Sign, sign, everywhere a sign – daily living is full of signs.
Two black digits painted on white, metal rectangle display a highway’s legal speed limit. A pair of arches signals the availability of fast food ahead. And hopefully you’re not too hungry, because bold lettering on an orange diamond shape warns of road work ahead, and another sets the expectation of long back-ups and traffic delays.
Take the next exit, and yet another bumper-crop of signs awaits your arrival. The figure with pants on a restroom door identifies the men’s room; a skirted figure, the women’s room. Above the restroom sink hangs the requirement for employees to wash their hands before returning to work. (Proper hand hygiene is essential for customers, too.) And the straight-and-to-the-point “order here” cues the line for Big Macs and fries.
Signs point, indicate, and direct. A green arrow governs the northbound turn off Main and onto Allamakee. An index finger lifted skyward announces your favorite sports team as No. 1. The descending motion of a music director’s baton marks the downbeat.
Some signs wield great power. If you’re Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, making the sign of the Cross recalls the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the sacrifice of Christ. In wicked covens of Nazi eras past and present, the straight-armed salute of millions perversely reveres Adolph Hitler as god.
When the Lord gives Ahaz a much-needed sign in this morning’s Old Testament lesson, the anxious and fretful king is quivering and fluttering like an aspen leaf in a cyclone.
And with good reason: The kingdom over which Ahaz reigns suffers under military assault. Enemies threaten Judah from no less than three sides – rather like Canada and Mexico both declaring war on the United States, even as battleships of the British navy lay siege to the East Coast.
When the chips are down – way down, national leaders generally opt for political and military solutions. Thus King Ahaz rushes to make a solidarity pact with the mighty Neo-Assyrian Empire.
God, however, understands that such supposedly common-sense martial alliances only provide temporary relief and uneasy peace. And the Lord offers a better way forward – a juggernaut of a battleplan driven by heaven’s furious pursuit for justice, righteousness, reconciliation, and lasting peace. God through Isaiah tells Ahaz to fear not the enemies knocking loudly and viciously on three national doors, the brutal foes more than ready to snuff out Ahaz and his court with the ease of blowing out a lit match.
Therefore, the questions have lethal implications: Can Ahaz truly rely on God’s protection? Must the king really trust in something as flimsy-sounding and intangible as God’s mere promises? Might God send the besieged king a sign of hope?
Those are the kinds of questions that you and I face every day – maybe not staring down the reality of military invasion but certainly worried about prospects for armed insurrection and nuclear attack.
Or definitely mourning the loss of activity and security as age advances and health declines.
Or living daily with the specter of shaky finances and tenuous employment.
Or, en route from algebra to biology, running the gauntlet of taunts and slurs from school-hallway bullies and muscle-bound apes.
In the midst of such profound brokenness and profound fear, can you count on God’s protection?
Or must you join forces in uneasy alliance with other powerful forces? Depending and counting on the addition of their strength to tip the scales in your favor and save your hide? All the while feeling like you’ve made a pact with the devil?
See yourself in the tense exchange between Ahaz and Isaiah, as you listen for the Word of the Lord in the Old Testament lesson.
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 himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 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. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:10-17)
Human beings are hard-wired for self-preservation.
Finding salvation in tranquil reliance on God’s promises of eternal provision feels, well, naïve.
But on this Sunday, as another Advent begins – at least for us anyway, Isaiah pledges that supreme confidence comes from the generous delivery of God’s unfailing love. God in love supplies everything that’s needed and essential for those who receive the Lord’s grace and peace with total and complete trust in God’s ever-sure promises.
So powerful and majestic is the Lord’s unfailing, unconditional love that heaven itself names it: Immanuel, God with Us – a most-welcome sign of God’s sure presence that seals the deal on God’s eternal promise.
Like Ahaz, you and I easily and foolish assume that well-healed movers and shakers, well-funded politicians and multinational corporations, and well-armed militias supported by great flotillas of ships will end the violent clashes between armies and navies, ideologies and cultures, them and us.
But the Lord God of heaven and earth stands far bigger and taller than even the supposedly most mighty of people, parties, and principalities. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is ultimate ruler over absolutely everything. God is in charge – Lord of all Creation, of all its history, and of all its future.
And fulfillment of Immanuel’s promises is the hope lies ahead.
Continue to rely on the Holy Spirit’s presence as you listen and watch for the fulfillment of those promises in the Gospel of Matthew and his simple account of the birth of Jesus.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Suppose, if you will, that you’re reading a story in which an elderly woman is talking to her pregnant granddaughter.
