Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A word for sign-seekers

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied... “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. Matthew 16:1-4

Sign-seeking is a common feature of religious people. Some years ago there were excited reports of Hindu idols drinking milk left out for them. Every so often we hear of statues of Mary shedding tears. I remember once talking to a woman who seemed awestruck by the fact that someone she knew “spoke in holy tongues”.

Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have proof of what we believe! And very natural too. 

But - sorry - it is folly. And sinful folly at that. Jesus makes this very clear in these few verses. 

By his preaching and miracles he has become a serious threat to the religious authorities. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two main parties among the Jews of his day; normally at loggerheads with each other, they now join forces to test him once and for all. They want to discredit him, to expose him as a charlatan.

But he refuses to play ball. “Signs?” he says - “No, there won’t be any signs. If that’s really what you want, go to your Bibles and read the story of Jonah.” He “then left them and went away.” He won’t waste time with them.

It may seem strange that, having done all sorts of miraculous healings - deeds which John’s Gospel sometimes actually refers to as “signs” - he should here speak so dismissively of such things. But the point is this: while he delighted to do great things as a sign of God’s love, mercy and power, he refused to be seen as some kind of spiritual conjuror, a popular purveyor of party-tricks done to order.

This episode goes to the heart of several things we need to grasp about Jesus.

First, he despised the idea of being a celebrity.
As you read the Gospels you find that on various occasions he deliberately chose to fade out of the limelight rather than risk being turned into an idol. Certainly, he sometimes created a stir by saying what he said and doing what he did, so much so that his disciples urged him to build a big following by riding the crest of the wave - “Come on, everyone’s looking for you!” (Mark 1:37). But he said no. He had already confronted that particular temptation in the desert before embarking on his public ministry (see Matthew 4:4-7).

Fame, glitz, glamour, adulation - these are heady drugs, and they seduce many people. But the way of Jesus is the way of lowliness and humility, of service and sacrifice. 

The lesson for us is clear: Be happy to be nothing, for only then can God make you something.

Second, the main thing he demanded of his followers was faith.

Again, as you read the Gospel stories you see how thrilled he was when he found faith in unexpected places. Think of the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13) or the woman with the flow of blood (Matthew 9:18-26); as you read these stories you can almost see him smiling with delight. 

But then, of course, you see also how sad he was when he didn’t find faith where he felt he might expect it. Think of the disciples in the storm (Mark 4:35-41) or of followers who were prone to anxiety (Matthew 6:30). To ask for a sign is to ask, in effect, for proof, and that simply isn’t on offer. Paul sums it up perfectly: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

A question: I wonder if I ever put a big smile on Jesus’ face because of my faith?

Third, he pointed forward to the resurrection.

This is the point of his reference to Jonah. He has in fact already opened up the meaning in Matthew 12:38-42: there he likens his coming experience of death, burial and resurrection to the miraculous experience of Jonah and the great fish.

And so we are reminded that Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus on that wonderful first Easter day.

This isn’t to deny or question the reality of other remarkable things - healings, tongues, you name it. Not at all. But it is to place the emphasis exactly where it belongs: Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus is Lord! It takes faith to make that declaration, and it’s a faith that will not be disappointed.

It’s often said that “seeing is believing”. But that just isn’t true - look at Matthew 28:17 for an amazing demonstration of that fact. 

No, we don’t believe because we have seen; we see because we have believed.

Lord Jesus, please deepen, sharpen and enlarge my faith so that my eyes are opened and I see things hidden from ordinary sight. Amen.

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