We’re one week into the new year. How are your resolutions coming along?
People plan all kinds of things. Giving up alcohol or chocolate. Getting up earlier. Exercising more. And 101 things that are very specific to you.
There’s one more. Many people plan to give church a bit more of a go in 2017. And maybe you’re one of them.
That’s a good thing. But you want to keep your resolution, so it’s worth thinking about why so many people choose not to follow Jesus.
Maybe you’ve been coming to church for some time. Maybe you’d love to have more of your friends, or your family, join you in following Jesus. Well, wouldn’t it be good to start to understand why they don’t?
Matthew’s going to show us.
We’re in chapter 12 in his gospel. Chapters 11 and 12 have been looking at the different responses people made to Jesus, and Matthew’s now drawing this to a close. In this week’s passage, he’ll look at people who don’t follow Jesus. Why is this, and what are they missing out on? And then next time, he’ll look at people who do. What do they stand to gain?
So today: Why do people not follow Jesus. And what do people miss out on if they don’t?
Matthew gives us two reasons why people don’t follow Jesus. And what we miss out on if we don’t is devastating.
Reason number one why people don’t follow Jesus is that they want more evidence. More evidence.
Here come the Jewish leaders, verse 38: “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” “You’re making some big claims. We’d like a miracle to back up what you’re saying.”
Jesus refuses. Verse 38: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it …” Jesus sees straight through them. They’re not asking for a sign because they want to believe in him. They’re trying to escape the obvious.
The fact is, they’ve had lots of signs. Chapters 8 and 9 recorded Jesus performing countless miracles: people are made clean, healed with a word, and healed in vast numbers. Nature is tamed, evil is driven out, sins are forgiven, the dead are raised. People are given their sight, their hearing and their speech.
What’s more, these are exactly the miracles that the Old Testament said the Messiah would do when he came. When John the Baptists asked Jesus if he was the one who was promised, Jesus pointed to exactly these miracles, and then to the book of Isaiah. “Join the dots, John”. The Jewish leaders should have joined the dots. Jesus has not just done some impressive miracles. He’s done exactly the right miracles.
They should be flocking to follow him. Instead they just yawn and ask for another sign. They’re trying to avoid the obvious, and Jesus sees straight through them.
They will get one sign more, but it’s in the future. Verse 39 goes on:
“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.”
Maybe you’ve heard of Jonah, the Old Testament prophet. He tried to avoid preaching to Israel’s enemies, the city of Nineveh. Long story short, God ended up rescuing him from drowning by sending a huge fish to swallow him. The fish escorted Jonah back to dry ground, and second time around he went. The Ninevites listened, and were spared God’s judgement.
Three days in the fish, and then he’s back. Jesus says he’ll do the same – three days in a stone tomb. Good Friday. Easter Saturday. Easter Sunday. And then he’ll be back.
The Ninevites were impressed by Jonah the prophet. The Queen of Sheba was impressed by Solomon the King. Both those figures were only forerunners. They were anticipating Jesus, the greatest prophet, the greatest king. And now he’s here. They should be able to see it, but instead they just ask for a sign. More evidence.
And the consequences for refusing are devastating. They get to miss out on the prophet greater than Jonah. God himself come to earth to make himself known. They get to miss out on the king greater than Solomon, who laid down his own life for the good of his subjects.
Worse still, there’s a judgement day. They’ll be standing there in the line of people waiting to be condemned. And while they’re mumbling about needing more evidence, they’ll look across to the other line and see the inhabitants of Nineveh, and the Queen of Sheba. They haven’t got a leg to stand on. Here are people who are at the judgement as believers. And they had far less evidence to go on. They’ll see the devastating truth – they’ve missed the boat, even though they had plenty of evidence.
Many of you will know that you have to pay attention when you’re coming off the M20 at Wrotham. Miss the turning, there’s nothing for miles, and it’s a 36 mile round trip to get back. Maybe you’ve even spent a happy half hour doing just that. There are plenty of signs to tell you to come off the motorway. Two as usual tell you about the exit. An extra one warns you that the next exit is 18 miles later. You know the Highway Code. You know what an official motorway sign looks like. You can curse all you like as you go sailing westwards past Noah’s Ark, but please don’t say that what you needed was a sign.
Still, today, people refuse to follow Jesus for lack of evidence. They’re looking for some big sign that will convince them that Jesus is the one to follow.
But the problem is never lack of evidence. There’s plenty of evidence. God made sure that the miracles of Jesus were written down, recorded before the eyewitnesses died out. We’ve got all the same signs that the leaders of Jesus’ day had. What’s more, we’ve got the one remaining sign that was still in the future for them. Jesus really did die, and climb out of his tomb, more alive than ever on day 3.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever looked at the evidence for the resurrection. It really is astounding, and any other way of explaining what happened just crumbles to dust when you look at it properly.
