Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Sign

Mark 13:1-8 (I Samuel 1:4-20)
November 18, 2012

            When I used to make the commute from my home south of Albany, New York to my church just north of Albany, I memorized all of the different landmarks and billboards and signs I would see along the way.  I knew the spot where I would have a chance to see wild turkeys.  I knew the moment a glimpse of the Hudson River would peek through the trees.  And I knew exactly when I would look up to my left and see the billboard from God.
            Yes, there was a billboard from God on my route from home to church.  I’ve discovered that these billboards were quite popular at that time, and according to my internet search this week they still exist in different places.  In case you’ve never seen one, the billboard is completely black with white lettering.  And the messages were clever.  One said, “That Love Thy Neighbor Thing … I Meant It.  God.”  Another read, “Don’t Make Me Come Down There. God.”  I believe the one that I took notice of everyday stated, “Use My Name in Vain One More Time and I’ll Make Rush Hour Longer.  God.” 
            I haven’t seen a God billboard in many years now, but I was thinking of them as I pondered our texts for this week, especially the Mark text which speaks of the signs of the temple’s destruction and the coming of God’s reign in to the world, and then I saw this billboard as I was driving through Oklahoma City the other day.  It was just a plain billboard with a star and some small lights, and it said, “Well, You Were Looking for a Sign.”  It was not signed by God, instead it was an ad for the billboard company.  But it got my attention.  And it seemed to fit with this whole idea of wanting a sign. 
            How often have I been struggling with some issue, some problem, some question, a difficult choice and I’ve looked to God for a sign?  More often than I can count.  How I wish that the signs I needed would come as neatly and easily as the billboards I read while I’m driving!  Unfortunately that’s not how it works, is it?  It would be so much less stressful if they did, and far easier to recognize them.  I could just read them as I drove along.  “Amy, You Know That Sign You’ve Been Looking For?  Here It Is.  God.”
            We all know that’s not how it works, but it doesn’t stop from us from seeking signs in one way or another.  The disciples wanted them as well.  In this very strange interlude in Mark’s text, Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple.  A disciples points to the building and says, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings? “  Jesus responds that not one of those buildings will remain standing.  Those stones are all gonna come down.
            After these ominous words, Peter, James, John and Andrew talk to Jesus privately.  They want a sign.  When will these things happen?  When will all of this be accomplished?  Then Jesus warns them to not be lead astray by people coming in his name and claiming that they are the messiah.  The disciples will hear of wars and rumors of wars.  “Nation will rise up against nation.  There will be earthquakes.  There will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs”   
            I guess these could all be taken as definitive signs, but here’s the big question.  Which round of false messiahs and wars and famines and earthquakes?  Which round of natural disasters and human calamities will signify the end times?  Because it would seem that if these are the signs, they’ve been appearing since the beginning.  If we take these as literal signs of the end times, then it’s not too hard to look around our world and predict that the end must be coming soon.  All of these signs are there, are they not?  So if these are the signs of God’s coming, then we should be as confused as the disciples probably were.  How do we know which earthquake is a sign of the end times?  How do we know which war signals the end?  Later on in this same chapter Jesus tells them that even the Son does not know the exact date and time of the end times.  That’s up to God and God alone.  The final message that he gives them is that they must remain awake. 
            But what are the signs?  The disciples wanted to know what to look for.  They wanted a definitive sign.  They wanted a billboard.  “Disciples, duck and cover.  This is it.  God.”  They wanted a billboard.  But that’s not how it works is it?  But we keep looking for signs.  There are predictions of the end times all the time.  Apocalyptic movies have been the rage since I was a kid and they continue to be made.  Of course the big thing that many people are looking toward is the end of the Mayan calendar.  Supposedly in just a few weeks, the Mayan calendar which has been counting down for thousands of years will come to an end, and there are many people who believe this signifies the end of the world.  One of the best responses I’ve seen to this lately has been going around all of the social media sites in the last weeks.  It says, “Keep Calm.  The Mayans were just counting down to the premier of the Hobbit Movie.”  Is the Mayan calendar a sign?  Is the Hobbit movie a sign?  We want a billboard, but the truth is, signs don’t normally come to us so concisely.  And a point that was made by New Testament scholar Karoline Lewis this week is that the word apocalypse does not have the same connotations in Greek that we have placed on it in English.  Apocalypse is not about some cataclysmic final destruction.  It is, instead, about revelation.  It is about God revealed.  Think about that for a moment.  The apocalypse is about God revealed.  It is the full and final revealing of God. 
            I realize that for some that brings to mind chaos and blood running in the streets.  But I have a hard time reconciling those popular images with the God who became incarnate in a frail human being.  It’s hard to imagine that vengeful smiting God as the same God who died on the cross.  I just can’t quite do it.  I suspect that the final and full revealing of God is more about love than it is about calamity.  I think that it’s more about us finally understanding how completely and utterly God is with us, for us – With Us – than it is about God wreaking havoc.  I think when it comes right down to it, that’s the real sign we all look for.  We want to know that God is with us. 
            I think that’s what Hannah needed to know.  Her story is one of my favorites in all of scripture.  She is barren, and even though her husband Elkinah loved her dearly and did not think less of her because of it, being barren was seen as a sign of God’s absence, God’s judgment.  As our text tells us it was believed that God had closed Hannah’s womb.  Even if her rival, Penninah, would not have taunted her for her childlessness, Hannah would still have felt the sting of being barren in a culture that equated a woman’s worth with her ability to bear children. 
            It was the time of year when Elkanah and all his household went to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice.  Hannah went to the temple to pray.  She made a promise to God.  She promised that if given a son that child would be dedicated to the Lord.  In her distress, in her anguish, Hannah wept and prayed fervently but silently.  Eli, the priest, watched her lips moving and thought she  was drunk.  When he chastised her for it, she explained to him her desperation, her heartbreak.  Eli tells her to go in peace and that God would answer her prayers.  That must have been the sign she was looking for.  She feels at peace.  She goes back to her family.  She eats with her husband.  And in due time she is due. 
            I think Hannah wanted a sign. She wanted a sign that God was with her; that God heard her.  She wanted a sign that she was not alone.  I think ultimately that’s the sign we all seek.  No matter what our prayers may be.  No matter what choices we face or decisions we must make.  No matter what our concerns.  I think we want to know that we are not alone.  I think we want God’s presence revealed to us in such a way that our doubts are overridden. 
            Perhaps what we truly want revealed to us is not dates or times or specifics, what we want revealed to us is that we are loved.  We are cared for.  We aren’t completely and utterly alone.  That’s the sign we seek. 
            Whether I’ve recognized it at the time or not, I have been shown that sign more times than I count.  I’ve seen the sign in phone calls, e-mails, cards.  I’ve seen that sign in the kindness of strangers.  I’ve seen that sign in the eyes of children, my own and others.  God’s love and presence in my life has been revealed to me not through large billboards but in small gestures and heartfelt expressions.
            The writer E. L. Doctorow said about his craft, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  It seems to me that this is a life of faith as well.  We don’t need signs that give us the exact details of everything that will happen, we just need signs that help us keep going, that help us keep hoping.  We don’t need a sign of what will happen at the end, we just need a sign that reminds us that no matter what, all will be well.  God will be there in the end, and even more importantly, God is with us now.  Take that next step and trust that there will be a sign.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”

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