Let us pray: Holy and loving God, in the midst of city sidewalks dressed in holiday style, and the festive parties in which we exchange gifts and wear our ugly Christmas sweaters, we are longing for something more. We are longing for the presence of Immanuel—of God with Us. As we await the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Messiah, grant us the strength and courage to ask you for a sign. Grant us the openness and vulnerability to receive the signs of your grace and mercy that are freely offered to us, and empower us to be agents of your light and love for others. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you, O Lord, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In the mid-1990’s, stand-up comedian Bill Engvall released a platinum album entitled, “Here’s Your Sign!” The premise of the album and of the jokes is that people sometimes completely misread a situation and ask a question that should be fairly obvious. Engvall muses about the possibility of letting folks know that they have just asked such a silly question by handing them a sign that acknowledges as much. Here are few examples Engvall gives:
My son and I were out in the park flying a kite one day when someone walked up and asked, “Y’all flying a kite?” “Nope,” I said, “we’re fishing for birds.” Here’s your sign!
The other day I was walking down the dock toward the lake with my fishing pole. Someone stopped me and asked, “Are you going fishing?” “Nope,” I replied, “I’m taking my worms water skiing.” Here’s your sign!
My wife and I were driving down the road when we saw jeep when a deer carcass tied to the roof. “Do you think they’ve been hunting?” she asked. “Nope, they give away a free dead deer with the purchase of every jeep.” Here’s your sign!
While Engvall would love to give out signs in order to warn others that some people ask some pretty ridiculous questions, a sign is offered in this morning’s text from Isaiah in order to demonstrate God’s care for and continuing presence with humanity and all of creation.
As Dena read for us this morning, the LORD came to King Ahaz and commanded him to ask for a sign from God—any sign: Ahaz could have asked for a sign as deep as Sheol—the underworld of the earth where people understood that departed souls go or as high as the heavens where the moon, stars, and sky dwelled and where God was enthroned. In other words, the LORD tells Ahaz that God is ready to hear and to offer Ahaz exactly the sign he needs in order to trust that what God says is indeed true. Ahaz, in response, says in as a polite manner as possible, “No thanks. I am all set.” (That is from the CLP translation of The Bible). Now, why is God offering Ahaz any sign he needs or desires, and why is Ahaz declining to receive a sign from God?
God is offering Ahaz a sign in order to calm his fears and anxieties. Just before the passage Dena read for us, we are told that Aram (that is Damascus) and Ephraim (Israel)plot an attack against Jerusalem and King Ahaz in order to de-throne him and put in a less skilled, more “compliant” leader in his place. Although the attack is not successful, King Ahaz and the people become fearful. So, God is asking, “What sign can I give you to alleviate your fears?” But, being too afraid, Ahaz says that he will not ask the LORD for a sign because he does not want to test the LORD. Then Isaiah, speaking on behalf of the LORD says, “Listen now, House of David: are you not satisfied with trying human patience that you should try my God’s patience too” (Isaiah 7:13, [NJB])? After, all as a king, Ahaz has thus far: engaged in pagan customs, sacrificed his own son, and established a pagan altar in the Temple. Yet, despite all of this, and despite Ahaz’ own protest, God gives him a sign: a sign of newness, of hope, and a sign in which Ahaz and the people of Jerusalem are called to trust:
The young woman is pregnant and about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned (Isaiah 7:14-16).
The LORD promises that a son will be born: perhaps to Ahaz’ wife or to one of his concubines, and that child’s name will be Immanuel (GOD is With Us). Now, I don’t know about you, but there are few things that demonstrate God’s majestic works better than that of a newborn baby. Gazing into the eyes of a newborn, my heart swells with love and with wonder. I mean if God can take some genetic material and mix it together and allow a baby to grow within the womb of a woman, and then when they are born to give that baby the capacity to breathe and to cry and to communicate their needs from the time they are born. Wow! Just, wow! Not only does God make a promise of newness and hope in the birth of Immanuel, but God also calls King Ahaz and his people to trust, because although this child will refuse evil and choose good, that will not happen until the child is grown, and although King Ahaz and his people will receive deliverance, it will not happen until the child is old enough to eat more solid food.
There is ten years difference between my husband and his youngest sibling, a brother. When Nick’s mom was expecting his brother, Brandon, Nick fantasized what having a little brother would be like: they could play baseball, throw the football around, or play hockey all.the.time. Nick told me that the first time he saw Brandon after he was born, all of his dreams were crushed. Why? Because what Nick found was this squirmy newborn infant who could not even hold its head up, let alone hold a ball or a hockey stick. Nick would have to wait—wait for Brandon to get older and stronger and coordinated enough to play sports. Likewise, in the sign offered to Ahaz, Ahaz is called to trust: trust that God will deliver the people of Jerusalem and King Ahaz in due time; trust that there will be a king who succeeds Ahaz who will do what is right in the sight of God. Ahaz has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He has already broken his covenant with God, and yet God, in infinite love and care for King Ahaz and for the people of Jerusalem offers them grace upon grace.
Just like Nick, and like Ahaz and Jerusalem, we are also given the promise of new life. In just two days from now, we will gather in this space again to celebrate the one who casts out our sins, who enters in, and who descends upon us as we pray. It is both a beautiful and frightening experience to be called a disciple for Christ. On one hand, we trust in the story of our faith, the story of Jesus, whose life began in the thorny bed of a feeding trough filled with hay and ends with a crown of thorns placed upon his head. We trust that Jesus’ death is not the end of our faith journey, but it is the beginning. It is through the death and resurrection that we, those who are here, and all of humanity, have been offered a sign: a sign that death no longer has the final word; a sign that have been loved since before the beginning of our lives; a sign that no matter what we do or fail to do, God is with us, and God is inviting us again and again to experience love and relationship with God. God is sending us to offer ourselves as agents of grace and mercy for others.
Throughout these past weeks of Advent, we have responded to the reading of Scripture and the preaching of the Word by celebrating communion with one another. Within The United Methodist Church, communion is open to any person. We celebrate communion with an open table because when we celebrate we believe that we are experiencing a real and tangible experience of Immanuel—of God’s presence here with us. John Wesley referred to communion as a means of grace, a tangible way by which we receive God’s unmerited and unrelenting love for us. So, as we forward to share in communion with God and with one another, I invite you to receive the sign of God’s love and forgiveness offered through Christ. I invite you to let go of whatever it is that may be holding you back, causing you fear, or burdening your heart. Come to the table with arms, opened and outstretched, and with your palms placed together facing up towards heaven. As you receive the bread and take the cup, pay attention. For God is saying to each of you, “Beloved, here is your sign—your sign of my presence with you all the days of your life.” I offer these words to you this day in the name of God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Mothering One of all us all.