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Looking for a Sign

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

March 11, 2018

Text: John 2:18, O.T.: Exodus 20:1-17, N.T.: John 2:13-22

                People are strange. On one hand, there’s a side of us who want an authority figure – someone who shows us how to be happy, how to be successful. On the other hand, once someone is an authority figure, people test their authority.

Very young children accept parents as authority figures. Wisdom, love and sacrifice are valued. They run to greet parents when they return from work and are upset when parents leave home. Childhood security lies in parental authority.

But then there are the adolescent years. A divinely planted time-release device begins operating in children’s brains that tests parental authority. Parental wisdom, love, and sacrifice are questioned or outright ignored. Parental protection is cast aside and independence asserted. What happened to the childlike acceptance of authority?

What happened is a little bit of knowledge gives a false sense of security and confidence in being independent from authority. A new set of rules is asserted that scorns or mocks parental authority.

Jesus is the parent figure for human kind. His wisdom, love, and offering of Himself for Judah and the world is old. He’s loved by children, questioned by youth, and left behind by adults.

Jesus is the ultimate eternal authority in God. He understands how to help us find true and abiding joy. Joy’s discovery is possible through Jesus’ continual parenting of the divine Father’s children in creation. But God’s children – worldly adults – want independence from His authority.

This is the Bible’s story. It starts in the Old Testament and extends into the New Testament. Not all people reject Jesus’ authority. Just enough to crucify Him and perpetually turn their back on the wisdom He offers.

Jesus’ authority is challenged despite His efforts to parent Judah back to God, and humanity back to the Creator. As a child, Judah prayed for centuries God would send one with authority to save Judah. The heavenly Father heard those prayers over the centuries. He tested Judah’s patience while they waited for an answer to their prayers. Most of Judah gave up. They responded with mockery and scorn – an independent adolescent demanding a sign of parental authority, or, the prideful adult certain there will never be a sign.

In John 6, Jesus fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. It was a miracle! He displayed His divine appointment as God’s authority on earth. But it wasn’t enough for people. In verse 30, the people, who had recently been miraculously fed, demanded another sign to prove He was God’s anointed one – the one with God’s authority.

In Matthew 12, Jesus healed a blind and mute man. It was a miracle! They had seen it and were astonished by it. But it wasn’t enough. Despite seeing evidence of God’s authority and power in Jesus, the intellectuals, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, demanded another sign to see and believe.

In today’s lesson, Jesus asserted His divine authority by driving the money changers from the Temple. But it wasn’t enough. Skeptics needed Him to do more. It wasn’t enough that cleansing the Temple demonstrated His care for worshipping God. Another sign was needed. Jesus’ authority was tested.

What does it take for people to see the signs of Jesus’ authority around them. If they couldn’t see it when it was demonstrated right before their eyes, when will they ever see it?

Our Lord’s response was incredible. This time He hit at the heart of the religiously intelligent. The temple of their religious devotion would be destroyed. But Jesus would raise it up in three days. Forty years later, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Jesus’ authority was validated.

But until then, most people remained skeptical. Even after the Temple was destroyed, Judaism’s high priests continued to not see the signs of God’s authority in Jesus. It continues today.

Demanding a sign from God does presume knowledge or intelligence. It presumes you know what to look for and you’re competent to identify the sign when you see it. Presumed knowledge leads a questioner of authority to believe her or she can figure out false from true authority.

However, presumed knowledge can also discount real evidence and not believe what is right in front of a person’s eyes.

Jesus gave real evidence of His authority to His disciples and His closest followers. These were the religiously intelligent people he had taught who followed Him from place to place. Yet they still didn’t accept His authority for the evidence He gave them. His body of work already established His authority. But their confidence that they already knew all they needed rejected Jesus’ authority as God’s Son.

Groups are led by an authority figure whose authority is measured by what have you done for me lately. They never stop wanting a sign of authority.

This is true for the Church today.

Today, Jesus Christ’s church claims Jesus is its authority, its leader. Yet for many people of Christ’s Church, His closest followers who go to church, they remain unsatisfied. Christ created the Church. Christ empowered the Church to overcome death through 2,000 years. Christ saved the Church during times of persecution and inspired the Church to be raised up in its weaknesses. Christ is continually resurrecting Christian faith all around the world, in human history. But it’s not enough for too many of us.

Christ taught the Church a message that convinces much of the world. Christ’s teachings inspired justice and equality in government that continues to motivate us to seek a better society than we have. Christ’s influence upon the world of thought is unparalleled in promoting social reconciliation and peace. Yet it’s not enough. Modern Christians demand another sign of His authority.

What remains unconvincing among Christians in droves who are walking away from the Church today in a macro sense is just as prevalent on a micro, personal sense today.

What Jesus has done isn’t enough. Where’s the evidence of His presence today? We want to see and believe. Prove to me there’s eternal life. Prove to me that Jesus is in control of my congregation, my denomination, my life! I demand satisfaction! Give me a sign!!

If Jesus watched over us personally and provided us a child when we were told by a physician it was impossible, it’s not enough. If Jesus gave us life in this land of opportunity and we are gainfully employed or were gainfully employed throughout our lives and are now retired with pension plans and health care insurance and free to choose what we do each day, it’s not enough.

