Sign of Jonah
by Jack Wald | April 13th, 2014

Matthew 12:38-45

Four Rabbis met each week for theological discussions and one of the Rabbis always seemed to be on the losing side. Each week it was 3 to 1 and finally this Rabbi decided to appeal to a higher authority. “Oh, God!” he cried. “I know in my heart that I am right and they are wrong! Please give me a sign to prove it to them!”
It was a beautiful, sunny day. As soon as the Rabbi finished his prayer, a storm cloud moved across the sky above the four. It rumbled once and dissolved. “A sign from God! See, I’m right, I knew it!” But the other three disagreed, pointing out that storm clouds form on hot days.
So the Rabbi prayed again: “Oh, God, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, God, a bigger sign!” This time four storm clouds appeared, rushed toward each other to form one big cloud, and a bolt of lightning slammed into a tree on a nearby hill.”I told you I was right!” cried the Rabbi, but his friends insisted that nothing had happened that could not be explained by natural causes.
The Rabbi is getting ready to ask for a “very big” sign, but just as he says “Oh God…” the sky turns pitch black, the earth shakes, and a deep, booming voice intones, “HEEEEEEEE’S RIIIIIIIGHT!”
The Rabbi puts his hands on his hips, turns to the other three, and says, “Well?”
“So,” shrugged one of the other Rabbis, “now it’s 3 to 2!”

I would imagine most of us have asked God for a sign sometime in our lives. Woody Allen said, “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”

In our series of sermons from the life of Jesus, we are in the third trio. There were three sermons of Peter being in a boat, three sermons about anointing or washing feet, and now we are in the middle of three sermons about signs in the Bible that point to Jesus. Last week Patrick preached from John 3:14–15:
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

The bronze snake of Moses is a sign in the Old Testament pointing to Jesus. The Israelites who were bitten by poisonous snakes were saved by looking up to the bronze snake on a pole. We are saved by looking to Jesus who died and was resurrected.

This week we will look at another sign from the Old Testament, the sign of Jonah. The account begins when some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus.
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”
39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!

What was wrong in asking for a sign? Signs in the Bible are used by God to draw people to Jesus. Why did Jesus attack them for asking for a sign?

In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, the angels tell the shepherds: (Luke 2:12)
This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

John the Baptist was in Herod’s prison and wanted to know if Jesus was really the Messiah. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus and do you remember what Jesus told them? (Matthew 11:4–6)
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6 Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

Jesus pointed John’s disciples to the signs of his ministry.

In Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost, he held up the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his divinity (Acts 2:22)
“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

The early church grew on the back of signs and wonders. (Acts 5:12)
The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.

So it cannot be that signs are bad. Miracles are not bad. If God uses signs and wonders to draw people to Jesus, how can it be wrong to want to see a sign?

We often ask for signs. Sometimes we need to be encouraged. Sometimes we want a boost to our faith. Sometimes we ask God for a sign that we are doing the right thing or that we are on the right path. I once went to a Catholic retreat center for three days of fasting and prayer and I went with the desire to see an angel. I have a friend who has seen angels. I wanted to see one. For all three days I kept looking up, expecting to see an angel. When I woke in the morning, I looked to see if there was an angel at the foot of the bed. I had good times of reading, praying and reflecting. I brought my guitar and sang praise to God, but I left without seeing an angel.

Did my desire to have God give me a sign make me part of a “wicked and adulterous generation?”

To understand the teaching of Jesus, we always need to look to the heart. Our words and actions are interpreted by our heart. Seeking a sign is not bad in itself; it depends on the heart. When the disciples of John came to Jesus, Jesus saw the heart of his cousin John. Jesus understood the questions John was asking himself. At the end of his life, facing execution by Herod, he wanted reassurance that Jesus, his cousin he had known all his life, was really the Messiah. Jesus had compassion and answered the disciples of John: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see.”

When we need reassurance, it is not bad to ask for a sign and God knows what is good for us and will encourage us in the way he knows we need to be encouraged.

On the other hand, the Pharisees and teachers of the law did not come to Jesus with pure hearts. They had already seen the miracles of Jesus. Earlier in Matthew 12, on a Sabbath in the synagogue, Jesus healed a man with a shriveled hand. In sight of the Pharisees, this man’s arm was restored and how did the Pharisees respond? They talked among themselves about how they could kill Jesus.

A bit later a man was brought to Jesus who was demon-possessed, blind and mute. Jesus healed him so that he could both talk and see. How did the people respond? “Could this be the Son of David?” they asked. How did the Pharisees respond?
when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

The Pharisees saw the miracles of Jesus and tried to kill him. They attributed his miracles to the devil. So what sign were they asking for when they came to Jesus and said,
“Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”

If Jesus had restored a woman’s sight, that would not have been what they were seeking. If Jesus had cleansed a leper, that is not what they wanted to see. So what sign were they looking for?

