Emmanuel Lutheran Church
Menominee - Michigan
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2016
Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’ve been toying with a theory this week: that almost everything is a sign. These signs help us make observations and decisions, even if we are not conscious about it.
For example, there is body posture. When someone leans forward (like this) during a sermon, I know they’re listening closely. If they look at their watch, start texting, or start playing with whatever they can get their hands on, I know that I’m losing them and that I maybe need to consider another approach. As well, there are consumer based signs.
For example, if you see golden arches, you know there’s a McDonalds. If you’re hungry you can stop or you can keep going if you’re looking for something else; but any company like McDonalds that does well tends to have a logo that is identifiable and signifies something to their core customer, like Nike and Apple do, for instance.
But, many things in life are signs to be observed and our reaction to them can depend just as much on the person as it does the sign. For example, do you know someone who is always looking for signs that assure them that life is OK? They pick up a penny and it happens to be from the year they were born, or a butterfly lands on their shoulder. For them signs portend to good and great things and they act accordingly in cheerful bliss.
Then, on the flip side, there are those who look for the first sign that something is wrong. They’ll notice the smallest bump on their body and right away make a doctor’s appointment, or see a cloud in the horizon and cancel the picnic. For them signs point to disaster and they act accordingly in a more defeatist attitude. What we find then is that signs say just as much about us as they do about what they represent.
In this morning’s reading from Isaiah, we find that trouble is a brewing in Judah. Various warning signs are telling King Ahaz that they’ll be attacked by two allied nations. Yet despite these clear signs, Ahaz does not pray to God or seek out council from the Priests. Instead, Ahaz goes outside the city’s walls to check on the water supply. This says a lot about who Ahaz, as the leader of God’s people, was. Because even though Ahaz has not been faithful to God, God’s been faithful to Ahaz and hasn’t forgotten the promise to care for and protect the people. So God has the prophet Isaiah go to Ahaz with a message: “Don’t be afraid and don’t give up hope. These outside threats are nothing more than smoldering stumps of wood. I’ll take care of them for you. Just stand firm in your faith.”
That’s the message for Ahaz, and then God tells Isaiah to tell Ahaz to, “Ask for a sign. Any sign you’d like. It can be as big as a battleship or as small as a diamond ring. Ask for any sign and I’ll give it to you. Just ask for a sign. Let me see your faithfulness”
Could you imagine that? Being invited by God to ask for a sign that things will be OK? How often does that happen in life? It doesn’t, yet, here, Ahaz has this invitation and his response is that he is clearly not comfortable with this. He has no idea what to do with it, and so he flippantly says “I’m not supposed to put God to the test.”
Now, the irony here is that Ahaz did not have a very good track record on faithfulness prior to this event, yet, all of a sudden, now he’s got some morals. Prior to this it was Ok for him to steal gold and silver from the Temple; he could justify it and sleep well at night; but to ask God for a sign? That’s where he draws the line. It’s as if Ahaz can only see signs of impending doom; but signs of promised hope, he is blind to those.
But the goodness of God comes through anyway despite Ahaz’ stubborness. God gives Ahaz a sign anyway. God has Isaiah tell Ahaz that a time is coming when a young woman will have a son, and when he gets here, this whole ordeal will be over with.
These threats to your life and welfare, they will all be over and done with. So don’t do anything. Don’t make any rash decisions or try to take matters into your own hands.
Don’t fret or worry; I’ll work this all out for you. Oh, and by the way, that child I just spoke of will be called “Immanuel,” which literally means, “God with us.” In the form of an infant, 700 years before Christ, God gave the Israelites a most amazing sign.
But that’s what God does, what God is promising to do right here, to make the impossible, possible; to squash this threat in God’s own way. Yet, the sign was too simple and direct for Ahaz, because what does he do? He does the complete opposite. He goes to the King of Assyria, the most ruthless, pagan man around and becomes buddy buddy with him, and in doing so, Ahaz forfeits God’s promise and the bitter irony is this: it’s the same Assyrians who ultimately attack Ahaz’ people. Essentially, God handed Ahaz an exquisite bag filled with the promises of safety and care, invaluable jewels, if you were, and Ahaz, unable to appreciate the sign, dashed it to the ground; and the kingdom of Judah became shattered in the process.
But Ahaz wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last to be like this. We all know people who refuse to acknowledge signs of peace and comfort in exchange for acting out of fear and dread. Christmas brings out these people; it is a time of signs. Signs all around us assure us and remind us of “Immanuel”- God is with us. Admittedly, many of these signs have been co-opted by the consumer culture and have lost their true meaning, but they are signs nevertheless. Now, I’m right there on the front lines decrying how these signs are coming up way too early, usually before Halloween, but, all of them point towards a truth that no merchant can fully eradicate- and that is that God is with us.
Immanuel. God is with us. Right here and right now. And as we move further into the
middle of our winter landscape, other signs begin to emerge as well, that God is with us here. Gatherings in which people share in a meal.
Cards that are sent with bright colors signed with words like “love” and “peace”. Trees are put up in which busy families set aside a few hours to be together and decorate with cherished ornaments, some which may become family heirlooms. People step outside of themselves and donate to local charities and buy gifts for those less fortunate.
All these things that we do, regardless if we realize them or not, are signs and ways in which the Holy Spirit breaks in to say “God is with us”. Do we stop and pay attention to these signs? Can we see them as they were originally designed? Can we reclaim them as signs of promised hope and belonging, living our lives in a way that say to everyone we meet “Immanuel”: God is with us?
I hope so. I hope we do not fall into that trap of being like Ahaz, of seeing only signs of impending doom and then acting out of hopeless fear. Let us learn how to see the signs of God’s promised hope. Let them illuminate the night and brighten our day so we can step forward in acts of wholeness and healing.
So, my friends, put up your decorations, send out your cards, wrap up gifts and tie them in bows; and as you do, realize that each act is a sign that says to others “God is with us.” In the coming days, my prayer is that these signs will bring us closer to the manger, where God enters into our world and reminds us that we are not alone. May we see and accept these signs with the faithfulness that comes solely through the Christ-child we worship, Immanuel, God with us. Amen.