God’s Signs for UsPosted: December 26, 2011
God’s Signs for Us
The angel announced to the shepherds the Messiah was born in Bethlehem, and gave them a sign, “you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” All infants in those days were wrapped in swaddling cloths, but lying in a manger, a feed trough for animals, that was the sign. Don’t look for this kid in an expensive crib, born to wealth and privilege, don’t even look for this child in the rude cradle of a substantial peasant household, no look for this Messiah among the poorest of the poor. Born in a stable, a cave, this Messiah is resting where the stable hand puts the hay for the cow and the donkey. This is not good news for Caesar, or Herod, or the Priests in Jerusalem, this Messiah is born for landless peasants like you shepherds good news for the poor.
And so God gave a sign. There are other signs in the gospel story like the sign Pilate derisively placed on the cross above the head of Jesus that read “King of the Jews” — signs of the Messiah appearing in the most unlikely places — an infant in a feed trough for animals, a homemade sign nailed above the head of a criminal executed by the state. Who would guess? Does God provide us with signs today? Where would we look?
The first signs we might look for are God’s signs for us individually. Ever think about that? God gives us physical signs of what is going on inside of our bodies. Our doctors call these signs symptoms: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate, blood sugar, weight (gain or loss), hair, (texture, color,) pain, appetite, fatigue, nausea, water retention, bowel movements. These are all signs of what is going on inside our bodies. And when we don’t pay attention to the physical signs, we can get into trouble.
Good rule of thumb, if it hurts, pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong, or there is anything we can do about it, but if it hurts, God is trying to get our attention. God often provides us with very early signs we are getting sick. Maybe we just feel a little tired. Or we have a little headache. If we stop, get some rest, drink plenty of fluids, take care of ourselves, maybe even take a day off, we get better. For the most part human beings are self-healing organisms. Stop, rest, take care of ourselves, we get better.
But if we don’t listen to our symptoms, and instead we press ahead with an over full schedule of stress filled work, and we consume lots of caffeine and alcohol to dull our pain, or we overeat and don’t get enough sleep, then we really get sick, and we may have to go to the doctor, who writes us a prescription and sends us to bed for two or three days. And if we take our medicine and follow the doctor’s orders, then we get better and resume our regular routine.
But if we don’t go to the doctor or we don’t take our medicine and follow the doctor’s orders and instead try to medicate away the symptoms at the same time we put our foot on the accelerator refusing to stop and rest and take care of ourselves, then we might get really sick and get sent to the hospital, where they start an IV, so we can’t get away, and then they run tests and perform procedures, and hopefully when we get better they send us home, and tell us to rest and change our life style, and come back in two weeks and they will tell us whether we can go back to work. But if we ignore the signs long enough, we can get dead, and become God’s sign to our friends and relatives about why they should take care of themselves.
What other signs does God provide for us? Emotional symptoms are also signs from God: feeling “stressed out,” insomnia, panic attacks, anxiety, compulsive behavior, depression, emotional outbursts, excessive fear, addictive behaviors. Physical symptoms are easier to recognize than emotional symptoms. If I am running a fever, I can measure that. Blood pressure and blood sugar can also be measured. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation are kind of hard to miss. But depression, anxiety, difficulties in relationships, compulsive or addictive behavior may not be obvious until someone else points them out, and even then we can indulge in denial. Denial is not a river in Egypt. One reason for living in community with good spiritual friends is that friends can help us identify when our emotional symptoms are signs from God. And good spiritual friends help to hold us accountable. It’s the accountability stuff that will drive us nuts, but exactly what we need — praying with and for each other opens us up to accountability.
Besides these very personal signs God provides for us, God also provides more generalized signs available for anyone to see if we open our eyes to what is going on around us. There are signs of warning. Thunder for instance usually tells us there is lightning somewhere at hand. The tornado siren is not a sign to go out and look for the funnel cloud. A rain soaked road, or a road covered with snow and ice is a sign to slow down, maybe even get off the road. When all the vegetation starts to die and the animals disappear, it might be a sign something is wrong in the environment. When the ice caps melt, and ocean levels rise, and mangoes and papayas start growing in Michigan, maybe we will recognize signs of climate change.
In addition to warnings God also provides signs of hope, wonder and encouragement. Every year Spring comes again, life starts anew, hope is renewed. Spring is God’s sign that in the end life prevails over death. In the words of the Bette Midler song “the Rose”: Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snow lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the Spring becomes the rose.”
The birth of babies is a miracle, one of God’s signs of wonder and hope. New life is born in the world fresh, new, innocent, full of possibility. Christmas is about the birth of a child in the midst of winter at the darkest time of year to bring light into the world — God’s sign of encouragement and peace. And so the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all people with whom God is pleased.”
Harvest is another sign of God’s blessing and encouragement. Life is a gift. God is generous and abundant. The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who plants seed in the field. The earth produces of itself the grain, the farmer doesn’t know how: first the green blade appears, then the stalk, and finally the full grain appears. And then comes the harvest. God provides for our needs: ask and it will be given to us, seek and we will find, knock and the door will be opened to us.
Rainbows are a sign of encouragement and hope. Even in the darkness and danger of the storm the rainbow is God’s sign that this too will pass. Be patient, be still and know that God is God. The sun will come out and the rain that has washed and watered the earth will bring new life eventually.
I want to share with you a sign of hope I saw this summer of all places in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the birth place of the Prince of Peace has come to symbolize one of the most intractable conflicts on earth – the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem it would be a suburb except for the wall that now separates the Israelis from the Palestinians. The Israelis built the wall to prevent terrorist attacks, and the wall has been remarkably effective.
But the wall as become a symbol of a conflict that won’t go away and seems to have no resolution. Neither side will budge an inch to make any of the compromises that might possibly lead to peace — sort of sounds like Congress doesn’t it? Anyway the security wall has become a symbol of hate and despair.
When our group visited Bethlehem we were invited to visit the Kando Souvenir Shop owned by Shibli Kando the grandson of the man who originally purchased the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Bedouin tribesmen who found them. Shibli generously gave each one of us a hand carved olive wood nativity set. After tea and looking around the shop, I walked out the front door and there was the security wall in all of its oppressive ugliness symbol of despair. And then I noticed some graffiti, a sign, God’s sign of hope in the midst of despair: “Love Wins.”
Love wins was the sign God gave to the human race in a new born infant lying in a manger two-thousand years ago. Caesar August with all of his military and commercial power doesn’t win. Herod with all of his political manipulations and his violent attempts to hold onto power, he doesn’t win. Not the priests in Jerusalem exploiting the people in the name of God, pushing peasants off the land in order to build up their own estates, they don’t win. Republicans and Democrats don’t win. Wall Street doesn’t win, because at the end of the day when the tomb is empty Love Wins. And this shall be a sign for you, you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger – love wins. This is God’s sign for us.
Allow me to share a postscript to my story of visiting Bethlehem. We went on to visit the Church of the Nativity traditionally the site of Jesus’ birth. This was the first time I have visited the church when the line was really short, so I went down into the grotto, where a silver star on the floor marks the place where according to custom Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity is the oldest church building in the Holy Land, because it has never been destroyed unlike every other church in the Holy Land that has been destroyed and rebuilt at least once. When the Persians invaded the Holy Land in about 500 A.D., they destroyed all the churches. But when they came to the church of the Nativity they noticed murals of the three Wisemen on the walls, and recognized that the Magi were Persian. So they left the church alone. But what really impressed me was that the Church of the Nativity still has an active congregation. People other than tourists worship there, and the church was prepared and decorated for a wedding that evening – even in the midst of conflict, strife, terrorism, and despair — Love Wins!