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Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2024; Rev. Kurt A. Lantz, Pastor
Ash Wednesday. repentance-of-nineveh-john-martin.jpg

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Is Proof Required?

Dear people with ears to hear, eyes to see, and hands to do,


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.



The Book of the Prophet Jonah is quite short, just four chapters. Jesus referred to two incidents recorded in the Book of Jonah. One of them is the well known event of Jonah himself being swallowed by a big fish. Most people are not able to believe the account and toss it in the basket as the biggest fish story of them all. How could there be a fish big enough to swallow a person whole, and then how could a person survive inside of a fish for three days? Jesus called out the skeptics when they asked Him to produce a sign to prove that He was speaking for God:


39 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. 40 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.  (Matthew 12:39-40).


The proof that Jesus spoke for God was that He was dead and buried for three days and then rose from the dead. That is the only sign that is needed, the only sign that matters. He rose from the dead. He speaks for God. He is the Word of God. He is God. That sign was displayed for the skeptics of His day, and that sign continues to be a sign for us today. Jesus rose from the dead after being in the belly of the earth for three days. Witnesses attested to it, many witnesses. They gave up their lives rather than deny the fact. They stuck by their testimony without gaining any wealth or worldly power.


The whole of the Bible from beginning to end, written over thousands of years by many different authors, all points to and ties in to this one great truth, that Jesus died and rose again on the third day. That includes the account of Jonah in the belly of fish for three days before being vomited out on the shore. The holy Christian Church has stood on the confession of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day, and withstood countless attacks from without and within by clinging to this God-given truth.


Yes, even within the bounds of the Christian Church there are those who deny that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days and nights. They just cannot see the possibility of it. I guess they believe Jesus was just making some kind of analogy to a myth. However it is inconsistent to believe Jesus’ word that He would die and rise again on the third day, but not believe that He said this was in fulfilment of a sign that happened in the life of the prophet Jonah. It is important to remember that Jesus referred to Jonah’s stay in the belly of the fish when He was speaking to skeptics. It would be a strange tactic to refer to a myth if He was seeking to provide them with a proof.


Furthermore, Jesus continued to refer to a second episode in the Book of Jonah in order to condemn the unbelief of His skeptics:


41 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.

(Matthew 12:41).


This second event from the Book of the Prophet Jonah was our Old Testament reading tonight, and in some ways, the account is even more unbelievable, even more of a miracle than the prophet’s survival for three days in the belly of a fish. Throughout those three days in the fish, the LORD accomplished a transformation of repentance in his prophet. Jonah had been unwilling to go and preach to a wicked city like Nineveh. He headed off in a different direction and it took a storm at sea, imminent drowning, and salvation by the summoning of a monstrous fish to bring Jonah to repentance: a miraculous restoration to life and vocation.


The great city of Nineveh would have taken at least 3 days for Jonah to spread throughout from one end to the other the message that God had for them, the same amount of time Jonah had been in the belly of the fish. But Jonah had hardly begun when the miracle of repentance was effected in the lives of all the citizens, from the greatest to the least. It was such a miraculous transformation throughout the population, that signs were required for the skeptical, that is for Jonah the prophet, who couldn’t believe the LORD was going to have mercy on them.


Jonah, a prophet of the LORD, was transformed by a torrential storm, the threat of drowning, and a fish the likes of which has never been seen since. But nothing so dramatic happened to the people of Nineveh. He had preached a short warning of God’s coming judgment in a few neighbourhoods, and the whole metropolis was suddenly on their knees.


Their response to the Word of God was unbelievable, even approaching the absurd. The king himself took off his royal robes and wore sackcloth (material from old storage bags). He got off of his high throne and sat in ashes. He issued a decree that everyone should put on sackcloth and refrain from food and drink in order to display the repentance of their heart. Not only was it done universally from the king on down, but people even displayed this repentant attitude upon their animals. The livestock and beasts also refrained from food and water and were even draped in sackcloth.


It sounds like actions bordering on the ridiculous, as many of today’s skeptics might comment about that ashen cross on your forehead, or your decision to fast during this season of Lent, or even your resolve to go to Church, and more than just on a Sunday. Are any of these things needed? Can you not be repentant without doing any of these ridiculous things? Can you not be sorry for your sins and longing for God’s grace and forgiveness without fasting, without donations to church and charity, without ashes on your head, without prayers on your lips?


That is the wrong question. These signs are not about what effects repentance, but about showing that it exists. The evangelist Matthew records the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, that we heard in our Gospel reading tonight. These words are often taken to say, “Do not give to charity if anyone can see you doing it; do not pray if anyone if anyone is watching; do not fast if anyone knows about it.” But that is not exactly what these words of Jesus say. They say, “Do not do these things before others in order to be seen by them.” They certainly don’t say, “Do not do these things,” but they also do not say, “Do not do these things if anyone will see you.” In fact, Jesus does say that they should be done in the sight of someone. They should be done before your Father who is in heaven.


These things continue to be signs, signs of repentance, signs to be seen. They are proofs of something that cannot be seen by men. They provide us with something that can be seen. Your heavenly Father who sees in secret can see them. Doesn’t that make it even more ridiculous—to do these things so God can see them? He is the only one who can see into your heart. If anyone does not need to see these acts of repentance, it is Him.


Just as the people of Nineveh did signs that showed their repentance, so Jesus continues to call us to do these signs of prayer, charity, and fasting. God does not need to see them, because He sees the repentant heart, but He does nevertheless see them and calls them signs of repentance which prove His gracious forgiveness of the ungodly. They are proofs to you that He has judged rightly and your sins are forgiven because you have turned in faith to Him.


The text is clear that the people of Nineveh first believed God and then did their actions of penitence. God forgave them on account of their belief. They were saved by faith. But their actions were what God saw that justified His having forgiven them. “10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10).


Do you think that your acts of repentance do not matter? They matter. God sees them. You see them. And others may see them too. They are not meant to earn you any points in the eyes of God or man. But they are meant to be proofs and signs of God’s grace and action, bringing you to repentance for all of your sins and transforming you in real and tangible ways. They assure you that God’s grace toward you is justified, that your Father in heaven will reward you.


These signs are humbling. They beat down your pride. They fight against your self-centred focus. They are proof to you that you have humbled yourself under the God who has called you to repent before destruction overtakes you. They are proof to you that God has judged rightly in granting you His grace. They display the unbelievable miracle that the Lord has worked repentance in your heart through the powerful preaching of His Word. Are you skeptical? Look to the proofs that the LORD supplies. They testify to the death and resurrection of Jesus and to the new life that He is working in you.



The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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