The sign is suffering

“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees spoke up. ‘Master,’ they said, ‘we should like to see a sign from you.’ He replied, ‘It is an evil and unfaithful generation that asks for a sign! The only sign it will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah remained in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.”

Matthew 12:38-40

Thursday, Fourth Week of Lent

We’re in the fourth week of Lent and getting nearer and nearer to the ultimate sign that validates the life and ministry of Jesus Christ: His victory of over sin and death in the resurrection. It’s ironic, don’t you think, that the compiler of the liturgy should choose this Gospel passage so near to culmination of 40 days of waiting.

Or is it?

Don’t we all fight the inner urge to make demands upon Christ? To make him perform? Advent and Christmas proclaim the miracle that God is made man. But in our frenetic pace, in our pragmatism, don’t we want to jump ahead to Easter Sunday? Let’s get to the point of it all: Jesus achieving something for us.

In the story above, some religious leaders wish to have Jesus’ claims validated. The span of some two thousand years and a lack of self-awareness can make it very easy to look down upon such men. What’s their problem? But a deeper look into our own hearts will show us just how like them we are.

A little over ten years ago, I traveled to my family home in southern England. I was some five or six years removed from living in the UK. I was having dinner with some families from the small independent church of which my family were members when we lived there.

The church probably had an average attendance of about 100. At the time I was a member of an 800 member suburban church outside of Las Vegas and, frankly, bewitched with the mega-church movement.

Talking over dinner, I remember describing my new church and basically saying something to the effect that, “if you do church right, it will grow.”I stated this as a universal rule.

Even as I said it, I was horrofied at my own arrogance. It was one of those moments in which you make a statement that is a verbal train wreck. [For the record, I was 18 or 19 at the time and newly sensing a call to ministry with the accompanying tendency of the immature to believe that I had all the answers. Lord, have mercy.]

We could unpack all of the presuppositions and assumptions behind my above statement. Give me a chance and I’d be happy to point out just how full of it I was back then!

What I want to point out, however, is that in making the statement I was really demanding of Christ a manifestation of His identity (proof of His divinity) in a specific way that accorded with my culture. It strikes me now that such a demand isn’t far removed from that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus answers the scribes and Pharisees not by pointing to His imminent resurrection and glorious ascension. Instead He locates the validity of His self in the crucifixion: in His suffering for sinners. How paradoxical is this? That Jesus’ truthfulness should be found not in might and glory, but in weakness and oppression. That Jesus is just as much present in the small things as the big things.

Truth be told, we don’t have much room for this truth in our contemporary church. We like the victorious Jesus not the crucified Christ wracked with pain. Unfortunately for our theology, but fortunately for our souls, we cannot have the former without the latter.

God, help me to embrace your weakness and to find that in it you are strong to save even to the uttermost. Amen.

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