One of the great things about being a pastor is that I get to regularly talk to people about the Bible and how it works. On Tuesday’s I publish old sermons that have been slightly reworked to become longer form blog posts. This is one of those sermons.
Sometime last year Karly and I watched the movie Dirty Dancing; the classic 1987 Patrick Swayze movie. Karly has watched that movie probably a million times. I had never seen, but I was familiar with the classic line “Nobody puts baby in a corner!”
All movie I waited for that line. In fact, I probably annoyed Karly by constantly asking, is this when someone puts baby in a corner? I had no idea the context on the line, I just knew that at some point someone, somewhere was going to put baby in a corner and Patrick Swayze didn’t like that. The line eventually game at the very end of the movie and turned out to be incredibly anti-climactic.
But it made me think about famous quotes and the context that they’re said in. I mean, do these happen off the cuff or was there thought put into them? I’d be interested to know the context that they were originally said in. I’m especially interested in famous zingers.
Groucho Marx once said, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” Another time, Winston Churchill said of someone “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” Once Nancy Aston said to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I would put poison in your tea!” To which Churchill responded, “Ma’am if you were my wife, I would drink it!” I’m not sure if that one is true, but it’s still funny.
Another time George Bernard Shaw wrote to Winston Churchill, “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend… if you have one.” To which Churchill responded, “I cannot possibly attend the first night; will attend the second… if there is one.” Or there’s the time that Abraham Lincoln said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
But then you have the more serious quotes. Like the famous quote from Gandi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Or when Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This last one is either by Chuck Swindoll or Lou Holtz, I’ve seen it attributed to both of them, but it says, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” That’s not something I always do well. I think I often times think it’s the opposite, that life is 90% what happens to me. But the question remains, how do you react to life? How do you respond to the things that happen in this world?
Today we’re continuing our series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus and over the course of this series we’ve been asking the question “Why did the religious people try to kill Jesus?” What was it about what Jesus was saying and doing, all of his miracles and his teaching that they found so offensive, so scandalous, that they decided he had to die?
Last week we talked about how Jesus healed on the Sabbath. We talked about how Jesus viewed the rules and how he saw them as secondary to people. This week as we continue the series, we’re talking about our response to life and more specifically our response to Jesus.
Luke 11:29-32 says this,
29As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
One of the things that we’ve been talking about in this series is the idea that the gospel writers had an agenda when they wrote their gospels. None of them were simply trying to write a chronological account of the events. Instead, each writer would take the events of Jesus life and arrange them for a specific purpose; to tell a specific story. Sometimes, the writers would look at the same story or the same event in Jesus life and take away drastically different understandings in terms of the point or the meaning of the event.
This passage that we just read is a prime example of that. This same passage, more or less, is also found in Matthew chapter 12. But in Matthew’s version, we see the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign first. And in that version, Jesus responds by saying that the only sign he will give is the sign of Jonah. Just like Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth of three days. For Matthew, the sign of Jonah is about Jesus’ resurrection. It’s a sign afterwards that Jesus is who he claimed and that God affirms him.
But Luke has a different take on things. For Luke, the sign of Jonah has nothing to do with Jesus resurrection. In fact, he has taken that line out, the line about Jesus being in the heart of the earth for three days. Instead, Luke wants to emphasize the idea of our response to Jesus. In Luke’s gospel, this enter chapter is really about the idea of responding to Jesus.
Earlier in the chapter, Jesus drives a demon out of a mute man. Most of the people who saw it were amazed, but a couple people claimed Jesus could only drive out demons because he was working with them. Jesus responds first by saying, “That doesn’t make any sense. Any kingdom divided against itself will fall.” Essentially, how do demonic forces prosper if Jesus is driving them out? But then he tells a story and he says, “If a demon or an impure spirit leaves someone and the person doesn’t make any changes in their life, the demon is just going to come back and bring its friends.”
