If you have a Facebook account, you know what I’m talking about. If you use email, you understand. In fact, if you have ever, even once, logged on to the internet, you have gotten a message, tagged “urgent”, entitled something like, “Guys, check this out!” or “Hey, this is amazing!” You have seen them plastered all over your virtual wall.
Cute, adorable, cuddly and playful. Kittens. Oh, there are a few puppies thrown in. Some photogenic children. But mostly, it’s kittens.
Why? Seriously, why? Not “For the love of God, man, please make it stop!” why?, but simply, “Why?” What is it about the kittens – or, more likely, what is it about us – that makes this seem like a good use of the kind of technology that has sent humans to the moon and toppled dictatorships?
I have a theory. It’s not supported by anyone, so far as I can tell. But this is what I think: I believe that in an over-stimulated, over-connected world that is now linked to a 24/7 news cycle, we need to know that there is still good news. We are weary of the shootings, the racism, the debilitating poverty and the unending stream of negativity and….awwwww, kittens! Aren’t they adorable?
To put it Biblically, we want a sign. We want to know that what we see isn’t everything, and that what we face is not interminable. We want to hope that things are different than they sometimes appear to be.
And if we, the richest, healthiest, longest-lived, most-medicated generation the planet has ever seen – if we need to know that things get better and that beauty exists, well, then imagine the audience that showed up to hear Isaiah preach. They were captives who descended from people who had been forcibly removed from their homes in Israel. They’d lived for a generation in Babylon, the enemy capital. They were aware that whatever passed for home back in Palestine had been destroyed and overrun; they were unable to fully worship; they were immersed in a foreign culture; and they wondered what was true. They wondered if hope was something that they could afford, and if faith was worthwhile.
And the prophet says, “Yes. Yes, there is a future.” And he starts with an image that they understand: he says, “Do you know what happens to the desert after it rains for a couple of days? How the dull brown apparently unending death is jolted with new life and color and vibrancy? Well, beloved, that can happen in your world, too. God’s purposes are for life and good. The heat and the parchedness do not win. Life wins. Redemption is God’s intent.” And then the old prophet and preacher gives his neighbors a sign that God is not finished with them yet. Some parts of that sermon and sign, like blind people seeing or redeemed people returning home must seem impossibly distant. Yet other aspects of those purposes are as close as the next rain shower. There is good news for Isaiah’s people.
And for us. We want a sign, too.
And yet if we, the most literate, technologically-advanced, nutritionally blessed generation with the cutest children and grandchildren ever imagined – if we want a sign, well, imagine how John the Baptist felt.
We heard about John last week. Do you remember him, out in the desert, eating locusts, wearing the camel hair shirts? When we last saw him, he was riding the wave of public opinion. The crowds were coming out to see him and be baptized; he had challenged the religious and political leadership of his day. After that, he found himself asking the king some tricky moral questions and wound up imprisoned for his troubles. I can’t imagine that is what he thought was supposed to happen. And so he wonders, “Is it true? All this stuff I’ve said about the coming Kingdom…can I count on it? Or am I wrong? Have I wasted my life?”
He sends his followers to ask Jesus, who is quick to reply: “Look, you fellows run back and tell John what you’ve heard. Describe what you’ve seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, and good news is being preached to the poor!” John’s reality appears otherwise, but this is exactly what old Isaiah was talking about. God is on the move. Grace is his intent. Healing is real. Love wins.
And, as readers of Matthew know, Jesus unleashed the new reality in amazing ways. He spoke the truth. He gave us God’s design. He pointed to God’s future. Jesus was, as we all know, amazing.
Yet the reality is that the future that Jesus described and to which Isaiah pointed is, in many ways, still the future. Oh, none of us is in exile, really. None of our neighbors are in prison for making helpful comments about the King’s sexual adventures. And nobody we know is facing crucifixion.
And yet…and yet…we know that the world is not as it should be. The world that we live and breathe and work and shop and play in is too full of abuse, debilitating poverty, addiction, persecution, and death.
And like the Israelites, and like John, we need to know that what we see is not all there is. Our neighbors and our world need to be reminded that we will not always be where we are now; things will not always be as they are now.
