Weather Forecasting

redsky17th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 15, Year C

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

As a child I remember that saying from my mother and grandmother, whether it was an accurate weather prediction or not. Today we can get up-to-the-minute weather forecasts 24-hours a day, with Doppler radar down to the most local detail. But we know that the Weather Channel is not always accurate. Winds shift, fronts stall, and global warming has thrown all the averages out the window. Al Roker is not infallible. While he may tell us if it will partly sunny or partly cloudy in the five-day forecast, he can’t interpret the effect it will have on our plans or what we will do tomorrow.

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

Did you know that this saying has its roots in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus is tested by the Pharisees and Sadducees to show them a sign from heaven? His answer to them was, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’;  “and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’” But then he goes on to say, “Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times.” (Matthew16:1-4)

Today’s Gospel comes with a weather forecast, too. This time Jesus is speaking to his disciples and the crowds that are following him. He said to them, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:54-56)

Both of these Gospels are harsh. And they give us the flip side of Jesus’ proclamation and mission. We’re used to hearing Jesus talk about love of neighbor, peace, and the Kingdom of God. We are reminded that these things come with a price – the coming of God’s new world will bring division and conflict. Jesus comes “to bring fire to the earth” (Luke 12:49).

In biblical usage fire represents the Divine action in the world, often in terms of purifying judgment. In the Old Testament, God is often described as a “devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24) and if we were to read a few verses further in today’s reading from Hebrews, we would hear God described as a “consuming fire.”

Jesus’ words of peace, his longing for the reign of God on earth could not erase the reality. I couldn’t help but think of the people of Egypt when I was preparing this sermon. The images of fire, images of death and destruction fill the news reports. The Coptic Christians are some of the groups under siege, watching their churches burn to the ground.

In Jesus’ day he could read the signs as easily as he could see the thunderstorms in the sky. He and his followers would soon taste of death. The path Jesus has set before us is not easy.

Carol Howard Merritt writes,

These words remind us that Jesus keeps us in the tension of longing and looking. On one hand, we yearn for peace, we hunger for the reign of God, we thirst for what is to come, but our prophetic vision cannot blind us to the reality that surrounds us. Our dreams do not lull us to slumber, but they keep us watching, waiting, and working. We look up at the sky, and we must be able to read the signs of the times. For Jesus, that meant realizing that the sword would be coming.

For the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews all of this makes sense. They were second-generation Hellenistic Jewish believers.  The date it was written is late enough for the readers to have experienced severe trials and tribulations, probably after the fire that destroyed about half of Rome in 64 CE in which the psychopathic emperor Nero deflected criticism by blaming the Christians. The author describes how the believers experienced the confiscation of their property, imprisonment, public insults, persecutions, the discontinuation of their meetings (presumably out of fear of the authorities), and a “great contest in the face of suffering.” The context was one in which believers faced significant opposition for following the divisive Jesus.

Sounds like the streets of Egypt today.

Imprisonment and government confiscation of property corroded community morale. Some people stopped meeting together. These beleaguered believers were tempted to “shrink back,” to deny the faith, and to “throw away” their confidence. The author thus encouraged them to “draw near,” and to persevere in “full assurance of faith” and “unswerving hope.” In particular, he exhorted them to imitate the faith of the saints who had gone before them.

A Christian who had lost house and home, endured public ridicule, or saw a loved one mauled to death in the Circus Maximus might ask many hard questions about God’s promises of love and hope. And we ask those same questions today when we see the violence on our streets and in our world.

The Psalmist recognizes this despair: “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” (Psalm 80:4-5)

How long, O Lord?

But don’t despair. The Letter to the Hebrews brings encouragement also. We have the inspiration of past generations to show us how to be faithful disciples. We hear listed countless men and women from scripture who performed mighty deeds through faith. We “are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” so that we can persevere in the race that is set before us.

In today’s world, and maybe even in our own lives, we are divided from our sisters and brothers, by disagreement, violence and hatred. But we can carry that torch, that burning flame as red as the sun, that is the brightness of God living on in each of us. We can attempt to mend the divisions in our families, communities, and pray for peace in the world. We can be ready for whatever stormy or sunny weather comes tomorrow. It won’t be easy. For by virtue of our baptism, we know that discipleship comes with a cost.

Don’t depend on the weather forecast.

Read the signs. Set your heart and mind on Christ.

Sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, Connecticut on August 18, 2013.

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