Signs of the Times, St Michael’s
Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 26 March 2017
The whole Bible is full of signs. It was common throughout the whole of the Old Testament period to be persuaded by signs or to call for them, seeing them as some sort of Godly confirmation of his activity in the world. This continues into the New Testament, for example in John’s gospel where signs are used to demonstrate that this lowly charismatic Nazarene was indeed the foretold Messiah.
The story we read from Isaiah is just another example of this type of ‘sign’ usage. It refers to Isaiah who wanted to prove to the unfaithful King of Judah, Ahaz, that God would punish his people but despite all would never forsake them.
“The lord himself will give you a sign… a young woman is with child and she will bear a son and will call him Immanuel.”
Now for centuries this has been misinterpreted, misread and misunderstood and taken totally out of context. You will recognise the verse from the Authorised version of the Bible which itself was put together over 400 years ago
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign, behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” This is often added to with the line “Which means god is with us.”
This whole thing is simply Isaiah putting the hard word on this King and trying to prove that it is from God by pointing to some poor pregnant woman and claiming that it’s some sort of sign.
Yes signs can be totally misread. I’ve been caught out a few times with parking signs. Australia has got to take the biscuit as far as Parking signs are concerned. You simply want to park your car and want to know whether you are allowed to or not; but in the few seconds you see a sign you have to work out whether you are within the permitted hours, whether the hours fall with school hours and whether schools are on vacation or not, which side of the road you according to the day of the week, whether it’s a loading zone, a 15 minute, one hour two hour or no hours if it’s after 6 pm or before 8am?
So signs can be confusing, but there is a huge difference between a sign and a symbol, for example, Footy scarves, these scarves tells us something at first look. If it’s a Richmond scarf it says that its owner is long suffering, if it’s a Carlton scarf it says that this person is a dreamer and longing for the days of old to return, if its Collingwood it usually indicates that the person holding it has no teeth if it’s a Doggies scarf then surely God is on your side!
Do you see the difference? Yes a sign is a strong indicator of an instruction or guide, but a symbol is something in which we play a part and have an emotional attachment to. It’s saying something about us.
So this sign here, points us to the Uniting Church but it also is a powerful symbol; it’s saying we belong. We’re part of it. And the first bit of this sign and symbol which screams out at us is the Cross.
This is probably the best known symbol in the world (competing nowadays perhaps with the golden arches) and certainly throughout history.
We wear it round our necks; people have it tattooed on their bodies. It stands in every Christian church in this city, country and the world.
On Good Friday I will be leading the procession of city churches around the CBD and we will be following a large wooden cross. The walk is known as The Way of the Cross; the group of people walking will include members from the Catholic Church, the Uniting Church, the Anglican Church, the Baptist Church, the Lutheran church, the Church of Christ, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist church, Pentecostal churches, the Presbyterian church and even the Coptic church.
Now all those churches don’t believe the same thing, they don’t practice their religion in the same way; their worship is different as is their understanding of the bible and creeds. Many of their hymns or songs are different, as are some of their languages. The robes their clergy wear are different. Yet they all follow that same sign; a symbol to which they all belong.
It’s a sign that we are all comfortable with, because we know it so well and it’s central to our Uniting Church symbol. But of course when we think about it, it’s a pretty awful image. It’s an instrument of torture and death. We tend to beautify it. We put precious stones on it. We make it in silver and gold. But what it really is is a piece of roughly sawn timber thrown together and into a hole in a piece of poor dirt. If Jesus would have been hanged would we now be looking at a scaffold on our church furniture or a pile of stones if he had been stoned?
For the first couple of hundred years the symbol of Christiany, often a secret sign, was not a cross but the sign of the fish.
That came from the disciples being predominantly fisherman and that the Greek word for fish is IXthus; each letter of that word being the first letter of the term “Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour” (Iyesous, Xstos, Theos, Yios Soter).
The cross came into common use under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century.
Nevertheless the cross is an important symbol of our faith and it’s central in the Uniting Church sign.
