Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Sunday Sermon: Signs

  Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Our Lord
   Isaiah 43:1-7
   Acts 8:14-17
   Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I was talking to a woman I know pretty well in the last week about the meteorite that landed in Russia. She is a Christian and of the type who looks for signs of the Last Days in whatever is happening in the world and she couldn’t help but wonder if the rather spectacular crash of the meteorite could be such a sign. Her personal theological belief is there will be an apocalyptic end time, consistent with the one portrayed in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

And because I am an Episcopal priest and at least theoretically Christian, she really can’t understand why I don’t also look for these kinds of signs or attach the same or at least similar meanings to events such as the meteorite landing.

But frankly, I just don’t see any good reason to go there.

In fact whenever we have the conversations about things taking place in the world that she feels are consistent with what she believes is a Biblical understanding of the Last Days, and we’ve had several over the years, I usually take a “beats me” attitude.

However, as we’re very fond of each other, we put up with each other’s rather profound theological differences on this and a whole a lot of matters. But this particular one was just too much for her to let go. She looked at me and said, “Alright I know you don’t believe in looking for signs of the Last Days, but if you did, wouldn’t this be a really strong one?” And I allowed as much that if I did, this probably would be a really strong one. Which seemed to satisfy her enough so we could move on to other topics.

Now, as I said, I don’t see any reason to look for signs of a possible spectacular apocalypse. First off, I don’t believe the Bible says it is going to happen. But second, if that’s what it is going to take to motivate me to be a better follower of Jesus, to simply save my mortal skin, chances are I’ve got some other issues going on, and I probably won’t participate in the Rapture anyway.

The latter of which was independently revealed to me, in a sign, this summer, when my husband and I went on a cruise and our cabin number was 666. People tended to back away any time we gave out our cabin number, but that’s a story for another time.

The point being however, that while I don’t try and read into current events, hints of what God might be up to at the end of days, it doesn’t mean I don’t look for signs of God’s work in the world, or wonder at how or why certain thing happen. I mean, why did we get Cabin 666?

At any rate, faith in God can be a tricky thing and all of us look for signs in our own ways, and if we’re honest, reassurances we’re okay or at least going to be okay.

Which is completely understandable. There are so many times when what happens in this world is confounding, confusing, painful, or simply mysterious. I am reminded of what I’ve been told is an old Reader’s Digest story of a mother putting her young child to bed, who begs her not to go because the child is frightened by the dark. The mother ties to reassure the child God is looking over him or her (I’ve heard the story told both ways) but the child really doesn’t find that reassuring and says in response, “but I want a God with skin on.”

Fair enough. There are times all of us want a God with skin on, so we attempt to put skin on God by interpreting certain things as signs or indications of God’s presence. And if we’re very honest with ourselves, not just signs of God, but particular signs and indications we want from God having to do with our heart’s desires, wants, needs, or a way of allaying of our fears.

But almost anyone, apart from a very, very young child, who has been a Christian for more than 20 minutes will attest to the fact God generally does not cooperate with these efforts. God’s ways, signs, indications, and timelines are not our ways, signs, indications, and timelines.

Which makes it very easy to identify with Abram, who in time will be Abraham, our father in faith, in today’s reading from Genesis. Abram is without a legitimate heir, and certainly not the possessor of any significant land holdings. God comes to him and promises he will not only have both but in fact, his descendants will be as plentiful as the stars in Heaven. They are fantastic, amazing promises. And ones Abram reasonably questions.

In this particular case, God does respond to his questions as they come, and each time Abram is temporarily assured, but the new questions arise. Actually they will continue all his life. Some of them will be answered, others won’t.

It is the same in our lives as well. But there is good news contained within this story of Abram for in it we see firsthand, how the asking of questions is not what makes us unrighteous. In fact, far from it. Now we have to accept we may not get the answers we want, or even any answers at all—at least that we can discern, but questions themselves are alright.

Actually what can make us if not unrighteous, then perhaps disengaged from God, is when we stop asking questions. Because as in any relationship, the point in which we are no longer curious about the other, or wanting to stay in dialog with our beloved, can be a sign the relationship is in trouble or even coming to an end.

On this second week in Lent, we are now sufficiently into the season to have begun to settle into its rhythms. By its very nature, and the practices we may engage in, the season asks us to think deeply about, and question, the nature of our relationship with God: where we see signs of God’s presence; to be curious about what God is doing in our lives and what we need to do to better discern God’s will for us. Some of us may be wondering about the end of days; others how we’re simply going to get through the current day; and still others any of the myriad of issues, concerns, and joys we bring to God.

The important thing is we continue to look, ponder, wonder, and ask. And if we find we have stopped or slowed down our looking, pondering, wondering, and asking, then maybe the best thing we can do this Lenten time is to simply step back and remember how and why we fell in love with God in the first place. And then open our hearts and allow ourselves to fall in love with God all over again. It’s hard to think of a finer Lenten discipline.

And do so consciously, in the knowledge there will always be things in this life of faith we will never understand. But knowing at the same time, we have also been given the great gift of hope for what is yet to come. The greatest sign of which is seen in Jesus, the one who gave all he had so we would have the ability to see all that’s possible.

The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas 
24 February 2013

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