Looking for a Sign
"This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” (Luke 11:30).
A teacher observed one of the girls in her class reading the story of Jonah and the Whale. Not being a believer in the Bible, she said to the girl: “You know, it is physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human and then later spit him out unharmed.”
The little girl, obviously upset by the teacher’s comment, said: “Well, my Sunday School teacher said that’s what happened to Jonah.”
“That’s foolish”, replied the teacher, “No one could survive if they were swallowed by a whale.”
“Well”, said the little girl, “when I get to heaven, I’ll ask Jonah if it really happened to him.”
“But what if Jonah went to Hell”, replied the teacher smugly.
“Well”, said the little girl, ”then you can ask him.”
The story of Jonah and the whale is probably one of the hardest biblical stories to understand and accept. That a man could be swallowed by a whale, and after three days, be spit out alive and well, seems to defy common sense. And yet, Jesus, not only acknowledged the reality of this story, but used it to make a point with His critics, the Pharisees.
In fact, in Matthew’s report of this event, Jesus goes even further by equating Jonah’s experience with what He is going to do, for He says: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:38-24)
I don’t propose this morning to delve into the pros and cons of taking this story as literal fact, - that’s for another occasion. What I would like us to do is focus upon the reason Jesus refers to this story in the first place.
So let’s begin by looking at the setting. Jesus is engaged in teaching His disciples and followers, when along comes a group of scribes and Pharisees. They were there to check up on Jesus, and if possible, trick Him into making statements that they could later use against Him. Through their spokesperson they call out saying: “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”
In effect, what they were doing is challenging His authenticity. They didn’t really believe He is the Messiah. They think He’s a fake. So they’re trying to embarrass Him in front of His followers.
I wonder, how many of you have had conversations with non-believers, where one of them asks you give them some proof, that what the Bible says about Jesus is actually true. They may say something like this to you: “Prove to me that Jesus really performed miracles, then maybe I can believe in Him.”
Skepticism is one of the curses of modern society. I know that I’m often a skeptic, particularly when the phone rings at supper time, (which it does almost every night), and a voice on the other end of the line tries to sell me something, - or worse, tries to trick me into giving them some personal financial information. I don’t know about you, but I almost never believe what the voice on the other end of the line is saying to me. I assume that they are trying to scam me. Why, because from experience I’ve learned that’s what they usually are trying to do.
A healthy dose of skepticism can be a good thing, at least in certain situations. But it’s not appropriate when it comes to our relationship with God. Asking God to give us a sign of His power and presence before we’ll accept His word, isn’t the way to commune with God. In fact, Jesus went so far as to say that: “This generation is an evil generation;” because “it asks for a sign…..” (verse 29)
This passage of Scripture we’re studying this morning, isn’t a very easy one to understand, (especially at first reading), because it assumes a good knowledge and understand of the meaning of the story of Jonah and the whale. So, let’s see if we can clarify what it is that Jesus is saying here. But first, let me re-read the verse I’ve selected as a text. Jesus says:
“This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.
You will notice that there are two things mentioned here:
- A sign, and
- The sign of Jonah.
These are two distinct things which are being contrasted with each other. They may sound somewhat alike, but in reality they are as different as night is from day. So let’s see how they differ.
I A SIGN
A sign is actually a substitute for something else; it’s a symbol that points back to something in the past.
In the church we use a lot of different signs, - we often call them ‘symbols’, but we mean the same thing. We have many signs right here in our sanctuary:
- lighted candles, for example, remind us that Jesus is the ‘light of the world’.
- The rainbow, which we have portrayed in one of our stained glass windows, reminds us of God’s promise never again destroy the creatures of the world by a flood.
- The burning bush – also seen in one of our stained glass windows, - reminds us of the time that God spoke to Moses through a burning bush.
- A triangle – reminds us of the Trinity, the three ways that God has revealed Himself to human beings.
- A dove, (often portrayed as one flying straight down) – reminds us of the Holy Spirit which God sent to be our guide and inspiration.
- But probably our most important sign is the Cross. It’s a sign that points to the sacrifice made by Jesus.
Whenever as Christians, we see a Cross in a church, (or perhaps worn as an ornament by someone), we’re reminded of what Jesus did for each one of us. Of course, if we were Roman Catholics, we’d probably be featuring a crucifix in our sanctuary, (that is a cross with the figure of Jesus hanging on it); because our Catholic friends tend to emphasize the suffering endured by Jesus as He paid the price for our sins.
But, as Protestants it’s the empty Cross we use, because we emphasize the resurrection, rather the death of Jesus.
So that’s what signs are. They are things that point back to events that happened in the past. In a sense, they’re substitutes for the original. Used properly, signs are very important in our faith. So Jesus wasn’t condemning the use of signs in worship. - He’s just saying that signs need to be used appropriately.
