In the Eggplant was the Word

Some time ago I came across an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled, "In the Eggplant was the Word." In this piece, Staff Writer Peter Mucha reported that Felicia Teske of Boothwyn, Pennsylvania was slicing one of the pear-shaped purple veggies she had purchased at a local produce stand when she noticed that the seeds formed a word. And the word was God.

Unlike similar claims, you didn’t have to strain your brain to see this one. You may have heard, for example, about the Jesus seen in a Chihuahua’s ear or the Virgin Mary found in the grease stain of a pizza pan.

So, the question was asked, was it a sign?

Felicia’s husband Paul noted that if she would have cut the eggplant in a slightly different way, it might not have spelled God. If just a fraction different, it might have spelled GOP for Grand Old Party.

"I’m not sure if there is a message here," Paul said, "but God made the eggplant, he formed the seeds, and he guided my wife to cut the eggplant where his name would appear."

At the time the article was printed, the Teskes had decided to keep the heaven-sent slice safely stored, while they pondered its meaning . . . or, pondered perhaps, whether to sell it on ebay as had another pair of sign-gatherers who claimed to have discovered the face of Jesus in a slab of concrete. The couple made $1,525.69 when they sold the "sign" online.

Deb Serio, a high school teacher and active Lutheran who made the sale, told the Associated Press that she considered the smudge of driveway sealant on her garage floor just an odd occurrence, not a sign or a miracle.

"There are some people who need this kind of thing to start them on their faith journey. I don't," she said. "That's why I don't mind parting with it." The family hired a contractor to remove the section of concrete.

Signs – that’s the focus of this entry.

In Matthew 12:38-42, we read:

Later a few religion scholars and Pharisees got on him. "Teacher, we want to see your credentials. Give us some hard evidence that God is in this. How about a miracle?" Jesus said, "You’re looking for proof, but you're looking for the wrong kind. All you want is something to titillate your curiosity, satisfy your lust for miracles. The only proof you’re going to get is what looks like the absence of proof: Jonah-evidence. Like Jonah, three days and nights in the fish's belly, the Son of Man will be gone three days and nights in a deep grave. On Judgment Day, the Ninevites will stand up and give evidence that will condemn this generation, because when Jonah preached to them they changed their lives. A far greater preacher than Jonah is here, and you squabble about proofs.' On Judgment Day, the Queen of Sheba will come forward and bring evidence that will condemn this generation, because she traveled from a far corner of the earth to listen to wise Solomon. Wisdom far greater than Solomon’s is right in front of you, and you quibble over 'evidence.'" (The Message)

Sign, Sign, everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?
And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all,
I didn't have a penny to pay,
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said thank you Lord for thinking of me, I'm alive and doing fine.

The foregoing is what the Five Man Electrical Band had to say about signs back in 1970. The band Tesla has made some updates to that song, portions of which I wouldn’t repeat from a pulpit or in this blog. Other contemporaries like Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, and Snoop Dogg have all sung about signs. It seems many of us are looking for some writing on the wall or in an eggplant.

I was stunned when I started research on this topic and discovered that people have claimed to see the likeness of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, on a chunk of firewood, on the glass façade of a finance building, and in a two-inch tall column of chocolate drippings. Folks have claimed to see the image of Jesus in a fireplace brick, in paint on a wall, in a piece of sheet metal, in the dirt on a truck’s tailgate, in a tortilla, in a pierogi, on a fish bone, on a shrimp tail, in a dental x-ray, in a couch pattern, in an overspill of hot chocolate on a mug and on a water-stained piece of plaster in a bathroom (this last one, called “Shower Jesus,” sold on ebay for $1,999.99).

One of my particular favorites in this whole catalogue of sightings is the “Nun Bun,” the face of Mother Teresa that folks claimed to be able to see in a cinnamon bun. The Nun Bun was shellacked and went out on tour; her usual gig, however, was an attraction at the Bongo Java coffee shop in Nashville. That is, until she was kidnapped during a break-in. A $5,000 reward was offered for her return. At one point, photographs of the pastry were sent to the newspaper The Tennessean by a person identifying himself as “Hu Dunet.” I don’t know if the bun was ever returned to Bongo Java.
Sometimes signs can be right square in front of us and we can completely miss seeing them and seeing that to which they point. Ever noticed the arrow in the "FedEx" logo?" Anyone? Anyone? If you haven’t, look in the white space between the second "E" and the "x."

Again, sometimes signs can be right square in front of us and we can completely miss seeing them and seeing that to which they point. We should always be on the lookout for the Lord’s coming into our lives. He is always surprising us: through a circumstance or a place, through a telephone call, through a “chance” encounter with another person, through a conversation with a family member or friend.

