Signs of Our Times

SJF • Easter 2a • Tobias Haller BSG
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations; I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Our Gospel hymn assures us that “we walk by faith and not by sight.” It refers, without a doubt, to Doubting Thomas, the disciple who lived by the old motto “seeing is believing.” Jesus assures Thomas that those who believe without seeing are indeed blessed; and so we earnestly hope they are — for we are numbered among those whose faith in Christ is not based on a personal encounter, not on seeing, but through hearing the lively word preached, the good news told to all nations.

And yet we too have signs and sights to go by. We are not left completely in the dark, depending only on the spoken word to find our way, as if the Christian faith were a sort of blind man’s bluff, or pin the tail on the donkey, or a child’s game of “you’re getting hotter, you’re getting colder” as we feel our way guided only by these spoken instructions. No, we have visible signs that God has given us, signs that help us to find the way, to find the one who isthe Way, the Truth and the Life.” God has not left us totally without evidence.

+ + +

And so it has always been, even for earthly matters. From the very beginning human beings have learned to read the signs of the world around them, to tell from the way the wind is blowing or how the sky or the sunset looks what the weather will be. The islanders of the South Pacific Ocean even learned to navigate that featureless expanse. On the pages of an atlas it may look like nothing but blue, the islands mere pinpoints smaller than their printed names; but those islanders have learned to find their way by watching the shapes of the waves on the open ocean — truly a miracle for us landlubbers, for whom all waves look more or less alike. The sea is very good at keeping its secrets!

+ + +

So it is quite natural for poor old landlubber Noah to feel completely lost at sea, even after the rains have stopped. Everywhere he looks is water, no sign of land, just the monotony of the clearing sky and the lapping waves spreading off to the featureless horizon, as far as his eyes can see. And strangely enough, God — who before the flood has been in regular conversation with Noah — God is now silent, no longer instructing Noah what to do next.

So Noah goes to the birds — literally! He gets the idea to send out a raven, and then a dove, to see if they can find any foothold in this watery world. We don’t know what becomes of the raven, but the dove comes back, finding nowhere to set down — a sign that the flood still covers the ground. So Noah waits, and then sends the dove out again, and this time back she comes with a fresh olive leaf — a sign that the waters have drawn back enough for the trees to begin to show their branches. And again Noah waits, and lets the bird free once more, and this time she doesn’t return — a sign that the waters have receded and the dry land has appeared, and the bird has found a place to take her rest. Then, and only then, does God break his silence — acting a bit like proud parents who stand by and silently watch their children work out a hard problem by themselves, and only when the problem is finally solved speaking words of congratulation. “Go out of the ark,” God says. And then, to punctuate the end of this era, God sets his sign in the clouds, the glorious rainbow, as a sign and a testimony of his covenant promise never again to destroy the whole earth by a flood.

All of these signs were significant long ago — but what do they mean for us? God has kept the promise of his covenant, and we are not deluged by a flood of waters to wipe out all the world; though I’ll tell you the folks who lived through Katrina, and in the present floods out in the midwest might not feel that way.

+ + +

But are we not in the midst of another kind of flood, another kind of incessant rain — not a flood from God to destroy the world, but a flood from the world to try to drown out God? Think about that for a moment.

The world has grown more and more turned in upon itself, the selfish and self-seeking world of pride and riches and power, and this selfish world seeks to drown the people of God, pulling us into its whirlpool of acquisition, drawing us under into the quicksand of greed and selfishness.

We look about, and all around us we are assaulted by waves of terrorism, fear and anxiety. I don’t know about you, but I can no longer hear a jet plane fly overhead, or see one flying low through the sky quite the same way as I did prior to September 11, 2001.

We lie awake at night and hear the drumming rain of anger and racism and hatred, incessantly muttering the same old lies, the same old cutting and wounding falsehoods — the incessant muttering of hatred only briefly silenced when, as comedian Jon Stewart said, someone like Barack Obama has the courage to address us as if we were adults.

But comes the dawn, the mutterers are back at work with their incessant rain of criticism and negativity. We awake in the morn a look out the window — you know the window I mean: the electronic one, that TV screen through which we see so much of the world, running all day long like a spigot of criticism and carping — we look through that window to see the continued drizzle of confusion and despair, of hunger for the word of God, of disillusion and deceit, and we are moved to shout out, “Are there no signs left for us to see? How long, O Lord?”

+ + +

And then we remember Noah, how he too must have felt as he watched the featureless sea, longing for a word from God now that the long rainy time was over. And like him, we send out the dove of hope — a pilgrim to assay the state of the world. And when she comes back we know it is too soon. It is not yet the time for us to step out into action. But we don’t give up hope; we just keep still for a time. We wait a bit and then we send her out a second time, our hopes launched again into a world of disappointments, and this time she brings back that precious olive leaf, that first glimmer that we are not alone, that even if the time is not yet fully ripe, still there is emerging somewhere a green promisethat will one day bear fruit. And our hope is renewed, and we wait in stillness for yet another opportunity. And then we send her out a third time, and learn that the world is ready at last, ready for us to get out of the ark, to be about the work God gives us. Our hope then impels us to action.

And if there is any doubt, any temptation to hold back rather than to march forward, God then speaks to us with the command to go forth, forth into the world in the power of the Spirit. And if we are afraid that the flood of the in-turned world, the selfish world, the false and fearful world, will drown us, or the rains of hatred or the drizzle of confusion and doubt dampen and dismay us, God sets his sign in the cloud to assure us that never again, never again will such things trouble us. Never again will we need to fear the selfish world, the rains of hatred or the drizzle of despair. For God has set his sign in the clouds for all to see.

And the sign he has set for us is now no longer the ephemeral and fading rainbow of Noah’s day. No, the sign in which victory is assured is the shining cross of the Risen Christ, the standard and ensign that flies on high, the banner of salvation raised over the world, the sign, as Peter said, of a victory and inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for us, who are protected by God’s power through faith for salvation. This is the sign our blessed Lord has left us, the sign of his saving cross, the sign in which we glory as it towers over the wrecks of time, as the light of the gospel story gathers to it and around it.

For when the woes of our earthly life threaten to drown us, when the world’s false promises deceive us and the persistent badgering of the babble and draining fears of the worldly city annoy us — the sign of the cross shall never forsake us. This is our standard, this is our sign, the sign for our time and for all times, the sign of the new and everlasting covenant — the cross of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. And this is our story and this is our song, that Jesus Christ our savior, through that cross has won the final victory over death for all who believe, and to whom we give, as is most justly due, all praise and honor and glory for ever and ever.+