To put it another way, we say that we are in Advent, a time of waiting. Well, if we are willing to dedicate a portion of our lives to waiting, we must acknowledge that for which we wait. If we say that we hope, we must point to that for which we hope. We want a sign.
Beloved, this is the truth: you are the sign for this time and this place. This congregation is a living reminder of the coming reality that God has promised to his creation. The people in exile, and John in his prison, and folk up in down this street and across this city say, “Show me a sign”, and God holds up…well, YOU.
You know, thank God, that God is a God who speaks. Your presence here gives witness to the fact that you believe God has a word – not just for Hebrew slaves and first century prophets, but for our world. You show that sign by your willingness to engage in worship together. Your worship is strong and intergenerational. It is full of the real parts of life – we laugh and we cry.
You point to this God who speaks in other ways as you seek to understand the written Word. Adult Faithbuilders discussions center on the Bible. There are vibrant studies in the evenings for adults. Your children and grandchildren are learning how to listen for and honor God’s word.
And this God who has spoken and still speaks calls us together in community. Every week the front of the bulletin reminds us that a part of why we are called together is to “share life’s joys and sorrows”. And you do that.
I have noticed here that when the specter of death emerges among you, as it does everywhere, no one is alone. When the gift of life appears in your midst, there is shared joy. When someone you love – or are learning to love, is in need of healing – you point to it. You are learning what it means to be God’s people with and for each other. You are recognizing that when we know God and seek to participate in his kingdom, we can’t do it alone. We can only do it with and for others, whom we are learning to love and trust and serve.
And this God who speaks and calls us together empowers us to share his intentions with the world. We believe that while there is great suffering and pain and dysfunction in the world, God’s purposes are greater still. And so this congregation, this year, launched a ministry that wound up feeding 1300 starving families in 8 apparently forgotten African villages for three of the toughest months they’ve known.
This congregation, at this time, serves as a welcome beacon for dozens of neighborhood children who long to know that they are important to someone and that they can thrive in this community. The Open Door ministry is a tangible sign of God’s love and presence on our street.
Downstairs, there is a food pantry that is bulging at the seams. Three weeks ago, we thought we wouldn’t have enough food to share with hungry neighbors, and so someone stood up here and said that we thought we needed more. And earlier this week I walked into the room downstairs and one of our most dedicated volunteers was complaining because there wasn’t room for all the food that was coming in. God’s intentions for abundance are evident for our neighbors in tough times.
And to a generation that wants to see a sign and that was raised on visual imagery, I have one more. This is one of our partners in our newest mission endeavor located in South Sudan. Some of you know that for generations, folk from the north of that country have raided the south and stolen people into slavery. This video clip is an image of a Christian leader who has brought a group of former slaves home to their village in the south. The Christian community in South Sudan and around the world has come together and now those who have lived in captivity are being reunited with their loved ones – because of the Gospel and Christ.
These things are amazing! They are fantastic, beautiful, wonderful signs of a God who comes.
I don’t want to sugarcoat things, or pretend that we live in a world without problems. We know well enough that every day is a challenge. I am very aware of the fact that it was all some of us could do to get out of bed and drag ourselves in here this morning, and we are preparing to go home to pain, to dis-ease, to a secret or shame that threatens to overwhelm us. We are sinful and broken people who live in a world that is profoundly disrupted by sin and brokenness. I know – believe you me, I know that sin and brokenness are unwelcome intruders.
But now, and here, I proclaim to you – and you to each other – that deserts do bloom. That the deaf can and will hear. That the poor can eat. That the dying do receive new lungs. That those enslaved – by hostile neighbors, by abusive relationships, by debilitating drugs – that all those enslaved can be freed. Addictions can be broken. I proclaim that as the message from the God who speaks, who calls us together, and who sends us out. And, seriously, my friends, isn’t that way better than kittens?
What remains is for you to explore what that means for you. God is opening a new way of life in Jesus Christ. That’s wonderful and amazing. So what?
How are God’s intentions, promised to Israel and revealed in Jesus Christ, evident in your life? How are you participating in those things with this, the body of Christ in this time and this place?
Celebrate those intentions now. Point to them in your life. Live the grace and truth of God, and share it as a sign, in your life this week. Thanks be to God for this wonderful gift! Amen.