We’ve already seen that Jesus’ popularity has grown dramatically, to the point where he has faced a crescendo of opposition from the religious leaders from Jerusalem. Nearing a decisive point in the narrative of the Gospel of Matthew, some of these religious leaders come to test Jesus, asking him to show them a sign from heaven. Jesus responds by commending their meteorological capacities … “You know how to interpret the skies to know whether a storm is coming, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times.” Why would they need a sign? Hadn’t they witnessed the deeds of power Jesus was performing? They’d seen a man’s withered hand healed on the Sabbath. They’d seen the nameless forces of evil chaos in possession of human bodies listen to the command of Jesus. Yet they could not recognize the signs of the times.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out that American Christians automatically assume that if we had been confronted by someone like Hitler, we would’ve been able to recognize that he was evil. However, Germany was one of the most theologically sophisticated nation on the planted. But Christians in Germany assumed they were German Christians just like Christians in America assume that we are “American Christians.” He goes on to say that churches that are nationally identified will seldom be able to faithfully read the signs of the times. Religious leaders read the New York Times and adjust, while followers of Jesus read the same papers to show how Jesus offers an alternative reading of the times.
The rumblings of the thunder of coming judgment roll off in the distance, as Jesus tells them that only a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign. Striking that Jesus calls an entire generation wicked. To this generation, as to all generations, no sign will be given except the enigmatic Sign of Jonah. Jonah was swallowed up by a sea monster in the middle of a storm, as the result of God’s judgment upon him for fleeing Ninevah, and the only sign the generation will be given is the same sign of judgment and death.
The sign of Jonah is at the same time a promise of a horrific coming judgment upon the generation, but at the same time a promise of hope. Anyone who knew the story knew that even though Jonah was swallowed up by the big fish, it was unable to digest him & spit him out. The coming judgment will be awful, but a statement is being made here that death itself will not be able to digest what it swallows.
Immediately following this Jesus takes his disciples to Caesaria Philippi, where his disciples recognize explicitly that he is the Messiah & the Son of the Living God. Jesus commends Peter for this recognition, promising to give him the keys of power over the alternative community that Jesus is forming as witnesses to his Kingdom. And then, in a shocking change of tone, for the first time in the Gospel story, Jesus tells his disciples that they must head for Jerusalem, for there he will face the ultimate storm and will die a terrifying, violent death.
Peter rebukes him, saying “HELL NO! This will NOT happen to you!” Jesus’ sharply attacks Peter and calls him satan, for Peter’s words reflect the same words that the devil gave him in the wilderness…”if you are the Son of God, save yourself!” The road of the Messiah is not one of survival or self-preservation…the only way to accomplish God’s purpose for humanity is to walk the road of sacrifice and suffering love that always ends on a cross.
Jesus doesn’t expect all his disciples to follow. In fact, he leaves it open for them to leave. If they want to follow him to Jerusalem, they can, but the way of the cross is one where not only will they lose everything, and they will probably die. Like the Fellowship of the Ring before the looming gates of Mordor, the Jesus and his band of followers find their vision darkened by the shadow of the cross which creeps ever closer. A cackle of thunder booms from the south over the skies of Jerusalem, where the final Storm of Jonah now resides.
The Messiah and his newly founded church begin their final march upon the Holy City where he will be crucified as Israel’s Final King.