“Where is the Love?” Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013
Where would we be without signs? A state trooper was reminded of their importance.
Parked on the side of the road, waiting to catch speeding drivers, a state trooper sees a car puttering along at 22 mph. Thinking the driver is as dangerous as a speeder, the state trooper turns on his lights and pulls the car over. As he approaches the vehicle, the officer notices there are five elderly ladies inside—two in the front seat and three in the back—wide-eyed and white as ghosts. The driver, obviously confused, says, “Officer, I don’t understand. I was going the exact speed limit. What seems to be the problem?” The trooper, trying to contain a chuckle, explained to her that 22 was the route number—not the speed limit. A bit embarrassed, the woman grins and thanks the officer for pointing out her error. “Before you go,” the officer says, “I have to ask: Is everyone in this car okay? These women seem awfully shaken.” “Oh,” she answered, “they’ll be all right, sir. We just got off of Route 127. (source of joke)
Signs are great to have, but only if you understand them. How many of us wish we had paid more attention to a sign when we see flashing red and blue lights in our rearview mirror? Or, what about when you walk into that bathroom and wonder what all those men are doing in the women’s bathroom? You misread “Caballero” as Señorita. Signs can even make the difference between life and death, cautioning you to slow down or to not get too close to the edge. They are a vital part of our existence in this world, pointing us to what we need to know and where we need to go. The most important sign we have to see is the one shining brightly for the whole world, one we can so easily see and yet still miss if we aren’t careful.
A man named Ahaz who lived long ago was told about a sign to look for in the future. Isaiah, the prophet we have been hearing from in this season of Advent, is the one who told him to be on the lookout for it. It wouldn’t be like any other sign in his city or surroundings, fashioned from wood or rocks. No, this sign would be in flesh. As Isaiah said, Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. This child, this name, meant “God with us.” What Ahaz and the people of Israel in exile were to understand from the sign was that God was with them. God would be with them in days ahead when He would deliver them from their captivity and God was with them then, as they waited.
Some 700 years later, Joseph and Mary saw this sign. As we have heard in our Gospel reading this morning, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. His head must have been spinning with anxiety after learning that Mary was pregnant. They were engaged, but he knew full well the child was not his. He decided that the best thing for him to do for her and him was to divorce her quietly. Before he could take this action, an angel spoke to him in a dream, telling him that what had happened to Mary was of God; that the child she was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit and would be no ordinary baby. This baby would be a sign; pointing to God; providing salvation for the sins of the world. Then the angel picked up the words of Isaiah told to Ahaz, Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” This sign would change everything for Joseph and Mary. They, and their ancestors, had been looking for a sign from God. In the midst of their suffering in poverty, injustice, sin, and captivity, they needed to know where God was. Here was their sign. Emmanuel. Coming into their family in human flesh.
This sign was not just for their family, though. It was intended for the world to see. Who would have thought a baby could get the attention of the world? Maybe a royal baby could get worldwide attention, like the baby boy William and Kate brought into the world this past year. But a baby born in a barn in a place like Bethlehem? Who would have thought? God did. God came up with the idea of bringing a sign for the world to see, working with angels, shepherds and wise men from afar to get the word out about this sign. God made sure that this sign would be for everyone to not only see as they traveled through life, but to understand it as well.
The message of this sign was simple yet profound: God With Us. That’s it. But what a life-changer it would be for them to know that God was with them. He wasn’t off traveling somewhere. He hadn’t moved and taken up residence somewhere else. He wasn’t just a transcendent deity in the heavens. He wasn’t bound to a temple or contained in a particular nation. He was right there, right then, right with them. He was Emmanuel.
One of the big news stories recently was from Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The focus on the President’s selfie quickly moved on to the bigger story—on the guy doing the fake sign language behind him. The words from a President needed the right signs in order to be understood by the deaf of the crowd and the world. What they received, instead, was gibberish and confusion. Doesn’t this happen with God’s message for the world? There are clowns standing behind God all the time, sharing confusing and false signs. The sign of Emmanuel is one we need not miss, as God gave it in such a way that we couldn’t help but understand, right up close and personal, in our own flesh.
Have you seen this sign from God? As the season of Advent is about to give way to Christmas, the sign gets brighter and brighter, even as the darkness in our lives and world seems to get darker and darker. If we are not careful, we end up thinking that the sign is outdated and doesn’t mean much for us anymore. Yes, we may say, there was a babe in the manger and its great to celebrate his birthday, but what does that really have to do with paying my gas bill or with getting a job with a livable wage? You may be thinking, “What does Emmanuel have to do with my job or my relationships?” As God’s message proclaimed, Emmanuel has everything to do with everything in our lives. The arrival of Jesus into our world is a sign for you that God cares and wants to be involved in your life. God is there with you and never wants you to feel alone.
Lest we ever begin to think Emmanuel is just for us, God’s sign, even as a tiny baby, is grand enough for the world to see. God’s intention of inclusion is demonstrated with the greatest of expression in the incarnation. As we sing in the carol, “The First Nowell”, For all to see there was a star shining in the east, beyond them far, and to the earth it gave great light . . .” Jesus is God’s gift to the world. From baby boy to ascended Savior, he is eternally Good News for all people. Those who follow his direction are to continually be involved in pointing him out as God’s sign. This is especially true for war-torn and orphaned children in Syria, in the midst of starvation in North Korea, and in places like Malawi where people walk miles to get a drink of clean water. It is in places like these where they may be wondering where God has gone. As we see their suffering, we may wonder that as well. Where is God? The sign says God is with Us. Aren’t we little Emmanuels of God; little Christ’s going out into all the world to work out God’s kingdom purposes?
What a great time for us to also recognize what powers this sign: the love of God. One would think that the power of this sign is so bright that we would not be able to miss it these days. What a great opportunity we have during this season to represent God’s love when this world gives attention to what Christians have to say about the Christ of Christmas. This baby in a manger was Emmanuel, one who would spend his life demonstrating nothing but love for his neighbors and would ask nothing less from those who would follow after him. This Christ was love incarnate. Wherever Emmanuel was love was. And wherever Emmanuel’s followers are, love is to be. Whatever else you feel and experience during this season, be sure to see the sign of God’s love for you. Whatever else people around you may say about God, be sure to check it against the message of this sign of God’s love for our world. Whatever else you do or say this week, be sure that you are letting other people around you know see this sign that God loves them.
Have you heard about the biggest sign in the world? Google says that it is on Cleeve Hill, overlooking Cheltenham Racecourse in Gloucestershire, England. Standing 50 feet tall, 247 feet wide are the letters spelling “Paddy Power.” Now, that’s a big sign, but Google is wrong about it being the biggest. Luke’s Gospel tells us something different. The biggest sign in the world didn’t actually take up much space in the world, but was just small enough to fit in a manger, just long enough to be stretched to fit on a cross. This is your sign. Have you seen it?
[An Audio version of the sermon is here.]