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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Signs



Almost every year of my childhood in Indiana, my parents and brothers and I piled into the family station wagon and headed south for Florida.


Our destination was a place near Fort Myers, where Dad had a business connection. 


The miles went by slowly in the pre-interstate era.  We drove through villages, small towns, and big cities.  My brothers and I couldn’t wait to see that wonderful sign: Welcome to Florida.  We always stopped at the official Welcome Center, drank a complimentary glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and gawked at the magnificent palm trees that had been planted on the south side of the Georgia state line.  We had made it.


Well, sort of. 


The distance from our house to the Welcome Center was about 750 miles.  But Florida, north to south, represents a vast expanse.  We still had at least 350 miles to go before we rolled into Fort Myers.


Then and now, after the Welcome to Florida sign grows smaller in one’s rear view mirror, reality sets it.  There are far more pine trees than palm trees in Florida.  The landscape is cluttered with endless rows of billboards.  Whether you’re heading towards Disney World, Cape Canaveral, Miami, or Key West, there are miles to go before you sleep. 


Thus the welcome sign actually means, “You’ve made it!  Well, you’re on your way to making it.  So enjoy your orange juice and the lovely landscaping at the Welcome Center, then buckle up and keep heading south.”


That’s a good way to describe the miracles sprinkled throughout the ministry of Jesus.  They’re signs.  John even says so in his Gospel.  After describing the occasion when Jesus turns water into wine, he writes, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory” (John 2:11).


Signs point to a reality beyond themselves.  Welcome to Florida doesn’t mean you’ve arrived at your final destination – unless you intend to bunk down at the Welcome Center.


But a sign makes it clear that you’re definitely on the right path.


Jesus’ miracles were clues that his followers had entered a new chapter of spiritual history.  We might even say they had crossed the border into a new state.  God’s kingdom – the fullness of God’s reign on Earth – was breaking into the present moment.  The disciples and the crowds didn’t get to see all of what God’s reign would be like.  But they did get to see coming attractions – something like the trailer of the best movie anyone could ever imagine.


They got to see signs. 


Jesus gave them previews of the day in which the lame would walk, the blind would see, and Death would be utterly irrelevant. 


What surprises many Bible readers is the degree to which the Gospels actually downplay the significance of these happenings.  People assume that miracles must be God’s foolproof strategy to open our eyes.  They're slam-dunk faith-makers, right? 


Yet that frequently turns out not to be the case.

Tens of thousands of Israelites witnessed the parting of the Red Sea and picked up manna in the Sinai wilderness every morning, yet never gave their hearts to God.  The largest recorded crowd in Jesus’ ministry – some 5,000 men (not to mention women and children) whom he fed with five loaves and two fish – came back the next day for another meal.  When that didn’t happen, they walked away, disillusioned (see John 6:60-66).


Readers are also surprised to learn that miraculous events aren’t evenly distributed throughout the Bible. 


“Signs and wonders” seem to be clumped together at four critical moments in history. 


The first is associated with God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt.  Then come the ministries of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, when spiritual unfaithfulness threatens Israel’s very future.  Next we see the healings and miracles associated with Jesus, culminating in his resurrection.  Finally, there are the dramatic events that fuel the rapid growth of the first century church. 


When God is doing something new, in other words, he is – at least for a while – spectacularly visible. 


Missionaries have long noticed that supernatural events tend to cluster around the opening of new mission fields.  One source suggests that as many as 90% of the conversions to Christianity in China within the past half-century (which comprise what may be the greatest evangelistic explosion in church history) have been influenced by a healing or a miracle.


During the same time in other parts of the world, a remarkable number of Muslims have chosen to trust Christ.  As I learned a decade ago in a conversation with a church leader from Cairo, Egypt, as many as a third of those conversions have come after a dream or a vision in which Jesus appears, wearing a white robe. 


Some Egyptian churches have even placed ads in local newspapers: “Have you seen the man in the white robe in your dreams? He has a message for you.  Call this number.” 


Miracles are powerful.  They get our attention.  They point toward God’s reality.  Wouldn’t it be great if God’s chief operating principle was All Miracles All the Time?    


But miracles, in and of themselves, are powerless to do what God cares about the most.  They cannot change human hearts. 


Transformations of that sort happen only when men, women, and children freely offer their hearts to Christ.


That’s why Jesus, on the pages of the Gospels, always turns down the request for the Big Event – the show-stopping miracle that will supposedly turn doubters into believers and scoffers into true disciples.  That was then, this is now.  Why doesn’t he just blow all of our minds this winter weekend with a series of miracles that will force the whole world to believe?   


As we have noted before, the answer is simple but compelling:


God’s love is always persuasive.  It is never coercive.


The real miracle is that God is prepared to go to virtually any length to have a relationship with us – even to death on a cross. 


Which is something we can have the joy of discovering for ourselves – starting by choosing to follow the signs he has given to each of us that point in his direction. 



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