Jonah, Queen of the South and all that



Published by editor

on April 1, 2011 in Sermons – Matthew 12


20 March 2011 : Matthew 12 : 38-42

Matthew 12, as we have already seen, finds Jesus in a no-nonsense mood, especially with the wretched Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who seem to have perfected the unhappy art of getting it wrong time after time after time, and in consequence earning a tongue-lashing from the Lord. It’s interesting that Jesus conducts himself with truly amazing grace when he’s dealing with what you might call obvious sinners, on the basis that they are aware of their faults and their need of deliverance from those faults, but he will cut no slack at all for the self-righteous pretence of the religious leaders.

Make no mistake. Jesus went to the cross to deal with every human sin. Forgiveness is to be found, freely, unconditionally, in his shed blood for every wrong action, every wrong word, every wrong thought. There is no act of human misconduct so repulsive to God that the sacrifice of Jesus does not fully wipe it away. BUT … we must come to Him in honesty and humility, agree with Jesus that we’ve been wrong, and not try to hide behind a fig-leaf of cowardly excuses and pompous self-justification.

But that was a step way too far for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They liked to think they had the exclusive franchise on God. No way were they – graduates of the theological college of their time with all the academic fol-de-rols to prove it – going to get down on their knees before this upstart from a no-horse-town in the backwaters of Galilee, this tradesman with no formal education, this outsider who did not belong to the club, and give him the least bit of respect. And nothing Jesus said or did would change their mind, challenge their prejudice, or disturb their smug self-righteousness.

Today we find them asking Jesus to strut his stuff for their amusement : Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you. No they didn’t. The last thing they wanted was to see God’s glory and power at work through this man they loathed and despised. Their attitude here would later be echoed by Herod, when Jesus, having been arrested, was bounced around between Roman and local jurisdictions, each trying desperately to avoid having to sign off the death warrant for Jesus, though both wanted him dead.

Jesus wouldn’t play ball to entertain the ineffectual windbag that was Herod, nor was he about to indulge the whims of these religious leaders. Now, had they come to him with even half-an-ounce of integrity, even the faintest hint of openness to the gospel of grace, that would have been a different story, but Jesus could read them like a book, hence the stinging rebuke he delivered to them here.

We have all heard of Jonah, how he was called by God to go preach to the notoriously heathen population of Nineveh ; how he bottled it and headed off for a cruise instead ; how he found out the hard way that God is not mocked ; how he made quite a splash and had a whale of a time – sorry! – before ending up going and doing precisely what God had called him to do in the first place. You will see from the story that Jonah had a remarkably successful evangelistic campaign. Nineveh cleaned its act up big time.

Yet by the end of this tale we find Jonah whinging at this hugely impressive result, complaining that God hadn’t, in fact, zapped them with bolts of lightning and wiped Nineveh off the map. Actually, Jonah doesn’t come through as a particularly appealing character. His collection of iffy attitudes ranged from rebellion against God to racism against the people he was ministering to. Yet God used even Jonah, mightily, and used him to reach out to those beyond the Jewish nation, to save people he didn’t like.

And I don’t think the Pharisees would have enjoyed that comparison. They would be all indignant, asking : Wait a minute, Jesus, why are you talking about Jonah? You’re not saying we’re like Jonah, are you? You don’t think we’re disobedient to God’s will like Jonah, are you? You’re not suggesting that we should be trying to save Gentiles, are you? Jesus didn’t get into anything about that. If the cap fitted, let them wear it.

The real point Jesus was making was that, just as Jonah disappeared into self-inflicted darkness and separation from God, just as it seemed his number was up, and his life had ended in pathetic failure – yet on the third day he came back miraculously, larger than life – so too it would be with Jesus. He would die a shameful, ignominious death, the abuse and derision of the entire city ringing in his ears. He would be buried and his enemies would raise a glass to toast “good riddance” … but just wait till the third day.

Would the Pharisees have understood? At that moment, not one little bit of it. But after Easter, as the account of Jesus’ resurrection spread through Jerusalem like wildfire, as the disciples who had scuttled away like frightened rabbits and hidden quivering under the bed following the crucifixion were now out, bold as brass, in the crowded streets and temple precincts of Jerusalem, boldly proclaiming that this Jesus was alive again, daring the authorities to stop them, beaten and threatened but bouncing back for more, yes, I suspect one or two of the more intelligent Pharisees would have joined the dots.

But Jesus wasn’t finished. Vs.41-42 would have been immensely offensive to the Pharisees. The hated Gentiles of Nineveh would stand before God justified whilst the religious elite of Jerusalem would be condemned? They had responded to the ministry of a buffoon like Jonah, and God would be pleased with them, but they, the Pharisees, the custodians of God’s Law, would be judged for not responding to one greater than Jonah … you mean this builders’ labourer from Nazareth? What!

Jesus continued to pile on the agony. Now he introduces to the conversation a football team from Dumfries. It takes a special kind of faith to prophesy that the Queen of the South will get promoted! Joking aside, the Queen of the South, better known perhaps as the Queen of Sheba, was notorious for her flirtatious behaviour with King Solomon. Once again, she was a Gentile, and the suggestion that a Gentile would, on the day of judgement, enjoy better standing with God than a Pharisee, was outrageous to the max, and Jesus’ claim to be greater than Solomon was the icing on that unappetising cake.

