Text: Matthew 24:36-44
My senior year in college, I took a class called Psychology of Religion. For the final project we were to pick a topic and write a paper that would incorporate research, interviews, and personal illustrations. I chose for my topic, “the power of persuasion and suggestion.” My thesis was that the power of persuasion plays a significant role in matters of belief and faith. This topic was of interest to me because I had read an article in the local newspaper of a woman in a neighboring community who was known as the local “witch.” She had created quite a stir by staging her own funeral, all the way to buying a casket and lying in it as a hearse drove her through the small rural town in which she lived, in a mock funeral procession. She had also made the news several years earlier when some teenagers, who had visited with her and taunted her during their visit, had been injured in a car accident on their way home. The folklore was that she had put a curse on them as they left her home. As a result, many in that community had come to believe in the magical powers of the local sorcerer. Thus, my thesis that the power of persuasion and suggestion plays a significant role in matters of belief and faith.
When I sought approval from my professor to proceed with my idea for my final project, she rejected my request. When I asked why, she said I was too impressionable—that I would believe whatever the woman with magical powers told me. But being the persistent and focused, some would say “single-minded,” person that I am, I made another appeal to my professor. I asked her if I took my father with me could I go. (Such a request is one of the blessings and curses of going to college in the same small town that you grew up in.) Knowing my father well, Dr. Cullinan reluctantly agreed to my plan. The evening of the interview was set along with my approved list of questions to ask. As the day approached, it was decided (not sure how) that my mother and sister would also go. My project now became a family affair.
My father is a very religious man. But growing up watching him, I learned that his religion was somewhat tempered by a healthy dose of superstition. As a child I often observed him making an “x” on the windshield of the car if a black cat ran in front of the car. Or I would notice him doing certain rituals before playing a baseball game or going hunting. I remember on the way to interview the “woman with special powers” dad gave us all a lecture. The basics were: don’t make fun, don’t laugh, do whatever she says, and ask only the questions you have prepared. My mother and sister were to be silent observers. I have so many memories of that evening: the house dimly lit, the smells of incense, the crystal balls, the music playing in the background, her flowing dress, the séance she did reading my dad’s energy as my mother, sister, and I were stationed around him. Mystery surrounded every bit of the evening. What I remember most about the evening, though, came at the very end of the night. As we were walking out the door, the woman with magical powers said to my father, “The moon is a sign that you and your family will have a safe journey home.” I’m not sure what my father, mother, or sister were thinking about on that silent ride home, but I was watching the moon—the sign that we would be safe.
Who among us has not asked God for, or hoped that God would give us, a sign when faced with a question or dilemma? I once heard a story about a woman who asked God for a sign as to whether or not she should marry the man she was dating or enter the convent. She even went so far as to name the sign she needed. She identified flowers as the sign that God would send if she were to become a nun. The very next day, she received flowers—a dozen roses—from her boyfriend. A short time later she entered the convent where she lived out her entire life.
One cannot deny that the God of the Bible is a God of signs. Floods, olive branches, rainbows, burning bushes, fig trees, wars, earthquakes, clouds, and plagues are just a few of the signs that God’s people encountered throughout biblical history to determine God’s involvement in their lives. And we are still a people who look for signs to determine how and when God is speaking to us. Of all the seasons of the church year, this time of year is pregnant with signs—bright stars, shepherds, wise people carrying gifts, and a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. These signs and others will play prominent roles in the biblical stories that we will read over the next several weeks. From Isaiah we will read: “There God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” From Luke we read, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” In Matthew the “star at its rising” is the sign of God’s presence being born into the world.
I have always been fascinated with humanity’s obsession with looking for signs from God. Apparitions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary number in the thousands. People have seen images of Mary and Jesus on toast, in trees, in the windows of hospitals, on the side of buildings in large cities, and out in the open fields of rural America. In Germany, Egypt, Mexico, and even here in Raleigh in the kudzu at the Boylan Avenue bridge, people have claimed to see the Holy Mother and her son—proclaiming these images to be signs of God’s presence in our world.
Our gospel reading for this first Sunday of Advent reminds us that we indeed do need to be watchful of the signs of God’s presence in our lives and in the world. It is one of those passages that can be quite scary. It recounts the story of the great flood that covered the earth and how it came with such surprise and suddenness and swept everything away. It warns of the time when some will be mysteriously taken away and others left. In reminds us that we can’t predict when and where something will happen. And so, given how unexpected and unpredictable God’s coming can be, Matthew reminds us that we are to stay awake and be watchful at all times for God’s coming into our lives. There will be signs…God will give us a sign the story says. The real question or work for us this Advent may very well be to ask, “Where are we looking for and seeing God’s signs of hope, peace, joy, and love in our world?” Are we looking in all the wrong places—in our uncertain economy, in our wealth, in our success at work, in the material things we possess? Or are we keeping watch, ready and willing to see God in all the unexpected and surprising places where God is being born?
This week, we are invited to keep watch for hope in our world. As we go into this week, I want to tell you where I see hope in some very unexpected places. I see hope in a worldwide movement called, “It Gets Better”—a project aimed at junior high and high school youth who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender. It started as a YouTube video from two gay men, syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage and his partner Terry, who became alarmed at the number of recent suicides by gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender youth because of bullying. In their video they talk about their individual journeys as gay teens and how if they could go back now and say anything to themselves as gay youth they would say, “It Gets Better.” Their video sparked a national response in which President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, and elected leaders like Joel Burns in Texas have all posted videos with messages to gay youth encouraging them with the message “It Gets Better,” and pledging their support to fight bullying in this country. If you haven’t heard of this movement, go home today and google “It Gets Better project.” And be sure to listen to Joel Burns’ video.
I also see signs of hope here at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church at the Hope Center where homeless men are finding support and love from many of you. I saw signs of hope last Saturday as I sat in a circle with six Pullenites and six Muslims from the Islamic Center talking about how to promote understanding between our two faith communities. I see signs of hope every day of the week as I watch you care for, visit, and pray for one another. I see signs of hope when black, brown, and white people join together to stand for justice—justice in our public education system, justice for immigrants, and justice for those suffering with mental illness. Two Sunday’s ago over 100 Pullenites signed a petition asking our Governor not to close Dorothea Dix Hospital. These are signs of hope. They are all around us.
These are very real places where I, personally, see signs of hope. My message to you today is simple. Our faith asks of us that we be people of hope. One of the most faithful things we can do in these days of Advent is to stay awake and keep watch for hopeful signs. God will give us a sign. Not in a visit with a witch or in the face of the moon. Not in whether or not we receive flowers. Not in our economy or in the things we possess. God’s signs of hope come to us when we engage one another and our world in our suffering and in our joy—when we risk going into those places where we least expect to find God. The God of history has come in the most unexpected and surprising places—in the desolate places, through imperfect people, and in situations that seem hopeless. The question before us this Advent is: “Where are we looking for God’s signs of hope?” Stay awake and keep watch, for God will give you—God will give us—a sign.