Reading the signs

Pentecost 25 – 2015

Mark 13:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who remains beyond our knowing and beyond our ability to control. Amen.

“Red sky at night, shepherds delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning,” goes the saying. Reading the weather is an essential part of a farmer’s life, whether the farmer is a herder or an agriculturalist. Lambs have to be brought in if it looks as if it is going to snow, grapes have to be covered if a frost is likely, seed is best planted if rain is imminent and so on.

Signs and signals are an integral part of all of our lives. Signs help us to order our lives and to navigate our way through what can be a complex and confusing world. Signs can be natural or constructed, simple or complex, obvious or subtle and our ability to read them can make a difference to our day-to-day lives and to our relationships with others.

Signs warn us of danger, create order and provide direction. Signals at a level crossing tell us when a train is imminent, green lights indicate that it is safe to continue driving, traffic signs warn us that a road might be steep or windy, slippery or gravelly. Signs enable us to drive in a way that is appropriate to the conditions and to avoid accidents at busy intersections.

Some signs warn us of unseen perils – telling us that we are close to an edge of a cliff, that we are approaching crocodile infested waters, or that kangaroos are likely to jump out onto the road in front of us. Others provide helpful information – which train to catch, which road to take to get to a certain place, which gate our plane is leaving from and so on.

There are signs are relatively easy to read. If the clouds are low and black we can presume that there will be a storm somewhere close. If the clouds are low and green then we can be sure that hail will accompany the storm. Other signs are much more subtle and complex and require a certain amount of knowledge or skill to interpret. Symbols don’t always mean the same thing to all people and pictures can have more than one meaning that can lead to misinterpretation. The subtle signals that make up inter-personal relations can be particularly confusing. People can say the most malevolent words while at the same time keep their facial expressions absolutely bland or even friendly and others can make a joke while keeping an absolutely straight face.

A failure to properly interpret signs can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings – between people and sometimes between nations. Missing an important cue in another person’s facial expression or stance or giving off the wrong cues by one’s own expression or bearing can lead to embarrassment or even cause affront. A misplaced look or gesture can leave another person (or nation) feeling denigrated, insulted or humiliated.

From a human point of view then, the proper interpretation of signs is absolutely vital to the smooth running of society and even of international relations.

Reading heavenly signs is another thing altogether. Indeed, it can be a foolish and dangerous occupation – foolish, because behind such reading is an assumption that God is able to be interpreted and dangerous, because it leads to rash and sometimes deadly actions[1]. A belief that we know what God will do and can predict when God will do it can on the one hand lead to the sort of complacency that Jesus’ return is not to be feared because it belongs in a distant and irrelevant future and on the other lead to a state of constant terror that God will return at any moment and catch us unawares.

In today’s gospel Jesus warns the disciples to be careful how they read the signs lest they make the mistake of believing that they are able to discern when the end is near. He tells them that there will be times when the world seems to be collapsing in on itself, times when violence prevails or when natural disasters wreak untold destruction. These things will happen he says, but they do not herald the end of all things[2]. The planet on which we live is unstable, the weather patterns are essentially outside of our control, and we seem unable to be able to leave peaceably with one another. None of these factors mean that God is behind the heartache and devastation that we witness on a daily basis.

In fact, if we read to the end of the chapter, Jesus reminds us that even he does not know when the end will come. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

Two things are essential. The first is to remember that in good times and in bad we need never fear for we are never alone, God is always with us and in the event that it is necessary God through the Holy Spirit will even speak for us. The second is to live in joyful expectation of Jesus’ return – whenever that might be.

We might not be able to read the heavenly signs, but that does not prevent us recognising God’s presence with us, and living lives that allow that presence to be a reality in the world.

[1] The Jonestown massacre comes to mind, as do other apocalyptic cults that persuade members to take their own lives in the belief that the end is near or that their deaths will bring on the end.

[2] I write this within twenty four hours of the terrible violence in Paris, and in a world that seems hell-bent on destroying itself through terror and war and through a careless disregard for the environment but I am not sure that these signs of human failings are evidence that Jesus is about to come and rescue us from ourselves.


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