This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 26 March 2000. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.
One of the joys of long-distance driving before the days of the interstate was the chance to see what was called barn art. Barn art, as I call it, was simply the painting of advertisements on the sides of barns and while it may not have been common in New York, it was very common through the Midwest and South. In fact, in some parts of Missouri today, you see the remnants of barns with advertisements to see Meramec Carverns, a park just outside St. Louis on Interstate 44, the old route 66.
Another such sign common throughout the South was one advertising Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of the points, besides its being the focal point for a major battle during the civil war, is that you can see six states from its summit. One summer back in the 60’s, as we were returning from North Carolina and visit with my mother’s folks, my brother Terry (who was about 8 at the time) kept pestering my mother to take him to Lookout Mountain. Finally, she relented and we stopped to visit this place.
But, after we got to the top of the mountain and looked at the six states, Terry was greatly disappointed. Yes, you can see parts of six states from the top of Lookout Mountain (Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia) but he had assumed that there would be signs saying “This is Virginia, this is Tennessee, etc.” sticking up on the horizon pointing out the states. Of course, such signs could not exist and the only way you knew what you were looking at was to know what direction you were facing and referring to maps posted.
The thing that the Gospel points out is that the signs we see are often not the ones we are looking for and the signs we are looking for are often never found. The people of Jesus’ time were looking for a Messiah but what they wanted was not what Jesus was offering. In verse 18, the authorities wanted a sign from Jesus that He was the Messiah but His answer, referring to Him and the coming resurrection, was not an answer they could understand.
The same is true today. How should we respond to the signs around us? We must, first of all, obey the command of Christ to read the signs of the times. But we are also required to head the warning in several of His parables to be open for the surprising claims of God pressing in upon us through our neighbors. All of the parables in Matthew 25 point this out.
“But when I, the Messiah, shall come in my glory, and all the angels with me, then I shall sit upon my throne of glory. And all the nations shall be gathered before me. And I will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and place the sheep at my right hand, and the goats at my left.”
“Then I, the King, shall say to those at my right, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was a stranger and you invited me into your homes; naked and you clothed me; sick and in prison, and you visited me.'”
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Sir, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you anything to drink? Or a stranger, and help you? Or naked, and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”
“And I, the King, will tell them, ‘When you did it to these my brothers you were doing it to me!’ Then I will turn to those on my left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.'”
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.'”
“And they shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into everlasting life.” (Matthew 25: 31 – 46)
There is a inveterate tendency to believe that our ‘way of life’ is the best way to health for all. Throughout the ages, this has been the case. We think of John Wesley as the first social reformer but in many of the sermons of that time, there was real concern for the lower classes. But it was assumed that if the working classes were to be save and enter into Christ’s purpose for them then they must take on the culture of their betters who stood as a living sign to these outcast of what happens to our raw, untamed, animal nature with all its sins (i.e., the working class life) when the grace of God tames it and begins to fulfill it (i.e., the life of the better classes). In other words, it was assumed that the will of God was to make ‘them’ like ‘us’. It was probably because Wesley went to these people, not to make them like their betters, but to enable them to find the way of Christ for themselves in their own world, that he was so bitterly attacked. His missionary presence with the lower classes was a judgement upon the ideological assumption of the privileged and so threatened the security of their prejudices that they assumed to be the will of God.
Our first question must be one of how we can be witnesses to the crucified servant Lord. Our task is to be with him in the midst of the world’s needs, by his grace seeking to be the signs of his ultimate fulfillment, not the bringers of that fulfillment.
This means that we see our missionary task under the sign of the cross, as Paul wrote the Corinthians about in today’s reading from the Epistle. We see that the way of mission is the servant way in which we are freed from conformity to the world’s assertive ways and transformed to the way Christ assumed in his ministry for us. Wesley sought a church which cared for society and which would make the world a better place. After all, as I read from the Scripture, Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or take care of the needy, not the government. Jesus also warned us what the penalties would be should we ignore the needy:
“‘There was a certain rich man,’ Jesus said, ‘who was splendidly clothed and lived each day in mirth and luxury. One day Lazarus, a diseased beggar, was laid at his door. As he lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores. Finally the beggar died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham in the place of the righteous dead. The rich man also died and was buried, and his soul went into hell. There, in torment, he saw Lazarus in the far distance with Abraham.'”