If Jesus’ intervention allowed us to escape a terrible accident or protected us on an international field of battle that we survived when others died, or He intervened in our health twenty years ago and gave us disease-free living for all the intervening years, it’s not enough. What has he done for me lately?

Just what is it going to take for us to see the signs of His love for us?

We’re not going to live forever here on earth. We’re not going to stop all the injustice here on earth. We’re not going to stay in control of our plans for the future or our goals for self-improvement forever on earth.

So when are we going to be satisfied that Jesus has given us a sign or multiple signs of His authority over life?

Jesus doesn’t respond to our demands for a sign with an immediate miracle so we will see and believe. Christ points to what God determined Judah needed to accept God’s authority for His people’s salvation.

To this end Jesus said to the people demanding a sign from Him, “Destroy this temple of your religious conviction, and I will raise it up in three days.”

If your presumed knowledge about Jesus doesn’t accept His authority over life, then you are not yet ready to accept that our temples must be torn down to their basics before He builds them anew. If life is all about the temple of our lives being the center of the universe, then realize it will take those temples to be destroyed before they are rebuilt by Jesus for us to see the sign of His authority.

If your presumed knowledge about Jesus doesn’t accept His authority over your life, then you will be shocked that you will go through dramatic, cataclysmic change, so much so that you find everything you thought you knew about God and yourself to be destroyed.

But then, only then, and after then, will Christ raise you up.

I once had a nice couple who were members of a church I served, who were so excited they were going to have a baby. They had been waiting patiently through several years for this to happen and had prayed fervently for God to answer their prayers. The prospect of having a child inspired their love for God and Jesus. The baby’s conception was a sign from God.

When the baby was yet to be born, they discovered their prayers weren’t answered the way they expected. The baby’s conception had been the sign that God was with them. But then they learned their unborn child would have Downs’ Syndrome. They now looked for another sign from God as all people would do, that He was blessing them.

The baby was born without incident. They were overjoyed! It was a sign Jesus was with them! But then they discovered their infant had a hole in its heart that was threatening its life. They looked for another sign.

Each day they sincerely prayed for a sign from God’s to assure them anew. They finally felt it was safe to have their infant baptized one Sunday morning of Advent. The season of Christ’s birth surrounded them, with all of the decorations celebrating the joy of Jesus’ arrival on earth! It was a sign that God was with us!

I baptized the infant. The family was joyful. All of the parents’ siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, were there with gladness in their hearts. God was with us! We went to the family’s home after worship to celebrate the newborn’s entrance into the family of Christian faith. Signs of Jesus abounded!

That night the baby grew ill, coughing incessantly. The parents took the little one to Children’s Hospital, through the last two weeks of Advent, Christmas, Christmastide and Epiphany, through the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. Day after day they lived in Children’s Hospital’s intensive care with monitors keeping their child alive, looking for a sign of hope in the doctors’ care. They didn’t receive it.

One January morning, the sign of God’s blessing suddenly went up and off into the hands of God and was gone!

I was called to Children’s to console the family and went into the waiting room where everyone was gathered in tears. We cried while praying for God’s comfort. I left the family for the baby’s room, where she still lay quiet, asleep, God’s angel without breath. Where was the sign from God of His love?

Then it happened, in the middle of Children’s Hospital, beside Presbyterian Hospital in Oakland, amid all the concrete and steel of UPMC’s massive medical facility, in the inner most sanctum of medicine’s intensive care, a beam of light from the morning sun lit up the little one’s face for the briefest of moments.

Was it a sign? Did it mean anything? Was it just sun shine on a child loved too much to lose? Or was it something more? I wondered.

We celebrated the little one’s life during a beautiful memorial service that briefly lifted the parents’ hearts. But when the family and friends left for their own lives, the couple was left alone to their loss.

There was no sudden ah-ha revelation that suddenly helped the mother and father see signs of Jesus. There was no immediate insight that gave the couple instant relief from their prayers for signs of being unanswered.

But each day they searched the Bible for knowledge into the mystery of God’s will. Each day they compared what Jesus said it would take for anyone to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, with how they were living their lives.

She was a successful interior designer who worked in Shadyside and Oakmont’s homes. He was co-owner of a tremendously successful computer services company. They had all the wealth anyone of their age could want. They were surrounded by loving family and friends who supported them from afar.

But it didn’t mean the same anymore. Their baby’s loss led them to see in a profoundly new way that all they thought was important in life wasn’t as important as having Jesus. They had traveled down the path of demanding a sign amid their many blessings to prove God was with them. Only now did they realize in their child’s loss that God had given them the ultimate sign of Jesus.

Nothing mattered but being resurrected to eternal life. Nothing mattered than that Jesus had shown them this 2,000 years ago. It took their baby’s loss to realize her death was the sign Jesus saved them. She led them to see Jesus.

The couple later learned they could never have children. That did not discourage them. They adopted a child, a Downs Syndrome child, and created a foundation to research Downs Syndrome. They adopted two more children who were at risk and became deacons in the Church. They immersed themselves in God’s Word and devoted themselves to leading home Bible studies.

That was 25 years ago. The couple is comforted by seeing His presence daily, strengthening them in their difficulties, uplifting them in their sorrows, elevating them above the world’s ways, to see the beauty of God’s love.

When your temple in life is destroyed, you are ready to see signs of God!

Amen.

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