St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2022
“There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”
VISITING MY FOLKS in Los Angeles, I used to drive Ventura Boulevard. The stores shout out their existence in a profusion of colorful signs, their names and products. Billboards enlarge movie images, ads for perfume or shredded jeans. Once this was all in English. Spanish was added since I lived there. Lots of signs now are written in Farsi, its graceful script running right to left and offering kabobs, basmati rice and strong fragrant tea. Signs tell about a civilization. Los Angeles is a civilization that craves attention.
Signs say something will soon be happening. Leaves turning yellow are signs of autumn, just as the first cold says it’s winter. The weight of a newspaper on Thanksgiving says Christmas shopping is in full swing. The flag flying from the bridge of a ship gives its nationality. STOP, YIELD, and 25 MPH give instructions for road safety. And three gold orbs speak of a pawn shop.
There are subtle signs that require closer attention, and reading such signs is a careful art. Predictions out of certain signs make news but can be wrong or misleading. Like weather reports, sports predictions, or the price of eggs. I haven’t heard from El Nino lately. Radio telescopes still point to the skies in hopes of hearing signs of life out there.
Signs are everywhere. We read signs. Our language is a string of signs created by sounds that form words representing ideas. Written language translates these sounds into letters which are language specific, evidenced by alphabets of India or China. But by these signs we learn a great deal. Human communication is impossible without them.
Some people have become signs in themselves, symbols for what they represent. Such a man was Nelson Mandela. The proof of his life was the direction of the government he formed after being imprisoned for many years in South African prisons. Instead of leading with vindictiveness, lording the majority black population over its former white masters, Mandela used true Christian values, “believing forgiveness liberates the soul.” He said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” His life message was consistent, though his detractors were certain he would bring on a bloodbath. Instead, he included whites in his government, even his personal security force. The movie Invictus tells of how he saved the national’s rugby team, the Springboks, previously a symbol of white supremacism in South Africa, and inspired them to win the World Cup in his first year in office. He united a nation wounded by Apartheid through love, forgiveness and reaching out to a frightened white minority. Such a life is a sign to us all that racism is dying. And thank God for that.
Religious prophecies set people watching the skies and other signs for events in the future. 2013 was the end of the world, well, according to the Mayan calendar. Hope you didn’t miss it. In the early 70s we heard about the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, a fanciful melding of Zodiacs, tie-dyes and bellbottoms. I’m not sure what it meant, but the 5th Dimension soared up the charts. People have read signs to announce the end of the world time and again, and they were always wrong, so far, by the way. Future telling is always difficult. Signs of Jesus as Messiah: the new star, his lineage, the miracles he performed, riding a young donkey into the city, were clear indications. But people didn’t read them. Their own pet theories and signs blinded them from seeing a clear visitation.
Jesus’ detractors demanded a sign. “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign,” He said, “and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matt 12:38-40 Of course, when He did in fact rise from the grave after three days, they didn’t believe that either. An evil and adulterous generation. Signs are given for us to humble our minds and listen to hear what God is saying. We struggle with that.
St. John wrote of Jesus’ life as a series of signs. The first was changing water to wine. John says, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.” John 2:11 Signs convey information. We either believe the message or we reject it. Nicodemus struggled with that as well. “We know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” John 3:2 And yet when Jesus opened His mouth, Nicodemus fought Him at every word.
Jesus’ baptism was a real action—forging the way for us to enter His Kingdom, by an act of cleansing, and receiving of the Holy Spirit—and it was also a symbol of humility, forgiveness, and new life for us to follow in. Jesus blessed and broke bread, then told us it is His Body for us to eat. This was clearly a sign that the Incarnate God wished us to partake of His nature and be one with Him.
When Jesus was asked about the world’s end, He told of signs, that even these would not be the end—but the beginning of the end. Signs in the sun, the moon and stars will come, yet these events will take time. They will precede the coming of Christ. Why? Men’s hearts will fail them, and that’s a good thing. We hope that much of the world that now resists the Gospel of Christ will figure out the natural disasters mean something other than the atheist’s creed “There is no god.” If fear drives people to Jesus, that’s a good kind of fear. God will precede His judgment with signs aplenty, for those who will see and read them. The very powers of heaven will shake.
That last sign, when the Son of man is glorified in the heavens, coming with clouds and angels and armies, is one sign too late for anyone still waiting to decide. Judgment falls at that hour and the earth will already be in two camps. We may think everyone will believe in Jesus by then. I think not. Character is formed by habit. Hate God, hate Jesus, hate Christians, hate the Bible all your life, and when He appears in ultimate power, you aren’t going to love Him. Cynicism goes to hate, even when that doesn’t make sense or help at all.
This is why we need to be about love. Hate has a real hard time resisting love. Those who feel irked by cashiers who can’t say “Merry Christmas” then give a snarky “Don’t you know the reason for the season?” do not make converts. Yes, the radio is full of snowmen and Santa, and scarcely an O Holy Night—I know. Cool your blood pressure. Good will toward all men was the angel’s announcement. Does God need us to be offended for Him, when His offer of peace came for everyone? So, don’t let ‘Happy Holidays’ get your goat. It’s a sign, surely, of somebody not wanting to offend. Be Mandela. Let them see a happy Christian wishing Merry Christmas with a smile! We ourselves are signs.
The Holy Bible is a sign. It was written for our learning, to give us patience and comfort, so that we might live in hope. We hear it, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it, even when we are unaware that it’s the Bible. People quote the Bible all the time, and have no idea they’re doing so. It’s woven into our language. Even Santa is based on an early Christian saint, Nicholas, who was a great giver of gifts. His drinking Coca-Cola or selling assault rifles on billboards doesn’t have much to do with anything, but that’s the myth, not the man.
The Bible is a sign of the Incarnate nature of our faith. We know Jesus is God and man in one person, uniting the two natures into one Christ. We also know the bread is at the same time His Body, and the wine is also His Blood. Water brings physical cleansing as it brings the Holy Spirit to cleanse our souls.
Again and again, it is clear that God wants to join with us. The Church is comprised of people and God’s Spirit. Just so, the Bible is a human document written by many hands in ink on velum in Hebrew and Greek words known by those who read them. Yet it was guided by the Spirit of God, kept from error, and maintained by His influence over the many hands that copied, saved, guarded and distributed it until there are more Bibles in the world than many other books combined. It never leaves the top of the bestseller list.
The King James is our favorite translation, and the divine guidance we come to expect in the Scriptures I believe was present in scholars who read the original languages and forged new English words to closely meet the meanings found in them 400 years ago. New translations are helpful too, fruits of efforts to make the Bible understood. The New King James and NASB, the Amplified or even God’s Word, give me resources for explaining difficult passages of the Authorized Version. Again, don’t get grumpy about the Living, NIV, ESV, and a plethora of modern attempts. Just thank God people are reading it!
We are not a religion of the Bible, but of Christ Jesus. The Bible is our book, our joint effort with God, to record what God has done and who God is to us. It is used to prove what was established centuries ago by people of great faith. We don’t worship a book, but the One who the book reveals to us.
And may He continue to use this and other signs to direct our feet on His path back to Him.