Essentially, Jesus is saying “If your lifestyle caused you to become enslaved to demonic forces, then it’s not enough to drive out those demonic forces because your lifestyle is going to cause them to come back once again. You need to change how you live.” Then, right before our section, in verse 28, he says,“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” This gives us a clue to what Luke’s sign of Jonah is all about.
Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it. Jesus is saying your response is important. How we respond to the gospel is important. So in our passage, Jesus says the only sign he will give them is the sign of Jonah. Just like Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so will Jesus be a sign to these people here.
In the Old Testament, the book of Jonah tells the story of God asking a prophet, Jonah, to go to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was a Gentile city north of Israel on the Tigris river, meaning it wasn’t Jewish. In those days, the common belief was that the gods were tribal. What that means is that each people, each nation, had their own gods and they believed gods lived in that region and watched out for those people.
The Jews, by this time, already understood that there was only one God, Yahweh, the One True God of Israel, so Jonah didn’t believe that the Ninevites’ gods were real. But Jonah still had a tribal understanding. He believed that God favoured the Jews. He believed that God loved the Jews and didn’t really care for the Gentiles.
But here, at the start of the book of Jonah, God tells Jonah go preach to the people of Nineveh because they’re living in sin, they’re wicked and he’s going to destroy them if they don’t stop. Well, Jonah didn’t really like that plan. So he got on a ship and headed in the opposite direction. He was hoping that if he didn’t go preach, that God would just destroy the city and be done with it.
But after Jonah was on the ship, a massive storm came up which almost sunk the ship. So Jonah, realizing his mistake, told the crew to throw him overboard. He would still die, but at least the crew would be saved. However, after they threw him overboard, God sent big fish to swallow Jonah and save him from drowning. Jonah eventually agreed to go to Nineveh and warn them of their coming destruction.
However, when he does, the Ninevites repent. All of them. They all repent. They put on sackcloth, cover their heads with dust and pray for mercy. And because of this, God relents of his plan to destroy them. He shows them mercy, which Jonah doesn’t love.
The whole story is fascinating and shows the prejudice and hypocrisy of Jonah. If you’ve never read the book, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a short four chapter book.
And with this story in mind, Jesus says, just like Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so am I a sign to this generation. In this sense, the sign of Jonah is his preaching. Jonah was a prophet, which was evidenced by the fact that he warned the people of their potential destruction. In Luke, the sign Jesus gives is that he’s also a prophet, acting much like Jonah, warning the people of their potential destruction. The underlying question would have been, the people of Nineveh responded when they heard Jonah’s preaching, what about you? How will you respond? Then Jesus pushes a little further.
In verse 31 he says,
The Queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here.
I love this. Here Jesus is reaching back into Scripture for a bit of an obscure reference. This is a deep track. For those of us not familiar, and I had to go read about it myself, the Queen of the South or the Queen of Sheba is a short story told in 1 Kings 10:1-10.
In this story, the queen of Sheba—Sheba was an ancient kingdom in the southern most part of the Arabian peninsula, essentially modern day Yemen—hears about the wisdom of Solomon. So she came to test him and find out just how wise he was. She came and asked him all kinds of tough questions and when he answered them all, she praised God.
She responded to him by saying,
Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.
So Jesus references this story and he says at the judgment, or at the end of this age, the queen of the south will condemn this generation. She recognized how God was working, she encountered the wisdom of God through Solomon and she praised God as a result. And he says, “But now something or someone greater than Solomon is here and you don’t recognize it.”
Then Jesus continues in verse 32 to say,
The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Essentially, Jesus is drawing on these two stories, stories of Gentiles from the far north and the far south. And he says someone greater than Solomon and Jonah is here. The queen of Sheba encountered the wisdom of God in Solomon and that was enough for her to respond to God. And now here’s Jesus, the true wisdom of God, someone with more wisdom than even Solomon, and the Jews of the day are going to miss it. The men of Nineveh encountered God through the preaching of Jonah and they responded. And now here’s Jesus, a greater prophet than even Jonah, and the people are going to miss it.
