My address to you tonight is called: The Sign of the Times. Signs are visual messages that tell us what’s coming up in the future and what actions or precautions we should take. The falling leaves that warn of the coming of winter. The longer days that promise the return of spring. Human beings have survived for thousands of years by noticing such things and acting on them.
I mean, this is the only reason that can explain why we have filled our world with signs. I live 1 km north of the centre of town. That’s Corowa, friends. Not Cowra. Don’t get them mixed up. That’s a 370km mistake you do not want to make. It only takes a couple of minutes to drive that 1 km to town. But someone decided that it would be simply dreadful if I didn’t know exactly how fast to drive at every single moment.
So firstly, I am informed that I can go 80 kph. I’m living life in the fast line. Sadly, it isn’t long before I have to drop to 60. In case I forget, there’s a reminder 100 metres further that I am supposed to be driving at 60. Hang on, there’s a school, better not go more than 40 for three whole hours of the day. Fortunately, that restriction doesn’t last long and I can soon go 60 again. And just in case I have a short term memory problem, I am reminded 50 metres later that I can still drive at 60 kpm. At some deep level we must take comfort from these constant reminders because I can’t think of any other explanation for this insanity.
Anyway, I’m sharing this with you because 5 weeks ago I saw a sign in the heavens and my heart burns to tell you about it. No, it wasn’t a lunar eclipse. And no, it wasn’t the alien mothership come to take me home. Unfortunately, the mothership has been indefinitely postponed.
No, I saw this sign as I was driving to a presbytery meeting, so I’m sure that what I saw was a sign from God. It wasn’t the only sign I saw that morning. I also saw a sign at Berrigan telling me to turn left here to go to Finley. And believe me, this is a very important sign. If you ignore this sign and plough on straight ahead, you will end up half way to Jerilderee and turn up to Finley 20 minutes later than you expected. Or so I have been told.
But I digress. Because I was 15 kms east of Berrigan at 6:30 am. It was pitch black. I was on the lookout for suicidal kangaroos. The roadside was littered with former kangaroos. 45 minutes into my trip to presbytery and only 3 and a quarter hours to go, I saw a sign to my right out of the corner of my eye. And I risked a quick glance that took my breath away. I saw the Morning Star hanging low over the eastern horizon like a jewel above the predawn glow. At that precise moment, the radio started to play Beautiful Day by U2 and I thought to myself, “Now I know what I’m going to talk about in my Moderator’s address.” It was a defining moment in my life.
Do you see why? Because some people would see the same thing and say, “It’s just the planet Venus.” But they’d be wrong. Because it was a sign. It was a sign of the times. It was the promise of the coming light of day. And sure enough that promise was fulfilled as surely as one day follows another. The sun rose. Its light filled the world. And it was indeed a beautiful day in God’s good creation, not even slightly spoiled either by suicidal kangaroos or by a presbytery meeting.
I wanted to share this sign with you tonight because I thought it captured well the reality of life and service today in the world for the kingdom of God. Because 26 years of ministry have taught me that life in the real world can be cold and dark and surrounded by fear. But there is still beauty, and it is all the more precious because it is so fragile. There is still work to do, proclaiming the good news of freedom in Christ, and binding the wounds of the broken hearted in his name, but there are so many temptations to give up and to retreat and to hide in the dark. Except that high above all our hopes and fears shines the sign of the times, the sign that one age is fading and another age is coming, a light in the darkness that does not just guide us on our journey through the night, but promises the end of the night and the coming of the full light of that day, when Christ will return and all the promises of God will be fulfilled and every tear wiped away. A new heaven and a new earth, and the voice of God which will proclaim, “Behold I make all things new”.
Have you seen that light? Have you seen the sign of the times? Does it guide your life and work? Does it inspire your hope and strengthen your wavering resolve? I ask because lots of people see the same things, the darkness and the beauty of the world, and they come to a very different conclusion. They see a very different half past six, when the planet Jupiter hangs low in the eastern sky opposite the last lingering glow of the day that was. Not 6.30 am but 6.30 pm, when all that is good is fading and the world will only get darker and colder in the kingdom of an eternal night.
Is that what you see? Is that what you believe? That the sun has set on the church in your own lifetime? That the golden days of Sunday School have passed and all you have to fight for are the last glows of Scripture in schools? Or are you huddling in the dark, warming yourselves by the dying embers of your traditions? Just hoping that the light of Jesus will keep you company until all your pain goes numb and you can finally fall asleep forever and disappear to a glorious paradise in the sky? Do you labour for the Lord while other hearts are cold and ask yourself, Why do I even bother?
