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! – Luke 11:29-32
I just love that Jesus isn’t all nicey-nicey all the time. Yes, we read about Jesus having compassion on Jerusalem; on the crowds that followed him; on the blind and lame and social castoffs who came to him for healing, comfort, or a chance to return to full community with others. At the same time, the so-called “Temple cleansing” isn’t the only time Jesus anger and frustration overflowed. If you believe Jesus can call a bunch of people standing around him “an evil generation” without anger, your faith and imagination are far better than mine.
Yet, for what is he condemning them? For some kind of sign, something that let’s them know, definitively, that he, this carpenter from Nazareth, is the One promised. Like the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, at the end of which the Rich Man begs The Lord to return to his family to warn them only to be told that this man’s family had the Law and Prophets, and if that’s too bad, well too bad so sad. In other words, Jesus is condemning an entire generation for basic faithlessness. As if the whole history of Israel, the Scriptures that attest to what God has done and will do, isn’t enough, now the people want some kind of sign. To which Jesus says, “Fine! You want a sign? How about Jonah? How about the Queen of Sheba who came to sit at the feet of Solomon? The Kingdom of the South condemns you for your faithlessness; Nineveh condemns you for your faithlessness. Consider that.”
In this way, the United Methodist Church is so much like this evil generation. We have our heroes – Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, Rob Bell – who we look to for guidance through our generation-long malaise. We look for signs that our churches are alive, whether it’s through more people attending, higher giving, vibrant Sunday School and Youth ministries – including the required Summer Mission Trip, which has become de rigeur – and mistake all of it for the life of the Spirit. Not that I’m condemning more people in church, or mission trips; just that we think these are signs of the presence of the Spirit, signs of life, when all the sign we need has already been given to us. Consider part of the lyrics from the song above:
When will we learn, when will we change?
Just in time to see it all come down
Those left standing will make millions
Writing books on the way it should have been
We have all the tools, all the understanding, all the knowledge, all we need to be about the business of being the Church. What we lack is faith – faith in the God who calls us; faith in the Son who saves us; faith in the Spirit who brings us Life and New Life – to be about what we should be. We mistake being busy for being about making Disciples. We mistake larger attendance numbers for making Disciples. We mistake our Summer Mission Trips for transforming the world. In other words, we think all this stuff can silence the nagging fear that it just isn’t enough, that we need something, some sign, that we’re doing it right. We don’t have to have our theology right; we don’t have to have our doctrine set forth appropriately; we don’t have to pray the right prayer; we don’t have to see the face of Jesus above the altar; we don’t need signs.
I have a Facebook friend who’s a United Methodist pastor here in the Northern Illinois Conference. She constantly writes that she loves her job. She notes when she receives compliments from youth in her church, such as, “You make church fun!”. She holds office hours every Tuesday evening at a local Mexican Restaurant, and folks stop by. Oh, and did I tell you that she has a pink streak in her hair, in every picture she’s smiling a huge, warm smile, and that she preaches barefoot because she is treading on Holy Ground? I’m sure she and her church have the same worries all other churches have; there’s no reason to believe they are exempt. All the same, her message is more than perky happiness. Her message is far simpler: She is about the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world, and, man, isn’t it a blast? It’s holy, sure, and it’s serious, life-altering, world-altering business. There’s no reason not to celebrate the sheer joy of being about this work to which she’s been called, and at which she is so adept.
We need more like her. We need more men and women who love what they do, that to which they are called, and can share that love and joy with the world. There’s no magic formula, no sign, no miracle. Just understanding that one greater than Solomon and Jonah has come, and that’s worth celebrating, that should be enough to create excitement and enthusiasm for this whole church thing. Joy, love, and an enthusiasm for sharing that – there’s your sign. Otherwise, we might just find the good folks of Nineveh telling us, “What the world’s wrong with you?”