What Jesus is saying is, “Those people only had Solomon and Jonah and they got it. You have me. What’s your excuse?” Which is why he says the queen of Sheba and the men of Nineveh will condemn this generation at the judgment.
Now, this is scandalous and audacious and offensive, because Jesus is making the claim that at the judgment Gentiles will condemn Jews. The Jews have always believed that they are God’s special possession. God loves them more than he loves anyone else.
“What do you mean Gentiles will judge us? We’re Jews, we’re right, we’re more obedient.” In some ways, this would be like Jesus today saying that at the judgment Christians will be judged by Muslims. What? How can that be? We’re the ones that have the Bible. We’re the ones that have the right belief.
But remember what Jesus said in the verse right before this section. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” It’s not enough to simply have the word of God, you have to respond. What Jesus is pointing out to these people is that Gentiles who respond to the word of God in their lives, no matter how little, will judge Jews who don’t respond.
Or in other words, your heritage means nothing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew. It doesn’t matter if you were born into the right family. What matters is how you respond to God in your life. These people were assuming they could skate by because they were Jews. They assumed that God was pleased with them simply because they were Jews.
And Jesus is challenging that entire assumption. He’s challenging the entire idea that family or bloodlines or heritage matter at all. Instead, how you respond is important. How you respond to Jesus matters.
When I was five years old, I remember sitting in Mrs. Palmers Sunday School class as she explained that everyone, when they die, goes to hell. But if you were to accept Jesus into your heart, then you would go to heaven instead. And as just about any five-year-old would think, I thought that was a pretty sweet deal. So I prayed and accept Jesus into my heart. And for the longest time, I thought that was about it. thought salvation was more or less this one-time transaction, where I say a prayer, I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour and then I get to go to heaven someday.
But what I’ve been learned and realizing more over the years and especially as I study Scripture as an adult is that this idea of responding to Jesus is not a one-time decision. Salvation isn’t just a one-time event. It’s both an event and a process.
Salvation is a one-time event in that at some point in your life, we all need to make that decision to follow Jesus. We have to say that prayer, go through that confirmation, chose to get baptized. At some point, each of us needs to make a personal decision to follow Jesus. And in that sense, salvation is an event. There is a moment where we cross over from death to life. There is that moment where Jesus enters our lives and we’re filled with his Holy Spirit.
But salvation doesn’t end there. Salvation is also a process. Salvation comes as we continue to respond to Jesus in our lives. And that’s because Jesus is really saving us from ourselves. Jesus saves us from hell, yes, but the thing that makes hell so hellish is not fire and demonic torment or anything like that. (That concept of hell doesn’t come from Scripture, but rather from things like the 14th century poem Inferno by Dante.)
The thing that makes hell so miserable is me. People left to their own devices, without the Spirit of God in their lives. Without God in our lives, humans are petty, malicious, angry, vindictive, lazy, proud… and the list could go on and on.
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imagines hell as a grey town and in it, he describes the inhabitants like this,
The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarrelled with their neighbours—and moved. If so he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move again. Finally, he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.
The picture Lewis paints is a picture of people left to their own devices. A picture of people who are allowed to live and act on any and every impulse they have, which naturally leads them to fight with their neighbours and decide it would be better to live alone. The Great Divorce is fiction, obviously, but what it shows is how, when we don’t allow God to heal us, change us and restore us—when we’re left to ourselves—we are the cause of our own destruction.
The reality of the situation is that I need God to save me from me. Which is why time and again in the gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament, we see Jesus and the authors pleading with people to respond to God, to obey him, to repent and change course. I need Jesus to make me more like him; a person who loves, who is patient, kind, forgiving and merciful.
I can’t make those changes in my life, but Jesus can. And so Jesus constantly calls us to respond to him; to obey him. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
This is why Paul can tell us in Philippians to continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who works in us. We don’t save ourselves, Jesus saves us. And his salvation is both an event and a process. We are actively saved from ourselves as we continue to respond to his teaching and his mercy and his grace in our lives.