If we take a moment to consider, if we are alert, eyes opens, senses sensitive to His presence in our lives, we can see Jesus there in that situation, in that conversation, in that experience. We are to live with the expectation and alertness, that God’s kingdom, God’s possibilities, God’s opportunities are forever before us and around us, breaking into our lives. But we have to know how to read the signs that the Lord gives us so that we may keep moving forward in our journey of faith.

Signs are something with which we are very familiar. We see them along the road—guiding, directing, giving information, cautioning, inviting our investment, tantalizing our taste buds, letting us know what kind of establishment lies behind an entrance. We see signs in our bodies. An ache in the stomach alerts us to problems with something we ate. Aches in the knees mark an injury or the creakiness of age. The swelling of the abdomen may signal the imminent arrival of a child. We recognize and know how to read a multitude of symbols and signs. They are all around us, sometimes to our dismay, sometimes to our delight.

And the scriptures are chock full of passages on the subject of signs. Romans 1:19 and 20, for example, tells us that, since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power & divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so we have no excuse for disbelief, no excuse for sin. God has set up signs in everything around us. The universe He has created speaks to us.

NASA image of Earth and its moon.
Sue Bohlin, in an online article, noted, “There's so much about the universe, and our world in particular, that we take for granted because it works so well. Our Earth, for instance, is perfectly designed for life. It's the ‘just right’ size for the atmosphere we need. Its size and corresponding gravity hold a thin, but not too thin, layer of gases to protect us and allow us to breathe. If our planet were smaller it couldn't support an atmosphere. If it were larger, the atmosphere would contain free hydrogen, which is poison for us.

 “The Earth is also placed at a ‘just right’ distance from the sun and the other planets in our solar system. If we were closer to the sun, we'd burn up. If we were farther away, we'd freeze. Because Earth's orbit is nearly circular, this slightly elliptical shape means that we enjoy a quite narrow range of temperatures, which is important to life. The speed of Earth's rotation on its axis, completing one turn every 24 hours, means that the sun warms the planet evenly. Compare our world to the moon, where there are incredible temperature variations because it lacks sufficient atmosphere or water to retain or deflect the sun's energy. Speaking of the moon, it’s important that there is only one moon, not two or three or none, and it's the ‘just right’ size and distance from us. The moon's gravity impacts the movement of ocean currents, keeping the water from becoming stagnant.

“Water itself is an important part of a ‘just right’ world. Plants, animals and human beings are mostly made of water, and we need it to live. One of the things that makes Earth unique is the abundance of water in a liquid state. Water has surface tension. This means that water can move upward, against gravity, to bring liquid nutrients to the tops of the tallest plants. Everything else in the world freezes from the bottom up, but water freezes from the top down. Everything else contracts when it freezes, but water expands. This means that in winter, ponds and rivers and lakes can freeze at the surface, but allow fish and other marine creatures to live down below. The fact that we live on a ‘just right’ planet in a ‘just right’ universe is evidence – a sign -- that it all was created by a loving God.”
And that loving God came in human flesh and when asked if He was the Messiah, the promised Savior, He said yes. The fact that His unbelieving listeners decided then to kill Him shows that they realized He was claiming to be Yahweh, God Almighty.

But words are cheap, so Jesus backed up His words with miracles and signs to validate His truth-claims. He healed all sorts of diseases in people. He healed the blind, the deaf, the crippled, lepers, epileptics, and even a woman with a twelve-year hemorrhage. He took authority over the demons that terrorized people. He even raised the dead. Jesus showed His authority over nature, as well. He calmed a terrible storm with just a word. He created food out of thin air, with bread and fish left over! He turned water into wine. He walked on water.

He showed us what God the Father is like. He was and is loving and sensitive, at the same time strong and determined. Those who were willing to read the signs were drawn to Him like a magnet, but the arrogant and self-sufficient were threatened by Him. He drenched people with grace and mercy while never compromising His holiness and righteousness. And after living a perfect life, He showed His love for us by dying in our place on a cross, promising to come back to life. Who else but God Himself could make a promise like that—and then fulfill it?

The literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the final, greatest proof that there is a God, that Jesus is God Himself, and that God has entered our world and showed us the way to heaven so we can be with Him forever. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by Me."

Don Fortner, commenting on our passage for today, noted that the first thing that confronts us in this is the fact that unbelief always looks for a sign. The Pharisees in their brazen, obstinate, arrogant self-righteousness and unbelief said, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." These folks pretended they merely wanted a little more evidence in order to be convinced and become His disciples. The healing of the sick, the cleansing of the lepers, the casting out of demons, and the raising of the dead was not quite enough evidence for them. It was not enough because they were determined not to believe the Son of God!

