The Bible is full of signs from God. You remember recently we heard about the star that was a sign to the wise men. Way back in the stories of Moses you may recall all kinds of signs God gave back in the day: from turning his staff into a serpent to dividing the waters of the Red Sea. The message is: if you want to know where to find God – and especially if you want to know whose side God is on – then look for the signs. Water flowing from a rock; manna raining down from heaven; a dove and a voice from heaven; a rainbow in the sky; a vision of the heavenly court; a ladder that stretches into heaven; angels singing sweetly through the night. The pages of the Bible regularly supply us with vivid images of signs from God meant to prove that God is in charge, or to demonstrate something that someone might normally be reluctant or unprepared to believe.
The desire for signs has not diminished in our own times. The recent best-seller that tells of a “little boy’s astounding story of his trip to heaven and back” is touted as a sign that “Heaven is for Real.” Religious leaders regularly see signs of God in weather events and natural disasters. The work of the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider has recently been linked to the possible discovery of the so-called God-particle, which, if identified, would, I guess, provide a sign - proof that God actually does exist, but can only been found with a really, really big particle accelerator! This would be a more satisfying sign to many of us than the face of Jesus appearing in a piece of burnt toast.
You might say that it is very hard to be a person of faith – or a person looking for faith – and not to look for signs. How are you supposed to know whether God is up there, out there, or wherever he or she or it is? How are you supposed to know what God wants you to do? And how are you supposed to know that the signs you see aren’t actually delusions, as a great many people would like you to believe? If God isn’t going to post videos on YouTube to make his presence and his will known, then how can believers avoid looking for signs?
The view from a mountaintop, the breeze across a lake, the gurgle of a stream can all provide signs of God in the world. And so can the cries of a newborn, the outstretched hand of a homeless person, or the purring of a kitten. This season of the church year, in fact, is meant to be all about signs – all about remembering the signs of God’s revelation of his presence in the world in the person of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth. Healthy young fishermen will leave their boats at his beckoning, demons will quit their sorry victims, illness will be put to flight – just wait and see in the stories that we read in the coming weeks. Sadly, this year we will not read about the wine being turned into water, but it is a favorite sign, and one most Episcopalians have never stopped hoping to see repeated.
Today we hear about one of the silliest and least convincing signs of all: Jesus claims to have seen Nathanael under a fig tree at some earlier point in time. That’s it. Which, if any of you were to believe was a sign that you had had a personal encounter with the messiah, I would suggest more therapy.
Moments ago, Nathaniel was sneering at Jesus as a redneck from Nazareth, but when Jesus, says, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree,” Nathaniel believes he has seen a sign that here indeed is the Son of God, the King of Israel. It wasn’t much of a sign to go on, but apparently it was all Nathanael needed.
If you are preoccupied with signs, you might leave here today thinking that this is the point of the story. If I was preoccupied with signs, I might spend the next few minutes trying to convince you what an absolutely terrifically important sign this is, not only to Nathanael, but to you. I might suggest that I have seen you sitting under proverbial fig trees, that Jesus sees you under them even now, and that he has sent me to you to give you a sign! But I am not preoccupied with signs – not today anyway – and I hope that today you are not either. Because if we were preoccupied with signs we might have stopped listening to Jesus already, and we might not hear what comes next. Don’t look! Can you remember what Jesus says to Nathanael after he more or less laughs at Nathaniel’s simple-minded preoccupation with what may or may not have been a sign?
This is what Jesus says: “You will see greater things than these.”
It is by no means clear that Nathanael believes Jesus, or has any idea what he means by this, but it will transpire, twenty chapters later in John’s Gospel, that Nathanael will be there by the Sea of Galilee when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples, although they do not know it is him until he gives them a sign. And Nathanael, who might have been known only for his quick-witted insult of Jesus, is among the first to see and know that the promises of new life through Jesus are true, because the Lord is risen, and the gates of death and hell would not prevail against him! “You will see greater things than these,” Jesus had said to Nathanael. And so it will prove to be.
You come to church, maybe every week – maybe not so often. What signs do you see here? What signs have you seen in your life?
Do you see signs of God’s real presence in the Bread and the Wine as I lift them up for you to see and the bells are rung?
Do you see signs in the faces of the hungry people we feed here every Saturday morning?
Do you see signs in the colors of light streaming through the windows just now?
Do you hear signs in the notes that the choir sings, the organ plays, or in the hymns to which you join your voices?
Have you seen signs in the wilderness when the beauty of God’s creation is spread out before you?
Have you seen signs in the twinkle of your little child’s eyes?
Did you pray for a sign of God’s presence as you stood vigil at your loved one’s death bed?
Have you tasted a sign of God’s work in a loaf of bread that was baked for you, or in a piece of fruit that was picked or peeled or squeezed for you? Or in a meal that was served to you?
Has the rain brought you signs of God’s work? Or the sunshine?
