"Our Love of Signs"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 2, 2003

Isaiah 25:6-9; John 11:32-44


     One of the most interesting challenges facing us as people of faith is learning how to wean ourselves away from looking for God's presence in our physical world.  We look for God constantly and we defend the practice with great conviction.  We look at a beautifully formed new born baby and say, "Isn't God wonderful?  We are so blessed!"  Yet we cannot make any such statement of faith when a women bears twins who are born conjoined at their heads.  

     We look at the magnificence of a leaf arrayed with its Fall colors and declare that God is the perfect artist. Yet we fall silent when we cannot apply the same thinking to what happened when hurricane Isabel came ashore or as we watch parts of California being consumed by fire. We are taking our cues for God's presence from the signs we perceive when our circumstances are wonderful, fulfilling and peaceful.         

     However, there are two poles to the magnet of our existence. What happens to us when life tumbles in and appears to crush the joy from us?  Our perfect physical environment is destroyed by a tornado or a flood.  Perhaps everything in our family's chemistry has changed by an unexpected divorce, a debilitating disease that is terminal, or a child who walked out of our lives many years ago leaving an emotional uncertainty that may never have closure. 

     These are the times that seriously tempt us to feel abandoned by God. We may doubt and question our faith.  When our perception can no longer detect the signs of God's presence in our lives, we may experience ourselves straying from the fundamentals we once knew or the rock upon which we believed we had built our house of faith.   

     The story in our Gospel lesson today feeds our desire for sensory validation of God's power and presence in our lives.  The very fact that we often need such confirmation of God's visibility is worth pondering.  Do our lives have to be filled with what we perceive as miraculous in order to feel loved by God? 

     What happened in John's account came as a surprise to Mary and Martha. The writer indicates on two occasions that Lazarus had been dead four days.  His body had been ritually prepared and was entombed in a cave that was sealed by a rock.  The author did not want to leave any doubt in the minds of readers that Lazarus was deceased for a substantial period of time.

     As Jesus walked toward the place of burial he spoke to God saying, "I thank you that you always listen to me.  I know that you always listen to me, but what I am about to do is for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me."  Jesus called out to Lazarus and told him to come out of the tomb. To the amazement of those assembled, Lazarus did.  Jesus told the witnesses to untie him and set him free. 

     Had you been a part of that gathering, would seeing Lazarus being raised from the dead cause you to reorder your life?  Would seeing countless miracles from Jesus inspire your life to radiate the spiritual gifts that Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatians, e.g., joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness and humility?   

     Many of us might say, "If I witnessed something that incredible, believe me, I would never doubt God's power and presence again!"  Having our senses appeased by the raising to life of a man who had been dead for four days might, indeed, have that effect on us.  But are physical signs and wonders enough to inspire faithfulness to radiating our loving energy for the rest of our lives? The Gospel record is quite clear that such signs are not something that can be relied on to stabilize our willingness to live consistently our convictions and values.   

     A day or so following this episode with Lazarus was Palm Sunday. The disciples were still basking in the glory of what had just happened in Bethany.  Their heightened strength was fueled by the privilege of walking beside Jesus as they entered Jerusalem and by the cries of enthusiasm from the crowd. Everyone was overwhelmed by God's obvious and abundant presence.  The long promised Messiah had finally arrived! 

     It took less than a week for a different set of circumstances to erode this house of faith the disciples had built on the sands of their sensory experiences.  When Jesus was arrested, the disciples fled.  Peter told a number of people that he had never met the man.  Only one disciple -- John -- stood at the foot of the cross as Jesus died.  The rest remained in hiding as they feared for their own lives.   

     Following the resurrection, Thomas would not believe anyone or anything until he could see Jesus for himself.  When the Master appeared to Thomas he said, "Do you believe because you have seen me and have touched my wounds?  How happy are those who will believe even though they will not have seen me as you have." 

     There is a much greater truth here than the raising of Lazarus. All of us have smiled at the comment, "No one gets out of this life alive."  That statement is false. The truth is that all of us leave this life very much alive.  We do so in a different form. The process of this transition was designed by God and is not influenced by our beliefs about it, our thoughts or our need to see that our form of justice will prevail.              

     Faith is and will always be about our inward journey, not about the physical signs we interpret as God's presence.  We could all witness a hundred miracles and still flee the garden and abandon our Master the moment the threat to our safety is great enough -- UNLESS we have followed him as he requested. Only then can we walk through valleys of the shadow of death and fear no evil.  Only then can we dwell on the Mounts of Transfiguration that come our way and decide that we must return to the valleys of normalcy just as Jesus had directed his disciples to do.   

     Life is like the sea, it surges with great power only to drift again into a stillness at ebb tide. Through the entire process of living and dying, God's presence is constant. We must intuitively know this, not by what our senses tell us through our interpretation of what constitutes a valid sign, but by our confidence and trust that God is in charge every moment of every day in every life of those of us who are alive and of those who are deceased.  This is the truth we celebrate on All Saints Sunday!  Amen. 


     As we gather together on this day, O God, we are grateful for the moments when our minds  are invited to recall all those who have made their contributions and have left us.  All Saints Day is certainly one of those moments.  We simply did not get here without those on whose shoulders we now stand.  We would not be in this building were it not for those who secured the land and took  risks in faith to make happen what we now enjoy.  We would not be sitting in these pews today without an enormous number of personalities and experiences that caused us to make our presence in church a possibility. 

     We thank you God that it is now our turn.  None of us is very good at believing that we follow in any saint's footsteps.  Even though Jesus invited us to do so, we know that we falter.  We know that we make hasty decisions and uninformed judgments.  Yet we have confidence that you can take some of our worst moments and inspire others to pick up the slack, to become involved, to turn a corner or to make a commitment to change their lives by following Jesus Christ.  We simply do not understand humanity's portrait while you are still painting it. 

     We are grateful for the times you use one of our smiles, our kind words, our laughter and enthusiasm, our hard work and generosity to cause an event in the future we currently cannot see.  Thank you for our faith and the one who inspired it.  We pray these thoughts through his spirit, who taught his disciples to say when we pray . . .