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Flourishing Creation: Sky

Flourishing Creation  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  20:35
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The skies show us a glimpse of how God moves and calls us to change and grow in the world.

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The New Revised Standard Version The Demand for a Sign

The Demand for a Sign

(Mk 8:11–13; Lk 12:54–56)

16 The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

Skies

“Red sky at night…sailor’s delight.”
“Red sky at morning…sailor’s take warning.”
I learned this adage at a young age and loved predicting the next day’s weather as I watched the sunsets over the Puget Sound from my childhood home in Edmonds. Never a sailor, myself, I find it a joy nonetheless to be able to somehow “read the skies” and connect with the churning, changing, shifting patterns of weather and climate and sky and day and night.
We are not too different from these people of the ancient world, who look for a sign in the skies but cannot witness the movements and shifts of their world which are right in front of them.
As we look further into our series on Flourishing Creation, we have to learn to look up, just like these folks, and wrestle with what the changing skies are showing us. We watch for patterns, make predictions, set out plans, most of the time based on the weather. We’ve gotten pretty good at using the tools the created world gives us to predict temperatures and weather events. In a way, we are very comfortable with change, with the shifting nature of the wind and the clouds. I can tell you with relative confidence that it is going to be a partly cloudy day today, with sun breaks in the afternoon, and very little change of rain. A beautiful Mother’s Day in the Pacific Northwest.
The challenge of today’s text is that the skies are giving us signs, but we cannot perceive them. As well, the world we live in is telling us something about the movements of God, and yet we demand visible signs to confirm this. This is the struggle Jesus throws back to the Sadducees and Pharisees — look, you can read the skies, but you can’t see God moving without some kind of big, miraculous event — pay attention, people! Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for not waiting, listening, attending to what God is up to and instead, expecting they can sit back and witness a sign passively.
This last week, I’ve been watching the skies a bit more intentionally. I’ve seen bright blue, clear skies, marking the warming spring weather we’re feeling. I’ve seen ominous dark grey clouds, hanging in the distance, warning of rain. I’ve seen wind blown skies, with clouds strewn quickly across the canopy as the weather shifts. And I’ve seen the dull grey of a Pacific Northwest morning sky, where if you didn’t have mountains or islands in the distance, you might wonder where the horizon ends and the land begins.
And in this intentionally watching of the skies, I’ve recognized an important thing: the skies show us change. Of all the natural wonders we’ve looked at so far, it is in the shifting and remaking of the sky that I realize we witness change in its purest form. The skies show us change. The show us God’s heart for change, for revealing a new thing, for showing a sign of the fluidity of our world, the shifting and adjusting of weather and clouds and colors that never remains static, but always changes, always leads us forward.
Remember back to the beginning of our studies on Flourishing Creation, we talked about Creation being the “body of God.” That the world and the cosmos are a manifestation of the Creator’s handiwork and therefore a reflection of God’s body — the physical site of God’s presence is in Creation, all around, above and below us.
So, keeping with this understanding of the Body of God, we can see the sky as the place where we witness the revealing, shifting, opening part of God. Like the adage, in the red sky, we see the shifts of weather and in this, God’s presence opening and shifting to beckon us into a new day.
The Scriptures tell us, God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. So does God change? That question really isn’t what I’m getting at here. Instead, in the changing skies, we see that God moves and leads us forward and calls us to grow and change as well.
Let’s go back to Jesus and the religious leaders for a moment.
The Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign from the heavens. In first century cosmology, the understanding of the cosmos and the relatedness of the earth, the skies, the heavens, the stars — people were looking to the skies as something beyond their physical world and expecting the skies, the heavens, to be the site of God’s revelation. The is good reason for this — God’s presence had been revealed to the Hebrew people through cloud and pillar of fire, wind and rain. God had taken up the prophets into the air, their mystical departure from the physical world to become one with the Creator. The skies are important, because they’re not just atmosphere, but they’re a veil between our world and God’s world.
We know a lot more about the atmosphere, the skies, and what is beyond now. But still, we look to the heavens with wonder — what is beyond us, what is coming.
And this is where Jesus is frustrated. Yes, you look to the skies for a sign, he says. But what he’s longing for them to be able to actually see is the change happening right in front of them — and for them to welcome it and participate in it. If God sends a sign in the form of the Messiah bringing Good News, but the people demand signs from the sky still, it seems they’re missing the point. Jesus responds with frustration and then “he left them and went away.” You can feel the exasperation.

