St Barnabas and St Michael’s 8th September 2013
Reading – Matthew 16:1-4
How much evidence do you need?
Over the past few weeks we have been working our way through chapters 14-16 of Matthew’s gospel and we have seen Jesus do the most amazing things. He has fed the hungry, healed the sick, open the eyes of the blind, made the deaf hear, caused the lame to walk and the mute to speak. It’s little wonder that when the crowds saw all that Jesus was doing they praised the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:31)
But there is one group of people who are far from convinced, people who are sceptical about who Jesus is and whether He is a force for good. They are the religious police who see themselves as responsible for the moral and spiritual life of the nation, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. All they can see in Jesus is a threat to public order, a good man, possibly, but also a deceiver, someone who is leading the people astray.
So no matter what Jesus does, their response is to question and to argue, to seek to undermine Jesus’ popularity and expose His true identity. When Jesus feeds the five thousand, they come and ask why His disciples don’t wash their hands according to the tradition of the elders. To them, this infringement of the rules is far more important than the fact Jesus is changing lives and bringing the grace and love of God to so many needy people. Or again, in today’s reading, after Jesus feeds the four thousand, they come forward to test Jesus by asking Him to show them a sign from heaven.
It seems to me we live in an age where there are a lot of people like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. I don’t mean they are outwardly religious or even claim to lead a particularly respectable life. But they have the same suspicious, questioning attitude to the Christian faith. They want to challenge any claim that Jesus is alive and a force for good. They may even want to go further and deny there is a God at all, and that in today’s enlightened age anyone who has a faith is weak or misguided at best, at worst a dangerous fanatic.
How do we answer such challenges to our faith? When we have people who are constantly seeking to undermine what we believe, who no matter what we say or do refuse to accept there might be some truth or some goodness in the Christian faith? I know that for many people here this morning this is an urgent question and it’s perhaps one that we don’t address often enough in our preaching and teaching.
So let’s look at Jesus’ response this morning and see what we can learn. Now at first sight His words in verse 4 seem enigmatic and puzzling: A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. I’m not sure there would be many occasions when we could use this verse to answer our critics, especially as it may not be that clear to us in the first place!
But the thing to realise is that it’s not the first time the Pharisees and Sadducees have asked for a sign. Just like the sceptic who keeps on at us because of our faith, they continue to ask Jesus for the same thing. And each time they ask, Jesus gives the same answer. So to understand what Jesus is saying here we need to go back a few pages to Matthew 12:38-40:
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
How is this relevant to us? Well, people often say that many elements of the Christian faith are incredible, for example, the virgin birth, or water turning into wine, or Jesus walking on the water. And sometimes we have to be honest and say it’s not always that easy to know how to provide an answer. But what if there was one miracle, one act that Jesus performed which was undeniable, which would make sense of everything else? Because if that were the case, then that would change everything. It would mean we could prove our claims about Jesus and show the solid evidence for our faith. And it might even make our critics think again.
And the resurrection – the sign of Jonah – is that miracle. In fact it is one of the most researched and most investigated events of the ancient world. In every generation there is someone who sets out to prove the resurrection couldn’t have happened. And you know what? They nearly always end up convinced Jesus really did rise from the dead.
There is the evidence of the gospels themselves, written within a generation of Jesus’ death. If the resurrection didn’t happen, there would have been plenty of people around to refute what the four evangelists wrote. But they didn’t. And, by the way, don’t let anyone convince you there were other gospels with a different story that the church suppressed. The so-called lost gospels have been shown to be later works, and none of them were ever authorised for public worship. The church lost interest in them simply because they weren’t the original and the best.
Then there is the evidence of the early church. Only the resurrection explains why a small group of frightened, desperate men turned into a force that within a generation turned the Roman world upside down. They were convinced something so dramatic and so life-changing happened in a tomb just outside Jerusalem that they were willing to risk martyrdom, arrest, persecution, if only they could preach the name of Jesus. And what is so striking is how many thousands of people believed in their message. Maybe you could imagine a few misguided people convincing a few more misguided people about a Messiah rising from the dead. But the sheer numbers and the rapid spread of the gospel can’t be explained away as a simple case of misplaced enthusiasm. No, the growth of the church can only be explained by the resurrection of Jesus.
And there is the evidence of Jesus’ opponents. You’d have thought if they wanted to put a stop to this story of the resurrection, they would have produced a body or arrested a group of Jesus’ followers on suspicion of tampering with the evidence. But the interesting thing is, neither the Romans nor the Jewish authorities were able to do this. They would accuse the early church of many things, but they were unable to deny the central truth of the Christian faith, the sign of Jonah, that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
The evidence of the gospels, the evidence of the early church, the evidence of Jesus’ opponents together provide a formidable case for the resurrection. And if Jesus was able to conquer even the power of death, then everything else fits into place. If the Son of God could defeat our greatest enemy, there is nothing to suggest He could not be born of a virgin or change water into wine or feed 5000.