All of these are places that I believe I have seen signs of God. And yet, somehow they can all fall short. Signs are great as long as they last, but they don’t last long, and it’s not always clear what we are to make of them, and there is this modern nagging suspicion that all those signs are just delusions anyway.
But believing in Jesus is not just about seeing signs in things where other people see delusions. Believing in Jesus is believing in the promise that you will see greater things than these.
This was God’s promise to Abraham, who assumed he had nothing before him but the waning years of his childless old age. You will see greater things than these.
This was God’s promise to Joseph, who was left in a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers. You will see greater things than these.
This was God’s promise to his people through Moses, who had nothing to look forward to but increasing hardship and abuse at the hand of Pharaoh. You will see greater things than these.
This was God’s promise through his prophets to his people when they were carried into exile. You will see greater things than these.
This was God’s promise to all who came to visit the straw-strewn manger where a child was nursed by his mother beneath the light of a twinkling star. You will see greater things than these.
And this is God’s promise to every one of us, when we sometimes feel as though we have to grasp at straws for signs of God’s promise. You will see greater things than these.
Was that a message from God spelled out in your Cheerios yesterday morning? And have you missed the fleeting chance to know what God is doing in your life because you gobbled them up too soon? No, you will see greater things than these.
Does the faith you once felt long ago, but which has slipped away as you’ve gotten older, and begun to lose your friends, and your family, and your soul-mate, feel worn and flimsy? You will see greater things than these.
Have the songs that once you could sing out in full voice become hard to sing? You will see greater things than these.
Does it seem that maybe once, long ago it seemed possible that Jesus saw you, sitting under a fig tree or wherever, but now, the signs of his love are distant memories, that seem less real to you, and that your children are inclined to ignore? You will see greater things than these.
What can you do if your faith was built on signs, but the signs have all faded, and you have begun to wonder if you ever saw them in the first place? Did you believe just because someone once told you that Jesus sees you under your fig tree? Did you believe just because of the signs?
Let me promise you that God is not done with you and with me; we will see greater things.
The life of faith is not just a life in which you receive the worn out old promises of a rickety old God and his dusty old religion. It is a life that carries with it the promise of greater things: a land flowing with milk and honey, for instance. The whole story of the Bible is the promise of greater things, and all the heroes of the Bible clung fast to this promise: that you will see greater things.
But too many of us have somehow concluded that there is not much more to faith than reading the tea leaves of the world around us and seeing God in them, or not. And if your faith rests on whether or not God is going to provide a sign on a piece of toast, then that faith can be smothered with nothing more than a spoonful of marmalade.
Faith in God has always been built on the promise of greater things, and it has always been delivered to those who are in need of them: the childless, the homeless, the wandering, the depressed, the poor, the hungry, the battered, the frightened, the abused, the war-torn, the abandoned, and the out-of-luck.
Perhaps some small sign is given: a birdsong, a passage of Scripture, the helping hand of a stranger. And now what? Will I see greater things? Or is this all there is, these little signs to be embraced or dismissed? Yes, you will see greater things than these. The Christian puts one foot in front of the other every day because of this hope – you will see greater things. And from time to time we have glimpses of the greater things God has in store.
From time to time we approach the altar with nothing left in our souls, and no confidence even in the signs that led us there. We are ready to give up, but we are still going through the motions out of habit. And in a moment of silence, no sign is given, but we discover the assurance that God is in the world. How do you know it? You don’t. You have received no sign; you only ate the bread and sipped the wine like you always do, but you knew that you had met Christ for a moment at his table, and he reminded you that he is not done with you yet.
From time to time we realize how desperately we are in need of forgiveness. We put off dealing with it, we avoid certain people, we make excuses for ourselves. But by God’s grace we have a moment of weakness when we are able to confess and to seek forgiveness. We know we don’t deserve it, but we kneel before God and ask him to forgive us. And without any sign at all of his work, God waves his hand over our heads and wipes away the sin that has troubled us so, and sends us on our way.
God has planted the vision of a promised land in our hearts. And although many signs point to it, none of them leads us directly there. Not yet. But you will see greater things.
I thank God for the signs he allows us to see, and I pray that not too many of them are delusions (though probably a few of them are). And I hope that you see signs of God’s work in the world and in your life, too.
But there is something very important to remember, both when the signs seem to be coming at you fast and furious, and when they are but a distant memory. You will see greater things than these.
God is not done with you or with me. He has greater things in store. He has a place, a promised land, to which he is leading us, and if we forget that, then there will be no point in paying attention to the signs anyway. By all means, look for the signs of God’s work in your life and in the world. Be a skeptic about the signs if you want. But never forget that there are greater things in store for you.
One day you will be on the shore of a distant lake, and there will be a figure there who you do not recognize. Perhaps he will show you a sign, and it will all make sense. Or maybe there will be no sign at all; maybe he will just call you by name. And you will remember that once, in the midst of your search for signs, he promised you that you would see greater things.
And now that you can see them all unfolding before you, you feel that you can finally breathe, and at last in this new world of greater things, you discover that you are meant to live!
Thanks be to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 January, 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Phialdelphia