socraticcoyote

Here’s Your Sign

In Uncategorized on August 14, 2006 at 7:48 pm


Good morning. I have never been big on asking God for a sign. But one time when I was in college I did ask God for a sign, and what happened was very interesting.

I was twenty years old, a Christian, and I thought it was about time I had a girlfriend. I told God of my desire, but because I wasn’t sure if this was God’s will, I asked God to give me a sign, to tell me if I should look for, and expect, a girlfriend. Immediately after I asked God for a sign, I started finding pens.

You see, in college I was always losing pens. I would buy a bag of pens every month to replace those I had lost. I joked to myself that I lost pens like I lost girlfriends. Well, the day after I asked God for a sign about having a girlfriend, I started finding pens. Everywhere. I remember walking to class one day, and underneath a tree I found four pens. Within the course of a week I had found at least thirty pens. The explanation was clear: if I lost girlfriends like I lost pens, then if I started finding pens, God must be saying that I was going to find a girlfriend.

I was walking on air! Life couldn’t have been better. I was a Christian, God had heard my prayer, and He had given me the sign I asked for. But best of all, I was going to have a girlfriend!

So I waited on the Lord, and within two months do you know what happened to me? NOTHING. Absolutely NOTHING. Not only did I not get a girlfriend, I couldn’t even get a girl to look at me. Two months earlier life had been as good as it could be. Now I was so low I had to play racquetball off the curb. I was totally depressed. I felt like printing up a shirt that said “I asked God for a girlfriend, and all I got were these stupid pens!”

Our readings this morning talk about journeys and signs. The journey of life is often a very difficult journey. Along the way, we often ask God for help, for a sign, to help us know what to do. Sometimes God gives us big, spectacular signs, and those are wonderful. When the going of life gets tough, though, it is the small signs that get us through. Sometimes we get the girlfriend, and sometimes we get the pens. But in small and precious ways, we always get God.

The prophet Elijah was living in very difficult times. Ahab, the King, was a bad guy. First Kings says that Ahab did more evil in the sight of the Lord, and did more to provoke God to anger, than any king before him. Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of a foreign king, and began to serve the false god Baal and worship him. Ahab and Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, and things were so bad that Elijah wondered if he were the only one in Israel who had not kissed Baal and worshipped him. There was a real possibility that the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would not survive. These were desperate times.

And desperate times require desperate actions. Elijah confronted Ahab, and told him to assemble the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal and Elijah would each kill a bull and prepare it, and then call on their God. The God who answered with fire, to consume the sacrifice, Baal or Yahweh, that would be the true God. The prophets of Baal called on their God all day long, but no fire came down from heaven. So Elijah stood up and said, “O Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, let it be known today that you are God in Israel,….answer me, O Lord, so these people will know that you are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

Then fire came down from heaven, and it burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and even the soil. When the people saw this, they cried, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God! Then Elijah ordered all the prophets of Baal to be killed. What a day! The Lord had given the people of Israel an incredible sign—-and then some.

For Elijah, it couldn’t get any better than this. He asked for fire from heaven, and he got it. He killed all the false prophets. He very likely saved his nation. Surely, Elijah was at the absolute pinnacle of human experience.

But then the air went right out of the balloon. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, upon hearing that all the prophets of Baal were dead, sent a message to Elijah saying, “By this time tomorrow, I am going to kill you.” Elijah was very afraid, so he found a tree, sat down underneath it, and asked God to let him die. For Elijah, it couldn’t get any worse than this.

What happened to Elijah? How could he go from total victory to absolute depression in one day? I think the reason is because drawing close to God reminds us of how different from God we really are. It would be very understandable for Elijah, having felt the awesome power of God thundering down from heaven, to think that maybe, just maybe, some of that power belonged to him. Maybe being that close to the immortal God could make Elijah immortal too. But then Jezebel reminds Elijah that no matter how close to God’s power and immortality he has been, he can still be killed just like everyone else. Oh yeah, forgot about that. Standing very near to God reminds us, as nothing else can, that we are not God.

So how does God help Elijah in his depression? Does he remind him that fire came down from heaven just yesterday? No. Does he give him a different spectacular sign to shake him up? No. When Elijah was depressed and wanted to die, God says “I know the journey is too much for you”, and God then gave him a small sign: sound sleep, and a good meal of bread and water. This was God’s most profound sign of all. God was telling Elijah, “When the going gets tough, I will always sustain you.”

