Bertrand Russell was an atheist. But he was once asked what he'd say if, in the end, he did find himself standing before God on the day of judgment and God asked him, 'Why didn't you believe in me?' And Russell replied, 'I would say, 'Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!'
'I'd believe in God if only there was more evidence.' I wonder how often people have said that to you. Someone said it to me recently, so I said, 'There's plenty of evidence.' And he said, 'Where?' So I said, 'In the Bible.' And he said, 'that's not evidence – it was written so long ago, it's like Chinese whispers: you've no idea what really happened.' So I said, 'I disagree. There's very good reason to believe that what the Gospels say about Jesus comes from eye-witnesses and hasn't been changed over time.' And he said, 'That may well be. But I could only believe it if I'd actually been there.' So I said, 'The problem with that is that the Gospels are full of people who saw Jesus with their own eyes and still didn't believe in him.' And he thought for a moment and said, 'Then maybe writing in the sky is God's only option.'
'If only there was more evidence.' You may be saying that to yourself as someone who doesn't yet believe in Jesus – but would like to. Or you may be saying that to yourself as someone who does, but who is puzzled and saddened by family and friends who don't. And it's easy to start wondering, 'Is there something wrong with the gospel? Is God being unreasonable, asking people to believe on not enough evidence?'
And the answer in this morning's Bible passage is, 'No. There's nothing wrong with the gospel and the level of evidence. What's wrong is our unwillingness to look at the gospel and go where the evidence leads. So would you turn in the Bible to Luke chapter 11 and verse 29. And if someone wants to believe – or wants to help others to believe – then the first thing this morning's passage says is:
1. LOOK AT JESUS' DEATH AND RESURRECTION (vv29-30)
Only it says that a bit cryptically, so let me explain. Look down to Luke 11.29:
When the crowds were increasing, [Jesus] began to say, "This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign [ie, some miraculous, knock-down proof that Jesus really is from God], but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah." (v29)
Now for the background to that, we need to revisit Luke 11.14, which we looked at a few weeks ago. It says:
Now he [Jesus] was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marvelled. But some of them said, "He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons" [ie, by Satanic power as opposed to God's power], while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. (vv14-16)
So there was no question in Jesus' day that he did miraculous healings. The question was: how – was he, and his power, really from God? And so v16 says they, 'kept seeking from him a sign from heaven' – like my friend's demand for writing in the sky. Some unambiguous, totally convincing, knock-down proof that Jesus really is from God. But – back over to Luke 11.29 – Jesus says:
"This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah." (v29)
So is Jesus being unreasonable? Is he asking people to believe in him on not enough evidence? No. It's these people who are being unreasonable, because they've already seen and heard enough to be able to believe. But their reaction shows they're clearly unwilling to. Which is why Jesus says, v29,
"This generation is an evil generation…" (v29)
Ie, there's something deeply wrong with them – deep down they don't want God to be God of their lives. But in case we think that Jesus is only talking about that generation, we need to look back again in this chapter – this time to Luke 11.13, where Jesus is teaching on prayer. And he says:
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (v13)
So he's talking there about all people in general. And he says, 'If you then, who are evil...' So he's talking about what's deeply wrong with all of us. He's talking about how by nature, none of us wants God to be God of our lives. He's talking about sin – that attitude that says to God, 'I don't want you as my King – I want to run my own life.' And that's the problem in all this. It's not the gospel or the evidence. It's us.
Some say that Nelson's greatest victory at sea was the Battle of Copenhagen. Things were going against the British, so the Admiral of the fleet gave the signal of permission to retreat. And Nelson saw it, turned to his flag captain and said, 'You know, Foley, I only have one eye – and I have the right to be blind sometimes.' And then he put his telescope to his blind eye and said, 'I really don't see the signal!' And he went on to win the battle. And that's wilful blindness, which is what Jesus is on about here. In Nelson's case it was so he could go on and win the battle. In all our cases, it's so we can go on living as if God wasn't God.
So back to Luke 11.29. Jesus says:
"This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation." (vv29-30)
So what does that rather cryptic comment mean? Well, Jonah was the prophet we heard about in our Old Testament (OT) reading, whom God told to go to the people of Nineveh and preach judgement unless they repented. Only Jonah was not at all keen on mercy being shown to nasty (as he thought) people like the Ninevites, so he fled on a ship in the opposite direction. And – long story short – to bring him round, God engineered events so that Jonah was thrown overboard, then rescued by being swallowed by a (quote) "great fish" – whatever exactly it was – which then threw him back up on dry land. After which he went to Nineveh and preached.
