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Seeking a Sign

We have a game in our family which we play during long journeys in the car. Perhaps you have played a version of it. We call it the ABC game. The object of the game is to call out words from signs along the road which begin with each letter of the alphabet, starting with a word beginning with A and ending with Z. The first person to go through the whole alphabet wins.

When one gets hard up looking for a word, for example—a word beginning with the letter Q, it is tempting to pray and ask God for a sign with a Q word on it. But of course finding the signs you want in order to win a game is not as important as obeying signs that tell you how fast to drive, when to stop or yield, or where to get off the interstate.

The same thing is true in everyday life. There are signs which are essential to follow and then there are signs which are nice if they come along, but that’s about it.

In our text for today we will see the Pharisees asking Jesus for a sign. See what you think: are they asking Jesus for a sign as part of a game they are playing or what? Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 8:11-21….

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.
14 Now the disciples[a] had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”[b] 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

This is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that the Pharisees come to Jesus to ask him for a sign to prove his identity, to prove his authority for doing all that he is doing and teaching.

One thing that is interesting to me in this passage is that Jesus links the Pharisees with Herod. Now, the Pharisees teaming up with Herod is somewhat equivalent to Democrats and Republicans agreeing in Congress. Of course we know the one time they do agree with each other is when voting on their own salaries. When their own livelihood is at stake we see them coming together to defend themselves. The same is true here. The Pharisees and Herod are both aware that Jesus may draw power away from them. Perhaps that is why, back in Mark 3:6 we read, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Personally, I think the Pharisees asking for a sign is all part of an elaborate game to try to catch Jesus out, to find him saying or doing something they can arrest him for and have him put out of commission so that their own livelihood will no longer be threatened.

And is it not amazing that the Pharisees ask for a sign at this point in time? Jesus has just fed 4000 people with a few loaves and fish. How much more of a sign could you ask for than that? Jesus tells them no sign will be given to them. Why? Because they can’t even open their eyes and see the signs he has already given. The problem of the Pharisees is not that they have no evidence to lead them to faith; their problem is that they refuse to believe after having been confronted with the evidence. Jesus knows that to people like these Pharisees, multiplying signs will not help.

After Jesus walked away from the Pharisees he got in a boat with his disciples and crossed the Sea of Galilee.  Mark tells us that the disciples forgot to bring bread with them.  Jesus uses this as a teaching opportunity.  “Watch out,” he tells them, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”

The disciples misunderstand what Jesus is talking about. They think he is referring somehow to the fact that they have forgotten to bring bread with them. Maybe they are thinking that Jesus is talking about the fact that since they haven’t brought their own unleavened bread along then they will have to buy Gentile bread with yeast in it. The disciples are thinking on a physical level while Jesus is trying to speak to them about spiritual things.

Jesus takes the opportunity afforded by this misunderstanding to gently rebuke the disciples for their lack of faith. “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

What is Jesus talking about? Well, yeast had become for the Jews a symbol for sin. Remember on the night when the Lord led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt? They were instructed by the Lord to put the blood of the lamb over their doorways; then the death angel passed over them when he took the lives of the firstborn Egyptians. The Israelites were further instructed by the Lord to make their bread without yeast and eat in haste because they would have to leave Egypt quickly; there wasn’t time to put yeast in the bread and wait for it to rise. In the subsequent celebrations of the Passover, yeast came to symbolize sin. Down to this day Jewish families go through an elaborate process of cleaning their homes and removing all yeast before the Passover.  This is symbolic of repentance from sin.

The Pharisees were not repentant. Even though Jesus gave them many signs, many chances to believe, they deliberately chose NOT to believe in Jesus. This lack of repentance, this sin, infected all of their teaching.
A little bit of yeast can cause a large amount of dough to rise.  In the same way, one simple statement believed to be the truth can influence a lifetime of behavior.

Pastor Steve May gives the example of his friend Wayne. Wayne’s father was a typical man of his age who believed, “Women aren’t capable of balancing a checkbook. You can’t trust them to handle money.  They’ll spend every cent you give them.” Now Wayne was generally a good guy, but in regard to this point all he learned was from his father. So he believed what his father told him. Wayne carried this belief into his marriage and business life causing untold problems.

One little false teaching believed and put into practice can cause a world of harm.

What specific objections would Jesus have had to the teaching of the Pharisees?

As we have seen earlier in Mark’s Gospel, the Pharisees thought religion was all about the keeping of petty rules and regulations. They thought true religion was a matter of outward ritual and purity. Jesus is warning his disciples: “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees; beware of focusing on externals to the detriment of the heart.” Jesus is warning his disciples against legalism. That’s one part of the equation.

