SIGNS FROM GOD
Exodus 33: 12 – 23; Luke 16: 19 – 31
Pastor Pat enjoyed picking up a treat at a bakery on his way to work; that is, until his doctor advised him to lose 30 pounds. To help him resist temptation Pat decided to avoid the bakery by driving to work another way. He did well until, one morning, he arrived for Bible study carrying a gigantic cake. The group chided him. “This is a special cake,” Pat explained, “I accidently drove by the bakery this morning. Unsure of how that happened, I prayed, ‘Lord, if it’s your will for me to have a delicious cake, give me a sign: get me a parking place directly in front of the bakery. Sure enough, the eighth time around the block, there was an open spot right in front of the bakery door!”
There are many reasons we seek a sign from God. Sometimes, like Pat, we want a sign that will allow us to do exactly what we want: I once had a man come to see me because he wanted to have an affair. He claimed, he’d told God that if I encouraged him, he’d take that as a sign. He came by more than once before he accepted there wasn’t going to be a sign. Sometimes we want proof that God loves us. At a conference recently, a speaker suggested that we pray God would give us our own personal sign of his love. She said God had given her a particular kind of flower and whenever she saw it she was reminded that God loved her. Many people ask for a sign to prove God exists; a woman writes of asking for such a sign while on vacation. She woke in the night and went outside this is what she describes: When I stepped outside I was stunned to see a storm raging silently between two mountains. The only sound was the rustling of a mild breeze as the lightning flashed brilliantly to illuminate a great cloud, probably a hundred miles away. It must have been 60, 000 feet tall with raging winds, battering the ground below with rain or hail. An artist wouldn’t have painted it as such because it would seem too contrived. The rest of the sky was completely clear, and packed with stars. Just as I looked up to try to pick out some constellations, a large meteor sparkled across the sky. Then another. I saw probably eight in total that night, many of them large with long, dazzling trails. It was breathtaking. It seemed like God had created this beauty just for me. Maybe we seek a sign because we’re fearful or want something that will give us peace, perhaps a sign that our impending surgery will go well. Or we’re looking for guidance: should I go to this school or that one; move to this retirement residence or another. Or we need strength to continue on a certain path – I think my child needs tough love but it’s hard – give me a sign. Sometimes we want a sign that will confirm our feelings: am I twitterpated or would this person be a good spouse for me? Often people seek a sign from God when a death occurs because they want reassurance that their loved one has made it to the other side: A woman tells such a story. Her father had died and she was worried for his soul. As she sat in Church, leafing through a book, she asked God to give her a sign. She turned the page and there was a ½ page picture of her father. She took this as an answer to her prayer. I think it’s true to say that God, out of compassion for our human weaknesses, sometimes breaks through to us and offers us a sign. The trouble is, even when we get a sign, we’re not convinced. We always seem to want something else.
Jesus told a parable about someone seeking a sign. Instead of being a bereft mourner, in this parable, the person asking for a sign is the one who has died. A rich man lived a good life. He wore nice clothes, ate good food and shared his wealth with his friends. Outside his gate lived a local fellow, Lazarus, who was poor, dirty, hungry and covered in sores. Dogs licked Lazarus’ wounds while he looked past the gate and through the window of the rich man’s mansion where he saw the rich man and his friends enjoying the best life offers. Lazarus drooled over the thought of having even a scrap of food from the rich man’s table. While the rich man didn’t chase Lazarus from his door, neither does he take him in, clean his wounds, give him fresh clothes, a bed to sleep in or a decent meal. Low and behold, both men die at the same time. Lazarus is taken to heaven where he is consoled by Abraham. The rich man finds himself in Hades, in great discomfort, largely due to the heat. What’s worse, he can look beyond a chasm and see Lazarus all healed up, fed and living in comfort and peace. So the rich man, thinking that other people exist for his benefit and being used to getting whatever he wants, yells across to Abraham suggesting that Lazarus serve him by giving him a sip of water to cool his tongue. Abraham says no. Perhaps this was the first time anyone had said no to this man. Abraham has a couple reasons for denying the request. First, he reminds the man that while they lived on earth he had it all and he shared none of it with Lazarus – in other words, what he did on earth impacts what is happening in the afterlife. The rich man is getting his due. The second reason given was that even if he or Lazarus were so inclined to ease the rich man’s suffering, there is no way to get across the chasm. It can’t be done. So the rich man comes up with plan B, he begs Abraham to give his family a warning sign. He suggests that Lazarus go back to the earth from the dead to tell his brothers how things work so that they will be compassionate to others in order to save their own hides. Abraham denies this request also, and gives two reasons. The first is that they have the guidance of God’s people through scripture – prophets like Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and others. They have already been told how things are meant to work. They chose to ignore the witness of God’s prophets. The rich man is not convinced; he’s sure that if someone returns from the dead his brothers would pay attention to a sign like that. Abraham is doubtful, and this is the clincher – ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16: 31).
The first thing we can take from this parable is that rather than living in our own little bubble, we have the capacity to be a sign of God’s love and presence to others, now – while we’re still alive. There are different types of chasms – there’s the physical one seperating heaven from hell and there’s the spiritual ones we create. The chasm between Lazarus and the rich man was the gate created by the rich man to keep the unpleasantness of life from touching his charmed world. We too have many gates – spiritual gates which we erect so that we do not have to see those who would disturb our lovely existence. We shrug our shoulders as we watch the news because there’s nothing we can do about that anyway. We label someone who is homeless a “street person” and pass by them pretending they’re invisible. We are aware of the needs in our global family but because we can’t solve the problems, we do nothing. We enjoy our wealth – and there’s nothing wrong with that – except when we see ourselves as too poor to help another human being in need, or we see ourselves as entitled to what we have, or we think that others exist for our benefit, not the other way around. What we do here has an eternal impact. There will come a day of judgement and we cannot say we didn’t know. We have Moses and the prophets so we have no excuse, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
A friend told me a story of a sign from God which he received about 30 years ago. During this moment the Spirit spoke to him saying, “when you are 75 you will look back over your life and at the man you have become and you will either say, ‘Thanks be to God’ or you will say, ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” What in your present life needs to change in order for you to say, “Thanks be to God”? What in your life needs to shift so that you will not end up staring longingly from the wrong side of the chasm? When my friend told me of this experience, I asked whether he had had any signs, any moments of insight as profound as that one in the years since. He said, “No. What was it Jesus said in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? I have Moses and the prophets, I don’t need any more signs than that.”
The interesting thing is, that God has given us another sign. In fact, the very one the rich man had begged for. Someone has risen from the dead. The question is: are we convinced? Remember the woman who’d had the amazing experience of nature while on vacation? She went on to say that her first reaction was to explain it away with science. Then she realized that she would never see God, never recognize his signs if she was determined not to. God has given us a sign and we don’t need any more signs than that. Do you need a sign that will give you God’s peace, guidance, strength or assurance? Here it is: Do you want a sign that proves God exists? Here it is: Do you want proof that God loves you? Here it is: God has given us a sign. What more could we ask for? What more do we need? Here it is: Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, crucified and risen. Can you see? Do you recognize the sign or are you determined not to? Every time you bow your head and call out in your need for a sign from God, remember God has given us a sign and if we accept this one, we have all the signs we ever need.