On the day that Jesus made this comparison, a group of Pharisees have asked Him to prove Himself by giving them a sign. – Their purpose in doing this is to belittle Him in front of His followers by putting Him on trial. They’re trying to get Him to put on a show, - something like a magician would do.
Now tell me, what’s the first thing you do when you watch a magician perform a trick. Don’t you try to figure out how he did it?. In other words, you assume it’s merely a trick, and so you look for the simple explanation that will unraveling it.
That’s what the Pharisees were trying to do, - prove that Jesus was just performing tricks, that might looked marvelous, but in reality were quite simple once you knew how He did it.
II THE SIGN OF JONAH
Now, let’s turn our attention to the ‘Sign of Jonah’. This ‘Sign of Jonah’ is something quite different. To understand it’s meaning, we need to go back to the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale.
The story of Jonah is about repentance. Now by definition, ‘repentance’ is something you can’t fully understand until you’ve experienced it.
So, let’s look at the story of Jonah. The first thing I’m going to say about Jonah, is let’s not get tangled up in whether or not he actually was swallowed by a whale. That’s not really the issue here. That story may very well be an allegory rather than an actually historical event. That it lasted three days, is more important than what actually happened.
The story of Jonah is entirely about his mission to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh; a city which had sunk into the depths of moral decay. The citizens of that great metropolis were acting very much like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Jonah was chosen by God to be an ambassador to carry the message of God to the people of Nineveh and warn them that they were about to be punished for their sins. However Jonah, when he receives this assignment from God, he reacts by running away. He runs away because he’s upset by the message God has asked him to convey to the people of the city. You see, God is giving the people 40 days to clean up their act.
But Jonah doesn’t think the people deserve to be given a second chance. He wants them punished for their wickedness. So instead of going to Nineveh Jonah sails away on a ship headed for Tarshish. In other words, he runs away from God.
But the point of the story is that you can’t run away from God! So the ship on which Jonah is sailing, encounters a violent storm. The sailors, being superstitious, think that somebody on board is the cause of the storm. So they draw lots, and determine that it’s Jonah who is the cause of this crisis. So they throw him overboard, and that’s when he gets swallowed up by the whale.
Jonah spends his three days in the belly of that great fish, contemplating his actions. He realized that he’d disobeyed God, so he acknowledges his disobedience, and promises God he will fulfill his mission, if only he’s given another chance. Whereupon the whale vomits him up onto dry land.
So Jonah returns to Nineveh, delivers God’s message, - and lo and behold, the people, on mass, respond by repenting of their evil ways.
So, put in simple terms, this ‘sign of Jonah’ is a demand for repentance; a demand which in Jonah’s case, got results.
Now you probably know the rest of the story. Jonah is still pretty angry with God because he didn’t feel the people should get off the hook so easily. He wanted to see them punished. But that’s not God’s will. So Jonah has to work out his own repentance with God.
III LESSONS LEARNED
So, what can we learn from this reference to the ‘sign of Jonah’? And more to the point, what did Jesus mean when he said to the Pharisees: ““This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”
Matthew’s comparison of the 3 days Jonah spent in the whale, with the 3 days Jesus spent (as he put it) in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:40) is his way of telling us that just as Jonah carried a sign of God’s concern to the people of Nineveh, so it is that the death and resurrection of our Lord is the ultimate sign of God’s grace and deliverance for us. No other proof is needed that God cares for each one of us, because in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are assured that our sins are forgiven. All that is needed of us is a willingness to put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, and our sins will be forgiven.
But so long as we continue to question the authority and truth of the Gospel, and insist upon testing God by asking Him to prove His power and presence by giving us whatever we ask of Him, or worse still, blaming God for all the negative things that happen to us, - we are demonstrating that we are still an evil generation, unwilling to acknowledge and respond to God’s love.
The Pharisees, (for all their pretense at holiness, and their public show of piety), were at heart stubborn, obstinate men who refused to accept God’s ultimate sign of His love and forgiveness.
Many times over the years of my ministry, I’ve encountered people who tell me that they no longer believe in God because; and then they name the reasons that stand as obstacles for them. It may be all the human suffering they see or hear about in the world. They argue that if God were truly a loving God, there wouldn’t be such suffering in the world.
For other skeptics it may be that they have suffered a personal, heart-rending tragedy, - the tragic loss of a child, or some a personal injury that has changed the whole course of the life, limiting their potential for health and happiness. Other skeptics it may be something as trivial as pointing to certain people who call themselves Christian, but whose lifestyle is anything but Christ-like.
The point is such skeptics are refusing to accept God’s ultimate sign of His love; the sacrifice of our Lord, - and in doing so they are closing the door to God’s grace and forgiveness.
So, my friends, let it be sufficient for you that Jesus’s death and resurrection is proof that God does love and forgive you, and that He has prepared a place for you in His eternal realm, - and be thankful.