Seeing the Signs

SJF • Advent 3a 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Go and tell what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

The world of the ancient Israelites, as the world of the people of Christ’s time, and our world today, was and is a world hungry for signs — for significance. At all times and in all places, knowledge comes about when our inner minds engage with some outer reality — knowledge does not simply spring from within, nor is it wholly external. It comes into being through that interaction between objective reality and subjective reaction, as our senses convey to our inner minds some apprehension of the world that exists outside of ourselves. Just as we need food and nourishment from outside ourselves to build up our bodies, we need the input of the world with which we interact to nourish our minds. In short, we hunger for significance, for things to mean something — so much so that people will often see meaning where none exists. The human mind is so hungry for order and meaning that we will look at clouds or rock formations and see castles or camels or crocodiles.

We keep looking for signs and significance because most of the time the things we see actually do tell us something of the world in which we live, the state of the world. Take one prosaic example alluded to by the prophet Isaiah. One of the first signs that spring is about to arrive is the humble crocus — the small flower that pushes its way to the surface, sometimes through snowfall, as a sign that spring is about to come.

The important thing, in addition to seeing the sign, is understanding it, and that involves a bit more mental labor — and engagement with its context. A person who saw a bowl of crocus blossoms in a florist’s shop or the supermarket in December and thought, “Oh, spring is coming,” would be sorely mistaken. (And am I the only one here who misses the sense of the seasons in the supermarket, the seasons that used to pervade the markets? There was a time when you could tell what season of the year it was by the selection of fresh produce available, and the times had their appropriate tastes and smells — but now you can find watermelon in December!) So it is not just seeing the sign, but grasping its significance, that is vital in forming a proper meaning in the mind.

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Our gospel passage today addresses both sides of this mystery of perception, the grasping of significance. And if you don’t mind, I will deal with them in reverse order, because the first part is the more significant, and I want to end with the more meaningful and significant sign.

The latter part of the passage deals with understanding the significance of the sign based on its context — as I said before, like a crocus in a supermarket or pushing its way through a snowbank, or watermelon in December — or July. In this passage, Jesus asked the people what they were looking for when they went out to see John the Baptist. That is to say, what sign did they seek? A reed shaken by the wind? Well, there would be plenty of those to see out by the river bank — but what would be their significance? what would they tell you? Maybe, if a reed was shaking, that it was indeed windy; but who needs a reed to tell them that?

Were they looking for someone dressed in luxurious garments? If that’s the case, they were looking in the wrong location — for a sign out of its place.

But perhaps they were looking for a prophet after all — and if that’s the case then they will have seen what they were looking for, the sign and the testimony of the greatest prophet who ever lived: John the Baptist.

So for a sign to be of use, one must seek the right sign, in the right place and to the right end, to the right object, for the right purpose: in this case, of being prepared for the coming of the Righteous One, the Messiah.

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John himself shows us the other important thing about signs. In the first part of the Gospel passage, he is in prison, but he sends a message to Jesus, asking if he is the one for whom the world has been waiting. Instead of giving a direct yes or no answer, Jesus tells John’s messengers to take back to him the evidence of their senses: what they have seen and heard. This is where the role of understanding a sign comes in — matching the external sign with the internal knowledge. In just this way we know that a red light means that we are to stop: not because there is a natural connection between the color red and stopping — after all, a red button is sometimes the one you push to make things go! — but because we have learned from our parents or teachers that a red light has this meaning — and we were all instructed in this meaning long before we ever saw a red light or stopped at one. We had to be taught or we would know to stop.

In this case John is asking if Jesus is the one to come or if he should wait for another. And Jesus, rather than giving a simple yes or no answer harks back to something that John would have been taught, something he knew quite well, something John had learned from his childhood up, just as children today are taught that a red light means “stop.” What John had been taught is that very passage from Isaiah: the one we heard this morning, the one that promises that the blind shall see and the deaf hear; the lame will leap and those without speech will become eloquent: and that these are the signs of the coming of Messiah.

And so Jesus, in the gentle way of the good teacher he was — much as a parent with a young child approaching an intersection might ask, “And what do we do when the light turns red?” — Jesus similarly gently reminds John through those messengers about what they had seen and heard: the fulfillment of those very promises from the prophet Isaiah! The new sign of Jesus is really a reminder about the old sign long promised. We can only imagine how John’s heart must have leapt when he received this news, for he would have recognized what Jesus was saying immediately!

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As we grow closer to the feast of Christmas, let us as well be open to the signs that God has placed upon our path. Many of them are things that we too learned when we were young; perhaps we have forgotten some of them. Perhaps we have become accustomed to watermelons in December, or we’ve seen so many laws broken that the warning signs and red-lights of this world no longer stop us in our careless disregard for one another.

Do we still remember how to recognize the signs of love and generosity, fair play and justice when we see them? More importantly, when we see signs of hatred and injustice do we strengthen our hands and make our knees firm to stand up and say to those who are doing wrong — as John the Baptist did — this is not right!

The time is near, my friends, the time is near, for each of us to bear our witness, as the prophets did of old. May we, when we are given the sign to speak, not the red light, but the green light, have something wise and encouraging to say, and speak rightly and plainly speaking of the love of him, who is our Judge and our Savior, our Lord and our God.+