One Greater Than Jonah
Many years ago, my great aunt and uncle, who lived in Florida, were driving north to Ohio for a visit in the summer, because as hot as it gets in the Ohio River valley in the summer, it isn’t as hot as it gets in Florida in the summer. Well, they were in Kentucky, driving up I-75, and my aunt was driving. My uncle was asleep in the passenger seat. And my aunt was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. When the trooper approached the driver’s side window to ask for her license and registration, my aunt, who was a native Floridian from the cattle ranches in south Florida, smiled at the trooper and batted her eyes and in her best southern belle voice asked, “What seems to be the problem officer?” When he told her he’d pulled her over for speeding – she was driving about 75 miles per hour, and this was back in the days of 55 miles per hour speed limits – in her sweet southern voice she said, “Well the blue sign back there said 75, and that’s how fast I was going.” To which he replied, “Oh, no, Ma’am, that’s not the speed limit sign. That’s the number of this road. You’re driving on Interstate 75.” Which of course she knew. He did let her off with a warning though.
Traffic signs are everywhere, and they’re actually quite clear. A red octagon with the big white letters S-T-O-P means … stop. It doesn’t mean stop unless no one is coming. It means stop, look both ways, and when the way is clear, proceed. A white sign with a black border with the words speed limit with a number below means … this is the upper limit of the speed you’re allowed to drive. A yellow sign with a curvy arrow means … curvy road ahead.
Some signs are directional. Some provide a warning. Some provide instruction. But there are signs everywhere. I dare you to try to count the signs, just the traffic signs facing you, on your drive home after church today. You’re going to loose count. And then there are advertising signs and billboards and signs identifying businesses. Signs are everywhere. The question isn’t whether there are signs. The question is whether we are paying attention to them.
“God, give me a sign.” How many of us have prayed a prayer like that? Maybe it was, “God, I need to know if I’m on the right path. Give me a sign.” Or, “God, I need to know if this opportunity is the right opportunity. Give me a sign.” Or maybe, in a moment of desperation, you cried out, “God, if you’re really there, really real, give me a sign. I need to know what’s real”
In an article for the magazine Spin, Scott Stapp, the lead singer of the rock band Creed, talked about his upbringing in a very conservative Christian home:
He said, “My whole life was church.” He had Bible study on Friday evenings and attended services every Wednesday night, twice on Sunday. He was forced to wear a necktie to high school. His weekend curfew was 10 P.M. He said, “I would sit in my room and wish I could go to parties after the football game.” I wished I could go to the prom. I felt weird: I felt different.”
“I constantly found myself asking God to prove himself to me … I’d lie in bed and say, ‘God, if you’re real, just make my light go off so I won’t doubt it. I promise I’ll be the best Christian in the world.’” Have you ever asked God to do something like that for you?
Asking for a sign from God, in and of itself, isn’t wrong. From Moses to Gideon to Elijah to the New Testament church, the Bible is full of people who ask God for signs. The miracles and healings Jesus performed were signs authenticating his ministry, just as the miracles and healing performed by the early church, and by Christians through the ages, are signs authenticating the work of Jesus in and through his church. The question isn’t whether God gives signs or not. The question is whether we’re paying attention to the signs God gives. Turn with me to Matthew 12:38-42.
Today, we’re going to bring our series of sermons on the Old Testament book of Jonah to a close. We’ve worked our way through the four chapters of Jonah, and now we’re in Matthew, because Jesus actually points back to Jonah when his opponents asked him for a sign. They wanted a sign that his ministry was real, that he really was God’s messiah, because he wasn’t acting like they expected the messiah to act. They wanted to know by whose authority Jesus was doing and saying the things he was doing and saying. And because he didn’t fit their preconceived notions of what God’s messiah should be saying and doing, and he wasn’t spending his time with the social and political elites. He was spending his time with slaves and tax collectors and prostitutes and fishermen. So they ask him for a sign.
The problem is, they didn’t really want a sign. Signs were already all around them. Just going back to the start of Matthew 12, Jesus has healed a man with a damaged hand, and he’s restored a man who was demon possessed, blind, and mute. And he’s been out with crowds of people, and he’s healed the sick and injured among them. Matthew 12:15 says that Jesus “healed them all.” So it’s like miracle after miracle after miracle of healing and deliverance and then the pharisees ask Jesus to give them a sign to authenticate his ministry. Jesus hasn’t done any of this in secret. He healed the man with the bad hand IN THE JEWISH SYNAGOGUE, right in front of all of them.
The problem wasn’t that there was no sign. The problem was that they’d already made up their minds that they WEREN’T going to follow Jesus, and they were trying to get him to do things that they could document that didn’t meet THEIR expectations for a great rabbi so that they could get rid of him. We know this because in Matthew 12:24, before they ask Jesus for a sign, they basically accuse him of healing the demon possessed, blind and mute man with black magic, which Jesus points out makes no sense. Why would Satan drive out Satan?
They aren’t approaching Jesus with an open mind. They’re coming to him with closed minds and hardened hearts, already having made up their minds that they aren’t going to accept him.
Like the pharisees, John the Baptist, Jesus’ own cousin, was confused by him. The one who had lept in the presence of Jesus when he was still inside his mother’s womb, before either John or Jesus were born; the one who had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River and seen the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove and heard the voice from heaven saying “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 4:17); the one who pointed the crowds to Jesus, saying “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world … I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (Jn. 1:29, 34) … this same John was confused by the actions of Jesus.
