Wednesday in the First Week of Lent, Church of the Epiphany, Lebanon, February 21, 2024

“For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation” (Lk. 11:30).

What is the “sign of Jonah”? There are three versions of Jesus’ saying about the sign, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and our reading from Luke is the only one that finds a place in our lectionary. Even in the circle of Jesus’ followers, there was difficulty understanding, which is perhaps why our lectionary tiptoes around this sign.

First, Mark: the Pharisees ask for a sign to test him, and Jesus says, “No sign will be given to this generation” (Mk. 8:12). Here, there is no sign at all: no Jonah, no nothing. In other words, Jesus isn’t going to be drawn into the trap of working miracles in order to prove who he is. He’s not going to give that kind of sign. His miracles are signs in a different sense: signs of the power of God to heal and transform, but not the kind of sign the Pharisees were looking for. They were looking for magic tricks, but that’s not what Jesus is about.

Second, Matthew: here Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees that an evil generation asks for a sign, “but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:39). In this version, a sign is actually given. Then Jesus hones in on the most remarkable feature of the Jonah story, the “three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster” (Matt. 12:40), in order to define the sign. In this version, the “sign of Jonah” is a foreshadowing of the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection: as we say in the Creed, “on the third day he rose again.” The “sign of Jonah” is perhaps the greatest of all signs because it points forward to Jesus’ death, and its mighty reversal by resurrection through the power of God.

Third, Luke: our Gospel reading tonight. Once again, we have an actual sign, the “sign of Jonah,” rather than no sign, as in Mark. But here, the sign is not described in the same way as in Matthew’s version, as a foreshadowing of death and resurrection. In fact, not much more is said except that it is the “sign of Jonah,” the one who preached to the people of Nineveh, who then repented (as we heard in our first reading). The contrast, as in Matthew, is between those who hear and believe, like the people of Nineveh or the queen of the South (who knew wisdom when she heard it), and the people of Jesus’ day, who refuse to believe.

For us, the “sign of Jonah” is a reminder that Jesus’ coming into the world is “a sign that will be opposed” (Lk. 2:34), as it says elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke. When the infant was brought to the temple to be dedicated, Simeon greeted Jesus and his parents and prophesied, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35). There’s no illusion that the sign will be seen and heard and accepted.

The people of Nineveh, of course, believed and repented; but in understanding the “sign of Jonah” we don’t want to forget Jonah himself. When it comes to hardness of heart, deafness of ear, and blindness of eye, its difficult to imagine a harder case. When the word of God came to him, telling him to go to Nineveh, he ran in the opposite direction. He went down to the dock and bought a ticket for the first ship leaving for distant parts. When the people of Nineveh repented, Jonah seemed actually annoyed that God wasn’t going to destroy them. He sat down in a huff, wrapped up in himself with little thought of what a great work God had done.

“The “sign of Jonah” reminds us of the forces of opposition, not least of all within ourselves, and of our own need for repentance and forgiveness; of our own need for the mercy of God. We’re all Jonah. Never mind those other people who don’t hear the call of repentance: what about us! The preaching of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which means new life for us, is addressed to everyone: no exceptions. It’s always easy to turn your eye to others and harder to look within. But the fault line of sin and death runs right through each one of us.

It’s a week since we all gathered on Ash Wednesday, but dust and ashes are never far away during this season. Our liturgy of confirmation this evening contains a call to repentance, addressed not only to our confirmands but to everyone in the church this evening. This is not a call saved up for Pharisees and scribes but for all of us. If we take the “sign of Jonah” seriously, we will hear the gospel call to repentance with fresh ears, and embrace it.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee