ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH LONGEST NIGHT, DECEMBER 14, 2016
Isaiah 7: 10 – 14; Romans 8: 35 & 37 – 39; Luke 2: 7 – 16
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Signs are a part of life. We see signs everywhere. Some signs cause us to wonder. Some signs verge on the bizarre. Some make us think common sense is a thing of the past. Other signs seem unnecessary – shouldn’t some things be obvious? The thing is, life throws some experiences at us which make us feel like we can’t breathe at all. To lose a loved one, be diagnosed with a serious illness, to be abused or divorced or to find oneself profoundly alone are hardships which knock the wind out of us. To be burdened with shame from the past or consumed with guilt over something we’ve done that seems unforgiveable can feel like the air is being slowly squeezed from our lungs. To lose a job, be in debt, to be under pressure at work or school, to be unable to meet your own needs or the needs of those who depend on you can feel like we’re being suffocated. Sometimes we feel like we’re being held underwater and we’re struggling to get to the surface. We feel like we’re going to burst. We’re left gasping for air.
Sadly the Christmas season with its happy lights, family gatherings and gift exchanges seems to heighten our loneliness, sorrow, pain and troubles. While others belt out ‘Have a holly, jolly Christmas’, our spirits are too deflated to join in. At times like these we often look for signs, mystical signs from a deceased loved one, or nature, or the universe, or God; signs that will give us assurance, direction or hope. Signs that will comfort us. Signs that will encourage us to go on, one slow, yet trusting, step at a time. In his grace, God does give us signs.
In the days of old when crises arose, God frequently gave a sign to people who had fears and doubts. The signs came through a prophet and were designed to show God’s power in such a way that all doubts would flee and the people would immediately accept, without question, the word the prophet spoke. One example of this would be when Elijah challenged the priests of Baal to see whose “deity” could spontaneously combust a bull on an altar. When Baal failed to come through, Elijah had 12 buckets of water dumped on his altar. The fire of Yahweh fell burning not only the bull but the entire altar, rocks and all. Fast forward to the time of the prophet Isaiah. The province of Judea in the south of Israel which was ruled by King Ahaz, was being threatened by a military coalition between the Ruler of Damascus and his puppet King in occupied Israel. Ahaz was anxious. The breath was being squeezed from him. He was panicking. Like a seasoned politician he considered forming an alliance with another super-power of his day: Assyria. Isaiah advised him to put his confidence in Yahweh as only God could truly guarantee his safety. He encouraged Ahaz to trust in God who was reliable. Ahaz was doubtful. Isaiah gave him a word from God, asking him to choose a sign – any sign, great or small. Isaiah was hopeful a sign from God would boost Ahaz’ faith and save Judea. Ahaz told Isaiah he would never put God to such a test. It was a very spiritual sounding and completely insincere response; Ahaz simply didn’t trust God. Isaiah responded that, like it or not, God will give you a sign. And this would be it: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7: 14) His words refer to the coming Messiah – a King who would bring peace, justice and salvation to his people and judgement on their enemies. Ahaz was left with the choice: to trust God, heed the sign and pave the way for the Messiah or to give in to his fears and doubts and turn to Assyria for his salvation. Ahaz chose his fears and doubts. After giving the Assyrian king gifts of gold and silver, Assyria treated Judea as its pawn. Things went from bad to worse for the Ahaz’ people. As Judea meshed with the Assyrian culture, they began to slide down the slippery slope of paganism adopting Assyria’s religion, rituals and gods. This culminated in bringing foreign rituals into the temple which defiled the worship of Yahweh which in turn delayed the coming of the Messiah. As war erupted the land was devastated. But God didn’t forget his promised sign.
Later in history, the promised sign came to pass. A man named Joseph, a distant ancestor of David, was told by an angel in a dream, his fiancée Mary would give birth to a special child. He was to name him Jesus, “he saves”. The child would be God’s sign “‘Immanuel’ which means ‘God with us’.” (Matthew 1: 23) Several months later when the baby was born, an angel appeared to a group of shepherds out in the fields announcing “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord.” (Luke 2: 10 & 11) The angel declared, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (vs. 12)
Now, if we were hoping for a sign to comfort us and bolster our faith and an angel appeared to us, we would likely consider the angel to be that sign. An angel is pretty impressive. Babies are born every day, but how often does one see an angel? It’s human nature to expect our signs to be unusual and impressive. In our loss, pain and need we seek many signs – extraordinary activity in the night sky, the recurrence of a particular scripture, repeated numbers, visions in dreams, synchronistic moments, the appearance of coins or other objects or even flickering lights. We give meaning to these events – they mean our loved one is safe, or we’re forgiven, or something is about to change for the better. Wouldn’t it be great if an angel appeared to us? Surely that would be a sign that God is true and trustable and worthy of our faith.
Knowing our human needs and limitations, God does perhaps give us such secondary signs but the ultimate sign God gives us is one we often miss because we diminish it in our own thoughts. It’s a sign greater than an angel apparition: a baby lying in a manger; “Immanuel “God with us. The ultimate sign God gives us, the sign that can aid and assure us more than any other, is none other than God himself. God with us. God alive and present among us. God born to save us. God in human form. God who heals. God who strengths us. God who is our hope. God who came to offer us everlasting life. God who never leaves or forsakes us. God who will return to take us to himself. Isn’t it strange we look for comfort through other signs when we have the Creator and Lord of the universe himself? The only sign we could possibly need. Yet, just as Ahaz trusted the Assyrian King more than Yahweh, we too can trust angels, random encounters, or the appearance of an animal more than “Immanuel, God with us.”
Still, it’s valid to say God doesn’t “replace” a person whom we’ve lost through death; they were a unique gift from God. God may or may not give us a miraculous healing. God won’t change an abuser who refuses to change. God isn’t a placebo that wipes out our loneliness, guilt or shame. God won’t go to the bank and pay our debts; and you may wait in the desert for a very long time to get a job. God won’t remove life’s stressors and he won’t do for us what we can do for ourselves. But God is with us. God supports us as we deal with stress; his Spirit is soothing and calming. God provides second chances to be present for others. God is dependable; God tends to us with providential care and sometimes provides for us through the kindness of others. God accepts us as we are and forgives the sins that haunt us. In our loneliness, God loves us and provides us with a Christian family. God will give us strength to leave abusive people; he is our deliverer. God can mend our shattered hearts and make new love a possibility. God opens doors we thought were slammed shut or perhaps a window we hadn’t considered. God can heal. In the face of death and loss, we are embraced by God’s comfort. And whatever hardship we face, whether we live or die, we, and all who rely on Christ, are ultimately safe because “God is with us” and “nothing can separate us from his love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 39).
When Hudson Taylor, founder of China Inland Mission, was dying he said to a friend, “I am so weak. I can’t read my Bible. I can’t even pray. I can only lie still in God’s arms like a little child and trust.” When we are so weak and helpless, when life is bearing down on us and we can barely breathe, God gives us a sign. In Jesus, God came so he could save us from the weak and helpless state which is part of our human condition. This Christmas, if all you can do is lie like a little child in God’s arms, then do what Isaiah had encouraged and trust in God’s deliverance, God’s love and God’s presence. The Lord himself has given us a sign and that sign is the Lord, himself. “Immanuel, God with us.” The only sign we need. The one sign that gives us comfort, peace and hope.