The Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons, joined as they are, all involve looking for a sign.
What sign are you? Years ago, as a child, I would play “pretend” like many children and dress myself in long flowing skirts, beads, and a bandana and position myself at the end of a path which led into the woods behind our home. I’d have my sky-marble rubber ball in hand and set up a makeshift table in the dirt. When neighborhood children happened by—both real and imagined—I would offer to tell fortunes from my pretend crystal ball. I didn’t fool anyone but had great fun trying to be like the automated female mannequin who sat housed in an antique wooden box and handed out colorful horoscopes for a quarter at the end of the Ocean City boardwalk. If I were to ask you what sign you are, likely you would think of astrology—Pisces, Sagittarius, Scorpio or perhaps Leo…or maybe earth, air, wind, or fire.
Turning to our reading from Isaiah, we might pity poor Ahaz. He has two armies after his city and him and he’s desperately afraid. He is fearful like we are all fearful when we are casting about trying to get a handle on the unknown, trying to read our futures so that we might have some control in knowing the unknowable. Ahaz is reading numbers, grasping for a future destiny for his family and his people, trying to read the weather and trying to read God.
Yahweh asks him if he wants a sign; God actually offers this to Ahaz— saying, “Ask for a sign of the Lord your God…and let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven…and I will give it.” That is a bit shocking to read, given that demanding signs of the Almighty is not usually good sportsmanlike behavior. But here, in this text, God is offering a sign for the asking. God is offering this grace as a reassurance…kind of like when my children reassure me, by deciding to clothe themselves in the morning without my nagging and increasingly louder requests. It would be like my son, Eli, coming downstairs in the morning already dressed and saying, “Look, Mommy, ask me for a sign that I have my listening ears on” but then I refuse to turn around while making the bed and instead say, “I’m not going to look or ask because you won’t do it anyway…” and my little boy has already pulled on his sweater and tucked in his shirt.
Likely, Ahaz would love to take a peek at his daily God-scope at the morning breakfast table with the Holy One, but there is something “not-quite-right” about that, something that smacks of tempting the Deity—which humans are not supposed to do– And so, even though God is doing the offering, Ahaz flat-out refuses Yahweh’s promise of reassurance. However, God is no mannequin telling fortunes for a quarter at a local summer resort or a petulant child clamoring for his Mommy’s attention; God wants Ahaz to trust him in a manner that speaks to his soul. So, even in his refusal, God sends the struggling Ahaz the prophet Isaiah, who is no charlatan or profiteer forecasting happiness just to line his pocket, but someone who offers the worried, beleaguered King and his drifting people the holy reassurance and guidance they need but are still too proud to ask for.
“Look, a young woman is with child…” says Isaiah, “and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Many, many, many generations later, the same words will be said about the young Mary and her pregnancy in our Christmas story. God has a few favorite signs that God uses to help us when we are deficient in hope and help. Today, let’s leave aside any mistaken notions about virginity or chaste sexual relations and simply acknowledge what Isaiah believes and trusts, not from the stars and sky, but from God – that a young woman was about to change the world with the child whom she would bear. Some say “the woman” to which Isaiah refers is a either a concubine of king Ahaz, or perhaps Isaiah’s wife who was a prophetess. Whether prophetess, concubine, or maiden, a woman carried the future in her womb, just as some pregnant refugee women have taken great risks to bring their children into a kinder, more just, and free world.
Before the child is weaned,” Isaiah says, “that coalition and cabinet of rulers that you are so worried about will be defeated.” Except that Isaiah says something like, “for before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good,” which has less to do with moral agency and more to do with being able to tell what physical foods are healthy and wholesome and what foods are poisonous. These are important things to know as we mature: what will nourish us spiritually and physically and what will ultimately kill our bodies and souls. Do you know how to refuse the evil and choose the good? Do you know what is food for your spirit and what is presently killing your body and hurting your soul?
Friends, we human beings look for signs all the time, even when we flatly deny that we do and warn against demanding signs of God or putting God to the test, as Ahaz says. We look in the stars, in the music we listen to, in the pennies we find on the sidewalk, in the stock market, on-line, and in the way events unfold in our lives or a story we hear captivates our spirits. The other day I heard a song on the radio that I heard over and over again as my husband lay in the nursing home. It is a Maroon-5 song. Normally, I would mark the occurrence and move on…but the other day, I heard the song just as I was on my way to the post office to mail some very important paperwork. Was the song a sign of reassurance? Perhaps it was and is. We most often seek signs when we are fearful and unsteady, when we can’t see to see, and when we want assurances of success or at least the knowledge that we can overcome our frailties. Many of us seek signs when we are trying to work something thru…when we are trying to discern outcomes. And then it is often more tempting (and human) to have someone else do the tricky work of discernment for us, even if we know that we might be taken for a ride in the process. Talking to the floundering King, Isaiah says, “Hear of House of David, is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” which is another way of saying, oh tiresome human beings, is it not enough that you wear each other out with your ways that you must wear God out as well?”
I know that I have done my share of wearying God this year, this looking for a sign everywhere but where God has asked that I look. Perhaps you can relate as you cast your gaze back on this year that will be ending soon. God says, “Look here,” and I choose to look somewhere else. God says, “Trust me,” and I set up my fake crystal ball in the corner of some hurting place in my life and try to see further without doing anything to alleviate the distress. We put our quarters into antique mannequin boxes expecting some giant dividend, but we have not invested our time or money into the remedy.
What sign is a child? What sign was a scared teenager who breathed thru her fear and dared to believe that she, lowly and poor, might give rise to a blessing, with all human odds stacked against her? What sign was Joseph who dared to take an angel at his word and married against communal slander and protected his betrothed against a dangerous and jealous ruler? What sign is a stable; what sign a birth; what sign are you?
I want to close with this poem from Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian poet and writer. It is a haunting poem, but it speaks of a sign in the midst of hard reality, like having 2 powerful enemies coming at you from either side, whether those enemies are war and inhumanity, or fear and death. It especially speaks of suffering and how saving actions may be as small as parting the hair of a child and as large as being a bulwark of tenderness against societal indifference:
(Shared reading of “Refugee Mother and Child” by Chinua Achebe)
“No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget… (the reading continues…)
Sisters and brothers, as Chinua Achebe has said, “…when we are comfortable and inattentive, we run the risk of committing grave injustices absentmindedly.” In this season of merriment, risk being uncomfortable, risk being mindful, and risk being a sign that God is incarnate among us.