April 1, 2020

Be A Sign

jesus.jpgDenise and I were traveling to an unfamiliar church last night, and even with perfectly good directions and plenty of time, we got lost. So I stopped at McDonald’s and asked for help.

Asking for directions at McDonald’s for a large downtown “First Baptist” church probably wasn’t a great idea anyway. One guy didn’t speak English. Another said “Fugate” (??) and proceeded to go ask the manager for directions. (Neither ever returned.) A female employee talked to me for five minutes as if I’d been born in the town and knew every building and fire hydrant (“You can’t miss the police station.”) She was sincere, but of no help.

A fellow in the parking lot who looked like he might have once been in a Baptist church- in other words a pudgy white guy and his pudgy kid- gave me helpful directions, ending with the ominous phrase “You can’t miss it.”

He doesn’t know me very well.

Ten minutes later I was completing my fifth round trip around several blocks that contained all the other buildings I’d been told about, but still no church. It was getting late, getting dark and getting very surreal, as there was no way I could understand how I could be missing this large worship facility.

The culprit in this story was a sign. Next to the church’s parking garage, which was easily found, was a sign saying “First Baptist Church, one block,” and an arrow pointing left. That left point arrow sent me on my many round-the-block trips, turning left into parking lots, alleys and narrow streets going nowhere.

Eventually, a young man on the sidewalk took pity on me, ran over to the main street, down a block, and pointed at the rather obvious church building with the sign on the front.

It was one block past the sign. One block STRAIGHT AHEAD. Not left. One small error with very big results.

I’ll confess that the darkness and my unfamiliarity with the streets disoriented me, but the sign was the killer. It was wrong. It was placed well, and it was simple to understand. It just pointed me in the wrong direction at the last moment, the moment when I most needed the right direction.

I doubt that sign was put up yesterday, and I doubt that I am the first person to voice a complaint. I think that people have gotten used to that sign. They don’t think what a terror it is to strangers like myself. They assume that any sincere seeker will figure things out on their own. It’s the kind of compromises people make all the time when they have a responsibility to convey truthful information.

A sign pointing the wrong way isn’t taken very seriously.

Of course, Advent reminds us that we are all waiting for our King. We are waiting, watching, wondering. While we do so, we point to Jesus. We are, in other words, signs.

We are signs pointing to the God we believe exists and is acting in history; the God who loves his creation and loves us. We are signs pointing to the Biblical story of God choosing a people and bringing about the miracle of the incarnation, passion and resurrection. We are signs of the life Jesus lived and taught; signs that such a life can take root in our world, be real and make a difference. We are signs of hope, pointing to a coming universe remade without the curse of sin.

To be a sign is to be in the midst of the human community, but to say something; to say it clearly, to say it simply, to say it consistently.

And of course, to not point the wrong way.

In the current evangelical circus, the signs are everywhere. Megachurches, media ministries and prosperity pimps have “signs” that speak of God, Jesus, truth and the Good News. But these are signs, with all their flash and attention-grabbing fireworks, that point in the wrong direction. They speak the language of the culture, but point away opposite the manger, the cross and the Christ to something quite different. At the most crucial moment, they avoid the Gospel and point to something else.

We are called by Jesus to be living stones of remembrance. We are lights in the world. We are to be the opposite of the “blind guides” who lead the world into the ditch. Our communities are “cities on a hill,” previewing the City of God where all nations come to the banquet of the Messiah.

We are living letters, with the name of our God and his messiah placed on us in plain view. Like Paul, our goal is to say “If you do not know Christ, look at me; listen to me; and you will see him and hear him.” We pray that the Holy Spirit will make us like Christ and give us the power to love and serve others as signs of the savior.

A sign may be a small thing, but to someone trying to find their way, it is a welcome friend. And if the sign can be trusted, it can bring the searcher much nearer home.