As we consider the sign of the cross we are reminded of suffering and pain. There are crosses we all have to conquer or carry. Between us we know a bit about pain and suffering. We know stress, anxiety, illness, bereavement, loneliness, despair, fear, and loss of hope.
We carry our crosses and we help others to carry theirs.
And we are also reminded that as Jesus suffered and died for what he believed, this too has been a strong element of faith throughout history.
Of course throughout history we can recall great people who have given their all for their belief. People like Thomas Becket, Thomas More, Joan of Arc, William Tyndale. More recently people like Max Kolbe and Dietrich BonHoeffer and the suffragette Emily Davison.
In our own time people like Martin Luther King Junior, Steve Biko, Anwar Sadat.
But let’s just think of the last couple of months:
Only last week Clement Meric a 19 year old was killed fighting for marriage equality in France
As was Jose and Maria D’Silva for their campaign to save the Amazon rain forest
In January Dr Gary Ortago was shot dead in the Philipines where he was fighting to protect indigenous communities.
We stand alongside these martyrs for they are under the same cross as ourselves.
Then let’s look at another image in the Uniting Church sign:
The dove which is partly inflamed in red.
This represents the Spirit. Yes the spirit is the harbinger of peace, but it is also an igniter of fire.
So the church which claims the power of this spirit should be an organisation which reflects it in all what it does. Because that is the only way it works. It’s about what we DO, not about what we say or even believe.
So this church, St Michael’s, has a fabulous history of healing and recovery. It is very representative of the dove. Mingary, The Quiet Place offers that healing peace and quiet reflection in the heart of the city. The Mingary Counselling Services support hundreds of people every month. The service in the church every Sunday with its music, its prayer and thoughtful reflection hopes that your individual and corporate wellbeing is enhanced week in and week out. This is central to our faith and worship. We all come with baggage. We all have a past and sometimes because of the orthodox attitude of most churches to what they call “sin” we get bogged down in guilt.
What a fantastic opportunity we have to relieve people of those lifetime anxieties. This is the church’s ‘dove’ role, bringing peace and healing.
What then of the other aspect of the spirit? the “Fire”
Do we see a church fired up for action? Do we see a dynamic organisation inspired to smash down walls of inequality? Breaking through orthodoxy and seeking new ways to be a church in an ever changing world? Do we seek a risk taking agenda, changing lives, performing its own miracles, breaking the mould or being challenged by the words in Revelation “Behold I make all thing new.”
Or do we see a church bogged down by rules, regulations and processes. Chained by its own comfortable environment, not wanting in Paul Tillech’s phrase to “Shake the Foundations.”
Where are our modern day prophets who like the prophets of old are not saying cosy statement of happiness but are screaming at us as Tillech says to’ return to the chaos of the beginning’
Where are the risk takers who might upset people with their scary but challenging words? Where is the church breaking the mould, doing the unexpected?
There is fire in our Uniting Church sign is where we belong. Let’s fan those flames a bit.
The last image to consider in this Uniting Church sign/symbol is the ‘U’. It’s actually not a “U”. It’s a broken circle. This is to remind us of the disunity in the world church and is a commitment from the Uniting Church which says we are in the continual process of Uniting.
When it was originally designed it reflected our church’s commitment to continue to see church unity. That still stands. The Way of the Cross on Good Friday is a step towards that. We must for ever be committed to fight against disunity in the church. But I would want to take that concept much further than simply churches coming together. We must continually be working towards cooperation and partnerships. Here in St Michaels let’s look around the not for profit sector, the corporate world, even government to see what we can do together. For the same unity we want for the church we must also want for our own communities. We must stand together against racial and religious discrimination. Pauline Hanson’s recent statement about praying for a Muslim ban, is a shocking statement about prayer as well as unity.
This church does not pray for a Muslim ban. This church prays for unity and harmony with all, irrespective of race, creed, sexuality, status or age.
This church with the Uniting Church holds basic Xian values of the importance of every human being and concern for the welfare of the whole human race. And whilst St Michael’s can’t change the world we can start where we are towards breaking down barriers in our street, in our city and perhaps even in our church.