Sometimes the ups and downs of life’s journey can be too much for us, just like they were for Elijah. Sometimes we experience success in our work, and it feels great. We feel close to God and blessed by God. Then our company is downsized, we lose our job, and we realize how depressingly unsuccessful, and mortal, we really are. Sometimes our families are doing well, and we feel blessed and close to God. Then our mate leaves us, or one of our kids gets into trouble, and we realize in our depression that marriage and family happiness is often very fragile and very temporary.

Sometimes we get into good physical shape, and in that endorphin rush think that maybe, just maybe, we will stay healthy for a long time. Then a spot on our x-ray depressingly reminds us that we may in for a very rough time. No matter how good it gets in this life, and no matter how close we get to God, reminders of our mortality are only a conversation or a phone call away.

There is no doubt that success at work, marital and family happiness, and good health are tremendous signs of God’s presence. We should ask God for these blessings, and anticipate them on our journey. When we’re hurting, though, and when the journey has beaten us up, the signs from God that will get us through are those small, gentle signs that remind us that God is with us, and He will never leave us.

When the journey is too much for us, God speaks in small ways through the loving voice of a friend, a coincidence that isn’t really a coincidence, a special scripture verse, or the still small voice in our souls that tells us that we are never alone. These small signs are not usually what we ask for, but they are often the most precious signs of all.

In John’s gospel this morning we see that even when Jesus was worn down by His journey, God gave Him a special, small sign. The crowds were following Jesus after the feeding of the five-thousand, and they asked Him, “our forefathers ate manna in the desert. What miraculous sign will you give that we may see it and believe in you?” Jesus must have been delighted to hear this question, because He was the sign. Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. Those who ate the manna died, but whoever eats my flesh will have eternal life.”

Jesus was telling them, I’m the man. I am the one who has known you and loved you. I created the universe, and the grain that feeds you. I provided manna in the desert. I brought fire down for Elijah, and gave him bread and water and sleep when he was tired. I led you out of Egypt, I gave you the Law, I chose King David, and I have preserved you as a nation to this day. I love you, and I always will. You ask me for a sign? Great. I am the sign you are looking for. I am the Bread of Life.

Jesus wasn’t giving them pens here. This sign was girlfriend to the max. Angelina Jolie all the way. And yet, somehow, the crowds missed it. They got the girlfriend, but they thought it was a bunch of pens. They grumbled, saying, how can He give us His flesh to eat? And many of His disciples turned back, and no longer followed Him. This was a disaster all the way around.

I believe the most poignant verse in the bible is when Jesus is on the cross, and he says “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is heart-wrenching. I believe right here, when many of Jesus’ disciples turned away, is the second most poignant moment, because I think Jesus’ heart was crushed. Jesus reveals His love for His people, and they reject Him. His journey didn’t get any tougher than this.

Have you ever been in love, and sent your beloved secret gifts? Maybe flowers, or a sweet card from a secret admirer? This is what Jesus had been doing with His people throughout history. He had been loving them, protecting them, and preparing them. But they didn’t yet know it was Jesus who was their Beloved. Jesus sent them clues and gifts, and then, finally, they ask for a sign, and He says, here I am. It was me loving you all along.

What happened next is something that happened to me in college too. You finally reveal your secret love, and instantly a dagger goes through your heart, because the look in her eyes spells catastrophe. She is disappointed. She is disappointed it was you, and even worse, she is disappointed because she hoped it was someone else. That is a crushing blow. Jesus felt that kind of crushing rejection. He says I am the Bread of Life, I am the one who has loved you, and the crowd grumbles, and then slowly walks away. They wanted someone else.

So Jesus then turns to the twelve, and says, and I wouldn’t be surprised if He had tears in His eyes, “are you going to leave me to?” Peter says, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the holy one of God.” It is really too bad that the crowds couldn’t have heard that, because that small statement is the greatest sign of all.

Peter is a great guy. When Jesus said He was the Bread of Life, I’m sure Peter had no idea what Jesus was talking about. Jesus as the Bread of Life went right over Peter’s head, just like most of what Jesus taught the disciples went right over their heads. And yet, they knew Jesus, they loved Him, and they would stick with Him no matter how much they didn’t understand. That is a small, but incredible sign of faith.

