Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lent 3

Both our second reading and our Gospel
speak of our human desire for some sort of sign.
In John’s Gospel the people ask Jesus for a sign
that would help them to understand 
his mysterious actions in the Temple
and to know whether or not to believe in him.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians,
he says that the Greeks will not believe 
without rational arguments,
and his own Jewish people will not believe 
without signs.

The word “sign,” in the New Testament,
carries some pretty heavy theological freight –
meaning something like a “miracle” or a “mighty deed” –
something that is an indicator of God’s presence and activity.
It might help, however, to step back just a bit 
from these theological meanings
and to think about signs in their more mundane sense:
as things that help us figure out where we are
and that point us in the right direction.

One thing about signs in this mundane sense
is that you have to keep your eyes peeled for them,
and sometimes they can be very hard to see:
I certainly have had the experience of driving at night,
perhaps through heavy rain and high winds,
not entirely sure that I am even moving in the right direction,
and squinting through my foggy windshield
trying to read names on street signs
but finding myself unable to see one.
I don’t know if it’s a prayer or a cry of frustration,
but I have found myself muttering under my breath,
just give me a sign!
Not the heavens opening up,
not an angel with a flaming sword,
but just something to point me to where I need to go.

You also need to know how to read the signs:
to know that the squiggly black line
means the road is about to get curvy
or that what looks like a “T”
means that your road 
is about to dead-end into another road.
You have to make sure 
that you’re not so busy looking for one kind of sign –
say, a sign with a street name –
that you don’t miss another, 
perhaps more important, sort of sign –
say, a Stop sign.
Misreading signs, or reading the wrong signs,
can be a dangerous business.

Now many of you are perhaps thinking,
Why don’t you just get a GPS?
Why squint through your windshield 
on a dark and rainy night,
trying to catch a glimpse 
of a road name or highway number
to reassure you that you are moving in the right direction,
when you can have the dulcet tones 
of your Global Positioning System,
perhaps speaking in the voice of your favorite celebrity,
telling you, “turn right ahead” or
“you missed your turn; turn around and go back”?

Well, maybe a GPS would be a good idea for driving,
but in matters of faith 
there is no Global Positioning System.
As far as I can tell, 
God does not sit on your shoulder
and say “turn right ahead”
or “you’re dating the wrong person; 
turn around and go back.”
As far as I can tell, we have only signs 
that we must try to read and interpret
without ever having vision 
as clear as we would like it to be:
that is what we mean by the word “faith.”

The people in our Gospel who ask Jesus for a sign 
are not wrong in asking;
their error lies in not understanding 
that when he says,
“Destroy this temple 
and in three days I will raise it up”
he is saying that his death – 
the destruction of the temple of his body –
and his resurrection to new life on the third day
will be the true sign of God’s power
and the only real basis for faith in him.
The Greeks are not wrong for wanting wisdom
and the Jews are not wrong 
in seeking signs of divine power;
the error is in not seeing, in the crucified Jesus,
“Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

The cross is the sign that shows us the path to true life,
the sign that we must discern in faith.
St. Thomas Aquinas said that whoever wishes to live fully
only need look to the cross
and reject what Christ rejected there
and desire what Christ desired there.
What Christ rejected was all attachment 
to riches and honor and glory;
what Christ desired was love, patience, humility
and obedience to God (Sermon 6 on the Apostles’ Creed).
In this way, the cross truly is a sign 
that directs us on our journey toward God.

There is no cosmic GPS for the journey of faith,
no magic voice to guide us through each and every turn.
Indeed, the journey of faith often takes place
on what seems to be a dark and unmarked road
with heavy rains and strong winds.
But when the road seems darkest 
the cross of Jesus still shines forth,
showing us where we are, 
pointing us in the right direction,
and revealing to us the path to true life.