This was the message I gave at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church (Brighton, TN) for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), 3 August 1997. I am pretty sure that I used 2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 13, Ephesians 4: 1 – 16, and John 6: 24 – 35 as the Scriptures for this Sunday.
Note – in editing my files I see that I had posted this as the 10th Sunday after Pentecost but have it listed in my preaching record as the 11th Sunday.
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. In the song, the opening lines are “signs, signs, signs, everywhere there are signs.” And as we drove up to Pleasant Grove this Sunday I thought about all the signs that we saw along the side of the road, including the various signs churches has.
In the song, one of the signs is about keeping trespassers out and the second sign mentions that “long-haired freaking people need not apply”.
In response to this second sign, the lead singer sticks his hair up under his cap and goes into apply for the job. The owner of the business indicates that the job is his because he looks like a fine-upstanding young man; to which the singer pulls off his cap and exposes the business owner for a hypocrite.
Each day we see a lot of signs, signs that tell us which direction to take, when to stop, when to go. We see signs in stores telling us what the prices of various goods are. Of course, some of these signs are also designed to get us to buy certain products.
And in a broader sense, that is the way our life is today. We see signs but the meaning that we read into them may not be what the sign is all about. Last week, there was a TV show about the prophecies of Nostradamus and how they could come true in the year 2000. The broadcast was last Wednesday because there were 1000 days until the next millennium. As each day brings us closer to the year 2000, we hear more about the coming millennium.
But this is also an example of how we can misread signs. The next millennium does not start on January 1, 2000, but one year later on January 1, 2001. So every one who puts stock in reading the signs is going to be off by one year. As Paul points out in his letter to the Ephesians, we must be careful and avoid the trickery and deceit of others.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
Now I am not saying that those who think the next century starts in 2000 are deceitful or otherwise; it is just that their information is wrong and we must be careful about what we do with false information. For those who feel that the end times are approaching, Christ himself told us that we should always be prepared for His coming because we cannot know when He might come again.
The prophet Nathan came to him and told David a story about two men.
The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he come to him, he said, “There were two men, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.”
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his won sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Instead of selecting a lamb from his own flock, the rich man took the only lamb of the poor man. David saw the injustice in such an action and demanded to know the name of the rich man so that he could be justly punished.
David saw the signs but did not know what they meant. Can you imagine David’s shock when Nathan pointed out the he, David, the King of Israel and Judah, was the guilty man for having stolen the wife of Uriah from Uriah and then ordering Uriah to lead his men into battle knowing that Uriah was certain to die.
“You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, say: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’
Nathan made it very clear to David that his punishment would be as severe as what David proposed for the rich man in the parable.
To the people seeking Jesus that day in Capernaum, the miracles they had witnessed, the feeding of the multitudes, the healing of the sick were all signs that Jesus was the king they longed for to lead them out of the oppressive Roman rule. Yet, the people did not understand what those signs represented.
The people of Israel saw Jesus feeding the multitudes in the same way that they remember Moses feeding their ancestors during the Exodus from Egypt. But like those who see the year 2000 as the beginning of the next century, the people of Israel had forgotten who it was that provided the manna each day of their wanderings. Because they didn’t understand what they saw and because they had forgotten their history, Jesus pointed out that they weren’t ready to do His work.
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous sings but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the father has placed his seal of approval.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
We ask that same question each day.
How are we to know, or find out, what the Will of God is? I do not think that any general answer can be given to this. In clear moral or political issues, we must surely judge and act by the great truths and demands of Christianity; and if we have the pluck to do this, then, as we act, more and more we shall perceive the direction of the Will. That choice, cause, or action, which is least tainted by self-interest, which makes for the increase of happiness – health – beauty – peace – cleanses and harmonizes life, must always be in accordance with the Will of the Spirit which is drawing life towards perfection. The difficulty comes when there is a conflict of loyalties, or a choice between two apparent gods. At such points many people feel unaware of any guidance, unable to discern or understand the signals of God: not because the signals are not given, but because the mind is too troubled, clouded and hurried to receive them. “He who is in a hurry,” said St. Vincent de Paul, “delays the things of God.” But when those who are at least attempting to live the life of the Spirit, and have consequently become more or less sensitive to its movements to have no clear light, they will often become aware, if they will wait in quietness, of a subtle yet insistent pressure in favour of the path which they should take. The early Friends were accustomed to trust implicitly in indications of this kind, and were usually justified. When there is no such pressure, then our conduct should be decided by charity and common sense; qualities which are given to us by God in order that they may be used.
We have to read the signs, not with our own view of the world but with the view that God wants us to have. Yes, this may be difficult.
Are we able to meet the challenges this world presents to us each day? Can we change what seem to be signs of gloom into hopes for the future? All we have to do is see the signs that are in front of us. By his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus reclaimed us from sin and as Paul wrote
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says” “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
With all the troubles in the world today, there are those who are certain that it is the end time and that God again has forgotten his people. But just as the people of Israel forgot who provided the manna that fed them each day in the wilderness, so too have people forgotten that Jesus told us we would never know the time of His return and that we should always be prepared. But the situation, no matter how grim it might seem, is not what it seems. We have been given the gift of God’s grace, if only we accept what Jesus told us so many years ago,
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Can we do the works of God?
Christian ministry is more than doing good. Ministry is an act of service performed either consciously or unconsciously in the name of Christ. Ministry is Jesus Christ expressing his life through us. It is born, therefore, not in activity, but in solitude, where through the spirit we experience the power of life from within. No one becomes a “minister.” Rather in trust we so open ourselves to the Spirit that Jesus Christ can express his ministry through us. Prayer and ministry, therefore, are indissoluable. In the stillness of meditative prayer we are confronted by God’s loving claim upon us – the most intense intimacy a human being can experience. To know this intimacy we have only to let go. Instead of relying on our own initiative, where we are in control, we discover that we are participating in what God has already initiated within us.
So we have been given the signs, the gifts we need to make this world a better place. And it makes the last verse of the song I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon even more appropriate now. For at the end of the singer’s journey, he came to a sign which said “Everyone welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray.” And to this the singer made his own sign “Thank you God for thinking about me; I’m alive and doing fine.”
The signs are there and you don’t have to look very far to know that God is present.