However, Jesus was also warning his disciples about the danger of the yeast of Herod. Herod was wealthy, aristocratic and heavily involved in the politics of his own nation. Jesus may have been warning his disciples against thinking that the kingdom of God is all about what can be attained here and now. Perhaps he was warning them against the dangers of wealth, power and prestige. Jesus knew people’s hearts could not be changed by politics; we can be changed from the inside out only by God’s grace.

If we bring this whole lesson forward two thousand years how should we apply it in our own time?  We don’t have the Pharisees or Herod walking around today. However, there is an application from this Scripture to our own time. I think Jesus’ lesson for all of us comes down to asking and answering this one question: Who are we going to listen to?

We have all seen recently how Fake News causes harm. The Russian government tried to use Fake News to disrupt our election process. Trump’s claims of Fake News cause confusion. All these things raise the question: who are we going to trust? Who are we going to listen to?

When it comes to spiritual teaching, bad teaching works its way like leaven through dough, so it is essential that we watch out for it. But what are the signs of false teaching? How do we tell the difference between false teaching and true?

Here are two questions to ask and to answer that will help you discern who to listen to. First, is this person’s teaching in agreement with what God has already revealed in Jesus Christ?

We should listen to all teachers, formal and informal, friends, family members, pastors, television talk show hosts, whoever, with a filter on.  This, in essence, was what Jesus was saying to his disciples about listening to the Pharisees and Herod. I imagine there were things Jesus agreed with the Pharisees about, and maybe even with Herod. But there were some dangerous things in the way of thinking of both the Pharisees and Herod.  Jesus is saying to his disciples: “Watch out, listen to what they say with a filter on!”

And what should be our filter? I think we need to look at and listen to everything with a Jesus filter because he is God’s Word; Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation of how he wants us to live.

John 1:17-18 says, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,[e]who is close to the Father’s heart,[f] who has made him known.”

Getting back to my initial story about road signs, we can see advertisements on signs for all sorts of things when we are driving down the road. Some of these advertisements are for good things, some are for bad things. To believe every advertisement you read would be foolish indeed.

The same holds true in regard to believing what others say, both formal and informal teachers. We need to test what they say, we need to run it through our Jesus filter to see whether we should believe it or not.
But of course if we are going to run everything through our Jesus filter that means we have to get to know Jesus. And getting to know Jesus, through reading the Scriptures, takes time—a lifetime of learning is involved. 

For me, I try to make Jesus my number one authority for determining what is true. When hearing all the competing voices in the world today I try to run it all through my Jesus filter to determine who I am really going to listen to and whose advice I am really going to follow.

Secondly, we need to ask regarding the people we listen to: is this person’s life producing good fruit?

For example, for many years I was reluctant to say anything from the pulpit about raising teenagers, because I didn’t have any teenagers of my own. Now that I have been through that phase of life, I really know that I shouldn’t say anything on the topic! But if I were to teach others about how to be good parents of a teenager it would be not only legitimate but very wise of my listeners to look at my life and see if I had raised my own teenagers well. And if I hadn’t done this, then it would not only be fair but wise for my hearers to stop listening to me, at least on the topic of raising teenagers!

There is an old saying: The proof is in the pudding.  In other words, you know a good cook by tasting her cooking. You know a good teacher by looking at the results of his or her life.

Jesus warned his disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod not only because what they said was out of alignment with God’s kingdom. Jesus warned his disciples because the lives of the Pharisees and Herod were out of alignment in a relationship with God.

As Steve May has said, “they didn’t pass the ‘results’ test. They certainly didn’t exhibit the love of God or the mercy of God.  They showed no visible signs of his joy, his compassion, his forgiveness. [The Pharisees] preached a sour, stern, legalistic approach to the religious life—and their followers seemed to be carbon copies.”

So I think Jesus would say to us today: “Watch out for the yeast of the people you listen to. Run everything through your Jesus filter. Watch out for the fruit in your teachers’ lives.” 
And that lesson applies to listening to me as well. Test what I say by Jesus. Go home and read the Bible for yourself and see if what I am saying is true. Examine the results of my life and see if you want to have the same results. And while you’re at it: pray for my life and my teaching, that both would be honoring to God.

There is also, I think, a third lesson in this passage for us today. It is a lesson about faith. The Pharisees chose not to believe in Jesus. They shut their eyes to the signs he was already giving them.

However, the disciples were in a different position. We see them lacking faith in this situation. But I think they wanted to believe. They had seen Jesus feed four thousand people, but then immediately they began to worry about the fact that they had no bread for their continuing journey. Last week, I shared with you these words from Michael Green. I repeat them again because the lesson is so important: “Lack of trust often springs from forgetfulness of past blessing.”

How do we overcome this problem? Rather than seeking more signs from God, more proof that he will care for us, maybe what we most need to do is count the past and present blessings of our lives that God has already given, and give him thanks for those.


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