We were driving in country Victoria on our way between regional towns in the midst of a holiday. The car was packed and there was an infant and toddler in the backseat. As I drove, listening to a music cassette (it was 20 years ago), chatting with Susan and watching for the next turn off, the signs began. First the cassette slowed down and became a drawly low song. We turned it off. The air conditioner began to splutter so we turned it off and left the fan on until it too began to splutter. We turned all the accessories off and with anxious and intense uncertainty drove on. Lights on the dashboard came on and I knew we had trouble but the car kept going – for a bit. Gradually we lost power and the car began to slow down and we coasted to a stop.
I had no idea what was wrong or what to do. It was the era before mobile phones were generally available and we were in the middle of nowhere. I went looking but there were no houses nearby. Fortunately a driver came by and stopped. He was a businessman with a car phone and called the NRMA who eventually came and towed us to the next town for a replacement alternator. I had not really known much about the alternator at that time. It was a quick lesson and one which was absolute. When the alternator was replaced (a few hours) we were on our way again and all was good.
The thing I remember vividly were the signs. The slowing of the cassette player. The spluttering of the air conditioner and fan. The dashboard lights and then the failing engine. These signs came and I didn’t know what they meant, where they pointed. I couldn’t read the signs that were very real. Now I know.
I am reminded of the signs that are very present within life and the world. There are many signs that warn or point the way. There are signs that advertise and highlight. There are signs that promote and advertise. There are signs that demand attention and those we can ignore. There are signs are the warnings that something is wrong in my body – such as the neck and shoulder pain I have been experiencing and for which I have been receiving treatment. There are the warning signs in blood tests or the bathroom scales. Around the home there are many signs to remind me of work that needs to be done or maintenance required. There are signs in my life that things are too busy and getting out of control or I am stressed and need to take time out or a different approach. I turned up to a shop the other day and the sign said ‘Closed’ even though it was still early. Today I will look to the Southern skies for signs of the Southerly change that is anticipated – I will wait with eagerness.
There are signs in our world, signs of angst, anger, struggle, pain, hatred and it results in conflict and violence. The violence in Beirut, Paris, Mali, Syria, Turkey… points to something deeper and more profoundly wrong than most of us realise. There are many different signs that revolve around these issues, alerting us to deeper issues and pain. For the most part we are ignorant of the signs and keep doing what we do and have done. The cycles of violence and hatred go unchecked and spiral downwards into more and more chaos. Our reading this week on the first week of Advent is Luke 21:25-36. It speaks of signs in the skies above, the sun and the moon… These are apocalyptic signs warning of events and changes all around us. They point to things that are big and difficult, world-shattering events that challenge us, perhaps threaten us. The issues in world affairs, of wars and conflict are big and significant. There are other signs in the world, especially in the environment. There is heating of the planet that is creating profound environmental effects across the globe. Changes in weather patterns are indeed becoming more extreme and difficult. Floods, blizzards, severe heat and droughts are increasing in intensity across the earth. The thawing of polar ice caps indicates the warming we are experiencing and points to significant problems. Our near neighbours in the South Pacific are concerned about their future. They are reading the signs. Gradually the developed nations of earth are beginning to read the signs and take them more seriously.
This is what Jesus’ words point to. There are signs in the earth and sky, within our cultures and nations. There are signs within our own beings as we feel the anxiety and intensity of change in the world around. But how do we react and respond to these signs in the world and in our lives?
Jesus warns of being distracted such that we miss the signs. Have you ever been driving along looking for a road sign to point the way but are momentarily distracted and miss the sign? Distraction is a major problem especially in a society where distraction through addictive lifestyle is rampant. We are distracted by the issues that surround us, big and small. We are distracted by TV and the more superficial issues presented through that entertainment medium. We are distracted by our rampant desire to won more and accumulate stuff and then protect it at all costs. We tend to be distracted by many things that aren’t necessarily important and miss the big signs in the world around. Eat, drink and party, party, party is another form of distraction that allows us to avoid the truth contained in the signs – for us and the world.
Jesus invites us to keep watch and be alert, to be open to the signs around us. These signs aren’t all negative or overwhelmingly difficult. Some of the signs point us to deeper experiences of life. All around us are signs of God’s Presence that are filled with wonder and joy. I go for walks around the local creek and see the trees, flowers, birds and the creek over mini rapids. The buzz of insects and the occasional water dragon or blue tongue lizard are wondrous. Sometimes I stop and just look because it is wondrous, a sign of goodness, love and life. I am reminded through these signs that God is love and despite the mess we sometimes make of the world, there is beauty and wonder and life in the embrace of God’s love is rich and deep.
There are signs that remind us life is to be lived in community because that is how we are made. Moving beyond our petty jealousies and conflicts to value other people for who they are and to value the common experience of sharing life together is vital. I am reminded in our pets that humans are not the only species, nor the most important – we all share this world together and other species enrich my life! More than that, I am dependent upon other creatures and the rest of creation for my own well-being.
There are signs in our lives and we are reminded to open our eyes, ears and being to behold the signs, the warnings, the pointers, the wonder and the life in God’s world. As we make our journey to Christmas may we live with these signs, behold their promise or warning and live wisely with each other before God who is love.