It would have been nice if the crowds could have said that to Jesus. That would have been a great sign. It would have been even better if God had roared from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, the Bread of Life.” That would have been a spectacular sign. But Peter’s confession of faith must have meant everything to Jesus. In the midst of profound rejection, Peter’s faith and love are small and precious signs that sustained Jesus on His journey.

On our journey through life we will experience rejection just like Jesus did. We will give everything we have, and some will be disappointed and walk away. Some people won’t like us. Some will even hate us. And, there will always be some we can’t please no matter what we do and no matter how hard we try. God won’t sustain us on our journey my making us popular. God will sustain us by providing a few special people who will cherish us and love us no matter what.

When our journey gets too tough for us, Paul tells us in Ephesians that there is a special sign that will get us through. That sign is us: we, the church, are the sign. Peter’s faithful commitment to follow Jesus, the Christ, no matter what, is the rock upon which the church is built. With Jesus as the chief cornerstone, the church is built of faithful believers, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and molded into the body of Christ. We are to sustain one another on our journeys. Each of us are the small signs that will bring one another Home.

Sounds good. And when we look at the sign of the church, all we see are girlfriends, and never pens, right? I wish. Unfortunately, the church is a sign that gives both girlfriends and pens. The church manifests both the best that heaven can offer, and often the most flawed that human beings can give. Sometimes the church will surprise us with how clearly God is reflected in our actions. And sometimes the church will break our hearts. We are a mixed up bunch of sinners and saints, girlfriends and pens, heaven and earth, hope and despair.

So what do we do? Paul exhorts us in Ephesians to put off falsehood and speak truthfully, don’t let the sun go down on our anger, do not grieve the Holy Spirit, and forgive one another, just as Christ forgave us. We are all on a journey together, and we must strive to reflect Christ, love one another, and be the small signs of God’s presence that sustain one another on our journey.

When the journey of a church and its people gets a little rough, like ours has been since Lou left, it is always tempting to look for big signs. We look forward to the search for, and the selection of, a new rector. And that is great. We continue to celebrate our 50th anniversary, which is wonderful. And we greatly anticipate revving up our giving, our worship, and our evangelism in the coming years. This is what we should be doing.

But, after we have a new rector, after we move past fifty years, and after all the new changes have been implemented, when church life gets routine again, then what? What small signs will sustain us on our journey then?

The answer is, we are the signs, and we will sustain each other, especially in the routine. Just as Jesus is the Bread of Life for us, so we are the Bread of Life for one another. All the time. Life is mostly routine, and occassionaly extraordinary and spectacular. The trick is to love and forgive and bear each other’s burdens during the long stretches of regular life.

Or, looking at it another way, there is no such thing as regular life. Every second that we live is extraordinary and spectacular. Loving one another, forgiving one another, and being long suffering with one another is the extraordinary way we are the Bread of Life for each other, all the time. This extraordinary and spectacular love is the sign that we are the church. This extraordinary and spectacular love is the sign that we are children of God.

The only question that remains is, when I asked God for a girlfriend, why did I get pens? I was on a difficult journey at the time. When a twenty year old guy doesn’t have a girlfriend, that is a tough journey in a special kind of way. I wanted a girlfriend so much that when pens started appearing everywhere, I jumped at believing this was a sign from God. It was a sign that God had a sense of humor. But it was not a sign that I was supposed to have a girlfriend.

But God did give me a sign I will never forget. A few months after it became apparent that I was not going to get a girlfriend, I remember sitting in my dorm room, and God spoke to me like he spoke to Elijah, in a still, small voice. He simply said, “Jim, you will be fine. I will take care of you. Trust me.” It was not spectacular. No shining light, no earthquake, no Catherine Zeta-Jones. But it was very real. And very powerful. I have never forgotten that sign. And God took very good care of me.

As the body of Christ, may we always remember that God speaks to us most often in the small and in the gentle. May God’s spectacularly transforming love infuse us at all times, and no matter what the world may bring, and no matter how confusing life might become, may we always hang on tight to Jesus, who shows us the way of eternal life. These are the signs that will get us through the journey. These are the signs we will never forget.

Amen

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  1. Awesome, if I do say so myself!

  2. Hummmm. Ref: “What happened next is something that happened to me in college too. You finally reveal your secret love, and instantly a dagger goes through your heart, because the look in her eyes spells catastrophe. She is disappointed. She is disappointed it was you, and even worse, she is disappointed because she hoped it was someone else.” Who was your girlfriend? I thought I was when you were 20. Don’t remember this…

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