November 29, 2009 Discerning God's Signs

"There will be signs . . ."

We are all interested in signs of the future.  They are variously called portents or omens or harbingers.  At points in human history, people have tried to find signs of the future in the movements of stars, by reading palms, by gazing into crystal balls, by examining the entrails of animals, by swinging a pendulum, by casting runes, by dealing cards, by examining tea leaves or coffee grounds, by gazing into a fire, by observing the movements of birds, by looking at patterns in dripping wax, by watching a rooster pecking at grain.  It takes great willpower to not open and read a fortune cookie.

In a scientific age, we look for signs of the future just as much, but in a different way, most of us check the weather regularly even though the forecast is often a bit off.  We look for statistical trends to help us get a handle on the future of all sorts of numbers.  We take personality tests to seek some sign of who we are.

Not all signs are helpful, however true they might be.  Literature and fairy tales are full of people who got accurate signs of the future, but it did them little good.  Macbeth and Oedipus made large mistakes trying to flee from their fate.  People desparate desire to control the future can be manipulated.  Because of this, In New York State, individual fortune telling is a class B misdemeanor.

Signs can just make us nervous.  The movie 2012 that came out this week is a disaster movie that takes an ancient Mayan prophesy about the year 2012 and turns it into a special effects showpiece of destruction.  The signs of the ends of time turn out not to be so helpful if there is nothing we can do about it.  For many people, considering an approaching cataclysm would only produce anxiety.

Recently, some medical tests have come under scrutiny because false positives may produce more anxiety and expense than the test is worth at all.

The Bible talks about signs of the future a great deal, of course.  Joseph foretell the future using Pharaohs dreams.  Remember the seven fat cows and the seven skinny cows?  The three wise men and the Holy family are warned about the future of Herod's plans in a dream.  The book of revelations is a vision about the distant future, but who knows what to do about it?  John Calvin wrote commentaries about every other book of the bible, but even he was uncertain about how to interpret those particular signs of the future.

Some signs in the bible are clearly figurative, some more particular.  Jesus says here in Luke that the cataclysm will come in the current generation.  The early church took this literally and had to do some fancy dancing when the next generation has to figure out how to interpret this.

How do we figure out what to do with all these signs?  Which hints of what is to come are from God?

There are a few points to remember about what a good sign of the future does for us from this passage.  Godly signs of the future bring Peace, Courage, and show Benevolence:  PCB.

P  God's signs give peace.  Not anxiety.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life"

If the world as we know it is ending and another order coming, we might easily get depressed or manic or anxious.  This is not what God has in mind.  If someone is trying to make you feel anxious, this is clearly not what God has in mind.  Some changes will be necessary, but these changes are not about our suffering, they are about our joy.  It is a small but critical distinction.

C   God's signs give us courage.

"Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

As Isaiah wrote, "Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,  they will walk and not be faint."

Courage is important when facing the future because we do not approach the world with rose colored glasses.  There will be tough times.  Evil does not go gently into oblivion.  Transitions take work.  The end of lives or relationships or destructive habits takes sweat and tears.  Chin up, God literally says.  Your victory is near.

B   God's signs are about the ultimate triumph of goodness.  Benevolence.

Jesus tells many parables of the signs of the kingdom.  Signs that God's peace is on its way.  These aren't stories to scare us into submission but to invite us to a coming banquet.  We put on the wedding garments, we keep our lamps full, we watch for the right time not out of fear, but out of joyous exuberance.  We are invited to a party, not driven to an execution.

 1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
       from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
       the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
       the Spirit of counsel and of power,
       the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD -

 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
       He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
       or decide by what he hears with his ears;

 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
       with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
       He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
       with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

 5 Righteousness will be his belt
       and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

 6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
       the leopard will lie down with the goat,
       the calf and the lion and the yearling [a] together;
       and a little child will lead them.

 7 The cow will feed with the bear,
       their young will lie down together,
       and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

 8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
       and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest.

 9 They will neither harm nor destroy
       on all my holy mountain,
       for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
       as the waters cover the sea.

So the next time you open a fortune cookie and wonder if it is a message from God, the next time you tune into the weather channel to get a hold of the future, measure the signs:  Do they bring peace, do they give you courage, do they speak of the benevolent triumph of God? 

Luke 21:25-36

25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”