“Now listen, my dear,” the old woman says, “I ask that you name this child after your grandfather, Clarence.” And let’s say that the mother-to-be agrees.
“OK, Grandma, his name will be Clarence.” But you’d be scratching your head in confusion if the storyline continued like this: “And so this fulfilled a prediction once made by the pregnant woman’s father that her firstborn would be named ‘Arnold.’”
Well, which is it: Clarence or Arnold? And if it ends up being Clarence, then what does Arnold have to do with anything?
And so it goes here in the Gospel of Matthew: An angel orders the baby’s name to be “Jesus,” then Matthew does a 180 and says, “That’s right: he’ll be little baby Immanuel.” No sooner does Matthew throw that naming wrench into the plot, when the baby is born, and Joseph does as he’s been told and names the little bundle of joy “Jesus.”
Jesus. Immanuel. Immanuel. Jesus. I’m confused! What gives? Must we choose?!
Apparently, you cannot speak of one without invoking the other. Jesus equals Immanuel. Jesus equals God with Us – just one of the many names of Jesus that we’ll be hearing in our Scripture lessons this Advent season.
Jesus. Immanuel. God with Us.
God with Us in all our flesh-and-blood realities and messiness; God with Us in all our hunger, poverty, and homelessness.
God with Us wearing diapers; God with Us nursing at Mary’s breast.
God with Us learning to eat small pieces of bread and drink from a sippy-cup without dribbling milk all down his chin.
“Christ among the pots and pans” as the great mystic Teresa of Avila puts it.
Christ among the barn animals, as another preacher describes it, and then among those quirky, star-following astrologers from the east, and then among all the rest of the Gospel’s curious cast of motley characters.
Jesus. Immanuel. God with the prostitutes, and the lepers, and the tax collectors, and the many other outcasts, and marginalized, and disenfranchised in whose company Jesus always delights and never tires.
God at the dinner table with a piece of spinach stuck between his incisors and a corn hull wedged between two molars.
God breaking the bread with his hands and lifting the cup to his lips.
God eating a little too much turkey and mashed potatoes and hankering for a nap.
Jesus. Immanuel. God with Us.
God enduring the pain of bearing new life. God smiling when a proud new mother shows off her newborn. God with the little children whose tiny hands he holds, whose soft cheeks he caresses, whose warm brows he touches and blesses.
God with Us, in all our ordinary times and days, even unto the end of the ages. Always. With us. Immanuel.
Immanuel is God with Us in the exam room when the doctor delivers the N-stage diagnosis.
Immanuel is God with Us in the clinic as chemo and radiation burn away malignant cells, and in the nursing home where bodies slump pitifully in wheelchairs pushed up against the hallway walls.
Immanuel is God with Us in hospice, when life’s last breath slips between a loved one’s lips.
Immanuel is God with Us when the pink slip makes this week’s paycheck the last for the foreseeable future, when the verbal slurs and smears slice deeply, when the beloved child sneers, “I hate you!”
Immanuel is God with Us when you pack away the holiday decorations and, with an aching heart, you realize once again that your one son who’s distant and estranged never did call over the holidays. Not once. No holiday card, either!
Immanuel is God with Us when your dear spouse or parent stares at you through the thick fog of Alzheimer’s and absently asks, “What was your name again, dear?”
Ever and always, Jesus stares straight into you with his two good eyes, and he does so not only when you can smile back but most certainly also when your own eyes are full of tears. In fact, Jesus is Immanuel, “God with you,” even in those times when you are so angry with the Lord that you refuse to meet his glance.
But even when you feel like you can’t look at him, he never looks away from you.
He can’t. His name says it all. Immanuel. God with Us.
As you and I once again begin our annual pilgrimage toward Bethlehem, perhaps you and I can only receive the birth of Immanuel with a solemn plea, “Lord God, Immanuel, always with us, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Because, after all, though we don’t deserve the grace of forgiveness, our loving God nevertheless offers it in great abundance. And that’s your sign.
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign – of Jesus, of Immanuel, of God with Us, forgiving us and resurrecting us.
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Glory to God in the highest! Hosanna and praise!
And peace to God’s people on earth! Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, November 13, 2022, the first Sunday of Advent at First Presbyterian Church. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by M. Eugene Boring, Doug Bratt, Scott Hoezee, Stan Mast, and Gene M. Tucker inform the message.