Luke 11:29-36 (click to display NIV text)
July 7, 2013
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.”
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
We have seen in Luke that Jesus proclaimed the goodness of God, and encouraged people to ask, seek and knock, for God is able to give good gifts. Life is very different when we open our lives to the goodness of God. In our text for today, Jesus speaks to the attitudes and behaviors that characterized people in his generation: a lack of repentance for sin, an inability to see what God is doing, a refusal to trust God. The goodness and kindness of God leads people to repentance, but many in the crowds around Jesus were not willing to repent.
Those who did not accept Jesus and his authority accused him of being a magician, of using the power of one spirit or demon to destroy the power of another demon. They tested Jesus by demanding a sign, a great miracle or perhaps something in the heavens. Jesus answered that their sign would be “the sign of Jonah.” What was that? In the last part of Jonah’s life he goes in obedience to God to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. He proclaimed God’s judgment upon them, and they repented.
When we were in England a few years ago, we visited the British Museum. There is a display there from the ancient empire of Assyria, huge slabs of stone with fearsome warriors and chariots carved in them. Assyria was a very aggressive, conquering nation, one that caused tremendous devastation to the countries it overran, including Israel. The sign of Jonah is the call to repentance, admitting your sin and changing your behavior.
Jesus also mentions the Queen of Sheba, a foreigner, one far from God, who came to test Solomon and found he was wise and an agent of the Lord. So she made an alliance with him and respected the power of God in his life. She is one who was able to see what God was doing in the world, and in seeing, she humbled herself before the Lord.
In contrast to the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba, many in Jesus’ day rejected him and did not repent or humble themselves. We also live among a generation that does not easily repent, among a culture that sees its own handiwork with pride, but seems blind to the work of God. Our generation influences us, so Jesus calls us to practice repentance, to listen to him even when that is difficult, to embrace his light rather than the darkness of the world.
Last Saturday, at the Annual Meeting in Detroit, there were 17 of us who received a “lifetime achievement award,” which means we turned 65 this year and have been in Covenant ministry for a certain number of years. We are the generation that is concluding our time of service, at least in a more formal, full-time manner. As we left the platform to return to our seats, those who were being ordained that night were lining up to be introduced to the assembly. There were 55 of them, pastors who are beginning their journey in church ministry. I thought about the concluding generation and the beginning generation, about what we have completed, and what they are heading into.
My generation began ministry just after the Vietnam War, which had been a time of great stress and division in our country, causing conflict in many families. We also began in a time of growing disrespect for authority and a distrust of institutions. But within just a few years we experienced what Time Magazine called “The Year of the Evangelical” in 1980, and the healing of many families as people desired peace and moved beyond the conflicts of the war years, often returning to faith. This was the time of the growth of small group ministry and the great advancement of lay leadership in churches. Then, in the ’90s, came the politicization of the Evangelical church and the resulting pushback from the secular society. “Evangelical” ceased to be a favored word. Instead we witnessed the rise in influence of the secular agenda for our society. Yet, even through all that, came the great outpouring of compassion and justice ministries in the church. God seemed to answer every challenge and defeat with a new manifestation of his grace. It has been a great privilege to be a pastor during this time.
Now a new generation is entering ministry. There are challenges they will need to face. The issue of Biblical authority in the church must be reaffirmed, as the Reformation emphasis on Scripture alone is now being severely challenged. The place of mission and evangelism in our culture of diversity will have to be defined and lived out. There will be a need to demonstrate Christian morality and character as the church lives in a world filled with conflict. What will it mean to be a Christian in a world marked by terrorism, famine, global warming and a host of other issues?
I sense that the new generation of ministers is entering the church with hope and optimism. Yet there are great challenges. Ministry will be hard work, and there will be opposition. Jesus points out the reality of being faithful in a society that lacks repentance. But Jesus also indicates here that the answers may come from surprising places. After all, Nineveh repented and who would have predicted that? The Queen of Sheba saw the power of God in Solomon. Who will be the next world leader to recognize the work of God? Jesus calls us to let his light shine, so that it can be seen.
There are many ways for the church to show the light of God in Christ. In 1999 there were two Covenant churches in Detroit. In the years since, Detroit has lost population, the city government has gone bankrupt, and neighborhoods are filled with vacant lots, boarded up houses and despair. But the Covenant church now has 16 churches there, intent on being signs of hope and change. They organize doctors to put on free medical clinics. They clean up neighborhoods. They plant urban gardens on vacant land. They proclaim Christ. It is hard work, but they are not weary in doing good. They want to bring the light of Christ to shine in the darkness.
Jesus talks about light and darkness. In the ancient world it was thought that the body contained light, and that sight was a matter of the light from your body going through the eye out into the world. Of course, they had it completely wrong in terms of biology. We know that sight is a matter of light coming into the eye, not going out. But in a way, what they believed is insightful. You can embrace God’s light and goodness and allow it to transform your soul, and then share that light with the world. Or you can embrace darkness and spread its influence.
Jesus says that if you embrace the light of God’s salvation in Christ you can live for his purpose and do his will.
I John chapter 1: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. … If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Paul helps us to apply this as he writes in Galatians chapter 6. This is a picture of living out repentance and restoration in the church, embracing the light of Christ and living it. When there is sin, we are to restore people. We are to carry each other’s burdens, and also watch our own lives. We are to live in a way that pleases the Spirit. We are to do good to all people, without becoming weary.
In the communion, we receive Christ; we confess our need and ask for the light of Christ to renew us and to move us to live out the Gospel. Jesus will cleanse us of the attitudes of the culture that will not repent or see the light of God. He will shine as the light within us that expresses itself in love and obedience to God. Come to the table.