The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

December 19, 2010

First Congregational Church

Isaiah 7:10-16

I John 4: 16b-21


A Sign, O Lord, Send a Sign

           During our darkest times is when we often look up and pray, or maybe whimper, “A sign, O Lord, just give me some kind of sign that I can get through all this pretty much in one piece.”

           The Scripture lesson from Isaiah this morning is one of those Old Testament stories often used as an example of the foretelling of the birth of Jesus. It’s important for this reason, but it also has an important context of its own.  

            King Ahaz of Judah is in a serious mess. “There’s cannons to the left of him and cannons to the right,” to paraphrase Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”  Only back in 731 BC, it was Egyptians to the south of him and Syrians to the north of him, even the Israelites were set against him. All these armies were advancing and Ahaz’s Jerusalem was their target.

             As Woody Allen told a graduating class a number of years ago, "You are at a fork in the road, students: one path leads to nuclear holocaust; the other path to complete annihilation; may God give you the wisdom to make the right choice."

            It’s hard to feel too badly about Ahaz, by the way.  He is the most despicable King of Judah on record.  In II Chronicles we find that Ahaz had completely abandoned the worship of the Lord God and had instead turned to worshipping heathen idols, which would be bad enough, but he has even tossed his own sons into the sacrificial fires.  He was one wicked king, but a frightened one at the moment, so he called on the Prophet Isaiah for advice.  Enter Isaiah.

             “Ask God for a sign,” he tells Ahaz.  “a sign to reassure the people.”

            Ahaz says, “Oh no, not me.  I’d never test God that way.”

            “God WANTS you to ask him for a sign,” Isaiah repeats.

            “No,” says Ahaz.

            “Well here’s your sign anyway,” replies an exasperated Isaiah.

            “See that young woman over there?”

            “The pregnant one?”

            “Yes. She’s the sign,” Isaiah says. “Isn’t she lovely?  She represents new birth. New life. The world will go on, even after you, Ahaz. The baby she is carrying will be a boy and she will call his name, Immanuel:  God with us.”  

            Ahaz shruggs his shoulders, continues in his wicked ways and the Kingdom of Judah is defeated. But even in their defeat, God remains with his people. Every time the people see a pregnant woman, or a young child, they are reminded of God’s promise that all will be well and a little child will lead them.   Ahaz, by the way, was followed by his son Hezekiah, one of the most holy kings of Judah, and the people did prosper.

            So this is what the Advent and Christmas season can mean for us. It’s an extraordinarily ordinary sign -- a baby -- the promise that God comes to be with us once again and for always. But just what or who is this God? Well, let’s do a little research.

            Rudolph Otto was a German Lutheran and a scholar of comparative religions. He described God as the Mysterium Tremendum (or a Great Big Mystery!) Insightful.

            Mircea Eliade was a Rumanian historian of religion and professor at the University of Chicago.  He maintained that all humankind is by nature, religious, on a quest to return to God, the Numinous, the Absolute. Okay, but not terribly helpful.

            Paul Tillich was a German-American theologian and a Christian existentialist philosopher.  He and a host of others experienced God as the Ground of Being and wrote a book entitled, The Courage to Be.  God is Being. Sort of reminiscent of God’s own self-description, “I Am.”

            The students in our First Congregational Church adult forum can stand toe to toe with these great minds. When asked to describe God, they offered:

            God is eternal.  God can’t be seen or touched, has no form.  Physical life has form and can be taken away; God transcends form and cannot be taken away.

            God is a verb, not a noun.  God is in the doing, being, becoming. God is not static, yet constant.

            God’s presence can’t be seen, but is revealed to us in very common, very simple, ways.  In a clear blue sky of winter. The miracle of new birth in spring. The warm days of summer.  The autumn harvest. A little bread, a little wine. The love and companionship of family and friends.

            Sometimes the sign of God’s presence is in a spoken word. Or a welcoming gesture. A word that heals. This all sounds either pretty poetic or downright incomprehensible. Surely we can understand the presence of God in more accessible terms.  We turn to the letter to the folks at Ephesus, called First John – to distinguish it from Second John and Third John, and the Gospel of John. John was a prolific writer.

            The John who tradition says authored these writings was the young disciple of Jesus. He wrote First John at a very advanced age, somewhere around the year 100 AD.  The people at Ephesus were beginning to believe that Jesus had been a Spirit, but had not really come "in the flesh.” John is attempting to counter this heresy and also to define how Christians can figure out just who are legitimate teachers. The answer he gives is threefold: check out their ethics, check whether or not they stress the humanity of Jesus, and check out their ability to love.

            “God is love,” writes John.  “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”  My husband sort of rolled his eyes when he read a draft of my sermon and said something about pink and lacey valentines.  Love is a lot more serious than that.

            You might remember that the Bible speaks of three kinds of love:  EROS, or the personal, exclusive, sexual love; FILIAL, the love embodied in friendship; and AGAPE – that bigger than all of us, all-encompassing love, love in action, social-significant love, it’s the source of kindness, mercy, compassion, grace and forgiveness, generosity and justice.  Someone called this love the creative, energetic life force of the eternal God. This is the Love that GOD is.  And it’s not pink and lacey. It’s a mysterium tremendum.

            Humankind is often accused of creating God, or at least seeing God, in humankind’s own image.  If we see ourselves as embodying kindness, compassion and justice and we see God as the source of these attributes, maybe that’s okay.

            But there is a tougher part. Remember that John tells us that love requires love in return.  “For anyone who does not love his brother or sister, whom he has seen, cannot possibly love God, whom he has not seen.  Whoever loves God must also love her sister and brother.” But hold that thought for another sermon.

            The Good News for today is that Advent reminds us that signs of God’s Presence and love are all around us. Whatever challenges each of us faces, the message is that we need not be alone. When we pray for a sign that this life really does make sense, that we will make it through these trials, are we really looking for a mighty storm, a burning bush, or a downpour of frogs and locusts from the sky?  Probably not. The best signs are often experienced in random acts of kindness, a sunrise or a sunset, and/or visions of new birth, a renewed earth.

            Christmas Eve is coming next Friday. We will celebrate the birth of the child Immanuel.  He is a sign from above:  God is coming -- God is near -- God is here. Amen.

(Please join me in our closing hymn No. 165, Once in Royal David’s City)

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