I preached a sermon about Jonah on January 24. The point I made in that sermon was that God’s love and mercy are not limited by any one neighborhood, by national boundaries, or even by religion. God’s compassion and mercy are without bounds.
That is a good message and I stand by it.
There is one part of the story of Jonah, however, to which I may not have paid enough attention. You remember the story: Jonah was called to go and preach to the people of Nineveh but he ran the other way because he hated the people of Nineveh. In his running he boarded a ship, was tossed overboard in the midst of a storm, was swallowed by a large fish, and was then hurled by the fish back onto the shore.
Jonah heard again the call to go preach to the people of Nineveh and this time he did what God commanded. The people believed Jonah, they repented, and God decided to show the people mercy. It was not what Jonah wanted. Jonah wanted the people destroyed. Jonah did not care whether they turned from their evil ways; he wanted God to rain down an all-consuming fire upon the people of that evil city. Jonah had to learn that God was not bound by Jonah’s hatreds.
The part on which I did not spend enough time was the repentance of the people of Nineveh. They turned from their sins and only then did they receive God’s mercy. The new life for the Ninevites came only after they took responsibility for their actions and asked forgiveness.
I think of that part of the story now because Ash Wednesday is on February 17. That day begins the 40 days of preparation for Easter and is the beginning of the season we call Lent. The season of Lent is about honesty with ourselves and with God. Lent is about acknowledging the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s glory. Lent is about truth-telling, accepting responsibility, and then opening ourselves to God’s mercy and the new life we celebrate on Easter.
As individuals and as a nation, we must not rush into a celebration of mercy and wholeness without first examining our failings and the various ways our actions have been destructive and harmful to our lives and our communal life. The pattern holds for each of us as individuals and for our country: we must begin with truthful acknowledgment of sin. Only then will it be possible for healing to come.
We must not rush to a false sense of unity or restoration without first naming that which we and others have done to tear at the fabric of our union. Repentance precedes mercy. To move too quickly toward grace is to gloss over the sins and to give the evil a chance to fester and reappear in more and more destructive forms.
I conclude with a prayer. It comes from the Jewish tradition and a liturgy for Yom Kippur. The source is a prayer book entitled “The Gates of Repentance.”
Now is the time for turning.
The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange.
The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the south.
The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.
For leaves, birds and animals, turning comes instinctively.
But for us, turning does not come so easily.
It takes an act of will for us to make a turn.
It means breaking old habits.
It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy.
It means losing face.
It means starting all over again.
And this is always painful.
It means saying I am sorry.
It means recognizing that we have the ability to change.
These things are terribly hard to do.
But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.
Lord help us to turn from callousness to sensitivity,
from hostility to love,
from pettiness to purpose,
from envy to contentment,
from carelessness to discipline,
from fear to faith.
Turn us around, oh Lord, and bring us back toward you.
Revive our lives as at the beginning.
And turn us toward each other, Lord, for in isolation, there is no life.
May we be always ready to turn from our sins and seek the mercy of God that makes for peace.
Grace and peace,