And so, now imprisoned, facing death, his confidence wavering, John sent messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus replied, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:2, 4-6). John’s confidence wavered when he found himself in prison, and Jesus reminded him of all that was happening. And John accepted it. He came asking for a sign, but his heart was soft and his mind open. The pharisees came asking for a sign, but their hearts were hard and their minds closed. The same things Jesus gently pointed out to John had been done in front of them, and they refused to accept him. Had they genuinely come with open minds and soft hearts, they would have received the same gentle reply that John received. The same gentleness that Nicodemus, one of their own, received when he came to Jesus honestly asking for understanding. But they didn’t. The things Jesus was doing weren’t enough to penetrate their hard hearts.
What does Jesus have to do to get our attention? Truth is, if our hearts are hard and our minds closed, nothing will. Christian comedian Ken Davis tells the following story about waiting for a “sign from God.” A Christian gets on an empty city bus, walks to rear, and sits down. “Lord,” he prays, “If you want me to speak to someone about you, please give me a sign.” At the next stop another passenger boards the bus, goes all the way to the back, and sits down right next to the Christian. The passenger asks, “Do you know anything about Jesus?”
The Christian excuses himself for a moment and slowly bows his head and once again prays, “Lord, if you really want me to talk to this stranger, I need just one more sign. Please turn the bus driver into an armadillo.”
Have you been praying for armadillos? Have you been waiting for a sign from God you really hope never comes before you get serious about following him?
What signs are you asking for? For some it’s a scientific sign. The beauty and vastness and majesty of the universe aren’t enough. The evidence of order and design, the evidence of a designer aren’t enough. For others, it’s a sign of political power in the church. Worldly power and prestige. Institutional presence. Show me worldly glory, and then I’ll believe. For others, it’s a miraculous sign. If Jesus cures this cancer, or makes my bald head full of hair again, or heals this marriage, then I’ll believe. Like the pharisees, we want Jesus to come to us on our terms. And Jesus refuses to play that game. Look at Vv. 39-41.
The only sign, beyond what he’s already done and is doing, that’s he’s willing to give is what he calls the “sign of the prophet Jonah.” That just as Jonah was near to death, drowning on the sea floor, and then three days and nights in the belly of the fish, and then was deposited on land, so Jesus would be buried for three days and then rise again. The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s ultimate sign, greater than any healing or demonic deliverance or even Jesus raising another person from the dead. Jesus’ exit from the grave after being dead for three days is God’s ultimate seal of authenticity on Jesus. It’s God’s proof that he IS the Son of God and God’s messiah. “In Jesus’ life and ministry, God has delivered one proof after another, but in Jesus’ death and resurrection he has pulled out all the stops, giving us all that is necessary to believe.”
John was confused and asked an honest question. And Jesus gently provided evidence. The pharisees came with hard hearts and closed minds, refusing to see the evidence right in front of them. They made up their minds about Jesus not because of the evidence in front of them but in spite of it. Because as the Son of God, he did not come to them on their terms, giving them their desired signs. He asked them, and he asks us, to come to him on his terms, and for those who will, his death and resurrection is enough. In fact, they are everything. And they’re the only thing that matters.
Now, look at Vv. 41-42. When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, warning them about God’s coming judgment, they repented and were spared. And they received no special sign. Jonah spoke 5 words in his native tongue, nine when translated to English – “Yes forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (J. 3:4), and the people repented. That was all it took for the terrible, sadistic, brutal Ninevites to respond to the grace and mercy of God. The queen of the south, the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10, also a non-believing gentile, came from Africa to see for herself the great wisdom of Solomon, given to him by God, and she responded to that wisdom. The repentant Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba put the supposedly God-fearing-God-following Jewish Pharisees, the best of the best of the people of God, to shame.
You see, to respond to the sign of Jonah, the death and resurrection of Jesus, you have to come to the end of yourself. You have to realize that no human pedigree, no human accomplishment, no matter how great, will make a difference when it comes to Jesus. We come with empty hands and open hearts, accepting that Jesus has already done all that he needs to do as God’s messiah, and our job is simply to receive. To receive him, to receive his gift of grace, to receive his forgiveness. To come to Jesus, I have to admit that my degrees, and my bank account, and my social position, and my political influence, and my great works and any wonderful things I manage to do – they don’t matter. Not when it comes to being loved by Jesus.
St. Paul, in Philippians 3, says it this way: “though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:4-10). Empty hands, and open hearts. That’s how we come to Jesus. We don’t need more signs. He’s done what needed to be done, and his resurrection is the sign of all signs. If we’re willing to open our minds and our hearts and see it.
Professor Craig Keener shares the following story in an issue of CT magazine:
Around 1960, in the Republic of Congo, a two-year-old girl named Thérèse was bitten by a snake. She cried out for help, but by the time her mother, Antoinette, reached her, Thérèse was unresponsive and seemed to have stopped breathing. No medical help was available to them in their village, so Antoinette strapped little Thérèse to her back and ran to a neighboring village.
According to the US National Library of Medicine, brain cells start dying less than five minutes after their oxygen supply is removed. After six minutes, lack of oxygen can cause severe brain damage or death. Antoinette estimates that, given the distance and the terrain, it probably took about three hours to reach the next village. By the time they arrived, her daughter was likely either dead or had sustained significant brain damage.
Antoinette immediately sought out a family friend, Coco Ngoma Moyise, who was an evangelist in the neighboring village. They prayed over the lifeless girl and immediately she started breathing again. By the next day, she was fine—no long-term harm and no brain damage. Today, Thérèse has a master’s degree and is a pastor in Congo.
Craig writes, “When I heard this story, as a Westerner I was naturally tempted toward skepticism, but it was hard to deny. Thérèse is my sister-in-law and Antoinette was my mother-in-law.” It was through his relationship with them that Craig was able to receive and believe their story. A story that might otherwise be hard to understand. Open minds, soft hearts, and empty hands. That’s how we come to Jesus. And all who do will be gently received with open arms, a warm smile, and a welcoming embrace from Jesus. Let us pray.