My sermon today is inspired by Reverend Delmer Chilton.
In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the ability to read the signs of the times. To look at obvious things, like dark clouds and south winds and know what they mean.
We are pretty good around here at forecasting the weather. If we guess that it is going to rain, there is usually a very good chance that we will be right! Jesus yells at us: "You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" He wonders why people can interpret ordinary stuff, but don't know how to look at the world around them and see it for what it is.
What is Jesus talking about? Is he referring to a dark omen of evil times coming? Maybe
not. There are many times when rain in the forecast is good news, not bad, especially now when the weather has been hot & dry that we can end up with forest fires. Jesus says nothing about looking out for evil times; he only suggests that we should pay as much attention to the world around us as we do the clouds.
In the Jewish tradition clouds were a sign of God's presence. When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, he went up into the clouds where God was hidden from the view of those below. When the Children of Israel were crossing the wilderness, they were led by God, by a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. The clouds were signs of God's presence and God's protection.
The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians. In it, the author reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have come before us. He is referring to the long list of folks he has named who trusted God throughout their problems and difficulties. When we remember the struggles of our ancestors and all those who have come before us, our trials may not seem so great.
The author makes his point: we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses. A "cloud", not a crowd; the witnesses are a sign to us of what God can do with and for us in the midst of difficulties and hard times. I like to think of this cloud surrounding us, cheering us on.
Listen to this: "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for our sake endured the cross disregarding its shame, ... " This ties to the beginning of the Gospel lesson. Jesus refers not to some future apocalypse, some deep punishment of the earth which an angry God holds back until it suits his whim and fancy to unleash it on us. No, Jesus is talking about himself, telling us that he came to bring good news, but not necessarily "pleasant news." Jesus says he came to break in order to heal, to tear down in order to build up.
We all prefer pleasant news, but it has often been the unpleasant duty of the church to bring news that is frequently neither gentle nor welcome. People want, in the midst of the
misery, to be told that God is love and forgives them. That is pleasant news. They do not wish to be told that while God loves them as they are, God also loves them too much to let them stay that way. God will always seek to change and transform us more and more from sinners into saints. Like a loving parent, God sometimes practices "tough love."
It's a different message than we're used to hearing, but it is an important one. Jesus came into this world with a message and a mission, both of which were good, but neither of which was pleasant. His message was a message of love, and as we all know, love can be unpleasant at times.
The opposite of love is not hate, not anger, not unpleasantness. The opposite of love is apathy, uncaring, uninvolved. Love is noisy and nosy and involved. Love will not let you slip away unchallenged into nice failure.
Jesus had a message of love, a message of love that disturbed families because it called upon people to get beyond roles and to get into relationships; real, messy, involved relationships. That kind of love is disruptive, it breaks what isn't working in order to create a new family, a new community of truth and love.
Yes, Jesus came with a message and a mission, and his mission was to break the power of evil through the power of selfless love. That is the "baptism" he refers to. Jesus came to complete what was begun many years ago in the parting of the Red Sea; Jesus came to rescue God's people, Jesus came to fight the good fight of faith and to break us free from our bondage to sin and death. J esus came to be the perfecter of our faith.
So, what is our sign today, what do the clouds hold for us? Life is difficult for many of us. We are living in the midst of tough times. But, we are called upon to look to the "great cloud of witnesses" who went before us.
We are not alone, friends, and we are not traveling down roads untrod. Where we are, others have been before, and they held on to their faith and God held on to them. We are called to look to them as a promise of God's presence and God's protection; we are to look to them and trust in the hand of God to carry us through.