theolog cabin

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Monday, August 07, 2006

December 19, 2004 (Advent 4A)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Isaiah 7:10-16
Luke 1:46-55 (read responsively)
Matthew 1:18-25 (primary text)

I was getting pretty tired by this point on internship. Click on the time link to read the sermon.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Well. It's almost here. Can you feel it? This is the fourth week of preparation before The. Big. Day. We've been preparing for peace, preparing for the Spirit, preparing for change, and now we are preparing for a sign. Preparing for a sign. It's not always something that is easy to do. In fact, the very nature of signs seems to be that we are usually not prepared for them, or for what they really mean.

Have you ever asked God for a sign? Maybe a sign to help you make a difficult decision. Maybe you were confused, or angry, or scared, or frustrated. Maybe God felt very far away and you needed to know that someone was listening. Maybe your world was falling apart and you needed to know that God was there to help you put it back together. Or maybe you were in a time of doubt, and you wanted a sign to show that God really did exist.

We seem to usually ask God to come in and change something, or come in and fix something. We might ask God for a miracle. We might ask God to come and bring us world peace or eliminate hunger or something else huge like that. Or, we expect God to come in and defy the laws of nature, tearing the heavens open and coming down in a cloud of power like something out of Revelation.

God knows that we humans long for big, obvious signs, for miracles, for visions, for appearances, and for magic. This is exactly why in the Isaiah reading today, God offers King Ahaz his choice of a sign, from the depth of the grave to the height of the heavens. Anything he wants! God has a message for Ahaz, and Ahaz gets to choose how to receive it. So...why does Ahaz pass this chance up? If you had the chance to receive direct communication from God, don't you think you'd take it?

Ahaz claims that he will not ask for a sign because, as it says in Deuteronomy, he is not supposed to put God to the test. But maybe the real reason he refuses to choose a sign is that he knows no matter what sign he chooses, it won't carry the message he wants to hear. Ahaz is trying to decide whether or not to become allies with Assryia to defend against other intruders. He seems to know that God doesn't want him to make the alliance, so he tries to ignore the message he doesn't want to hear.

Doesn't this happen to us too when we ask God for a sign? If we ask a question that starts, "God, if you exist, come down and prove it," we've already made up our minds about the answer. We might ask God to miraculously heal our friend, but if our friend IS healed, the next question might be, how can God heal only some people and not others? How could God be that unfair? It seems like when we ask God a question, we usually have a preferred answer in mind. We might ask God for something, but seldom do we enjoy giving up control over that thing.

Signs are definitely tricky to prepare for, because they seem to give mixed signals. Signs have two very different sides to them. They show us that God is concerned and involved in our world, but they can also carry difficult messages that we want to avoid. We long for a sign from God--we long to know that we aren't alone. But at the same time, we don't want to hear the message of that sign when it conflicts with our own interests. Sometimes, like Ahaz, we are tempted to avoid God's signs.

So what does God do with Ahaz? He says, Too bad, man, I'm giving you a sign whether you like it or not. And since you won't choose a sign to ask for, I'll have to choose for you. Here's your sign: a young woman is pregnant and will name her child Immanuel. I know, it doesn't sound like much of a sign. Young women are pregnant and give birth every day. But that's the kind of God I am. I work within the beings I have created. My will is shown in creation, not apart from it.

Fast-forward to Joseph's time. Joseph can see that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that this is a sign. But at first he sees it only as a sign of disgrace. He seems to be a decent guy who tries to do the right thing, but there's just no good way to handle Mary's apparent indiscretion. Not until God's angel visits Joseph through a dream and reinterprets the sign for him through Isaiah's words, does the sign become a sign of wonder and blessing.

Even then, the sign of Mary giving birth to Jesus probably still gave Joseph mixed feelings. Maybe he was upset and confused there in Bethlehem, wondering if he did the right thing in marrying Mary and adopting a son that wasn't his. Maybe he felt left out of this major event. Maybe he was frustrated that he couldn't find the right words to say--since nowhere in the Bible do we have a record of him speaking. But he was willing to trust God and adopt this new child and care for it as his own.

One more sign was literally on the horizon for Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and that is the Holy Star. This is a sign we normally see as a blessing; it shone above the stable to lead the three magi to the newborn Jesus. It signified the cosmic importance of this small child. Yet this star was most likely a comet, and comets were a sign of unluckiness in the ancient world. This sign also has two sides; it acts as a cosmic beacon of God's birth in the world, but for those unlucky baby boys born at the same time as Jesus, the star foretold a time of persecution and death. King Herod clung to his ambition and fear in the face of this sign and lashed out at innocent people. Once again, signs have an ambiguous nature. We long for them--the wise men rejoice at them--but they can have dark results as well.

Joseph's willingness to trust that the sign given to him would be one of blessing, not disgrace, is instrumental in Matthew's gospel. In this text, Joseph is receiving an annunciation of his own, mirroring the one Mary receives in the gospel of Luke. They both seem to have encounters where a sign that appears to be a mistake is reinterpreted as a sign of God's love and God's action in the world. Mary is told that she will bear God's son; Joseph is told that God's son has been entrusted to his fatherly care.

Joseph's annunciation is more mystical and dreamlike than Mary's, because Matthew paints us a picture of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all history. This newborn child is the prism of the ages through which all things are seen. Time and space come to a standstill as the heavens slowly grind into place and the fateful Star takes its position over the stable, where the fulfillment of the universe is being born as a small and helpless baby. Everything is leading up to this moment, and everything afterwards will proceed from this moment. This is truly a sign that is BOTH as deep as the grave and as high as the heavens. Long ago, Ahaz had refused to choose a sign, so God chose one that encompassed all others. The life of God with us--Immanuel--would reach both the grave and the heavens, and everywhere in between.

What does the coming of Christ really mean for us? To borrow a word from last week, it means CHANGE. It seeps into every corner of our lives. It permeates every part of us and makes its home in our hearts. It is a sign with many consequences, a sign that leads to peace, to the Spirit, and to a fundamental change in the way we relate to God. It constantly challenges us to examine signs of disgrace for signs of blessing, and challenges our concept of what we think blessings actually are.

And so we are to prepare for a sign--we are to prepare for an event that will turn the world upside down. We are to prepare for the Spirit's transformation of the world into the reign of God, the time of peace and shalom. And we are to prepare for an infant who is God with us, with us indeed to the end of the age. Let us prepare with watchful eyes and hopeful hearts. Amen.