One of the things that has always struck me about this passage is how Jesus manages to make whatever support he is gathering disappear. We might hold him up as an example of how to not keep a congregation around by our preaching. It begins in a truly baffling way. After “the crowds increased” around Jesus, he turns to them and basically says, “you’re all evil.” Fantastic, Jesus. Quite uplifting. Can we go home now? I wonder if I, an aspiring preacher, should follow his example! What can I say to make you all leave right now? The apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree: You’re all evil! How’re you feeling now? Are you encouraged in the Lord? My work is done!
Now we know that Jesus is the master preacher, so we must ask what he is up to. I think he wants to provoke us, to drive us to ask ourselves: in what is my faith, really? Do we have the faith of a wicked generation who demand signs? Or do we have faith in the true sign of God’s good will towards us, Jesus himself? You see, false faith demands God prove himself, but true faith sees that in Jesus he already has. False faith looks to “signs” for its reassurance, but true faith looks only to Jesus. False faith seeks solace in right doctrine, devout religion, ecstatic visions, and the like, but true faith seeks solace in Jesus alone.
What do I mean? Let’s take a closer look at Luke’s story. The first part of Jesus’ statement provides all the red flags we need to know we are in trouble here. First, he refers to the people around him as “this generation.” Sounds pretty docile, right? Except that in all the Gospels, the phrase “this generation” is always coupled with doom, judgment, and destruction. When we hear Jesus begin a teaching with “this generation,” the best thing we can do is find cover. (No! Not this generation! Run!) And why is this? Because “this generation” constantly rejects Jesus. It constantly places false expectations on him, and is disappointed when he doesn’t play by their rules. One is reminded of “this generation” that grumbled against Moses in the desert, who turned against him and God and built an idol for themselves. And what better “sign” could they have witnessed of God’s good favor for them than that he quite literally thrashed the powerful Egyptian army right before their very eyes. As in totally annihilated. Not one was left to pursue them. You want a better sign?
And that brings us to the second red flag of this narrative, the demand for a sign itself. Jesus had just finished driving out a demon from someone. It is in this context that some “tested him” by demanding a sign. Imagine Jesus in this situation. A sign? You want a sign? What have I just been doing? You want something more? The problem here is that at this stage in the game, no sign would have satisfied these people. After all they had witnessed, after all they had heard, they still did not believe. The problem was not a lack of evidence that Jesus was who he said he was. The problem was disbelief. So Jesus says “no.” No sign will I give you, because at this point, no sign will make a difference.
This is where I must stop and caution you. When we think of “disbelief,” I wonder if we don’t normally associate it with, well, unbelievers. But is Jesus here dealing with people who stalwartly reject him and everything he stands for? Hardly. These are people who are gathering around him, hanging on his every word. Sure, there is some uncertainty here. But I submit to you that this uncertainty is fueled not by worldly cynicism, but by a decidedly religious orthodoxy. These are Jews. They read their Bibles. They go to synagogue. They associated exclusively with their religious friends. Why, they were the regular evangelicals of the first century! And they are all of them waiting for the Messiah to show up. All Jesus has to do is show up. They are practically begging to be converted to Jesus. So what gives? Why are they demanding signs? It’s simple: they can’t see him through their religion.
I think the reason Jesus responds so negatively to their demand is that he knows that they aren’t really waiting for him at all. They are rather waiting for their idea of him, an idea which quite simply does not reflect the reality. How could this happen? Honestly, I think it happens to us all the time. It’s almost embarrassingly simple. We expect God to be something else than he is. And so when he shows up, we demand a validation of his identity which he simply cannot provide. We probably wouldn’t believe him if he did. He cannot be more or less than who is he is. In this situation, we think we have faith, but the object of our faith is something other than God. It’s in our piety, or our doctrine, or our discipline, or (Lord have mercy) our church, or whatever. It is false faith.
And this is the danger. Remember, Jesus is not talking to hardened atheists here. He is talking to religious people. He is talking to us. Since Jesus’ word of rebuke is so harsh, we must ask what on earth this kind of false faith looks like. For God’s sake, how do we avoid it? Allow me to be personal for a moment here, because this is, I confess, something I struggle with all the time. I have faith in Jesus, but my faith is constantly challenged by the very means I use to approach him. For example, when I pray, is my faith in Jesus who hears prayers, or is it in the fact that I am praying? How often do I expect God to answer my prayers in a certain way? Or when I believe I have received some insight about my life, is my faith in Jesus who promised to guide his people, or in that I receive insights? How often do I have “insights” that don’t really pan out the way I assumed they must? Or when I read my Bible, is my faith in Jesus the Living Word, or is my faith in the expectation that I will understand it? How often do I expect that my reading of the Bible must be the only correct one? Or let’s talk about the altar. I’m a good Anglican right? When I take the Sacrament, wherein is my faith? Is it in Jesus who instituted it, or do I have faith in its beneficial effects in and of themselves, like some magical religious talisman that solves all my problems? How often do I approach this Table flippantly, expecting its benefits but eschewing its demands?
Do you see why this problem is particularly potent for orthodox religious people? I just mentioned four things, all of which Jesus himself has given us to help us commune with him. They are goods. And for this reason, their outward goodness can blind us to our potential to misuse them. The fault is not theirs. It’s ours. It is false faith. It is faith that looks to the sign of Jesus’ presence with us, and not to Jesus himself. In these moments, it is the words of Oswald Chambers which most help me to understand Jesus’ message in our passage: we are not called to believe in our beliefs about Jesus, but to believe in Jesus.
Returning to Luke, we see that this is exactly what Jesus calls his listeners to here. “No sign will be given but the sign of Jonah.” What is this sign? It is Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a precise and concrete moment in time and space. It is that moment in human history, completely independent of myself or my acceptance or denial of it, that indisputably says that Jesus is who he says he is. There are no more signs. Jesus is the sign.
Our faith is in Jesus, and nothing else. Our faith is in the undeniable reality that he is. “Before Abraham was, I am!” he testifies to us. He truly governs this world and he truly guides his church. This is not some abstract invisible reality out there somewhere. He is! Apart from you and me and not needing our validation or acceptance, he is! Just as surely as I stand before you today, outside of you and independent of you, so is Jesus, alive and well and sitting at the right hand of the Father. Even now. This is our faith. Without him, all of this religion we have (even that which bears his name!) is vain pomp.
I am not asking you to give up on religion at this moment. What I am asking you to do is to think deeply about how we find ourselves expressing our “faith” on a daily basis. We all confess the Creed, we all believe in Jesus. That is not in dispute. But we all of us, myself desperately included, need to heed Jesus’ words here. What is our faith in? What is our expectation? What does this faith and this expectation demand from God? He has given us only one true “sign” that he is well disposed toward us and that he loves us. He has given us his very self, Jesus the Messiah of God. As we read the Word together, and take the Sacrament together, and hold fast to our Lenten disciplines together, let us have faith in him, and him alone. Amen.
Sermon preached at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers, MA during a mid-week Eucharist, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, with Father Ray Pendleton celebrating.