Ordinary Signs and Wonders
Today we celebrate Rose Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, also called Refreshment Sunday. Refreshment Sunday is like the Sunday in Advent when we light the pink candle for joy in the Advent wreath. For people who observe a penitential Advent, or a penitential Lent, Rose Sunday is that little lift — our refreshment in our penitence — that sign of hope telling us the resurrection is near.
We need signs of hope in Lent, especially in this extra-long one. Lent seems like way more than 40 days and 40 nights of fasting in the wilderness. Thursday marked a year since the WHO declared COVID19 a global pandemic, and we’ve had a lot of sadness, isolation, and loss.
Rainbow Over Newport
There was a rainbow in the sky over Newport Friday morning in the beautiful, just-past-sunrise cloudy light. It stretched across the horizon in the back yard of our house looking out toward the harbor, its left leg standing down near Emmanuel. The bow arched up along Thames Street, reaching its apex over what looked like Mary Street from my vantage point. Then it bent back down again, with its right leg striding over the Point, seeming to touch the horizon again on the other side of the Pell Bridge, a giant billboard for hope over the harborside. That bow in the sky Friday morning — and just before Refreshment Sunday — pointed to God’s promise. The rainbow was a glorious sign, just as God promised Noah after the floodwaters had finally receded, of the everlasting covenant God established with all flesh on earth.
Scholars often call the first part of John’s Gospel the Book of Signs. The name comes from the miracles Jesus performs in those chapters. You know them: changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum, healing the paralytic at the pools of Bethesda, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, healing the man born blind, raising Lazarus from the dead.
John’s Gospel says in chapter 20 that Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of the disciples that were not included in the gospel. These signs were written down, though, as evidence of God’s promise, so that if we looked really closely at what Jesus was doing, and followed it, we would have everlasting life. Signs warn us of danger, convey information, and remind us of what we should already know. Signs signify — or point to — meaning. And when we don’t have signs, we can be confused and bewildered — we don’t know where we are, or how to get where we’re going, or even where we should want to go. Roger told us a story last week of wartime Japan, when troops arrived, and there were no signs even telling them a street name. It was impossible to find their way.
Our reading this morning — John 3:16 — is not usually included among scholars’ listed signs in John’s gospel, but it’s interesting that today’s passage is a very common sign to see at sporting events and on billboards. John 3:16 — God loved the world so much that he gave us Jesus so that those who followed Jesus would have everlasting life. You see the sign John 3:16 everywhere. I think the reason John 3:16 is often placed on signs is that it’s a kind of meta sign — a concentrated nugget of God’s promise so potent that just mentioning it is enough to convey the mind-bending, transformational truth of eternal life. The signs scholars mention in John’s gospel were miracles to encourage belief and action in following Jesus. But John 3:16 is the road sign — big, bold, and clear.
Presbyterian preacher and author Mihee Kim-Kort writes that there is a difference between living forever — which does not seem like a great plan — and eternal life. Eternal life refers to a kind of life — not its length — and it includes the here and now. John 3:16 — the sign of God’s love for the world like Noah’s rainbow in the sky — shows us that eternal life is about way more than the afterlife. It’s about our lives today. It doesn’t take a miracle to have eternal life. It’s how we live now, recognizing Jesus as the sign of God’s love for the world, and following that example. Like road signs pointing the way to gas, food, Rock City, or the Luray Caverns, changing water into wine is a flashing billboard for God’s great value proposition to humanity in John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten son so that all who believed in him would have everlasting life.
Signs of Hope
And now, on Refreshment Sunday in Lent, we see signs of hope every day. The resurrection is coming. We set our clocks ahead today for Daylight Saving Time. Next Sunday is the first day of Spring. We see signs of spring — we’ve had days of brilliant sun and warmer weather, and I can see the faint beginnings of yellow heads through the daffodils’ first greens. At home, we’re sprouting seeds for our summer garden in the kitchen window.
We see signs that the pandemic’s grip on our lives is loosening. Vaccination clinics opened on Aquidneck Island this week, and our positivity rates in Rhode Island have just completed their fifth week at below 2.5%. We are actively planning to worship together in person again beginning Palm Sunday. And — after all of our planning and preparation — the Newport Music Festival will begin moving into their space in the parish auditorium next week. These are signs of hope, showing that God is with us.
As God told Noah about the rainbow in the sky, that sign of hope is God’s everlasting covenant with every living thing. We may live through some darker days until we can see God’s bow in the clouds again, but God is always with us at Emmanuel. We just have to watch for the signs. Amen