Now if you're wondering whether that's credible, the main thing to say is that Jesus gives his authority to that account. In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus says:
"An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12.39-40)
Ie, just as Jonah underwent a metaphorical death and resurrection, care of the big fish, so Jesus is going to undergo a literal death and resurrection. Assumption: the Jonah story really happened. The other thing to say about credibility is that there are some modern accounts of people who've been swallowed by, for example, whales – and who've emerged again and survived.
So what is 'the sign of Jonah'? Well from that parallel passage in Matthew, the sign is what happened to Jonah – his metaphorical death and resurrection. So Jesus is saying here that the ultimate sign the world will be given that he is from God and that he is God, is his literal death and resurrection.
You see, if you ask the Bible, 'Why did Jesus die on the cross?', the highest level answer is, 'Because he went there willingly to take the judgement for our sins, so we could be forgiven.' But at another level, the answer is, 'Because people didn't believe his claim to be the Son of God.' They thought it was false and so they got him put to death for blasphemy. And if the argument had ended there, and Jesus had stayed dead in his tomb, we would never have heard of him. But the argument didn't end there. The evidence of the New Testament (NT) is that he rose from the dead: three days after his death, his tomb was empty and eye-witnesses were saying they'd seen him alive again, bodily resurrected from the dead. And Jesus is saying, 'That's the ultimate sign you're going to get that I am from God and that I am God.' Look at my death and resurrection, and ask yourself the question, 'What else explains that?''
So if you're someone who doesn't yet believe in Jesus – but would like to – look at Jesus' death and resurrection. Look at the evidence at the end of each of the four Gospels. Go to the resources area at the back and ask for a book about it. And if you're someone who does believe and wants to help others to, then point them to Jesus' death and resurrection. Because that's the ultimate sign of who Jesus is. It's not the unambiguous, totally convincing, knock-down proof that these people in Luke 11 were looking for. But the truth is: there is no such 'knock-down proof'. It's like the guy wondering whether to propose to his girlfriend and looking for 'knock-down proof' to convince himself – telling himself, 'She's a great girl, she's great to be with, she'd make a great mother,' and so on. But you don't get married by being 'knocked down' by proof. It's an act of the will. It's about what you want. And it's the same with relationship with God. The evidence is there – above all, in Jesus and his death and resurrection. The issue is what you want to do with it – which is what Jesus comes onto next. He says:
2. REALISE YOUR PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY (vv31-32)
Look on to v31, where Jesus says:
The queen of the South will rise up at the judgement with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (vv31-32)
So Jesus mentions two OT examples of people who had much less privileged revelation from God than his generation – and yet responded. And the first example is the Queen of the South – who, for the Scots here, is not to be confused with the Dumfries footie team of the same name. They go back to 1919 (so their website says), whereas this 'Queen of the South' takes us back to 1,000BC, when Solomon was king of Israel. And she heard about Solomon's God-given wisdom and the obvious blessing of God on his reign. And she was intrigued and wanted to know more. So she made the effort to come and find out. And it seems we're to understand that she came to believe in the God of the Bible. And in v31 Jesus says:
"[She] will rise up at the judgement with the men of this generation and condemn them…" (v31)
We regularly say in the creed that Jesus, 'will come again to judge the living and the dead.' And instead of being embarrassed about that, we should be unashamed about it, because judgement is good news. We're tempted to be ashamed because it seems like God's judgement is a contradiction of his love – but it's not. Because if there was no judgement and no hell, that would mean God accepting everyone – and everything they'd done, which wouldn't be love; it would be total, moral indifference.
A friend of a friend had a little boy called Matthew. And after his first day at school Mum and Dad asked him how it had been and he said, 'It was rubbish. I've been there a whole day and I still can't read or write.' Then at the beginning of his second year, he came home unhappy, so they asked if something was wrong – like being picked on. And he said, 'No, it's the new teacher – she doesn't care about our work.' And they said, 'What do you mean she doesn't care?' And he said, 'She never marks it.'
You see, even a six year old can get this: no marking, no judgement, means no care, no love. Whereas God will mark our work, he will judge. And that's not a contradiction of his love, it's because of his love, because the opposite of love is not judgement – it's indifference.
So judgement is good news – but only if you're on the right side of the judge. And Jesus says: he's the judge, and on our response to him hangs our eternal destiny. Because if in this life we've said, 'No' to him being King of our lives, then at the judgement day, with no pleasure at all, he'll have to say 'No' to us – 'You can't be in my heaven.' Because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't recognise the king.
But the whole point of Jesus issuing warnings like this, and of his coming in the first place to die for our forgiveness, is that he doesn't want it to end that way. And whoever we are, whatever we've done, he offers us forgiveness and the chance to start life over again with him as King. And if you need to know how to make that new start, please do take a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? – which you'll find at the Welcome Desk and on the doors.
And then v32 says the same thing again, really.