“‘Father Abraham,’ he shouted, ‘have some pity! Send Lazarus over here if only to dip the tip of finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in these flames.”
“But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted and you are anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us, and anyone wanting to come to you from here is stopped at its edge; and no one over there can cross to us.'”
“Then the rich man said, ‘O Father Abraham, then please send him to my father’s home — for I have five brothers — to warn them about this place of torment lest they come here when they die.'”
But Abraham said, ‘The Scriptures have warned them again and again. Your brothers can read them any time they want to.'”
“The rich man replied, ‘No, Father Abraham, they won’t bother to read them. But if someone is sent to them from the dead, they will turn from their sins.'”
But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even though someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:19 – 31)
Finally, we must seek the signs of Christ’s presence as well as signs of resistance to his presence in the key struggles that are taking place in the events of our time. The battle today for man’s concern for freedom, his concern for others, his longing to be free from despair can all be seen in the light of Christ’s ministry and his presence in the world today. The danger that we have to be aware of is that we impose our values rather than those suggested by the vision of the goal of history as given to us by Christ. Our mission, as it regards the values of the world today, is to make it possible for others to see them or rediscover them in the light of God. It is for us the responsibility to bear witness within the values the modern world contains, and to live by them while at the same time transcending them but to also witness to the values that the modern world has forgotten.
In seeking to express our understanding of the forms of Christian presence required of us today, we need to know our world by all the skills of knowledge that it provides. We must be open to it; know its heartthrobs. If we do not know what the world is like, if we seek to make the world in our own image, it will be difficult for us to be successful.
When God made his covenant with Moses and gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments, it was more that just the presentation of ten earthly laws. A covenant is a two-part agreement. Each party to the agreement agrees to certain actions. In the covenant of the Ten Commandments, God promises to be the guardian of the people of Israel. In return, the Israelites will follow the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are more that simple the basis for common law in this country; they are the basis for our lives and our moral codes. They are the way we are to live each day.
The challenge for us is very simple. How shall we let others know of Christ’s presence in the world. As Peter wrote
“God has given each of you some special abilities; be sure to use them to help each other, passing on to others God’s many kinds of blessings. Are you called to preach? Then preach as though God himself were speaking through you. Are you called to help others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies, so that God will be glorified through Jesus Christ – to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.” (I Peter 4:10 – 11)
When I first read the scriptures for this Sunday and the comments by the people to Jesus about seeing more signs, I thought about a song from the 70’s entitled “Signs” by the Five-Man Electric Band. The opening lines talk about “signs, signs, signs, everywhere there are signs.” But what is important for today is the closing verse of that song. For at the end of the singer’s journey, he came to a sign outside a church that said “Everyone welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray.”
We have a sign outside the church that is blank. What are we to do with that sign? And, though it is still March, our thoughts have slowly begun to think about the year 2000 Church Conference. One item that will be brought before the people of this church at that time is the preparation of a mission statement, a sign of what this church believes in. Each member of this congregation is a member of the Church Conference and, as such, has input into what that statement should state. As this year progresses, I want us to be thinking about what that statement should be. Your input is needed if this is to be a viable sign in the life of this church. You can give your thoughts to members of the Evangelism Committee or myself and as the statement takes form, we will keep you posted.
There was one other sign that stood on the side of the road when you went driving in the 50’s and early 60’s. It was the collection of poetry that always had the same last sign. For those who can recall, I am talking about the Burma-Shave signs. A poem was written on four of the signs and the last one read “Burma-Shave.”
There is a similar sign at the end of our lives. Our journeys are different and the scenery we see is different. What we do on those journeys will always be different from others but in each, others begin to see Christ’s presence in our lives. The sign at the end is the empty tomb, a symbol of Christ’s power over death and sin. There are signs all around us. Which one do you see?