Today is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the season of Lent and a day on which Christians down through the ages have paused to reflect and repent as we begin the journey that will lead to the crucifixion of Jesus and the empty tomb beyond. And one of the readings for today from the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer comes from the book of Jonah:
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:1-2)
If you know the story of Jonah, you’re aware that there’s a pretty significant story that lies behind those opening words – “the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time” – because that means that the word had already come a first time. The Lord instructed Jonah to preach a message of judgment against the Ninevites – bitter enemies of the Hebrew people. But rather than obeying, Jonah fled from the LORD. He became a prophet in need of repentance – repentance that he discovered, the Bible tells us, in the belly of a great fish.
So now the word of the LORD comes a second time…and this time Jonah obeys. But if you read the rest of the story, it quickly becomes clear that his heart’s not in it. He doesn’t bother to go into the heart of Nineveh. He preaches a message of judgment with no hope of redemption. And yet, the Ninevites repent! From the greatest to the least, they turn from evil and call out to God.
And how does the Lord’s prophet react? He gets angry. Having been given a second chance of his own, Jonah’s not ready to extend the same grace to others. And as the story ends, the Lord asks a question of His reluctant prophet – a question with which we, too, are confronted: “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh…”? (Jonah 4:11) Should God shower his compassion only on us and the people we approve? Or is His grace so expansive that it embraces not only our enemies – but even people like us, who all too often are “grace impaired”?
Today, many of us will receive a mark of ashes as a sign of our repentance; and I pray that we will truly and deeply repent! (Lord knows we need it.) But then, may we rise “up from the ashes” to be a people both forgiven – and forgiving.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)