Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Swamp and the Sign

There is a saying that goes something like, “he missed the forest for the trees.” Here is a story about hitting the swamp for the sign.

Imagine a sheriff’s deputy on a Monday night visiting the scene of a traffic accident in which a single car failed to navigate a curve to the right on a gravel road. In the curve, leaving the road to the left, the car and driver ended up in the swamp. The driver was not injured, though the electrical system in the car would probably need some work. “Didn’t you see the sign?” asked the deputy. “Yes,” replied the driver. “That is the most amazing shade of yellow.
On Tuesday night, the deputy finds himself at the same place, with the same situation. He asks the driver, “Didn’t you see the sign?” “Yes, of course,” said the driver. “Why do you think they post that sign on an angle, and not flat?” “You’re missing the point,” the exasperated deputy replied.
On Wednesday night, …, well, you know what happened. Another car; same swamp, similar questions. The driver said, “Yes, and do you suppose that sign is made from metal or fiberglass?” He was an automotive engineer.

The subject of semiotics, and especially its subset, semantics, deals with the relation between signs and the things to which they refer, or, their meaning. The word, semiotics, has a Greek root, the word translated “signs” in the Bible, referring to miracles. In the John’s Gospel, the author consistently uses the word “sign” instead of “miracle.” He wants to communicate that Jesus is not merely interrupting the natural order in order to do something amazing (and he is indeed doing that). No, Jesus is using that act as a sign to point to a truth or reality beyond the sign. If we focus only on the sign, and not the reality, you will end up in a swamp.

The seven signs in John’s Gospel are only a selection of Jesus’ total miracles. But seven is enough. Even one would be enough. In fact, many people come to faith in Jesus without witnessing any sign at all. They simply believe, and they are blessed. But there were many others who saw many signs, and yet they did not believe. They saw the same sign as others, but they did not buy in to the meaning of the sign. Perhaps they were amazed. Maybe they were only amused. Some were irritated at this wonder-worker. But only some saw the sign, and grabbed hold of the meaning behind the sign.

The 4th sign of Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel is the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Here he provides a meal for thousands of people who followed him out into the countryside, far from the markets. He had compassion for their physical hunger, and used this sign as a pointer to their need for spiritual sustenance, which he made clear, later in the chapter, was himself. “I am the bread of life.” But many who experienced this first free meal only wanted a second. They were interested in supper, not a Savior. They saw the sign, and embraced it. But they failed to embrace Jesus.

You and I are spiritual people who have been trained to live with a materialistic mentality and a temporal time-frame. When a sign points to a spiritual truth, we easily see the sign and miss the truth. When a temporal image is used to refer to that which is eternal, we tend to focus on what is ‘good for me’ in terms of today, or, at best, tomorrow.

Here is one of the saddest verses in the Gospel of John: “But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him.” I hope this does not describe you. Don’t miss the truth for the trees. Don’t land in the swamp because you see a sign and fail to heed its meaning and message.

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