Isaiah 7:10-16 – Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord will personally give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel [God-with-us]. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
What if in a particularly hard time you hear God say, “(Say your name) Ask me, your God, for a sign. Ask anything; go for it, no limit, be extravagant; let it be as deep as the core of the earth or as high as the highest heavens”? What sign would you ask for? What sign would get you centered, secure, and soothe any weariness from global economic woes, or wars and terrorism, or struggles with personal issues, or your faith challenged by the din of a scientific, secular era?
We know that our Scripture is not keen on asking God or Jesus for signs. But on the first Christmas Jesus was the sign. In his life he did miracles, listened deeply into the soul of those he encountered, lived loving kindness, transcended orthodoxy, and rekindled spiritual fire in times that sorely tested God and faith, confidence and trust. He was the sign, all a person had to do was see it, get it, and live into it.
That was a long time ago. God's incarnation in the human Christ, while still central has lost a bit of its edge. For centuries, instead of asking for a sign many religious people look around and decide on their own that certain happenings are signs from God: a catastrophe or personal tragedy, or the confluence of universal events that they interpret as the fast-approaching end of the world. They define a “Godless world,” call it “a sign,” and announce their version of divine judgment. They always seem to come from deep inner fears, strivings to control the uncontrollable, and they're mostly harsh, intrusive, and tell us more about the one doing the divination than about the Divine.
This brings me to King Ahaz who, at a critical moment refused to join a coalition against the advancing Assyrian armies and in so doing lost self-confidence but refused God's invitation to ask for a telling sign. Ahaz's ever present, never silent prophet Isaiah gave him one any way: a young woman will give birth and this Isaiah saw as a sign of hope and deliverance from a particular threat, and the child was named Emmanuel, God-with-us; an infant not a military coalition was the reminder of God's presence and the source of confidence and hope for the king. The sign for Ahaz was not a test of God!
The Gospel of Matthew commandeered that 8th century image of mother and infant from the Book of Isaiah, claiming it the herald of the messiah. Maybe the Gospel is right, maybe not. Scholars think that in the moment Isaiah was inspired to this symbol of hope when he saw a young woman holding an infant, or thought of his own wife and newborn, or possibly made reference to the wife and child of Ahaz. Scholars and preachers aside, each of you holds and perhaps resolves the tension between what Isaiah said and how Matthew interpreted it. The sign for Ahaz might be a sign for you; the Gospel interpretation might hold deep meaning for you. Sit with Isaiah and Matthew, let the possibilities meander about your soul, weave through your spiritual longing, and touch your need for a sign; a sing that Christ is alive and well in you, a sign that you are alive and well in him.
As the Advent season of preparation transitions into the mystery of Christmas, hear God speak your name and invite you, personally, to ask for a sign that will renew your hope, rekindle your faith, soothe your mind and soul, or give you back any abundance your life has lost. We live in tense and complicated times. Perhaps your life has gotten so full or so busy that you've lost touch with or, worse, lost sight of your sacred center.
Take a moment throughout these days before Christmas to take two steps: first, patiently, quietly, look deeply and listen carefully to your heart-of-hearts, and ask God for a sign – not a test, but a sign. Second, tap into your inner wisdom to recognize the sign and then live into that sign. A caution: Ahaz was thinking military might and got a young woman with an infant. Signs from God are surprising and grab you in ways you'd never expect; so just open your heart, let it happen, and go with the flow! And sometimes music begins to open the soul to a sign…. (The Teaching blended into the Christmas Choral Concert, I Hear the Prophet Callin', by Pepper Choplin. The Teaching and concert maybe heard on-line at the church website: www.wpctiburon.org -- go to the MP-3 link.)
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