The second full sermon I ever preached as a part of my preaching class in seminary was based on the book of Jonah. I had spent an entire semester learning the book in its original language. Up until then, my knowledge and even experience reading the book of Jonah was minimal and superficial to be honest.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, he got swallowed by a whale. But otherwise, the book is rather meaningless.
Wrong. I was so wrong.
Jonah is a dynamic book, and when reading it, you feel like you can step into the life of Jonah or the lives of the Ninevites at any time. Right now, the book feels relevant to the current cultural moment we are living in.
The beginning of 2020 presented several phrases our world has now grown weary of hearing: wildfires, coronavirus, pandemic, shelter-in-place, “flattening the curve,” racism, police shooting, protest, social distancing, “new normal”…I could go on. 2020 has been the year none of us expected, but Jonah and the people of Nineveh have shown me this is perhaps for reasons other than what I originally thought.
When the reluctant prophet reached Nineveh, the words that came out of his mouth were, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overturned.” The word “overturn” is similar to “repent.” I have to think that his words fueled a revolution. The destruction that was prophesied over Nineveh caused enough chaos and alarm that the entire city, from the animals to the king, got on their knees and repented. They were commanded to change their ways and to put on garments of sackcloth and ashes, which symbolized repentance and remorse for the evil that was a part of generations of living. The entire city was called out. While it may not have been each person’s individual fault for the wickedness of the city, it was everyone’s responsibility to repent and to seek transformation.
I called my sermon “Sackcloth and Ashes.” It was about those moments when, like Nineveh, we find ourselves calling out from the pit, covered in sackcloth, because we look around and see that our world is in shambles and we need God’s mercy and steadfast love in order to be saved.
This sermon spoke to me as I looked around my world, my community, and my church. Like the Ninevites, many of us have been praying for the God of Jonah to spare us.
2020 has not looked like anything any of us expected. Not because of the disaster, tragedy, and destruction, for there have been many years before this one when our world has looked this way. I think 2020 has not looked like anything any of us expected because since the first announcement of the wildfires in Australia, the thousands of deaths because of the pandemic, and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we have been a people called to repentance.
It has been a year of sackcloth-and-ash moments, and voices have been loud to urge both individual and communal repentance.
I have been challenged to transform how I live amidst this pandemic to care more about the interests of others than my own entitlement to entertainment, shopping, and being out and about. I’ve had to give empathy and compassion to people I don’t understand and leaders that I disagree with. I have had to confront the ways my language, thinking, and consuming perpetuates a system that values certain bodies over others. I’ve called out to God from my sackcloth more times that I’d like, asking God to expose our destructive and divisive ways of thinking but also to spare our lives.
The work of repentance is difficult and painful. I don’t imagine the people of Nineveh enjoyed being told they were about to be overturned. But as we see in the book of Jonah, restoration will come when we do the work. The trials of the world won’t go away, but we will be better humans because of the sackcloth-and-ash moments of our lives.
I wrote the word “Nineveh” in the margin of my prayer book this morning, next to a reading from Matthew 11:20-24, and a few hours later, I read this piece. God is speaking to me, I think, inviting me to be more attentive to my thoughts, words and actions. This line speaks volumes to me: While it may not have been each person’s individual fault for the wickedness of the city, it was everyone’s responsibility to repent and to seek transformation.