Sign of Jonah

We can’t do our study justice without attending to Jesus’ comment about the sign of Jonah. So, let’s take a moment and remember the story of the prophet Jonah, sent to the great city of Nineveh to warn them of God’s judgement. Jonah gets sidetracked, goes out on the stormy seas, gets swallowed by a whale, spit up, and then he finally decides he’ll begrudgingly do what God asks.
in Jonah 4, we find Jonah grumpy with God after Nineveh does responds positively to the call to repentance. Jonah sits down in the sun and God gives him shade with a bush. The bush grows up and shades him during the heat of the day, but withers away from a worm infestation the next morning and Jonah stays grumpy.
Jonah felt the sense that the planned retribution for Nineveh was justified, it seems. First, he ran away from the call to speak prophetically to the people. Then, he grows frustrated with God that God does not destroy them, but God’s mind changes and the city receives grace. The bush, which shelters and the withers, is a sign to Jonah — God’s plans, God’s work, is not dependent on the capriciousness of the prophet. God planted the bush, God made the worm — God is at work and it’s not up to Jonah what God does — it’s Jonah’s job to pay attention and see what God is doing. The sign of the bush illustrates Jonah’s disconnection with the change that God is inducing in Nineveh.
And so, as Jesus uses this “sign” to speak to the Pharisees and Sadducees, we see him calling them to pay attention to the signs of their times, what is right in front of them, and how God is calling the people to repentance and new life and not to keep demanding signs from the skies. The sign of Jonah is a picture of the frustration of God, the exasperation of Christ looking at his people and seeing that they’re missing the point — change is happening and they can’t see it.

Signs of the times

As I said before, the skies show us change in a way nothing else in Creation does. In the skies, we do not need signs — we have wonders to witness that show us the unfolding revelation of what is coming.
Think for a moment about the last couple of years. Think of the immense change we are being invited into. Our world is shifting. Certainly, due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are shifts in our ways of life, but on the whole I’m speaking of something more complete going on. We see it in the unrest and calls for justice for the black community in the United States. We see it in the political division in our nation’s capitol. We see it in the advent of new technologies that make our ability to connect with one another easier, and different. We feel the change of our climate, the created order groaning, and we witness the change as possibility for what may be the opportunity to live our collective hopes into action to preserve and restore. We see the change as young people grow up and our elders pass on. To witness our world is like watching the shifting skies.
If we see all of this and still demand a sign from God about how we, the people of Jesus, are called to respond, then I daresay we are like the Pharisees and Jonah and we’re missing the point. God is at work in this change and if we do not recognize it, we are missing our opportunity to participate in God’s redeeming action. Not missing out entirely, as the invitation from God to join in remains, but missing out in expecting God to show up somewhere else, simply because we struggle to see God showing up here.
Willingness to see and live into change.
I have great hope for the people of God in this season. Why? Because I see among us a willingness to change. Let’s take our congregational life together as a good example.
In seminary and pastoral training, I learned a funny quip that gets to the heart of change resistance in the church: “The last words of a dying church: ‘We’ve never done it that way before.” This is change resistance to a T.
When I began my call here at St. James Presbyterian just over 4 years ago, our church was in a phase of reconsidering who we were to be and how to maintain what we have had for so long while finding a way to thrive in the present. Many programs and offerings of our church have shifted and grown as these last few years have gone on, and none of those changes have happened by simply holding on to “the way we do things.” We can’t do it, it doesn’t last. Change and adaptation have to happen.
And we’ve seen this. Think, 5 years or so ago — did you think there was any chance that a majority of our congregation would be utilizing online streaming services to participate in Sunday worship? Did any of you think you’d become as good on Zoom as you are now? No way! We’ve never done that before, and why would we?
But the signs of the times, the shifting of the winds, the sky view we have seen has called us into that change, for the sake of our congregational flourishing for the future. The movements of today’s skies are a metaphor for the movement of our world and the question for us becomes not can I predict and manage what is coming next, but rather what tools, people, and gifts of God do we need to live into the changed world we live in, now? It’s not about how do we protect from the change, rather it’s how do we live faithfully into the change?
Thinking of the sky and wind and weather, we know that as we watch birds that fly, that they use the shifting winds and the matter of their sky space to adapt and travel great distances. A headwind may blow against their flight, but they have the ability to adapt and use the headwind as it cycles to propel them forward. Change may produce resistance in us, like Jonah felt, but that change is the opportunity to propel forward in what God is up to.
And as we’ve joined in with the change, we’ve discovered that it is rich with life and new possibilities. Think of all the turmoil and disruption I just named that we’re experiencing in our world. Are these struggles not the site of possibility for a new way forward? Think about the example of the fight for racial justice in the US: is this rising movement not an opportunity to change? Isn’t it an invitation to the white church, who has historically been oppressive and/or silent in this conversation, isn’t this an invitation to speak up? To change our posture? To step in and stand with? We’ve never done it that way before…but what if we did?
Or climate action: we’re learning to adjust our patterns of living to be more sustainable. We’ve never done this before, but now is the time.
Or think of the full blessing and affirmation of the LGBTQ+ communities around us: years ago, the church would say, “we’ve never done that before.” But now, we say proudly that our faith community can be a place of acceptance and love and we recognize the deep blessing and benefits to our life together by not excluding, but by including all.
This is what change looks like. When you look up at the sky, I want you to ask: God, what are you showing me? Don’t demand signs — the signs are here. May the sky be the picture of the body of God which reminds you that God is moving, calling, active in our world.
As with each week of this series, I invite you to step outside this week and take in the sky. See it in the morning, through the day, and even in the dark of night. Witness change firsthand. And pray, seek God’s voice in it. What is God inviting us to as we witness the sky’s beautiful change?
Go into the world to witness God’s changing work — and find your way in to participate with it.
Peace. Amen.
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