Of course at this point someone will almost inevitably say, “That’s all very well, but hasn’t science disproved religion?” “How can you still believe in God when there’s evolution, the Big Bang, and all the rest?” Certainly that’s the sort of question I’ve been asked several times over the past few months, and I suspect I am not alone. Many people – even without considering the evidence – live with this assumption that science has disproved religion, that faith is something no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century.
So what would Jesus say in such a situation? Maybe there’s a clue in verses 2 and 3 where He says to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. You see, the Pharisees and the Sadducees knew how to predict the weather from simple scientific observation. They could look at the world around them and draw reasonable conclusions. But that did not mean they could look at Jesus and understand who He truly was. There was, you see, a contradiction between their scientific method and their inability to believe in Him.
And it has to be said that same contradiction still exists today. There is still a blind spot in people’s minds which means they accept there is some great divide between science and faith. They make the assumption science is somehow factual and faith irrational. But what people who hold to this point of view fail to realise is that actually, the majority of scientists today have some kind of faith in God. They observe the world around them according to their particular discipline and quite independently come to the conclusion that the evidence points to a Creator.
For example, I was at theological college with another person training for the ministry who also happened to be a professor in astrophysics. We were on mission together in Northampton, and he walked in on a debate in a pub where someone loudly proclaimed, “Science has disproved religion”. You can imagine the tone of the debate changed somewhat when he introduced himself.
Or again, my college principal at the time was formerly an atheist who found faith when working on his PhD in biophysics at Oxford University. Both men continue to write widely and their publications show time after time there is little tension between accepting a scientific view of the world and belief in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. When you stop and consider the evidence of the world around you, then idea of God becomes a distinct possibility, even a probability.
Now there’s a lot more I could say on this subject, but for now, if you are interested in finding out more, see me afterwards and I can give you plenty of resources to help you understand how to respond. As Christians there is no reason to be defensive or afraid when people attack our faith because of science – in fact quite the opposite. We can graciously but firmly give all kinds of reasons why belief in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is not only rational but also the best explanation of the available data.
Of course the Pharisees and the Sadducees did firmly believe in God the Creator. Indeed their whole lives were spent trying to work out how to faithfully serve and please the Lord Almighty. But their real tragedy is that, when they were presented with all the evidence the Lord had come among His people, they could not see. Instead they rejected the very hope of Israel for which they had been waiting. And no matter how many signs they asked for, or how miracles they witnessed their hearts remained unbelieving, hardened, sceptical.
This leads to my final point this morning that in the end the evidence you accept is the evidence you choose to believe in. You may, for example, believe everything started with a Big Bang that happened by chance, that over billions of years random bunches of molecules evolved into intelligent life on a planet randomly positioned in a random universe where by virtually impossible combination of factors everything is finely tuned for us to survive and thrive. To me that is a bigger leap of faith than believing we were made by a personal God who loves us and sent His Son to die on a cross and rise again for us. The evidence of creation, the evidence for the resurrection, seem to me and to billions of believers around the world to firmly point in this direction and the witness of the Holy Spirit bears this out.
So the question is, what will you choose? And in asking this question I should also add that faith is far more than simply a question of what values you and I hold in my heart. Because it is an inevitable fact of our human nature that what we believe affects how we view the world around us and how we behave. If indeed we are simply random bunches of molecules in a meaningless universe, then why, at the end of the day, should we care about, for example, about the situation in Syria? Shouldn’t we simply write the conflict off as the struggle for the fittest to survive? You see, if there is no higher good beyond ourselves, no God who made us in His image, then where in the end lies our incentive for doing good? On the other hand if we are creatures called to love and serve our Lord, then we will do all we can to care for our fellow human beings, to pray for them, to weep for them, to hold them in our hearts.
But here’s the rub. Because if we do go down the path of accepting Jesus as the gracious gift of a good and loving God, then we have also to accept our need for the cross and the empty tomb. We have to confess that although God made us in our image we have gone astray and failed to do His will, that we are – to use a word much hated nowadays – sinners in need of grace and forgiveness. And maybe here’s the real reason why so many people want to reject the Christian faith. It’s not actually anything about science or religion, or how the world was made. It’s the fact Jesus tells us things about ourselves we would rather not hear. Just as in our passage today Jesus calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees a wicked and adulterous generation.
How much evidence do you need? Well, there is evidence aplenty which massively supports the Christian faith, and we need to know how to present it. But as we have seen from our passage today no amount of evidence, no miraculous sign can of itself change an unbelieving heart. That change can alone come from God who gives the gift of faith. And so our calling as Christians is not simply to argue or challenge, but to pray, that this same God who made us and loves us would open hearts and minds and help people see. For the sake of His name and the glory of His kingdom. Amen.