Between The Signs
The Rev. Jon Roberts
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near.
Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659
Sign, Sign everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery breaking my mind. Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?
Those of you who liked music of the sixties and seventies may remember these lyrics from a group known as the Five Man Electrical Band. Their song, "Signs" was most popular and it spoke against the imposition of discrimination. Christianity in America embraced many of its teachings. For example, it was wrong to say a man couldn't work if he has long hair and looked like a hippie. It was wrong to stake out signs of no trespassing, when the Earth belonged to God, not to man. It was a liberating time. But was it a penitential time?
This may not have been the time for confession, as much as it was perhaps a time for obsession. There was an obsession with discovery of mind, body, and soul. To let go of things that had been safeguarded, controlled or dominated for so long was freeing. To break through pre-existing boundaries was the new frontier. It required the old signs to be torn down and new ones to go up. Instead of an interstate saying sixty miles per hour, it turned into the Autobahn with no limitation other than to stay between the lines and don't run anyone off the road. Regardless of whether you grew up under the times of depression or in the times of obsession there is no way around it; people need signs.
"They're blocking up the scenery, changing our minds. Do this, don't do that. Can't you read the signs?" If the sixties were a knee jerk reaction to what had been pent up since the twenties, then it is fair to say that God placed up signs for all ages to steer between. On this first Sunday in Advent we experience a coming to such signs. We may be traveling by bus or by car. We may be moving slow or fast. Either way we are called to read them. Traditionally, the Church has always done one or two things on this Sunday. It has taken to heart, the signs, to be read in full. We choose to recite the Decalogue, that is the Ten Commandments, or we take a longer route by chanting the Great Litany. Both are what we call penitential.
In the former we are told to obey the following:
"Do not make an image of God.
"Do not bow down and worship such image.
"Do not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
"Do keep the Sabbath.
"Do honor mom and dad.
"Do not murder.
"Do not commit adultery.
"Do not steal.
"Do not bear false witness.
"Do not covet."
In other words, "Do this, and don't do that."
In the latter we aren't telling, we are pleading. If the Ten Commandments tell us what to do and not what to do, the Great Litany is a list of forty things we hope will please God if, by chance, we are caught. It's our way of going down the road of life and talking, by prayer, with God. We are not violating any law. Not yet.
Once, there was a man who was speeding down the highway, feeling secure in a gaggle of cars all traveling at the same speed. However, as they passed a speed trap, he got nailed with an infrared speed detector and was pulled over. The officer handed him the citation, received his signature and was about to walk away when the man asked, "Officer, I know I was speeding, but I don't think it's fair. There were plenty of other cars around me going just as fast, so why did I get the ticket?" "Ever go fishing?" the policeman suddenly asked the man. "Ummm, yeah... so," the startled man replied. The officer grinned and added, "Ever catch ALL the fish?"
Many times we don't even need to read the signs. We already know what they say. All we have to do is move with the traffic. In so doing, we are willing to take the risks for the sake of convenience. Sometimes it's just for the obsession of taking risks. The Ten Commandments are the signs God has put up for us. Traveling with the rest of the traffic, allows for us to see more of the scenery that had been blocked for so long by being worried about rules.
The Great Litany of prayer takes that into consideration. It goes ahead and asserts who is in authority...God, and it pleads with Him in advance, just in case we happened to get caught. They are all the things that are in agreement with His signs. We declare by prayer that God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and we ask in advance, "Have mercy upon us." We declare by prayer, “Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, our blindness of heart, our sinful affections, and we ask in advance, ‘Good Lord deliver us.’"
This morning we hear Jesus lay out some signs of His own. He says there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth there will be a roaring of the sea. Men will faint with fear, and they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud. He then does what he normally does so well. He tells a parable, probably to farmers due to the subject. "Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When you see them come out of leaf, you know it's time for summer. When you see the Son of man coming on the cloud, you'll know the season has come for the Kingdom of God. Beloved, the fruit came out a long time ago and will come again. By God's Son and by His Holy Spirit and by His second coming, God does not select nor discriminate by choosing just one or two of you. He intends to catch all in his loving embrace. To those who are penitent it is merciful and to those who are defiant it seems like an unsuspected trap. His laws are always intended for our safety, guidance and protection. Whether you lead a life of depression or obsession, God calls us to live a life between the lines; to live a life between the signs.
 Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs,” 1971
 Exodus 20:1-17
 Luke 21:25-36