When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
Why it is ‘evil’ to ask for a sign? The Gospels show us Jesus responding to pleas for a miracle: Have mercy!Make me clean! and so on. There’s something more here. Scholars haven’t agreed what ‘the sign of Jonah’ is; many say it’s his miraculous escape from death which might be compared with Jesus’ resurrection; others add that Jonah was in the ‘tomb’ of the body of the fish before that escape just as Jesus’ was in the tomb. But then comparing Jonah to the queen doesn’t make sense. What those stories DO have in common is the people (Ninevites, the queen) who are open to hearing and seeing the things of God.
Is the problem with sign-seeking then, the refusal to be open to what God is already offering through Jesus and demanding proof ON OUR TERMS? Questioners came from John the Baptist asking, ‘ARE YOU the Messiah?’ and Jesus replies ‘go and tell John what you see and hear …’. God is already working around us, in our communities and in the world; do we make the same efforts as the queen to go and find out what that is?
I don’t doubt prayer is hugely important, but I sometimes wonder if we use ‘taking time for prayer’ as an excuse for not joining in where God is already acting. Let’s pay attention outside our normal expectations and not, as Jonah did, have expectations of how others should engage with God. Maybe we shouldn’t fall into the trap of ignoring the good things of the Kingdom happening NOW outside the Church’s influence.
Surprising God, open our eyes to see where you are already present and active, and humble us if we need to acknowledge the Church does not have all the answers. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Rosalind Selby is Principal of Northern College and a member of Didsbury URC.