One of the shortest stories in Matthew’s gospel turns out to be one of the most important.

According to Matthew 16, as Jesus and his disciples pulled their small boat to shore near Magdala, some Pharisees and Sadducees greeted Jesus.

Right off the bat, everyone watching this scene play out must have known trouble was brewing. Normally, when Pharisees and Sadducees met, arguments broke out. Occasionally, blood was spilled. Pharisees and Sadducees got along in those days about as well as Democrats and Republicans co-exist today.

To really set the picture, imagine getting out of your car on a visit to Washington DC. There, waiting arm-in-arm, are President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi! They’re both smiling, and one of them asks if the two of them might have a moment of your time. If that scene doesn’t make you nervous, you’ve not been paying attention to current events! The only thing that would unite Trump and Pelosi – or Pharisees and Sadducees – would be a common enemy!

The Pharisee-Sadducee, First-Century version of bad political blood “came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.”[1]

Jesus didn’t take long to respond.

“When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.[2]

No sign. No miracle. No proof. And he left town immediately. Whoever in that village needed a miracle missed it. Whoever longed to hear his teaching went hungry. Something about this meeting with religious leaders near the beach infuriated Jesus.

In our world, it would have been the equivalent of saying, “Hey Alexa, have Jesus do a trick for us!” There’s no investment in research. There’s no obligation for commitment. It’s the First-Century version of Convenient Christianity.

No doubt, Jesus could have done something amazing. He could have called for an earthquake. He could have given them all toothaches or kidney stones and waited for the first one to beg for healing. Even today, Jesus could make the President tweet out a kind word concerning the Speaker, and he could cause the Speaker to admire her Commander in Chief.

Yes, I know such things would take a miracle, but that’s exactly the point. Jesus was standing there. Any miracle was possible!

But Jesus just left. Like Jonah walking through Nineveh, Jesus only had one message for such people. They needed to repent. Change. Admit their sin and ask God for mercy.

Go back in time by only a day and you’ll see Jesus hosting a healing marathon on the opposite side of the lake. Jesus healed the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others. People, Matthew said, were amazed and gave praise to God.[3] When it came time to eat, Jesus fed thousands of people with seven loaves of bread and a “few small fish.” It was the second time Jesus had miraculously fed a large crowd with a small amount of food.

After hundreds of miracles and hours of teaching, Jesus had headed for Magadan in search of some rest. But instead of peace and quiet, he found his political enemies laying in wait, united only in their desire to do away with the Jesus frenzy sweeping across Israel.

Here’s the problem with that particular group of Pharisees and Sadducees. They were in the right neighborhood, but they hadn’t bothered going to where Jesus had been preaching and healing. They could have walked to Capernaum on many occasions and seen Jesus at work. It wasn’t that far. As for the day before? A short boat ride would have taken them to a miracle-fest. If thousands of other people had heard about the event, surely the critics had heard the same news.

But it had never been convenient to follow Jesus, so they hadn’t.

Suddenly, a boat appeared in their own harbor. It’s Jesus! Finally, it’s convenient to see what Jesus can do, so they ask him for a “sign.” They have no intention of following Jesus. They have no intention of determining whether or not he might really be the Messiah. At best, they want to be entertained.

In our world, it would have been the equivalent of saying, “Hey Alexa, have Jesus do a trick for us!” There’s no investment in research. There’s no obligation for commitment. It’s the First-Century version of Convenient Christianity.

So why is this story important?

Because if you’re ever going to follow Jesus, one thing’s got to be crystal clear. Between you and Jesus, only one of you gets to lead.

It’s not important whether or not it’s convenient for you to follow Jesus today. It’s only important that you follow.

It’s does not matter if the journey will cost you time, popularity, money or physical exertion. Your task – if you claim to be a follower – is to follow.

And the wild thing about this truth, and this short encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees?

They could have seen all the miracles they wanted if they’d only followed. If they’d just put a little effort into it, they could have already seen hundreds of miracles just by joining the crowds on the opposite shoreline the day before. They could have tasted the miraculous when Jesus served one of his amazing meals! They could have danced with healed paralytics. They could have watched former blind men weep with joy and sung with those who were hearing music for the first time.

But it wasn’t worth the walk, so they missed the miracles.

Worse yet, if they’d followed Jesus on the day of this confrontation in Magadan, they would have walked with the disciples all the way to Caesarea Philippi, heard some amazing teaching and had the chance to see something any of them would have given their right arms to see.

For on the mountain that rises up from Caesarea Philippi, Jesus was transfigured while he met with Moses and Elijah.

Moses and Elijah.

Maybe that doesn’t excite you. But those men in Magadan? They quoted the words of Moses every day. They set a place for Elijah at every Passover meal. They might not have yet been impressed with Jesus, but Moses and Elijah were revered nearly to the point of worship. To have seen such an event would have left any of them speechless. Like the three disciples who did see the Transfiguration, they would have gone face-down in worship and been overwhelmed with the presence of God.

Too bad they didn’t follow, no?

Which brings us to today and your opportunity to follow the One who will never follow you. Go with him and you’ll see amazing things. Maybe you’ll even see a miracle!

Stay where it’s convenient, on the other hand, and you’ll always wonder what would have happened if you’d only had the faith to follow.

[1] Matthew 16:1, NIV, emphasis added.

[2] Matthew 16:2-4.

[3] Matthew 15:29-31.