Here’s Your Sign
In the verses just before today’s scripture, Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people with only two fish and five loaves of bread. But when those people wanted to make him a king, Jesus fled across the sea. So the crowd in our reading today is a mix of folks from that first miracle who sailed over to follow Jesus and locals from the nearby town of Capernaum. It’s a combo of people who want round two of miracle meals with Jesus… and new people now hearing rumors of heavenly food wanting to snag some holy takeout for themselves. Jesus, I imagine annoyed at being treated like a vending machine, call it out: “You’re looking for me, not because of the miraculous signs, but because you want more bread.” As the scene progresses, the crowd gets passive aggressive: “You know… we’d believe you a lot more if you did another miracle. And you know… Moses did miracles, like, hey! Maybe some bread! Moses gave out heavenly manna? Maybe you could do that? Just pitching ideas here.” Jesus—seeing the crowd still fixated on this miracle bread thing—tries to redirect their one-track minds by comparing himself to manna, saying he too has come from heaven and gives life to the world. To which the crowd goes, “Great! Give us this bread always!” One wonders why they didn’t ask for fries on the side and a Diet Coke. The crowd treats Jesus, the deliverer of the world, like pizza delivery instead.
It’s easy to laugh at the crowd for misunderstanding. We gentle readers already know the Bible says Jesus is the Messiah. But the crowd didn’t know back then. They saw a guy who was good at delivering food through miracles and figured, “Hey! Works for me!” Yet we today also misunderstand. We make friends at church and end up treating the place more like a social club for people we like—and not for those we dislike—instead of a holy place where are all loved and welcomed. We feel we have a good grasp on this whole “Christianity” thing and so assume God is always on our side in every disagreement, rather than worrying about whether we’re on God’s side. Christ may be the light of the world, but instead of letting this little light of ours shine… we instead either hide it under a basket of shame, fear, or indifference… or weaponize that little light into a flamethrower of pride and self-righteousness aimed at everyone else. For me as a preacher, the temptation is always there for faith to become just a job, an intellectual exercise, a project… instead of something that transforms and informs my very soul. We all misunderstand what Christ is about, even if we aren’t hassling him for extra fries.
Blue collar comedian Bill Engvall is famous for his “Here’s your sign” routine. Here’s the bit: “I pulled into a gas station when my car tire popped. Attendant comes out and says, ‘Tire go flat?’ ‘Nope! I was driving along: the other three just swelled up on me!’ ‘Well, the heat’ll do that.’ I just hate stupid people. They should have to wear signs that say: ‘I’m stupid.’ That way you’d know not ask them anything. You’d be like, ‘Uh, excuse me… Oh! Never mind! I didn’t see your sign.’ When I drove trucks, my rig got stuck under an overpass. Cop asks, ‘Truck get stuck?’ ‘Nope! I was delivering this here overpass but ran outta gas. Here’s your sign.’ Or I went fishing with my buddy, and this guy on the docks as we come in points at my string of fish, asking, ‘You catch all them fish?’ ‘Nope! Talked ‘em into giving up. Here’s your sign.’ When we were trying to sell our car about a year ago, this guy took a 45-minute test drive. When we get out of the car, guy reaches down, grabs the exhaust pipe, and goes, ‘Dang, that’s hot!’ See? If he’d been wearing his ‘I’m stupid’ sign, I could’ve stopped him. Or I had a friend over, and he sees this elk head mounted on my wall. My buddy goes, ‘You shoot that thing?’ ‘Nope! He ran into the wall and got stuck. Here’s your sign, bud.’”
The crowd in scripture today demands the sign of more miraculous food because they misunderstand what Jesus is about. And we today likewise misunderstand Jesus. I suppose we all need one of those ‘I’m stupid’ signs Engvall jokes about when it comes to God. Because the thing with signs in the Bible is they’re exactly that. It’s no accident John’s gospel calls Christ’s miracles ‘signs,’ because just like signs directing traffic… miraculous signs are meant to point to something else. Jesus didn’t miraculously feed people because he liked to cook. Jesus did that sign to point to something greater than food. Jesus didn’t walk on water because he wanted to get his steps in for the day. He did it to point to something greater than the miracle. It’s tempting when we read the Bible to get fixated on the spectacle: Moses parting the Red Sea, Joshua tearing down the walls of Jericho with the sound of trumpets, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jesus casting out wicked spirits. It’s easy to focus on the spectacle of those moments and forget that every miracle in the Bible points to something beyond that moment, that every miraculous sign points back to God, is meant to show us something about who God is for us. The point of Jesus feeding thousands with just a few fish and loaves of bread wasn’t that Jesus makes for a cheap date. The point is that God will provide, that God sustains us, that in Christ we have promises of life forever, that the Lord knows our needs and will not abandon us.
