Saturday, March 17, 2012

Signs, signs, everywhere signs

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Signs point the way to places, identify roads and businesses, mark historical sites and events. Signs help us get where we want to go.
My family and I lived for a time in the township of Coloma, Michigan, near Little Paw Paw Lake. We lived about 25 miles from the church. When people from the church were coming to our house, I gave them directions from the Interstate exit. They would need to watch for road signs, and turn at the appropriate intersections and business landmarks, identifiable by the signs out front.
But, when people from Coloma wanted directions to the house, I gave them different directions. I started by asking a couple of questions. “How long have you been in Coloma?” If they answered, “A long time,” then I asked another question. “Do you know where Chicken Ed’s used to be?” If they said yes, then I could give them directions from the corner where the best restaurant in the area was, until it burned down. We were just a mile and a half north of “where Chicken Ed’s used to be.”
Even though Chicken Ed’s was nothing but a vacant lot, it was still a landmark for folks who had been around town for a long time. It was a sign that pointed to a favorite place and good memories even though it no longer existed.
... In the wilderness, the Israelites were tired of wandering and waiting to be settled in their new home. They wanted regular home-cooked meals and plenty of water. So, they did what we all would do. They complained to Moses and to God. In response, God sent poisonous snakes. So many people died of snake bites that the people apologized for complaining. They confessed their sin, and God told Moses how to help the people who were bitten. Moses was to craft a bronze serpent and raise it up on a pole so the people could see it and be healed. God did not banish the snakes, only provided a cure for the venom. God provided a sign for the people and centuries later, they still remembered it.
Just before our Gospel reading for today, Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus about being born again. Nicodemus doesn’t understand, and Jesus tries a different approach. He reminds Nicodemus of this story of the snake on a pole. Just as the serpent lifted up on a pole was a sign of healing and salvation for the ancient Israelites, so Jesus lifted up on a pole would be a sign of healing and salvation for those who believe in him. We call Jesus’ pole a cross, and it is for all Christians a sign pointing to the Son of God who gave up his life for us.
John’s Gospel tells of seven signs which point to Jesus as the Son of God, and the same being as God. In the other gospels, the signs would be called miracles: changing water into wine, healing the blind man, raising Lazarus from the dead, and so forth. But John intentionally calls them signs, so that they point beyond the miraculous event to Jesus and through him to God. 
... If we think about it, there are signs throughout scripture, signs pointing to God’s love for us, to God’s purposes, and to God’s justice. The rainbow is a sign of the promise God made to Noah to always have a relationship with his and Mrs Noah’s descendants.
The stars of the sky, the sands of the desert, the birth of Isaac, and circumcision were signs of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah that they would have uncountable descendants, land, reputation, and a relationship with God.
The plagues, the Passover, the Exodus were signs of God’s continuing promises to the Israelites.
The leadership of Saul, David, and Solomon were signs of God’s unbroken promises to the people.
The Temple, the destruction of the temple, the exile to Babylon, and the return to Jerusalem were more signs of God’s promise to have an on-going relationship with the people.
The Prophets were signs reminding the people of God’s plans and purposes.
Those promises never end. The signs have been there all along for us to notice and pay attention to. Most of the signs themselves are gone.
Noah’s ark is gone, but the rainbow remains.
Abraham and Sarah’s descendants are without number, as numerous as the stars and the grains of sand.
The Passover and Exodus are vivid memories, relived every year by faithful Jews around the world.
The Kings of Israel were mostly failures, but a few stand out for us as signs pointing to a healthy relationship with God.
The temple was destroyed, twice, and now a mosque is in its place. But we know where it was, and we can visit the plaza and the Western Wall which remain, as signs pointing to the place where faithful Jews gathered for worship.
After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have the sign of the cross; we have the sign of the empty tomb. We have the signs of the witnesses who saw the risen Jesus, recorded for us in the Bible. We have the sign of the healings performed by the disciples in the years of the early church. We have the sign of the blood of the martyrs, soaked into the dirt, but remembered for their faith in Jesus.
In our lifetimes, there have most likely been countless signs pointing us to Jesus and through him to God, although we may not have noticed them at the time. Some of those signs might be our grandma’s Bible stuffed with bookmarks, or her crochet hook and knitting needles. There might have been our father toolbox. Our sign might have been a devotional story in a booklet, which spoke right to us, or a favorite song or hymn. A sign pointing to Jesus might have been a friend’s hand held out in invitation, or an event, or an experience of undeserved forgiveness.
Most of the signs in my life have been people: my Godparents, a grandmother, several friends, a boss, my children. An important sign was an education and evangelism program called “Word and Witness” which helped me understand that we all have faith stories, and that our stories are all connected to each other through our relationship with God.
What were the signs in your life that led you to Jesus, or helped refresh your faith in him? Who were the people? What were the events or items which pointed you to a life in relationship with God? I’d love it if you’d send me an email or leave me a note about some of the signs in your life. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful collection of stories?
Please pray with me. Gracious God, you have given us so many signs, so many ways to help us find our way to you, and hear you calling to us. Help us also be signs pointing the way for those who are looking for you. Amen