Luke 11:29-32 (NRSVCE)
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
There's two references here which might be confusing. The first is how he compares himself to Jonah. The first reading from today is actually from Jonah, and sets the stage for what Jesus is talking about here (Jon. 3:1-10). Jonah has just been spit out by that giant fish, and God calls him once again to go to Ninevah, like he was supposed to do the first time. Jonah goes, and begins preaching to the Ninevites, "Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!" for, as we remember from the beginning of Jonah, God was angry due to their wickedness. Jonah's preaching converts the entire city! A city that takes three days to walk across! Think of a street preacher converting all of New York City! Jonah was such a strong sign for the Ninevites, that they turned from their wickedness, and back toward God. And yet, as strong of a sign as Jonah was to an evil generation, Jesus proclaims Himself to be a greater sign.
That’s the first reference. The second is this “queen of the South” and Solomon. Jonah is a tale most of us remember, but this one tests our memory a bit. If you can’t remember, take a look at 1 Kings 10:1-13. That’s where we see the Queen of Sheba come to visit Solomon, from her kingdom (probably in present-day Yemen). This is, in fact, one of the more famous meetings of world rulers in history, having been recorded in both the Bible and the Quran. In the Biblical account, the Queen of Sheba comes because she has heard tell of Solomon’s wisdom. She doubted him, and wanted to test him for herself. She thought she could best him—that she was in fact the wiser ruler. However, after having all of her questions answered by Solomon, she praises his wisdom, admits her own ignorance, and gives many gifts to his household. The Queen of Sheba “came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon”, and yet Jesus tells us that he is far wiser than Solomon ever was.
Those are the references and points Jesus is making here. But what bearing does this have on Lent? Well, presumably by “this generation”, Jesus meant us, right? He is our sign, the one who proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent! Just as Jonah did. “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” is what Jonah preached. This sign to the Ninevites caused the king to declare a fast. Sackcloth, ashes, no food, not even any water. The whole nine yards. It was time to repent. Forty days for Ninevah to get its act together. And at the end of it, they were closer to God than they had ever been. Remind me, how long is Lent again?
Oh, that’s right. Forty days! And we don’t have Jonah as a sign to us, we have Jesus! Greater than Jonah, wiser than Solomon! If Jesus is the one telling you it’s time to get your act together, you better believe it is! We are the Ninevites, covering ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, crying out to God in repentance. Yet unlike the Ninevites, we know that God will forgive us, because He sent his Son. We know because of the cross.
What greater sign could there be?