He left them and went away

November 15, 2012

Dear sisters and brothers,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 16:1-4.

The Pharisees and Sadducees came and, to test him, asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He said to them in reply, “[In the evening you say, ‘Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red’; and, in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.] An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

This is an odd little passage. Odd because it seems that Matthew is repeating himself from chapter 12 about no sign being given to an evil and unfaithful generation except the sign of Jonah. Odd because the part is brackets is missing in some early texts. Odd because Matthew has the Pharisees and Sadducees coming together in common cause to discredit Jesus. The Pharisees based their observance of the faith on oral and scribal law while the Sadducees rejected any teaching other than the written words of the Hebrew Bible. There were other differences as well with one of the more important here being that the Pharisees looked for the coming of the Messiah while the Sadducees did not.

Jonah had finally assented to God’s will and delivered his message to the Ninevites to repent and repair their lives. They listened to Jonah, accepted him as God’s messenger, and did as they were bid. Jesus is telling the Pharisees and Sadducees in the same way to listen to him, accept him as God’s anointed one, and to heed his message to turn their hearts to God and all His people.

They were looking for a sign, something out of the ordinary, so as to be convinced. But God is most often in the ordinary, routine aspects of our lives. That’s the hard part of living, the messy part as Fr. John put it last night. That’s where the rubber meets the road; where our faith is tested; where we bring about the kingdom of God. God is most often the whisper, not the thundering skies or trembling earth. The Pharisees and Sadducees couldn’t see what was right in front of their faces. It wasn’t only that they couldn’t see Jesus as God’s anointed one; they were hostile and challenging and ultimately conspirators in his death.

Barclay writes, “All error has this in common — that it is hostile to Christ.” And here is Jesus’ warning to me and to all of us. “Jesus Christ is God’s last word. Beyond him the revelation of God cannot go. Here is God plain for all to see. Here is God’s message plain for all to hear. Here is God’s sign to man.” We ignore or repudiate His message at our peril. His teaching is pretty clear: love God and love one another as yourself. We can make excuses; we can re-interpret; we can twist it to exclude certain “unclean” people; we can justify our hostility. To all of our human machinations Jesus warns us, “you cannot judge the signs of the times.” When we fail to heed his teaching, we are unfaithful to God. Then Matthew ends with the heart-chilling statement, “Then he left them and went away.”

He left them behind because of their refusal to accept God’s messenger and message; because of their hostility to God’s children. The warning is as pertinent for us today as it was then. Without God what is left? Just our own small, contorted lives that pass away into nothingness. That’s a scary thing to contemplate. That’s why God sent Jonah, the other prophets, and finally His son Jesus. That’s how much He loves us. He gives us repeated chances, but it’s up to us to heed them and change our lives. Otherwise He will leave us behind.

Mike

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