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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Something > Jonah (Matthew 12.38-42)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - February 17, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "All Creatures of OUr God and King" (arr. Jan Sanborn)
Hymn of Praise: "All Creatures/Give Glory" (Dawson/Austell)
Song of Praise: "We Walk by Faith" (Alford/McFarland)
The Word in Music: "Fill-A Me Up" (Pepper Choplin)
Offering of Music: "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" (Susan Slade, flute) (arr. Powell))
Hymn of Sending: "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less" (SOLID ROCK)
Postlude: "'Jig Fugue' in C Major" (Buxtehude)

"Something Greater than Jonah"
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Text: Matthew 12:38-42; 16:1-4

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Last week we finished going through Jonah. I still maintain that the high point of that story is the extravagant, wide-as-the-sea mercy of God exemplified in the mercy God showed to the repentant people of Nineveh.  More than once we were reminded of the character of God – merciful, compassionate, patient, faithful – toward all the people of the world.  Along with that we got a good look at the power and authority of God, demonstrated in command of wind, waves, sun, plants, creatures, and more.  We saw more than a few unlikely people put their hope in God – from the sailors on the ship to Tarshish to the King and people of Nineveh.  And we were left with something of a sour and sobering look at an angry prophet who would rather run or die than see some people receive God’s mercy.

After the service last week, and in relation to Jonah’s seemingly extreme response to God, several people mentioned Les Miserables, which is playing on the stage in Charlotte right now and in the movies.  One of the main characters in Les Mis is Javert, a policeman who pursues the other main character the whole length of the play, wanting to exact justice and not understanding the mercy, compassion, and forgiveness he witnesses along the way.  In the end, though we want Javert to have a change of heart, he responds like Jonah, angry to the point of despair and death.  Rather than simply be disappointed at the lack of a Hollywood happy ending, we should be challenged to look inward at the Jonah and Javert lurking in the shadows of our own hearts.  That’s the question we asked last week: are there those for whom we do not want God’s mercy?  A tough question, indeed!

Today we look at one other mention of Jonah and Nineveh in scripture.  It is in the Gospel of Matthew, in a scene between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The scribes and Pharisees have asked Jesus for a “sign” – another miracle or display of power to prove he is who he says he is.  He responds with a reference to Jonah.  I want to look at that with you, to see how Jesus interpreted and applied the story with which we have just spent a month.

Craving a Sign (v. 39)

Let’s start with the scribes and Pharisees asking for a sign.  Jesus had been doing miracles already and crowds were flocking to him.  It is unlikely that the scribes and Pharisees were just waiting to believe.  In fact, knowing the way the story goes, it is likely that they were looking for something to use against him.  We heard two passages from Matthew, one in chapter 12 and one in chapter 16.  In both cases the same group asked for a sign.  We are told in chapter 16 that they were testing him.  Maybe he would give them something they could use against him.

It makes sense, then, that Jesus more or less calls them “an evil and adulterous generation.”  They were evil, for one reason, because they were looking to trap him.  Adulterous here should not be understood literally, though there was plenty of that going around.  Rather, God uses the image of adultery throughout the Old Testament to describe the unfaithfulness of His people.  Here the scribes and Pharisees are demonstrating that unfaithfulness.  They, of all people, should already know the signs and the prophecies.  They should be eagerly awaiting God’s Messiah and salvation.  But they are set against Jesus instead. 

Interestingly enough, “an evil generation” brings to my mind the city of Nineveh.  It does so partly because we have just spent a month on the story of Jonah and Nineveh, but also since Jesus will bring up Jonah in this exchange.  The people of Nineveh didn’t respond to a sign, but to the Word of God proclaimed through Jonah.  That is named in verse 41.  And what came about in them as they responded was repentance.  That is what an evil and adulterous generation needs: not signs, but repentance in response to God’s Word and Spirit, in response to God’s Son, Jesus. That is still true today!

The Sign of Jonah (v. 40)

With all that being true, in both passages Jesus does mention and offer a sign.  He calls it the “sign of Jonah.”  What is that?  He spells it out in Matthew 12, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  He’s speaking in advance about his own death and resurrection.  Talk about preparation for Easter!  And though he doesn’t say it, part of that sign is also emerging alive by the power of God after three days. 

I would also remind you of something we realized a few weeks ago.  While it is easy to think of the great fish that swallowed Jonah as punishment, it was actually God’s salvation plan in action, that Jonah would emerge and a great city be saved.  Jesus’ crucifixion and burial sure looked to all the world like punishment and death, and indeed he bore the weight of judgment there.  But it was God’s power at work to accomplish salvation for the sake of the world.  What a sign!

That Jesus was talking to scribes and Pharisees makes this reference all the more potent.  This sign was already the subject of all their study and learning and religion, but they were blind to it.  That God could and would work through death and judgment to accomplish salvation was an integral part of their faith and story, but even with Jesus connecting the dots, they could not see.

Unlikely Judgment (vv. 41-42)

Jesus goes one step further.  He holds up the people of Nineveh for their repentance and faith.  They did not demand signs or power, but responded in humility to the Word proclaimed in their midst.  The scribes and Pharisees had spent a lifetime reading, memorizing, and studying God’s Word, and they were hardened, blind, and deaf to God’s Son standing before them.  Jesus also speaks of the Queen of the South, a pagan ruler in King Solomon’s time who traveled a great distance to meet Solomon and hear his godly wisdom.  The scribes and Pharisees attributed great wisdom to themselves – they were the “experts in the Law” – that is, God’s Word.  But they could not hear or understand godly wisdom when spoken in their midst.

So Jesus tells them that the people of Nineveh and the Queen of the South would serve as condemnation of them at the judgment, for those people believed without proof; they trusted without sign.  The people of Nineveh repented in hope of God’s mercy.  If an evil people with no knowledge of God could repent in hope, should not those who had the privilege of God’s Word and revelation their whole life believe without more demand for signs and wonders?

Something > Jonah and Solomon (vv. 41-42)

Again, we church folks are challenged by the story of Jonah.  Are not those of us who have grown up in the church like the scribes and Pharisees?  We have heard the stories of God’s faithfulness, compassion, mercy, and love all our lives.  We regularly attend the worship of God and hear the scriptures and bow our heads in prayer.  And yet we also struggle to believe, much less repent and yield our lives in the kind of all-out discipleship that Jesus deserves.

The people of Nineveh heard Jonah; the Queen of Sheba heard the wisdom of Solomon.  But we have something even greater than either of those.  We have the life and teaching of Jesus, and we live after the greater “sign of Jonah” – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

There is no greater witness than Jesus; there is no greater sign than the cross and the empty tomb.  What is your response?  Many of you have heard the stories of God since you were children.  What is your response?  Is it, “God, just give me one more sign!” and then I’ll really believe?  Is it conditional faith? 

What it takes is not convincing proof, but a repentant heart.  That’s the lesson of Jonah and the word from Jesus.  Ponder that as we move to our prayer of confession and have an opportunity to speak our repentance to God.  Amen.

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