Sign and Signifier
Harold Camping, former president of Family Radio, declared that the world would end on May 21, 2011.(1) Camping was in good company when he made this kind of prediction. The Mayan prediction of the end of the world, popularized in the film 2012, has brought searching for the signs of the end times into the popular culture. But for Camping, this was not the first time that he made this kind of prediction based on the 'signs of the times'. On September 6, 1994, dozens of Camping's followers gathered in Alameda, California to await the return of Christ, an event Camping had been preaching about for two years. Despite Camping's careful calculations and reading of the signs that pointed to his return, Jesus did not return. Camping later conceded that he misread the signs. Whether through mathematical formulae or symbolic codes contained in Scripture, as in Camping's case, or watching after political maneuvers, leaders, and geo-political reorganization, many become obsessed with finding signs for the end of the world.
But there are other signs some seek as well. Interestingly enough, the Christian season of Epiphany is also a season of signs. The signs of Epiphany are not for calculating the end of the world, nor are they the signs seemingly marked out in geo-political happenings. Instead, those who enter into this season are asked to seek signs that reveal the identity of Jesus as God's chosen Messiah for the world. Beginning with the visit of the foreign magi, who found Jesus by seeking signs in the stars, followed by the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John, and the various miracle stories in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the season of Epiphany enjoins all seekers after signs to look again at the 'sign' of Jesus.
For this reason, Christian worship often uses the text of John's Gospel during Epiphany. For in John's Gospel, seven signs are recorded by the evangelist: the miracle at the wedding of Cana, the healing of the nobleman's son, the healing of the paralytic, the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus's walking on water, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. All reveal something unique about this man from Galilee.
In John chapter 6, a poignant and theologically rich section of the evangelist's narrative, the multitudes come seeking a sign from Jesus. Many of these seekers have just been fed by Jesus in what has been called the feeding of the five thousand (see John 6:1-14). Still, they ask him, "What then do you do for a sign that we may see and believe you?" Jesus answers them by saying that he is the bread of heaven. That is, in his very person life and sustenance reside! He is the sign from God! And yet the people do not believe him. They continue to seek for other signs and wonders. Even the most religious among them, specialists in the interpretation of signs, grumble that Jesus claims to be the bread of heaven. Jesus rightly proclaims, "But I said to you, you have seen me, and yet do not believe."(2)
What are the signs that you seek? Sometimes, we seek the signs and miss the reality towards which they point. Christians and all seekers can wonder together in the season of Epiphany—and in light of John's sign-filled narrative—what is the point of a sign if it does not inspire belief? That is to say, what is the point of a sign if it does not instill faith as opposed to fear, belief and hope rather than dread or simply amazement, as one would view a magic trick? In this sense, the miracle-signs of Jesus invite sign-seekers further into his unique life. Simply seeing the signs, like only seeing the trees and not the forest, is not the point. The signs reveal the signifier. He is both sign and sustenance, wonder and life itself.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Justin Berton, "Biblical scholar calculates the world will end next May," San Francisco Chronicle, January 4, 2010.
(2) John 6:36.