He relents in punishing us and brings us to be with Him in Paradise. He saves us from eternal death and grants us eternal life. All of this is granted to us for free because Jesus died in our place on the cross.

      When Jesus taught the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus taught the great joy there is when sinners are restored in repentance. Even the angels in Heaven rejoice when a sinner repents. We, too, should be filled with joy when sinners repent.

      But that isn’t always the case. You would think Jonah would have rejoiced because his efforts were not wasted. The city was spared. Instead, Jonah became upset. He wished for death (Jonah 4:3). He could not stand the fact that these Assyrian people—who were not children of Abraham—could possibly be saved. He was offended that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

      Sadly, even today, people become angry when another person is brought to his knees in repentance. They don’t want to see the power of God at work. They don’t want to see the salvation of another, they’re happier to see the condemnation of others. But if God is merciful to save us sinners, we should be joyful that God is merciful to save sinners who may rub us the wrong way. And since God is so merciful to us, it follows that we are to show mercy to our neighbors.

      We pray that God would have patience with us when we struggle to be joyful when a sinner repents. We pray that God would bless us with repentant hearts, ready to receive Christ’s forgiveness. And we pray that God would bless us with forgiving hearts, ready to apply Christ’s forgiveness to all who are repentant.

      The Ninevites were blessed to be saved by God. And so are we. Jesus has come among us with His forgiving love. Amen.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen