The first week of Advent offers many signs for us, including Tesla, Bill Engvall, a wreath and four candles. Amazingly these signs all point us to one moment in time, to not just any sign, but to THE sign. Listen or read on, here’s your sign.
Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs
Screwing up the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?
You may recognize those lyrics from the 1990 hit song Signs from the rock group Tesla; or if you’re a little older you might have heard the 1971 version when it was released by the Canadian group Five Man Electrical Band.
This time of year we are absolutely inundated with signs. If you were here for the Thanksgiving evening service a few days ago you saw a cornucopia on the table behind me. And if you turned on a computer, watched tv or read a newspaper on Thanksgiving you saw a whole other set of signs. BLACK FRIDAY! STORES OPEN EARLY! STORES OPEN ON THANKSGIVING! Yikes. Those are signs from marketers, telling us we need to buy more stuff.
A recent study found that people see or hear over 360 ads a day including those from television, the internet, magazines, radio and billboards. When you include brands like the Nike swoosh symbol on a pair of shoes or the Jolly Green Giant on a can of green beans the number of brand signs we see gets really crazy. How many brand signs are we exposed to each day? Over 5,000. FIVE THOUSAND, every day. That’s insane. Each one, trying to get you to think something, feel something, and buy something.
And then there’s Christmas coming up, of course. It’s a little harder to see the signs of Christmas in South Florida, or at least a little different than up north. As a child I’d trek off to the local tree farm, pick out the best Christmas tree of the batch and then help Dad chop it down and tie it to the top of our car. We’d usually have some hot cider and a cookie or two to keep us warm during tree-chopping in the winter cold. And if we were really lucky in Baltimore that year sometimes there’d be some snow coming down too. Taking the plastic tree out of the attic last night, sweating some in our November heat, reminded me I miss some of those seasonal signs from my youth.
This week I can almost guarantee that each of you have seen signs of families gathering together to share a meal, ads promoting Black Friday sales galore, and an image of Santa ringing a bell, encouraging you to give to the Salvation Army. Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs.
Here’s Your Sign
Comedian Bill Engvall talks about signs a little differently. He imagines a world where all the people that ask dumb questions would have a sign around their neck. That way you wouldn’t ask them for anything, you’d just say Oops, never mind, I didn’t see your sign.
He then tells a few short stories about how these signs would work. Now Bill is a country boy, so I’ll try to use my best southern accent.
- One time when fishing Bill pulled his boat onto the dock, lifted up a big line of bass fish and a guy on the dock says, “Hey, y’all catch all them fish?” “Nope,” he says, “I talked ‘em into giving up.” Here’s Your Sign.
- Before Bill moved across the country his house was full of boxes, and a uHaul truck was in the driveway. A friend came over and says, “Hey, you moving?” “Nope,” he replies, “We just pack our stuff up once or twice a week. Just to see how many boxes it takes.” Here’s Your Sign.
- Then there was the time Bill was driving, had a flat tire, and pulled his truck into a side-of-the-road gas station. The gas station attendant walks out, looks at the truck, and asks “Tire too flat?” Not able to resist Bill replies, “Nope, I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me.” Here’s your sign.
The message from this particular comedian is that Signs can be funny, but they can label you. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d want one of those signs hanging around my neck.
I’d like to suggest that signs aren’t inherently good or bad, they’re just signs. Signs can be helpful, and provide good information, answers, sometimes comfort. But with all those signs out there which ones do we pay attention to? There’s only so much a person can process. The signs you pay attention to makes a difference. Over time they begin to define you.
Jesus spoke about signs an awful lot, today’s scripture reading is filled with them.
Our gospel reading from Luke today says: “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations.” Egad, that doesn’t sound like a very Happy Thanksgiving. Or a particularly festive holiday season either. When you hear that, signs of distress among nations, what do you think about? My mind wanders to words like Paris, Beirut, Isis. If you’ve been anywhere close to a computer or television screen recently you’ve see these signs too.
Jesus then goes on to give some advice in today’s text, telling us to, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”
So while we watch distress among the nations we are not to be weighed down with worry. Instead we wait, in anticipation, to be ready of what is to come.
That makes me feel a little better, this not worrying part, but something still seems off. I mean why are talking about all this dark stuff? Thanksgiving was just three days ago. Heck, today starts the first week of Advent; earlier in the service we lit the first candle of the Advent Wreath. This wreath is a reminder that we wait, in quiet anticipation for the coming of the Christ child.
Maybe that’s it, instead of focusing on current signs, instead we can look to the signs of the past. Perhaps those signs will help guide our ways.
Think about those signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars that Jesus mentions in Luke 21. The Magi were looking to the heavens for a sign, following a star to Bethlehem to worship a newborn baby. Jesus asks us in that same chapter to “Be on guard, not weighed down with the worries of life, so that day does not catch you unexpectedly.”
Worry and a newborn baby, waiting in anticipation. If you’re a parent that may sound really familiar. It reminds me of getting ready for the birth of our firstborn daughter, Hannah. My wife Kathi and I put all this effort into getting the nursery together, and then we’d worrying about whether the baby would be safe, whether the crib was set up right. We worried about packing the hospital bag for the birth, had we put all the right things in there? What if we forgot something? And then there were my in-laws, oh my in-laws. They called from Orlando on their way from Chicago, less than three hours from our home the day before Hannah was born. Why yes, they announced, they were planning to be here for the birth of our child. WHAT? Our house isn’t clean enough for guests! We worried some more.
But then it happened: the birth of our beautiful daughter, Hannah Grace, on March 10, 2010. The moment we heard her first cry, held her close, and changed that first diaper all those worries just melted away. Kathi and I knew the birth of this child had changed us, forever, in an instant. Our lives, our world, would never be the same. Perhaps this isn’t so different as where we find ourselves this season, waiting for another child to be born.
So when you see signs of wars, and rumors of wars, and hear words like Beirut, Paris, and Isis, remember the angel, speaking to terrified shepherds on the night the Christ child was born. “Do not be afraid” the angel says—I bring you good news of great joy for all people.” That’s a sign to fear not, this baby is good news, be ye joyful.
When you see the signs trying to sell you something, those 5,000 brand signs we encounter each day, listen to that same angel describing the ultimate gift, one that didn’t cost you a thing: “This will be a sign for you,” the angel says, “you will find a child wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger.” That’s a sign as seen in scripture, and not available in stores.
And when you grow frustrated with friends, family, and co-workers – it’ll happen this time of year, I guarantee it – you may be tempted to put a not-so-nice message around their neck, saying, “here’s your sign.” Instead, remember the multitude of angels, singing at the birth of the Christ child. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth for all,” the angels cry out. Take that angelic cue, sing together with your fellow women, your fellow men, giving Glory to God in the highest. Wait well, with excited anticipation, to celebrate a very special birth.
For when you do, this busy, worrisome, sometimes expensive time of year won’t seem like any of those things at all. Instead you will find what you’ve been looking for your whole life long. You will find what God desires for you in this season. You will find peace on earth, come down from the heavens, now dwells with us.