Signs

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 31:00 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sometimes people will ask for a sign from God. They want God to demonstrate, or prove, or show that He is real, that He really acts, that He really cares. The thing is, there are signs everywhere. God is always giving signs—just maybe not the ones that people want. Maybe we don’t like the signs that God gives because we don’t believe the words that go along with the signs. Or maybe we don’t like the signs because we prefer different signs. Jesus is constantly doing signs, but the people keep asking Him for signs, because they don’t actually believe Him. God doesn’t give us signs according to our requests or desires; He gives signs that show what He is doing. Signs like feeding 5,000-plus people, or walking on the water to the disciples. It seems like the disciples didn’t particularly like that sign, but Jesus is showing them who He is, that He is the God of all creation, a God who is with them.

God embeds a sign into His creation right at the beginning. He puts the lights into the sky—the sun, the moon, the stars—as signs and seasons, for days and years. Here in Genesis 9, He puts another sign in the sky, in the clouds. It is a bow, that is connected to the disaster that has just happened. It is seen in the rain that fell on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights. But this is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah and his descendants, with all the creatures, and with all creation, that God will never again send a flood on the whole earth, to destroy the earth. God says that when He brings the clouds, He will put His bow in the clouds; He will see it and He will remember His covenant that He made with all creation.

When God remembers, it’s not because He forgot. He remembers when He is about to act, as when He remembered the people of Israel in slavery in Egypt. And He remembers when He is not going to act against people, as here. He remembers, and He will not act against His creation by means of a destructive flood. No matter how many clouds, no matter how much it rains, there will never again be a world-wide, destructive flood. And the rainbow is the sign of that promise.

God gives a sign to Abraham, when He makes the promise to multiply his descendants and give them the land of Canaan. He gives the sign of circumcision, to mark those who belong to God’s covenant people. God gives a sign to Moses when He speaks to Him from that sign of the bush that was burned but not consumed: the sign that God would deliver His people from slavery would be that Moses and the people would worship Him on that same mountain. More signs: the angels give a sign to the shepherds: this will be the sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. Perhaps the most significant sign that God gives in the Old Testament Scriptures is to the people about to leave Egypt. Take a lamb to eat, and put its blood on the doorposts and the lintel of the door. It will be a sign; and when I see it, God says, I will pass over your houses.

These are all signs of mercy. But they are signs of mercy connected to judgment. The flood, certainly, is a judgment on the whole earth, because “every intention of man’s heart was only evil continually.” Judgment on creation, ended with a sign of mercy. It is a judgment on Egypt, carried out against the firstborn sons of Egypt, because Pharaoh would not let the firstborn son of God go. But it is a judgment ended with a sign of mercy.

But none of this got rid of sin. None of these judgments eradicated sin from the earth or from the hearts of people. Sometimes we wonder if things are worse today than they were. Maybe they are worse than at other times in our lifetime, but they are not worse than Genesis, when every intention of the hearts of people was only evil continually. Sin and sinners haven’t changed. There had to be another judgment and another sign. A sign that stood between heaven and earth, between God and man.

There, outside of Jerusalem, was the greatest sign of the greatest judgment. It doesn’t get worse than rejecting the God who made you, and who comes to you for mercy. No one wanted the sign of God wrapped up in that baby in the manger. No one wanted a crucified sign. The sign of judgment is that God came into the world to redeem and restore this creation, to fulfill His promise to Noah, and people did not receive Him; the judgment is that people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.

But still, the judgment is not poured out in destruction on those who crucified Him, on all who sinned, and on all who die because of their sin. The judgment fell on God’s Son, who willingly took all that sin and death as His own. The cross is a sign on earth of God’s judgment, of how monstrous is our sin. Only because Jesus rose from the dead is the cross a sign of mercy for us. It was always to be a sign of God’s mercy, but now it is a sign of mercy for you and for me. A sign of judgment ended by the sign of mercy.

God did not pass over the houses of Israel because they were better than the Egyptians. He did not pass over them because they were innocent, because they fully trusted God. They rejected Moses when he first came, and they complained the whole time. God did not pass over them because they had proven they were worthy of His mercy. He passed over them because they were marked with the blood of the lamb.

God does not pass over us because we are better than the people who are not here this morning. He does not pass over us because we are innocent, but because we are marked by the innocent blood of the Lamb, by the blood of His cross. And He gives that mercy to us by signs. He doesn’t want us to have any doubt about where we can find His mercy, where we can feel it, taste it, touch it. So He gives us signs: you have received the sign of the cross on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. He gives us the death and resurrection of Jesus, and He identifies where that is by the words connected to the water. We can’t see Jesus, so He gives us signs so that we will not miss Him. The sign of His mercy to us is the Body and Blood He gives us to eat and drink. How do we know where it is? Because it is identified by the words connected to bread and wine.

God is always giving signs. There are signs everywhere for those with eyes to see! That rainbow in the clouds is actually a circle. We only see part of it because of where the sun and the rain are. But it is a circle, and it marks out the whole of God’s creation as His redeemed creation, not to be destroyed but to be renewed. And just like that sign can be seen by everyone, though not everyone believes it, so Jesus on the cross can be seen by everyone, though not everyone believes Him. So can the water and the bread and the wine, with the words of Jesus spoken there. Not everyone believes those words. But you are marked with His signs, and you know where He can be found, not for judgment but for mercy. Here are His signs for you, until we have full sight.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/23/21

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