Signs that are habitually wrong are often viewed generously. They get most everything right. They mean well. We tell ourselves that a true seeker will find his or her way without a perfect sign. God graciously brings people to himself despite all kinds of bad signs and poor directions, but that’s to the credit of his grace, never as an excuse for our failure.

It’s clear that Jesus knows we are not perfect signs, but his calling to be his witnesses and servants is still a high standard. The excuses we generally use for turning so many people left are our own inventions. In the end, we have to say that it doesn’t matter if Christ is represented well or if people truly know the way to him.

And that’s the tragedy of a sign that points the wrong direction. A wrong turn may be the beginning of another journey entirely, with a very different and tragic destination. We fail our purpose, Jesus appears to be an empty religious phony and those reading the sign are sent on the wrong way.

And somehow, we manage to find a way to blame the person circling the block in confusion.

Comments

  1. Mat 16:4b says “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign”. I wonder about the world’s responsibility to look for the right things.

    If I am a sign- poorly placed, old and rusty, I’m responsible, yes, for pointing others to Christ. I can point people in the wrong direction, if you look at me in a bad vile moment- but that’s also what I think many unbelievers are looking for: Christians acting badly so that they can discount the message of the gospel because we are not living holy lives.

    Didn’t Jesus call us to be His followers, His friends even? He never told us to be signs. I think He can takes care of the signs and wonders part quite spectacularly.

    So maybe when people look at my life, with my achievements and my times when I point you down the wrong road because I’m in a bad way, maybe I can be a sinner saved by grace- and not the sign that you seek.

  2. I was not refering to miraculous signs and wonders.

    We are called by Jesus to be living stones of remembrance. We are lights in the world. We are to be the opposite of the “blind guides” who lead the world into the ditch. Our communities are “cities on a hill,” previewing the City of God where all nations come to the banquet of the Messiah.

    We are living letters, with the name of our God and his messiah placed on us in plain view. Like Paul, our goal is to say “If you do not know Christ, look at me; listen to me; and you will see him and hear him.” We pray that the Holy Spirit will make us like Christ and give us the power to love and serve others as signs of the savior.

    A sign may be a small thing, but to someone trying to find their way, it is a welcome friend. And if the sign can be trusted, it can bring the searcher much nearer home.

  3. Thanks so much for this post. This is why I appreciated the conversation in the trap-door post.
    I am often tempted to put up signs that misdirect people. My life and my teaching will necessarily point to something. (I suppose I am a sign whether I like it or not.)

    Sometimes, I fear that in my zeal for theological purity, I trick people on their way to Christ by putting up a sign at the last minute that points to a theological system.

    Or on other days, I distract them with social justice or even biblical knowledge.

    I particularly like the sign metaphor because signs don’t have to be beautiful or glorious, they just have to point in the right direction.

    If I can risk pushing the metaphor to far, I think that part of our problem is that we can be so focused on making the sign itself attractive that we forget to make sure it points in the right direction. I serve in a mega-church. Our biggest risk is that the institution can become so attractive that people never get past admiring what a pretty sign we are and we stop pointing anywhere.

    This can also happen with doctrinal systems. You addressed this concern well in the trap-door post.

    Thanks for the reminder to re-direct our signs.

  4. Michael,

    “They speak the language of the culture, but point away opposite the manger, the cross and the Christ to something quite different. At the most crucial moment, they avoid the Gospel and point to something else.”

    Thank you for the profound reminder of our calling. Too bad you’re not a Lutheran–you aptly refer to a theology of the cross as opposed to a theology of glory.

    By the way, I have been accepted into the MDiv program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg for Fall 2008. Thak you for helping me to stay focused on the mission.

  5. Memphis Aggie says

    Michael,
    You’re pointing the right way. Just look down this site. What have been your messages: don’t get distracted by politics or theology, focus on Christ. Mix into that a healthy recognition of past failures in that excellent mirror post. That makes you credible as a Christian.

  6. Beautifully written Michael. Thanks for the reminder as I still drive in circles insisting I’m not lost!