July 27, 2003 — 10:50 AM
Lord, Please Give Me a Sign!
Have you ever faced a big decision and found yourself praying, Lord, please give me a sign? I certainly have. Many times. One such time occurred when I graduated from college in Michigan. I had married a wonderful man and the two of us were trying to decide what to do next. We wanted to begin our careers and move on from part-time jobs. And we wanted to find a place to live that would allow us to do this. My search for a next step included two options: find a teaching position or enter a graduate program. During my job search and application process, I prayed many times to God, Please, just give me a sign so I will know the right step to take. That prayer seemed to be answered; I received a clear sign. I was accepted into an MA/PhD program at UCSB but none of the teaching positions for which I applied worked out. Following this sign, my husband and I moved to Santa Barbara. It was a good move to make and we have never regretted doing it. If only all decisions were that clear.
In the Gospel of John, the people who come to Jesus offer a similar petition: show us a sign so that we may believe. They are drawn to Jesus because of the things they have heard about him, but they are not convinced by the second-hand stories. They want proof. Repeatedly throughout the Gospel of John their petition is granted. And, each time that Jesus provides a sign, the author makes sure to add a note that many saw and believed. In the act of seeing Jesus miraculous works peoples hearts are changed. In him they are able to see Gods love for them made real. Jesus responds to their petitions because he knows that seeing a sign will help them to come to faith in God.
The relationship between faith and miracles in John differs significantly from that which is found in the other Gospels. In John, seeing the miracle brings faith to those who see them as signs. Jesus actions prompt those who see them to come to faith in God. But his actions can only have this effect in those who are open to see that the miracles point beyond themselves to a loving God. To those who see them as arbitrary miracles, they only serve to harden their hearts further. By contrast, in the Matthew, Mark and Luke, the faith of the people who come to Jesus seeking help results in a miracle.
The author of the Gospel of John deliberately reverses the order of causation: miracles bring faith. This reversal emphasizes that Jesus is doing only what is completely true to his own nature the divine nature that makes Jesus and the Father one. Jesus performs acts that are ordinary to his own nature but appear extraordinary to those people around him who do not fully understand who Jesus is. And by doing what comes naturally to him, Jesus shows those around him Gods love for creation.
But, in spite of the fact that the people believe in God because of what they see, they still misunderstand Jesus true role. They take each sign as proof that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah who will lead them into a military victory over their oppressors the Romans. They expect, once this is accomplished, that Jesus will be their king: the new King David. Jesus knows what the people are thinking. Because of this, he is wary of those who are drawn to him because of the signs. He repeatedly tries to teach those around him that his kingship is of a different sort.
We can see Jesus efforts to teach people about himself in the two episodes from todays passage. First, we see Jesus with two of his disciples as a multitude of people gather to see Jesus. When he sees how many have come, Jesus asks Philip where they might find enough food to feed all of people. While he is asking this, according to the author, he already knows the answer. Jesus asks the question to reveal that even his own disciples do not truly understand who Jesus is and what he has come to do. Philip and Andrew have been with Jesus as he has done miraculous signs and still they do not trust that Jesus will be able to supply for the needs of the people. They immediately think of the steps that they themselves ought to take. But they know that their efforts will fall woefully short of what is really needed.
Jesus, in an act of exceeding patience, does not throw up his hands and exclaim, Have you not been paying attention?! Please, I have provided in the past, why wouldnt I be able to provide now? Rather, Jesus calmly instructs the disciples to have the people sit down and he proceeds to take the loaves and fish from the small boy. Then he uses them to feed those present in the way that a good Jewish host feeds guests who stop by his home: he takes the food, gives thanks over it, and gives it to his guests. After he has distributed all of the food, we are told that Jesus act did not fall short as the disciples original plans would have, but instead, there is an overabundance of food not only was everyone able to eat their fill, but there were twelve baskets of food left over. Jesus not only anticipated and met the peoples needs, but he also showed the abundance of Gods love for creation in the process.
After retreating to keep the crowd from acting on their misunderstanding of Jesus purpose on earth, we see a second effort by Jesus to teach about himself. The disciples have gotten into bad weather while crossing the sea. In the middle of this storm, Jesus comes to them by walking on the water. Their terrified reaction elicits Jesus response, I AM; do not be afraid. These words echo within the disciples and remind them of other instances when those words brought comfort to their ancestors. Throughout the history of the Jewish people, God was identified as I AM, the one who ordered the people not to be afraid because everything was under Gods control.
With this one simple phrase of identification, Jesus makes a bold claim: I and the God who said this before are one. Jesus wants his disciples to see that the signs he does among them all point to the Father. Jesus nature of being one with the Father is demonstrated in his care for those in need. Jesus anticipates needs, he devises plans to meet those needs, and he acts on those plans. The signs that Jesus gives are the result of his acts on behalf of those in need. And it is precisely the sign of Jesus life that is an indication to those that see him that God has acted on their behalf.
Now, it would be easy for us today to read these accounts of Jesus meeting peoples needs and to think, How lucky were they?! Unlike in those days, we do not have Jesus walking in our midst. We do not have a person to whom we can walk up and ask for a sign in hopes that it will be given. And yet, these accounts are meant to teach us more than that. They attest to the abundant ways in which God acted in the past to meet needs. What better way is there to learn what God is doing and will do in the future than to look at what God has already done? The fact that God met peoples needs in the past should give us confidence that God continues to act today to meet our needs. And even though Jesus no longer walks among us, God has given the Holy Spirit to continue the work that Jesus began.
We need to believe as John Calvin did that God is the fountain of all good things which is overflowing with abundance. God wants to meet our every need. We just need to be open to having our needs met. For Calvin, this was the goal of Christian life: learning to stop acting so that something can be done to, for and in us. But like the disciples, we think that we have to act by ourselves. We, like them, do not trust Gods promise of benevolence. We try to work hard enough so that we can live comfortably. We try to anticipate problems so that we do not have to face difficulties. We try to save enough money so that we will be secure in our old age. All the while, our efforts for our own concerns hold Gods abundant love at bay. Instead of coming to God seeking a sign of Gods work in our lives, we come asking for miracles that will prove that our own efforts are justified.
So while we are praying, Lord, please give me a sign, we should also be praying for the ability to trust that God will provide. When we are open to the possibilities that Gods love offers, we will be richly blest by what we receive. When we trust God will provide, then we will be able to say yes to God in the way that God has said yes to us. Walter Brueggemann expresses this act of trust eloquently in his poem, Yes.
You are the God who is simple, direct, clear with us and for us.
You have committed yourself to us.
You have said yes to us in creation,
yes to us in our birth,
yes to us in our baptism,
yes to us in our awakening this day.
But we are of another kind,
more accustomed to perhaps, maybe, well see,
left in wonderment and ambiguity.
We live our lives not back to your yes,
but out of our endless perhaps.
So we pray for your mercy this day that we may live yes back to you,
yes with our time,
yes with our money,
yes with our sexuality,
yes with our strength and with our weakness,
yes to our neighbor,
yes and no longer perhaps.
In the name of your enfleshed yes to us,
even Jesus who is our yes into your Future. Amen.