To study to become a pastor, I went to seminary in St. Louis. And over the course of my educational career, beginning in grade school and stretching all the way through seminary, I always looked forward to my academic breaks with a sense of eager anticipation. This was especially true in seminary, because I was a long way from my home in Austin. And I can still remember, the first day of every extended break, waking up at 3:30 am, hopping in my truck, and hitting the road for a thirteen and half hour trek home.
Because I drove this route from St. Louis to Austin many times, I became quite familiar with it. I had appointed stops and would even buy the same snack foods every time I made my journey. I also noticed that things seem to change slower in the country, even if that country has an interstate racing through it, than in the city. This was especially true of billboards. There was one billboard in Missouri on I-44 which, over my four years in seminary, never changed. It read, "Waiting for a sign from God? Here it is."
More than one person, especially in a time of trial or crisis of faith, has asked God for a sign. Disappointingly, I have heard far fewer stories about how God did deliver a sign than stories of how he didn't. Indeed, many of us intuitively know that it is dangerous for us to ask for some heavenly omen because, more often than not, we'll be disappointed.
The animated cartoon character Homer Simpson, who, although not a particularly astute theologian, is funnily folksy, once offered this prayer: "Dear Lord, the gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here's the deal. You freeze everything the way it is, and I won't ask for anything more. If that is okay, please give me absolutely no sign. Okay, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done." Although we would never pray such a crass prayer as this, this is the way many of us by default operate: God is not in the business of giving signs.
In our reading for today from Romans 4, Paul argues that a person is made righteous not by what he does, but by faith in Christ's salvific work alone. Indeed, Paul says that even those before Christ were justified by their faith and not by their works. For instance, Abraham: "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about - but not before God. What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness'" (verses 1-3). Abraham's faith, Paul says, not his good works, made him righteous in God's sight.
In order to bolster his argument, Paul continues by noting that Abraham was declared righteous by God before he himself had done anything righteous. Thus, Abraham's righteousness could not have come from anything he had done: "Under what circumstances was Abraham's righteousness credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before" (verse 10)!
In first century Jewish society, circumcision was the ultimate "sign" that a person was a child of God. As Paul says, "Abraham received the sign of circumcision" (verse 11). But now, in Romans 4, Paul is arguing for a new sign that a person is a child of God. And this is a sign that is not done by human hands as some righteous work, as is circumcision, this is a sign that is effected by God himself: the sign of faith. This is why Paul writes, "Abraham is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them" (verse 11). Paul says, in order to be a righteous child of God, the sign you really need is faith in Jesus Christ.
So perhaps it isn't such a bad thing to ask for a sign from God after all. But this sign will probably not come in an experience that rends the heavens or in a voice that rumbles into your soul. It probably won't even come in large words plastered on a billboard along some country boulevard. No, the sign from God that you most need is a sign that you already have: faith in your heart. Thank God for that most precious sign today.