Some members of my family believe in signs. Find a random penny on the sidewalk and, to them, that particular penny is no longer random and no longer meaningless on the sidewalk. Discover an object one has long since forgotten, and you start to consider why you found this object NOW after searching all over the house THEN. See a rainbow spanning the horizon at the precise moment that one is struggling with having made a momentous decision, and it becomes a sign that one will have peace thereafter. As the writer, Lulu Wang has said, “…whatever decision you make, you’re going to be able to find stories or signs to say, ‘I did the right thing,’ because we have to believe that we did the right thing in order to survive.”
I don’t deny that such signs have meaning for my relatives, but I am somewhat skeptical as to the highly personalized nature of signs. And yet, despite myself, I find myself believing in them because they are an aid, a window—if you will– to making meaning, to weaving a narrative of disparate moments and life—a weaving that is instructive and often helpful. The bible contains many signs and wonders and it would be foolish of us to dismiss them out of hand, as if they were senseless fantasy or a whole lot of bunk. Especially, at this time of year, we ritually remember Divine sign that was given to the peoples to aid them in living their lives more compassionately, more harmoniously, more thoughtfully, and more joyfully.
In today’s reading from Isaiah, we also hear of signs. Isaiah yearns for a sign, a signal to people of a different way of living in the world. It is part of our humanness to yearn. Some of us yearn for lasting love in our lives; some of us yearn for a beautiful blanket to be created from our loose and frayed ends; some of us yearn simply to have enough time and energy to meet our obligations and to have a little fun as well.
For what do you yearn? Would you recognize your yearning if you encountered it in your sleep or on your daily drive or in your most private contemplation? Cynthia Bourgeault has said that “as we enter the path of transformation, the most valuable thing we have working in our favor is our yearning” Why is this? What is it about hope and yearning that provide food for the human spirit? Of what value is human longing and the ability to hope to you? Gail Godwin has said, “The best antidote I have found is to yearn for something. As long as you yearn, you can’t congeal: There is a forward motion to yearning.”
Isaiah’s yearning of a sign is not to affirm his own well-being merely, but to confirm an awakening and overarching goodness which is possible in human affairs, a new kind of righteousness. This goodness is clearly defined: it will take the form of a person upon whom the Lord’s spirit rests. And this spirit will be one of wisdom, understanding, good counsel, knowledge, combined with reverence for God. This coming One will not judge prematurely based on only his or her senses but will “decide with equity” for the meek of the earth. Without ever using a weapon, the speech of this One will slay what is intent on evil and usher in a kingdom of peace where wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, calves and lions can not only live together, but rest together. It is a most beloved vision that Isaiah describes and a kind of cosmic yearning.
Our biblical ancestors saw the coming of Jesus as a sign or foretaste of a peaceable world, but most of them saw his coming only after seeing the results of his living. Separated by hundreds of years, Isaiah did not know Jesus, but he yearned of a world in which no one would hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain, a world in which knowledge of God was as common as waters flowing in the sea.
We yearn forward, but we often view signs in hindsight. The signs of climate change, the signs of a failed safety net for the economically stricken, the signs of a more turbulent and violent culture are seen in retrospect as proof of failed policies, failed leadership, or of a troubled life that bears inedible and unhealthy fruit. We look around us and see the signs of crippling governance or of good people resigned to lesser hopes. Isaiah’s passage and the Christmas season, when fully appreciated, calls us to yearn for something far more wonderful than we expect. We are called to see signs, not in retrospect, but in the here and now.
Right now, in my backyard, I have four grayish-brown tree stumps, the result of removing several trees this past summer. Several of the stumps are large, hollowed out, and appear to be rotting. They are a sad reminder of the strong and tall oak trees, green and leafy, that once shadowed our house. When Isaiah writes that a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, he is referring not only to a leader who shall come from the family tree of Jesse, but also those signs of hope that come from dead or dying places.
In the morning, when I throw back my curtains, I can see those tree stumps. I find myself wondering as I look through my window and try to imagine how those stumps will look next spring when the grass turns green again and the birds return. It is an exercise in imagination. I do not doubt that life will come forth, but in other areas I am less optimistic. Yet, if I can imagine new life sprouting forth from wood that has been struck down, from a tree that has been left a stump, can I imagine new shoots and flowers elsewhere? Can we imagine new growth in dying places and in our many and various endings? Can we be patient for that growth and see signs of a new beginning in our mind’s eye without definitive proof? It takes a special kind of sight to see sun already warming the tree bark, water already nourishing the roots, and flowering that arises from pollen on breezes unseen.
But isn’t this is part of our spiritual calling and growth? –To see potential where others have simply given up or sold out, to see God’s movement in difficult times and terrible circumstances, and to trust the Spirit to move when not much else is stirring; no, not even a mouse.
And is it not part of our faith to assist others to recognize the signs unfolding all around and to demonstrate a kind of Advent trustworthiness that we convey to each other and to the world by lifting up not only Isaiah’s yearnings but also our own for a world that is less broken and more beautiful.
From what stumps in your life do you yearn to see new growth? What lion in you needs to stop preying upon what lamb? What child in you fears the bite of which snake? All of these are as much a part of our Christmas story as the angels, the shepherds, and the stable.
Shortly before the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944, the BBC sent out coded messages to let the French resistance know that the invasion would soon begin. The Allies used the first three lines of Paul Verlaine’s poem, “Autumn Song,” to alert the resistance begin sabotaging rail-lines to prevent the Nazis from sending reinforcements. The first lines broadcast were: Les sanglots longs/Des violons/ De l’automne. (“When a sighing begins/In the violins/Of the autumn song.”) Then, on June 5, the second lines of the poem were communicated. The Germans intercepted the coded messages but failed to understand them properly. They falsely supposed that they had more time, and the military force that would be directly in the assault area assumed those reports were false and took no action.
The tale of Verlaine’s poem and the story of the D-Day landing is part of a tale of missed signals, inaction, and inhumanity on the part of the German forces who operated from a different world-view and overarching mission. Yet, we have the benefit of history, yearning, and scripture to aid us in better deciphering God’s desires for humankind and what the coming of peace must be built upon. Not upon weaponry and soldiers of sabotage, but upon right relations that begin in our homes and hearts. Not upon a God distant and uncaring in the heavens, but One who is embodied in human hearts and human hands and who recognizes the many levels of human hurt in the world. Peace will come not from sighs and signs unrecognizable and indecipherable, but in moments revealed and meaningful.
May we be part of the message, part of the sign, even as we yearn for its arrival. Amen.
 Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind
 Gail Godwin (1985). “The finishing school”, Viking Press.
 Dylan Matthews, This is the poem the Allies used to signal the beginning of D-Day. https://www.vox.com/2014/6/6/5785954/how-paul-verlaine-helped-the-allies-pull-off-d-day