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Why was the crowd so excited when Jesus entered into Jerusalem? They expected that finally the Roman occupiers would be overthrown and that Jesus would restore Israel to the greatness it had known under Kings David and Solomon. Anyone who had not heard about the miracles of Jesus heard about these miracles from people walking behind Jesus who had themselves been healed and delivered of demons. These were signs that Jesus was the Messiah. When Jesus entered the Temple and overthrew the tables of the money changers, the excitement only increased.

So what sign would have satisfied the Pharisees? Perhaps if Jesus had struck down a contingent of Roman soldiers, they might have been satisfied. But maybe the Pharisees and teachers of the law just wanted another opportunity to trap Jesus. Whatever their motive was,  Jesus understood what almost no one else understood, that he had come to die and defeat death by rising from the dead. So Jesus responded:
“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Who was Jonah?

We know the story of him being swallowed by a whale. Frederick Buechner writes of Jonah: “Within a few minutes of swallowing the prophet Jonah, the whale suffered a severe attack of acid indigestion, and it’s not hard to see why. Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk.”

Jonah was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, one of the last kings of Israel. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the enemy of Israel, who in just forty some years after Jonah would conquer Israel and deport its citizens.

Jonah prophesied that Jeroboam II would recover certain lost territories. But then Jonah received a word from God that he did not want to hear. (Jonah 1:1-2)
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Jonah did not want to use his gifts to give the godless Ninevites a chance to repent so he headed in the opposite direction. Nineveh was east so Jonah headed west to Joppa (the city in Acts where Peter had his vision of clean and unclean foods) and boarded a ship heading for Tarshish, located somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Jonah wanted to get as far away from where God wanted him to go as possible.

Once at sea, a storm arose and the sailors were frightened. They threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. The sailors cried to their own gods for help but the storm continued. The captain found Jonah asleep, a deep sleep, and woke him up, asking why he was not praying to his god for help. But Jonah was running away from God, not praying to God.

The sailors decided to cast lots to see who was responsible for the storm and Jonah was chosen. When they discovered he was running from God, they were terrified. They asked him what they should do and Jonah told them to throw him into the sea and the storm would cease. They tried to row to shore but when that did not work, they reluctantly threw Jonah overboard and the sea calmed down.

17 But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah prayed a prayer of repentance and the whale spit him out on dry land.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Being a wiser man, this time Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. He preached reluctantly and then Jonah was depressed because the enemies of Israel repented and escaped destruction.

This, in brief, is the story of Jonah. What is the sign of Jonah Jesus is referring to?

Obviously, Jesus is referring to his death. As Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale, Jesus said he would spend three days in the belly of the earth. But the other details of the story of Jonah differ from Jesus. The earth did not spew him out above ground; Jesus burst forth with new life. While Paul says we were once God’s enemies, Jesus came to make us friends of God. Jesus did not reluctantly come to preach good news; Jesus volunteered to come because of his great love for us.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law asked for a miraculous sign and Jesus pointed them to what would be the greatest demonstration of miraculous power the world has ever seen. Death was defeated and eternal life became possible for all who put their faith in Jesus.

We enter into Easter Week and this coming Thursday we will celebrate the Seder meal Jesus shared with his disciples. We will remember the love of Jesus that led him to die for us on Good Friday. And then we will celebrate his resurrection at the Easter Sunrise service, breakfast, and morning service.

The sign of Jonah points us to the greatest event in human history. It points us to Jesus but it also points us to how we are to live for Jesus.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted to see a miracle. When Jesus was brought to Herod, Herod wanted to be entertained by a miracle of Jesus. And before you are too hard on them, we too want to see miracles. We seek the miraculous. To be more specific, we seek the spectacular. Given a choice, we would rather see someone healed by praying for them than by having them healed in a hospital. We would rather receive an unexpected gift to meet a financial need than cut expenses and save to meet that need.

John Fischer wrote about this in a song titled, Everyone Wants to Get to Heaven.
You want to have wisdom
Without making mistakes
You want to have money
Without the work that it takes
You want to be loved
But you don’t want the heartaches.

Everyone wants to get to heaven Lord
Nobody wants to die
Everyone wants to get to heaven Lord
Nobody wants to die.

You want to be forgiven
Without taking the blame
You want to eat forbidden fruit
Without leaving a stain
You want the glory
But you don’t want the shame.

Everyone wants to get to heaven Lord
Nobody wants to die
Everyone wants to get to heaven Lord
Nobody wants to die.

