Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, December 17, 2017
“Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
WE ARE ALWAYS caught off guard, I think, by the changing seasons. It’s been hot for months, the sun baking the dry earth, grasses graying in the fields and every body of water looks cool and inviting. Suddenly, it’s all sweaters and long pants, chilling winds with metallic gray skies above us, threatening rain. The leaves fall, making piles of dun colored broken shapes, the dying colors of these magnificent light-gathering organs of trees. People then drive down Highway 32 from the mountains, their car roofs loaded with the previous night’s snowfall.
Springing to life, and falling again in a swoon, the world whirls through its agonies, and teaches us a lesson about change and the creation, our Creator smiling as, at each step, we delight and are once more surprised.
The changes are signs to us, indicators that something else is coming. The first orange leaf. The first tiny flower of spring. The first drop of rain. We treat these as omens, arrows pointing ahead. Signs are everywhere, but how you read them is important. The familiar signs of the seasons are easy to read. Some signs are new to us and we can mistake their meaning, we may read them without understanding.
We make signs for others’ information, and for advertising, for traffic control, for prohibition and warning. One such sign I saw reads: BEWARE OF THE DOG. THE CAT IS NOT TRUSTWORTHY EITHER. Another pointed the way to THE OPTIMIST CLUB OF CAPE FEAR. A helpful sign to a weary workforce gives condolence, saying that THE FIRST 5 DAYS AFTER THE WEEKEND ARE THE HARDEST. In one busy store, an impatient proprietor warns us that UNATTENDED CHILDREN WILL BE GIVEN AN ESPRESSO – AND A FREE PUPPY. But my personal favorite, for reasons of my own, shows us this is the SAFETY LADDER – USE AT YOUR OWN RISK.
We use everything at our own risk. The notion that everyone in the world must be kept safe is smoke and mirrors. We have to seek our own safe passage and conduct ourselves wisely through life. The safety ladder may fall, or we may fall from it. Cats are certainly not trustworthy. Some things generally come true every time.
But there have been larger themes, greater changes, bigger events that have only come at longer intervals, even once in all of history. The greatest of these have not come unannounced, but with signs that can be read, if we are willing. When those signs are fulfilled, we may be certain that the hour has arrived.
Last February, Butte County Sheriff Cory Honea had to read the signs of a rapid erosion of the emergency spillway on the Oroville Dam and make a decision for the evacuation of 180,000 people living downstream of the great dam. Had things gone as they had been going, even that last hour evacuation would not have save them all. God spared us, but was that a sign?
Some of the most disastrous wildfires in California history hit this year, southern California still reeling with the horrific sight of people’s homes burning. Firefighters had little effect on the roaring flames until winds died down in Sonoma and Ventura Counties. Were these signs?
A tin dictator in North Korea has shot intercontinental ballistic missiles over Japanese air space and shaken his hand at the West. Is this a sign of pending war?
Many Christians hang on every world event, expecting this one or the next to be the herald of Christ’s return, or a great re-awakening, or the beast of Revelation, or some harbinger of the end. These signs have been often read wrong, but it is certain that one day these signs will be unmistakable.
The Jews awaited their Messiah for centuries, ever since Isaiah had written of a child, born to be the greatest king in David’s line, and Daniel had prophesied a Messiah. The years passed, and successive empires rose and overshadowed Israel. Where was their deliverance? When would God send their savior and set them free from oppression?
But they longed only for the fulfillment of their favorite prophecies. They wanted dessert without the meal. They didn’t like the suffering servant idea, nor did they relish a man pierced hand and foot, one lashed for our redemption. When the Messiah actually did come, it was as a normal human male, a prince disguised as a pauper. How might the carpenter’s son from Nazareth be the fulfillment of everyone’s hope?
The first official giver of the signs was Christ’s cousin, John. Even in the womb, this passionate herald jumped for joy at the approach of the pregnant Mary, only just now with child by the Holy Ghost—a great secret as yet untold to anyone. John jumped.
Later, he blanched at the sight of Jesus wading into the waters of Jordan to receive baptism from the wilderness preacher. And heaven opened, and the Spirit dropped down, and the Father from heaven spoke blessing, and it was certain. John announced Him: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins from all the world!”
But even John could doubt. He was imprisoned by Antipas for denouncing the marriage of this fake king to his sister-in-law. His hope failing, John had to know whether his first notion wasn’t a mistake. He sent friends to Jesus, asking plainly if indeed He was Messiah, or were they to keep looking, longing and praying?
Jesus told them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” Matt 11:5ff Jesus not only answered them with signs of His divinity, of miracles that only God could perform, but the fulfillment of the Word of God. “Say to those with anxious heart: Take courage, fear not… He will save you. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened And the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, And the tongue of the mute will shout for joy.” Isaiah 35 John knew his scripture. The familiar words would assure him that, even in his death, his hope was fulfilled and he could die in peace. And he did.
Then Christ faced the crowds that always gathered about Him, asking them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man dressed in soft clothing? A prophet? I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’” Jesus commended John as the greatest of all the prophets. And yet all the prophets fall short of the kingdom, as they can only point to it. One greater than this must open its doors.
Then Jesus chided them. “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” Matt 11:1-19
People may see signs, but will they read them? And even more, will they take them seriously? In Texas we remarked on a traffic sign that said only, OBEY ALL TRAFFIC SIGNS. That’s all. We thought it strange, but then we’re from California, where everyone obeys the law.
Jesus was once asked to show a sign to disbelieving fellow Jews. He commented that they could read the weather from the sky, but could not tell the signs of the times. “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” Mat 16:4 What was the sign of Jonah? A whale? A city that repented, though the prophet hungered for God’s violence? A dead plant that had hidden Jonah from the sun?
Or a man who was buried then, three days later, he re-entered the land of the living? They would be shown this sign clearly, and yet some would reinvent the story to make it a Passover Plot, complete with sleeping guards and grave-robbing disciples.
John’s Gospel finishes with Jesus’ appearance in the upper room, breathing on the Apostles and giving them the Spirit of God for the forgiveness of sins. John signs off, saying: “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:30-31 The Gospel according to St. John is filled with signs that Jesus is the Son of God. John was convinced, and wished for everyone to see it as he did.
Jesus told of signs as well, including the teaching recorded in Luke and Matthew for knowing signs of the end of the world. The end of the world, but not the end of the story.
“Therefore when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION . . . standing in the holy place, then . . . flee to the mountains. . . For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. . . For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. . . THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” Matt 24
When you see that happen, in this life or watching from the next, you will know it’s the time. Celebrate. All evil will be ending, and all that is good will live forever. Does that include you?
By your own will or devices, by trying harder and watching all your steps – no – you won’t make it that way. Be happy, for such a tipsy world as we live in, and such flesh that we must abide in can’t be good enough for heaven by ourselves and our own devices. He has done it for us, and we need only read the signs right and believe. Believe. Obey the signs, for sure, but know that this Judge is named Love, Mercy, Savior, and Life eternal. It’s His identity – such words that comfort us. It’s who He is. Take Him as Savior, and He will secure it for you.
Just read and believe the signs.