And that is exactly the state of many today. They claim a willingness to believe if only they had enough evidence, enough proof, enough in the way of signs. But faith is the gift of God and, if we haven’t seen enough already, a Jesus in concrete or in a water stain or in a dental x-ray or in a chihuahua’s ear may not do the trick either.

Verses 39-42 in Matthew 12 demonstrate clearly that the authority of the Old Testament and the New Testament stand or fall together. In those verses, Jesus likens His experience to that of Jonah as He foretells what will become of Him after His suffering on the cross.

The Cliff Notes version of Jonah might go something like this: The prophet is told to go to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and deliver a message that Yahweh entrusts to him. Refusing to go to Nineveh, Jonah instead flees to Joppa, where he boards a boat that is bound for Tarshish. The ship on which he is riding encounters a storm and the sailors in charge, believing Jonah to be the cause of storm, throw Jonah overboard in order to save themselves. Jonah is swallowed by a huge fish. However, he not only lives inside the fish for three days and three nights but is carried to shore and thrown onto the land.

When the call to go to Nineveh comes to Jonah a second time, he very reluctantly obeys. The only message that he proclaims is one of destruction that will be visited on the Ninevites because of their sins. When the people of Nineveh hear what Jonah has to say, they repent of their sins, expressing their remorse by sitting in sackcloth and ashes. Their repentance makes the threatened punishment unnecessary and the story goes on from there.

Then in Matthew we read: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for miraculous signs. But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah and now one greater than Jonah is here.”

Jesus spoke of the sign of Jonah not only in reference to the three days and three nights Jonah spent inside the fish but also in reference to Jonah’s appearance as a visiting prophet giving warning to a wayward people. The Pharisees in our passage, hearing this, cast our Lord overboard, just as the sailors did Jonah. As the sea was calmed for those sailors by the sacrifice of Jonah, so our Lord’s death made peace for us. As Jonah’s mission and message were certified by his resurrection from the sea, so is our Lord’s mission and message certified by his resurrection from the dead. That man who had come back from death and burial in the sea commanded the attention of all Nineveh. Even so, our risen Savior demands and deserves the obedient faith of all who hear his message. The resurrection of Christ is the sign of the prophet Jonah; but that sign is supplemented by others. Two witnesses step forward.

As the Queen of Sheba diligently sought Solomon and heard all his wisdom, so all who seek Christ shall find him and be taught of him all things pertaining to life and godliness. – “Behold, one greater than Solomon is here!” This queen of the south shall rise in judgment against all who have Christ clearly set before them, but refuse to trust in Him.

As the fame of Solomon caused the Queen of Sheba to seek him, so the truth of Christ commands the attention of the whole world. Though the Pharisees and lost folk of our day refuse Him who is the Wisdom of God, chosen multitudes--scattered over all the earth--gladly come to Him, bow before His majesty, and gratefully receive His Word.

The excellence of Solomon’s wisdom stands for our Lord as another sign, a sign that cannot be disputed. Our Savior’s royal wisdom meets all the needs of humankind. Who else has revealed such grace and truth? Who but the Son of God could have revealed the Father to us? Signs. Signs.
I’d like to leave you with one more sign: the cross of Christ that – to the Christian -- is the sign of love and forgiveness, redemption and eternal life.

Crosses found by firefighters in Building 6
of the World Trade Center following 9/11.
Photo by Michael Rieger.
After the horror of 9-11, something remarkable was found in the rubble of the World Trade Center. The "Ground Zero Cross" stood straight and tall, 20-feet high, surrounded by many smaller crosses. The cross at Ground Zero, however, was not simply the cross beams remaining from an existing building. No, it was formed out of beams from Building One plunging, splitting and crashing into Building Six.

After it was discovered, construction workers, firefighters, police officers and family members began holding weekly Sunday services at the site. The names of fallen police officers and firefighters were also scribbled on the cross, along with a prayer for God’s blessing of those who had died in the tragedy.

Some saw the crossed metal as a Christian cross and felt its survival was symbolic. Father Brian Jordan, a Roman Catholic priest, spoke over it and declared it to be a "symbol of hope, a symbol of faith, a symbol of healing.” A sign. One minister at the site said that when the family of a man who died in the attacks came to the cross and left personal effects there, "It was as if the cross took in the grief and loss. He said I never felt Jesus more." The same thing happens to each one of us when we lay our burdens down at the cross and reach up for Jesus.

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