You want to be a winner
Without taking a loss
You want to be a disciple
Without counting the cost
You want to follow Jesus
But you don’t want to go to the cross.

Everyone wants to get to heaven Lord
Nobody wants to die
Everyone wants to get to heaven Lord
Nobody wants to die

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the devil tempted him by doing the spectacular, changing stones into bread, and that is our temptation. But, as Henri Nouwen points out in his book, In the Name of Jesus, what Jesus calls us to is not the spectacular, but to take on his heart of compassion for the world. The resurrected Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” We want the spectacular; Jesus wants us to love those he loves. The spectacular comes without cost; loving people is costly. We want the triumph of the resurrection, but we don’t want the suffering that came with it.

In the week before he died, what we call Easter week, Jesus talked about what was going to happen to him. (John 12:23–26)
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

In Lesslie Newbigen’s book, The Open Secret, he references this teaching of Jesus as he tells the story of Jonah.

Jonah, as a picture of God’s chosen people, is called to go and bear witness in the midst of Nineveh, which represents the world with all its awesome power and wealth.

But Jonah because of his nationalism, and maybe other reasons, runs off in the opposite direction from Nineveh. He boards a ship sailing off into the Mediterranean to evade God’s call and thinks he has succeeded. He goes below deck to sleep – a picture of the church that sleeps in times of peace and prosperity, concerned not with God’s work in the world but only its own comfort.

But God whips up a raging storm and the pagan soldiers pray for deliverance. It is the pagan soldiers who have to wake up Jonah and ask him to pray. When lots are cast Jonah is forced to confess his guilt, that he is running away from God’s call.

Jonah is ready to pay for his sin with his life but the conversion of these pagan soldiers by this improbable follower of God has already begun. They work to save Jonah and themselves and they pray to God. But Jonah must be thrown into the sea. The grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die. The followers of Jesus must suffer. The church must lose its life.

But out of death there is resurrection. A penitent and restored Jonah goes to speak God’s word to the pagan world and his obedience is met by an incredible miracle. Nineveh repents.

Jonah was lying in the belly of the whale, lost and defeated but God brought resurrection. Out of the ashes of Jonah’s life, the sailors gave praise to God and the people of Nineveh were spared.

As we work with God for his kingdom, this is how it is with us as well. We must consider the interests of others as more important than our own. We must give up our pride and serve with humility. We must be transparent and admit our weaknesses. We serve a Savior who humbled himself and became nothing. When the crowds shouted hosannas and wanted to make him king, he resisted the easy path of triumph and took the hard path of sacrifice. He was beaten and humiliated. He was whipped and crucified. He died and out of the ashes of what seemed to be his defeat he rose triumphantly to new life. This is the path for us. This is how we become agents of God’s work to bring resurrection out of the ashes of our lives.

Annie and I struggled in the first fifteen years of our marriage. We were both immature and had not worked out the issues of our childhood. I remember one night, about four years into our marriage, lying on the mattress in our guest room and contemplating my options. I could kill Annie, but that would mean our girls would lose both their parents. I could kill myself, but that would mean our girls would grow up with the pain of what I had done. I could divorce Annie, but then I would lose contact with our daughters. I thought through all my options and the least attractive, but the only one that would work, was to go to Annie and say, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

Annie will tell you that the most difficult thing she has ever done was to decide to love me, even if I did not love her back. We went for counseling and our marriage turned around. We are so grateful to be married to each other. Resurrection came out of the ashes of the failure of our relationship.

When we sit down with a couple who struggle in their marriage relationship, our story becomes a sign that points to Jesus. Because we did not divorce, because we did not settle for a cold indifference, because we looked to Jesus and followed his example, we became a sign for him.

We are all imperfect. We all make mistakes, but when we look to Jesus and follow the path of suffering he followed, we rise to new life. We become signs that point to Jesus.

When a man and woman come to say they are breaking off their sexual relationship because they want to be pure, this is a sign that points to Jesus.

When we accept responsibility for our sinful actions and humble ourselves by confessing our sin, this is a sign that points to Jesus.

When we give up something precious to us in order to restore a relationship, this is a sign that points to Jesus.

When we continue to love someone who takes advantage of us, this is a sign that points to Jesus.

A few weeks ago I talked about extravagant acts of worship. Because these are costly gifts given to Jesus, they are signs that point the world to Jesus

On this Palm Sunday it is good to give praise to Jesus. It is always good to give praise to Jesus. But as we move through the rest of today and as we move through Easter week, it will be very good if we allow our love for Jesus to take us on a path that moves us through the difficulty of relationships and through the pain of loss and defeat. Because of who we follow, because of Jesus, resurrection will always come out of the ashes of the world and our costly obedience will be a sign that will point people to Jesus.