Lenten Devotional: Ash Wednesday

Psalm 32; Psalm 95; Psalm 102; Psalm 130; Psalm 143; Jonah 3:1—4:11; Hebrews 12:1-14; Luke 18:9-14

And he [Jonah] cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. Jonah 3:4-5

I’ve always been interested in the story of Jonah and the whale. As a child, I worried about a friend named Jonah, unrealistically, considering where we lived, that he might encounter a whale and get swallowed up. I never paid much attention to the rest of the story after Jonah was coughed up on dry land. So it interested me to find only the rest of the story in today’s reading for Ash Wednesday. What are we to make of this?

In the story, Jonah flees from the command of the Lord, sets out in the opposite direction, encounters a fierce storm and is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a great fish. There he has time for reflection, repents of some past misdeeds, vows to do what he has been told, and is coughed up on dry land.

So here is where our reading begins. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying (and I paraphrase) ‘Go do what I told you the first time.’ ” So now, finally, Jonah goes and does what he was told, and the people respond amazingly, proclaiming a fast, clothing themselves in sackcloth, and sitting in ashes. When God sees this, he is pleased and does not bring calamity upon the people.

But now Jonah becomes angry because he knew all along that God was “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah spends the next few days providing for his own comfort which, actually, the Lord brings and removes. And then Jonah is angry with the Lord again and the Lord points out that things are his to give and take away and not Jonah’s.

Is not Jonah us? Do we not want to think we are in charge, disregarding God’s commands, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, until he brings us up short with a catastrophe or at least a major event which we don’t like which grabs our attention? And then we decide to do what we’ve been told, still mumbling and grumbling, trying to negotiate our way along.

Lent is such a good time for making an about face in our lives. On Ash Wednesday, we are not asked to sit in ashes, but only to have the mark of the cross on our foreheads. Let us use this time to consider our lives, making needed changes where we can and bringing difficulties to the foot of the cross on our foreheads.