I think for a lot of us, we can inadvertently fall into the same kind of thinking that Jesus’ contemporaries did. They thought they were already saved because they were Jews. They thought their heritage was their ticket to the Kingdom of Heaven. And while most of us probably don’t think along those same racial lines, I wonder if we can still rely on our past or our heritage when it comes to salvation. I’ve been baptized, either as a baby or an adult, so I’m saved. I’ve gone through confirmation, so I’m saved. I said a prayer once, so I’m saved. I go to church every week, so I’m saved.
But what Jesus is saying is that we need to respond to him. As he continues to work in our lives, as he continues to teach us and call us, we need to say yes to him. We need to be obedient. It’s not just about hearing the word of God but obeying it. Salvation comes as we continue to respond to Jesus. Which should cause us to ask ourselves some questions.
What are some ways we’re letting Jesus speak to us and teach us? Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it, Jesus says. So how are we hearing the word of God? What are you doing in your life to hear God speak to you?
The best way to hear from God is through Scripture. As followers of Jesus, we all should be reading Scripture on a regular basis. There are some great plans out there that help you read through the entire Bible in a year.
If you have a smartphone or a tablet you can download the YouVersion app. They have some different reading plans you can go through. Some of them are plans to read the whole Bible in a year. Others are shorter plans and going through a couple books. I’d highly recommend that, even if you prefer reading in a paper bible. I know I do. I find I can retain what I’m reading more if I’m reading it in paper. But I like to use the app to keep track of where I am in a reading schedule.
There are also specific Bibles you can buy that rearrange the books of the Bible and break everything down to a daily reading from the Old and New Testament. Some people like to just read through their Bible straight from Genesis to Revelation. That’s a fine way to do it, but if you’re new to reading Scripture you might get stuck in Leviticus. It can be a slog.
Other people like to jump around a bit, which also works. Just don’t try to randomly open your Bible and read. Usually, you’ll end up somewhere in the middle, in the prophets, which won’t make any sense if you’re not reading through the entire book. Regardless of how you choose to read Scripture, the point is that Scripture is the best way to hear from God and to allow him to teach you.
Prayer is another great way. Prayer isn’t just about making requests, it’s about allowing God to shape and change you. It’s a conversation more than a monologue.
Beyond Scripture and prayer, other Christians are another great way that God often speaks to me and teaches me. Hearing what God has shown other Christians and how God is working in their lives is a great way for Jesus to speak into your own life as well. Having Christian community that will hold me accountable and encourage me to live the way Jesus is calling me to has been invaluable to my faith.
Finally, there are countless books, sermons, podcasts, and worship music out there. These are also great ways to hear from God and to allow Jesus to teach you.
Maybe you can think of other ways, which is great. The point isn’t which way or ways you’re hearing from Jesus, but rather that you’re letting him speak to you. What’s important is you’re letting Jesus teach you and shape you and call you. How are you letting Jesus speak to you and teach you?
Secondly, how are you responding? As Jesus continues to speak into our lives, we need to respond to him. We need to say yes to him, to obey him. In the book of James, the author says,
22Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
It doesn’t matter if you’re always reading Scripture, always praying, if you’re in a million Christian fellowship groups or always listening to worship music and sermons online. If you constantly hear from Jesus and never actually do anything about it, never obey what he’s calling you to, then what’s the point? It’s not enough to listen to the word, to hear the word, we also have to obey. We have to respond to Jesus when he speaks.
How are you responding to Jesus? Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey. Jesus told the crowds that the only sign he would give them is the sign of Jonah. The Ninevites responded to the preaching of Jonah. The Queen of Sheba responded when she heard the wisdom of Solomon. And now one greater than Solomon or Jonah is here, and this crowd won’t respond to the salvation Jesus is offering. The crowd didn’t understand that salvation comes as we respond to Jesus in our lives.
What about us?
Will we hear Jesus speak? What are we doing to hear his word in our lives? How will we respond when he speaks?