There is never a lack of evidence. There’s plenty of evidence. The only question is whether we are willing to accept the evidence. And yet plenty refuse to follow Jesus because they want more evidence!
That’s reason number one: People want more evidence.
Reason number two: People want less commitment. Less commitment.
Jesus tells a parable to describe his generation. It’s a story set in a world that’s unfamiliar to us, but was very familiar to Jesus’ hearers – the world of exorcism. Demons are real, and they were particularly active during Jesus’ earthly lifetime. He drove many demons out of people, setting them free.
Let me read again from verse 43: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
There’s the picture. A person with an evil spirit is like a house. The demon is driven out and the house is empty. The demon doesn’t like living in the desert, so he goes looking for another human host. To his delight, he finds his original home is still empty, unoccupied. In fact, there’s room for more. So he goes and finds the perfect number of other demons, seven, and they all move in together. And so that person is worse off than if they’d never had the demon driven out in the first place.
This is a picture of his generation. His generation have had Jesus come and clean house. He’s driven out much that was evil. He healed the sick, preached good news, drove out evil, and tamed nature. He even raised the dead. That’s like driving a demon out of a person. But it leaves them empty, uninhabited.
What his generation won’t do is embrace Jesus. Follow him. Allow him in to take the place of the evil that was driven out. Instead, they stand on the side-lines, complaining about not having enough evidence. What they should do is allow Jesus in. Treat him as the Lord that he is. Let him take control. Let his Spirit take up residence.
The trouble is, without Jesus to take its place, the trouble will return. A casual acquaintance with Jesus drives away the trouble, but only for a while. Then it’s back, and back in force, and things are worse than they were before.
People liked having Jesus around. They liked having their sick healed. They liked his teaching. But they didn’t want him to take control. They didn’t want him in the driving seat, his hands on the tiller. They wanted Jesus, but didn’t want to be fully committed to him.
We may not be familiar with the world of driving out demons, but there are lots of modern-day equivalents we could use to say the same thing.
Maybe you’ve cleared out a cupboard at home. You’re being given something particularly bulky for Christmas, so you need to make room. The trouble is, you did it in November. By the time December 25th comes around, there’s even more clutter in there than there was before you cleared it out.
Or OFSTED visit a school and decide it’s a disaster. It’s failing, and the problem is the staff. Every single member of staff is sacked. They’d never do this, of course, but imagine that they then don’t appoint any new members of staff. School opens the next day, with no teachers at all. That’s much worse. If there’s one thing worse than the worst teachers it’s having none. The vacuum left the children in charge, and things went further downhill very fast.
As do many people today. Many people love to come to church. Especially over Christmas. But many do not want Jesus to take charge. They want Jesus to take away some of the raw commercialism of Christmas. They want to be around Jesus, but without the commitment. They want Jesus to sweep up the mess, but they don’t want him to move in.
It’s not just individuals that do this. Our whole generation is doing it collectively as well. In Britain, we owe an enormous amount to the influence of Jesus Christ, and of Christians. Christians abolished slavery, established education, reformed the prison system. Our Queen is a source of envy the world over, but you cannot separate her from her Christian faith and the Christian oaths she swore at her coronation. Our society is built on the idea that every human being has equal dignity and worth. That did not arise in a vacuum. It all comes from the teachings of the Lord Jesus
And yet the current generation wants to unwind all of that. We want to keep the good influence that Jesus Christ has had on our nation, but not to have him. But drive out Jesus, we’ll soon lose the blessings he’s brought to our nation, and we’ll overshoot as well. Our final state will be worse than the first.
There’s the second reason that many in our day, as in Jesus’ day, do not follow Jesus. They want less commitment. They like things about Jesus, but they don’t want him in charge. Less commitment.
If you’re here this morning still looking into the claims of Jesus, then welcome! We’d love to help you explore the claims of Jesus for yourself. Maybe our Christianity Explored course would help.
But this passage makes us ask: What’s keeping you? If you still need to examine the evidence, then please take time and do that. But please don’t confuse that with the idea that there isn’t enough evidence. There’s plenty.
And please don’t stand on the side-lines. To benefit from all that Jesus came to bring, you need to invite him, to take control, to become what your life is all about.
Many of us already do follow Jesus. Let’s make sure he’s right at the centre of our lives, in the driving seat, not just having a small influence here or there. And let’s pray for our friends who don’t yet know him. So often, they don’t even know what they’re missing out on.