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (v32)
So the men of Nineveh will say to that generation, 'We only had the privilege of Jonah preaching to us – but we repented. You had the privilege of God incarnate among you, and you didn't.' And to us they'd say, 'You had the privilege of the Bible – with the New Testament (NT) record of that time when God was incarnate – and what did you do with it?'
We are very privileged to live this side of Jesus' first coming and to have Bibles in our hands telling us all we need to know about it. And I'm always reminded of that by the internationals among us. Just last year, I welcomed a new Chinese student here. She said she'd never met a Christian or had access to a Bible. She said, 'Today is the first time I've ever held a Bible in my hands and I want to know more about Jesus.' She didn't take that privilege lightly when it came. Whereas with so many British people, familiarity breeds contempt. As Jesus says later in Luke (13.30): 'some are last [in privilege of access to knowledge of God] who will be first [to respond when opportunity comes], and some are first [in privilege of access to knowledge of God] who will be last [ie, unresponsive].'
So if you're not yet a believer here, compared to many people in the world, you are very privileged in being able to seek God through the Bible if you want to. And that privilege brings responsibility.
And for those of us who are believers, that privilege brings continuing responsibility. I was reminded of that by a quote from Penn Jillette, well-known as a magician, but also as an atheist. He said this:
I've always said that I don't respect people who don't proselytize… If you believe that there's a heaven and a hell and that people could be going to hell… and you think… it's not really worth telling them… because it would make it socially awkward… [Well,]… how much do you have to hate somebody not to proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible, and not tell them?
Judgement and hell are not the first things I talk to people about when I'm sharing the gospel. But they're two of the biggest things that motivate me to. And if people are willing to talk more and find out more, then at some point, you have to talk about them.
So to people who want to believe – or want to help others to believe – this passage says: 1) Look at Jesus' death and resurrection, 2) Realise your privilege and responsibility. And finally it says:
3. BE CAREFUL HOW YOU SEE (vv33-36)
Look on to v33, where Jesus says:
"No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. (v33)
Ie, the whole purpose of bringing a light in is for people to see, so they're not stumbling around in the dark any more. And elsewhere, Jesus called himself 'the light of the world' (John 8.12). And the point here is that God isn't playing hard to find: he's brought his light into the world because he wants people to see and not be stumbling through life in the dark about him and in the dark about what life's all about. So there's nothing wrong with the light. The problem is on our side, with our spiritual eyesight:
34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness (v34)
So he's not speaking medically there, but metaphorically. He's saying, 'Your eye – ie, your fundamental outlook on things – either lets the light of Jesus in to your life, or shuts it out. So he's talking about the 'filter' of our fundamental outlook that we see everything through. And he says that filter can either be 'healthy' or 'bad'.
The original word translated 'healthy' is literally 'single'. I assume Jesus didn't have this in mind, but it's the same idea as a single malt whisky – like The Balvenie: it's not a mix, it's just one, focussed taste. And Jesus is talking about the outlook on life that says, 'I'm focussed on finding the truth about God from the Bible and following it, wherever it leads, whatever the implications.'
Whereas the mixed eye – the spiritual equivalent of Famous Grouse – is where I'm saying, 'I'll look into the Christian message, but if I don't like the implications for my life, I won't take it any further.' Ie, half-open to God, supposedly – but the greater half still committed to living my own way. And that's the 'bad' eye. Actually, the original word is 'evil' – the same as in 'evil generation' in v29. It's the problem we started with – of wilful blindness.
And you need to be aware that wilful blindness to God is a problem for you if you're not yet a believer. Eg, I remember one guy, after he'd heard quite a bit about the gospel from me, saying, 'Well I think there's at least as much evidence for Christianity as any of the science I believe [science was his degree and then career]. But I'm not going to take it any further because I want to keep sleeping with my girlfriend.' Which at least was upfront.
But wilful blindness to God is also a problem still knocking around in those of us who are believers, and that we can easily revert to. So we need to watch ourselves. Because as we read the Bible more, as we get to know Jesus more, we learn more of the implications of having him as Lord. And there are new submissions to make to his will, new ways in which we have to say, 'Not my will but yours be done'. And that's often not easy. And like Nelson, we may want to put the telescope to our blind eye and ask, 'Does the Bible really say that? It can't really mean that, can it?'
So Jesus says to us this morning, v35:
Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness (v35)
Ie, be careful how you see. Be careful if you're not yet a believer how you look into the Christian message and respond to it. Be careful if you are a believer how you deal with the Bible and respond to it.
Because there's no neutrality. At any given time – like right now – we're either letting the light in or shutting it out, either softening our hearts towards Jesus and his Lordship or hardening them. Which is why every exposure we have to the Bible is actually such a serious thing. Because every time, our response is shaping our lives and our eternities.
Because the one thing we never are, as we look at Jesus in the Bible, is neutral.