But let’s not miss the passing reference to a wicked and adulterous generation, which Jesus sort of sprinkled into the mixture. Again, this would have been like a slap in the face for the Pharisees. At best, this was an indictment of their failure to provide leadership to the people under their care. If, on their watch, the people of Israel were a wicked and adulterous generation – and it appears that the probably were – their stewardship of the things of God was clearly not making much of an impact.

But there was a second prong to this attack, and it’s the implication that the Pharisees themselves were guilty of these very sins. There’s an intriguing little episode in John 8 where a woman caught in the very act of adultery is hauled before Jesus by, who else, the Pharisees. They demand that the woman be stoned to death, as per the Jewish law, and ask Jesus to concur with the sentence. Jesus says nothing but scribbles in the dust.

They keep pressing Jesus for an answer. Eventually he says : OK, but which ever one of you is without fault gets to throw the first stone. There is a shocked silence, before they all slink away in embarrassment. Draw your own conclusions from that tale.

All right, that’s us whistled our way through the story. Let’s fast forward 2000 years to see what it says to us today. Let me start at the end and work forwards. The age of the New Testament was not the last to qualify as a wicked and adulterous generation ; you could probably say the same about today. People doing their own thing, according to their own selfish desires, without much thought for the consequences on anyone else, yes, we know that one. We have to say that the moral vacuum all around us is a pretty stern indictment of the ineffectiveness of the church, as it was with the Pharisees.

I said a couple of weeks ago that it seems we don’t know what we believe, and what we say is carefully modulated so as not to cause offence. The trouble is, we are called to be light in the darkness, and if we’re not doing that, I’m not quite sure what purpose we’re actually serving. And it’s not just a matter of issuing a series of thou-shalt-nots. To lay down the law isn’t that difficult, but it’s not what Jesus wants us to do.

Being a light in a dark world is about living by grace, living in such an attractive and godly way that people outwith our number will be intrigued by our quality of life and want what we have. The way to counter the wicked and adulterous influences on our society is not just to speak condemnation over them, but to point the way to something better, to embody a truly Biblical alternative lifestyle to which the love of Jesus is central, to model our ministry of true prosperity and wholeness, overflowing with kindness and compassion, living long, living strong, living 24/7 as an act of worship.

The early church genuinely was a revolutionary force, a counter-culture, who earned respect for their stand because the way they lived was so obviously more fulfilling, more satisfying, more joyful, than that of the unbelievers around them. That’s a much more demanding task than just tut-tutting at the world’s failures, but it is the witness we are commanded to give, and when we are truly born again and filled with the Holy Spirit, it is the witness we are supernaturally empowered to give. In Christ, we can!

Our God delights in doing the seemingly impossible. You may not think he can do very much in your life, with all your faults and failings, but all that stands between your mess and your message is your willingness to let Him in. Remember that our God raises the dead. Figuratively, this is what happened to Jonah. Literally, it is what happened to Jesus. Spiritually, it is what – potentially – he can do for you, right now.

It may seem strange, bizarre even, but no-one need be a prisoner to their past. To Jesus it matters not a bent halfpenny if you have no academic qualifications, if you have no easy way with words, if you have spent many years without darkening the church door, in the wilderness of doing your own thing without reference to him, if you have made major mistakes that have ended up hurting other people or yourself.

As compared with the act of redemption Jesus completed at the cross, all that stuff’s just like a snowflake in a microwave. Decide today that you’re no longer going to be a prisoner to your past. Instead you’re going to receive the forgiveness Jesus bought and paid for, you’re going to have faith for the future, and you’re going to have peace in the present. Many of the most effective witnesses Jesus has in the world today are people who got off to a bad start, but they’re determined to have a good finish.

So people look down their noses at you because you did something terrible, something shocking when you were younger? So that event is the one thing that people remember every time your name’s mentioned? So what? If you’re born again, the person who did those awful things is dead. You are a new creation in Christ – 2 Corinthians 5.17. Show the world how much Jesus has changed your life. Show them how the love and grace of Jesus is oozing out of you, how he has turned your mess into your message.

Final point for today. The fundamental error of the Pharisees was that they thought they could earn God’s favour by fastidious observance of the Law. Still today, that mindset of death gets in the way for so many people. They believe, or at least hope, that not being a bad person, that ticking the religious box once in a while, is enough to keep them out of hell. That nod-to-God attitude may be the most destructive deception the devil has ever dumped on the human race. Please get this, it may save your life.

Nothing you can ever do, or not do, will get you into heaven. Do not attempt to make yourself a link in the chain of your salvation, because if you do that chain will break. However offensive this is to the pomposity of the 21st century human race, there is only one way to be acceptable to God, and that is recognising that, in and of ourselves we can never be, and that’s why God sent a Saviour, who died that we might live.

Jesus came to settle in full all the debts run up by the disobedience of the human race, including ours. He bought our ticket to heaven, which we could never do. For you, for me, the heaven/hell issue, and the quality of life here on earth issue, hang on just one question – are we willing to nail our selfish self to the cross and make Jesus the Lord of our life? No excuses, no obfuscation. Yes or no. Our life, for eternity, depends on it. Maybe for one or two of us here today, this is the day to make that call.

Choose life.


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