Nowadays we don’t get big miracles very often like they do in the Bible. But even so, we—like the crowds in today’s scripture—often fixate on the wrong things, focus more on the signs than on the thing the signs points to. We fixate on how others dress or talk, instead of what God might have to teach us through them. We gossip and politick because we forget that Christian community was given to remind us that in Jesus we are one people, one body. As Presbyterians, our church’s constitution calls baptism “the sign and seal of our belonging to Jesus Christ,” a sign in that it points to Christ’s grace and a seal in that baptism publicly confirms that grace for all to see like a seal of approval. But still… baptism is merely a sign, not the thing in itself. Yet often we treat those hallmark steps of like getting a parking validation stamp from Jesus for the pearly gates: one-and-done, glad that’s over. We forget that the water of baptism is meant point to something greater: the grace of God that restores our spirits like rain refreshes a dry land, a grace that washes away sin like the unstoppable ocean washes away the beach, a grace that cleanses us from shame and worry as a bath cleanses the body. The baptism itself does not matters as much as the spiritual reality it points to: the grace of God giving us life.
When we forget the “why” of what we do, when we fixate on the visible signs instead of the invisible reality they point to, when we slip into routine behaviors and sleepwalk our way through faith… we turn the gospel of Jesus Christ into a cargo cult. Cargo cult is a weird phrase I’ve heard much of my life, and I recently looked it up on a lark. In WWII’s Pacific theater, some of the islands used as naval and air force bases, by both the Japanese and Allies, were home to native tribes who had never seen outsiders before. To them, these foreigners who flew the skies and sailed in giant metal ships were otherworldly. And the medicine, canned foods, weapons, clothes, and more these foreigners brought to the islands were so far beyond what locals knew it was like magic. But when the foreign troops moved on to new battlegrounds, on a few islands cargo cults sprang up that tried to summon the foreigners’ cargo by imitating the “magic” of the foreigners. The cultists built runways and lighthouses for planes and boats that would never come. They’d carve headsets from wood and sit in fake air control towers, wondering if that was how the foreign troops convinced the gods to air drop crates of medicine and food. They built replica airplanes from straw, wondering if that was perhaps the trick. These cargo cults saw Japanese and Allied troops do all these things and get those great supplies, and they do everything right in the imitation. But no airplanes or ships came, because they mistook the outward signs and spectacle… for the things that actually mattered, the things inside and unseen.
That is the danger facing all of us if we forget the why of our faith. When we start to think church is more about impressing the neighbors than about being humbled yet also lifted up by the power of God… when we pretend Christianity is a box we tick on a census form and not a lifelong path of following Jesus… when we think the good news of the gospel is about how good we are instead of about how good God is for us… when faith only matters on Sunday and never touches the other six days of living… when church is a routine instead of a place where we stand before the living God… when we forget why we’re here in the first place… we risk becoming a cargo cult, going through empty motions we don’t even understand. Or worse yet, like the crowd in today’s text, we treat the Messiah like a McDonald’s drive-thru.
And what is the “why” of our faith? What is that central thing we must cling to for everything else to be filled with meaning and purpose? What keeps us from being a cargo cult? When asked by the crowd what they must do for the works of God to be done, Jesus explained it’s not anything they do… but that they believe in him and he will do. And what exactly is Jesus asking them to believe? Jesus says, “Everything God gives me will come to me. Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come from heaven—not to do my own will—but the will of him who sent me. And this is God’s will: that I should lose nothing—no one—of all that God has given me but raise it all up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father: that all who see and believe in me may have eternal life and that I shall raise them up on the last day.” When asked by the crowd what they must do to receive eternal life, Jesus instead tells them to believe in what he will do for their sakes.
The focal point of all Jesus does in scripture—and in our lives—is not that he’s great with bread. It’s not even that he drives out demons or teaches or guides, though he does all these good things and more. The thing to which all these signs point is rather that in Christ we have life. That in Christ we have hope. That in Christ we have a voice calling us home. The signs, the miracles, and wonders? Those all are tools Jesus uses to drive home this main point: look to Jesus and find the life, the meaning, the forgiveness, the hope you’ve chased after all your life. Look at the signs themselves? And you’re missing the point, becoming a cargo cult, or perhaps earning one of those ‘Here’s your sign’ signs from Bill Engvall. But look at the one to whom all these signs and more point? And in Jesus you’ll find the best of all: grace, love, and everlasting life. Amen.