In Romans chapter 13, the apostle Paul wrote,
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
It is a summons to love. It is a solemn reminder of our ongoing obligation to each other. It is a call to be involved in the lives of our neighbours. And we answer that summons and that call because we understand the present time.
In this passage, Paul reminds us that it is not the time for despair, but the time for hope. It is not the time for drunkenness but for righteousness. It is not the time for the deeds of darkness, but for putting on the armour of light. And it is not the time for immorality or for arguing or for jealousy or envy. But it is time for love. For the night is nearly over, and the day is almost here. Yes, it is cold. And yes, in many places it is very dark, believe me. But it is not time to go back to sleep, but to wake up from the sleep of ignorance and selfishness and to start the day’s chores, because the morning star has risen and the dawn of the kingdom of God is about to break. And it is even closer now, today, than the day Paul first wrote those words. So that those who long for justice and those whose hearts ache for the righting of every wrong will be satisfied in full.
Paul’s message to us is to wake up, to wake up to ourselves and to God. To wipe the sleep of doubt out of our eyes, and to see the truth of the coming of the day. To give up the deeds of darkness that spread fear and hate and to live as children of the day. It is time to stop eating and drinking for tomorrow we die, but time to start working and growing and encouraging and supporting and helping and serving and never ever ever giving up, for tomorrow we live. People may think that the sun has set on the church, but it has not yet risen on the kingdom of God. And it would be a dreadful shame to fall back asleep in fear and doubt and sin and to miss the best day ever.
What I’m saying is true and it effects everything we think and plan and do, here at the bottom, at the Assembly, right to the top in our local congregations where the real work is done. I know it’s true because I have seen the sign of the times. In the life and death and risen and exalted life of Jesus Christ we see the light of God shining in the darkness. Revealing him as the true God who lives for us. And revealing him as the true human being who lives for God. Giving his life for all our secret shame. And rising to life for God’s complete victory in our lives. By his Spirit that light shines in our hearts, banishing the lies that we have believed and the petty cruelties that we have inflicted on others, filling our hearts instead with his love, calling us to love in his name and to proclaim the coming of the day. Because this night of sin and death will pass and the day of hope and glory and life will come.
Jesus Christ crucified and risen is the sign of the times. He is our bright morning star. His sign does not promise the return of the golden days of the church, when the church will be restored to its rightful place as the chaplain for the people of power in the world. Nor is it his permission for us to retreat from the world to lick our wounds while we wait for him to save us from the nasty people who hurt our feelings. His sign is the call to action. It is the summons to service. It is the promise of the coming of the day and that every drop of sweat spilled in the service of the kingdom will, in the end, be worth it. It is the call to engage with and not to retreat from the world which God so loved.
As a wise man once said, “It would not be hard to preach the victory of Easter, if preachers believed it themselves.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not the kind of passive aggressive person who takes potshots at people, from behind cute quotes from dead theologians. I’m the kind of passive aggressive person who knows that this message is for me first. How can I communicate the victory of Jesus to others until I believe it myself?
Twenty six years of ministry have taken me to some very dark places. And it has confronted me with the darkness in my own heart. So I am comforted by the presence of the light of Jesus in my life. His truth and grace restoring me and renewing me to my true humanity. But I need more. I am encouraged by his guiding light along all of life’s dark roads. His constant presence and his inspiring example, his Spirit, my guide and my best friend. But I need more. What I need is the promise that the night will end and that the world has been made not for darkness, but for the light. I need to know that the day will come. I need to keep before me that vision of the morning star, the sign of the times.
Jesus Christ made flesh, revealed, crucified, risen and exalted and proclaimed is that sign. By his gospel we call men and women and children to wake up to themselves and to live as people of the day that is coming. And by his Spirit we are called to live and work as heralds of the dawn until it breaks. So I ask you one last time, Have you seen that sign? Does that bright morning star fill your whole being with hope for the future and with love for your neighbour?
My prayer for you is that the life and gospel and Spirit of Christ may guide and inspire your thoughts and discussions and decisions this week, and that they may fuel your service in his kingdom every week with faith and hope and love. For the light of Christ is risen, and the dawn of his kingdom will break, and it is going to be a beautiful day.