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I would like to share a deeply personal story about a sign. From my youth and undergrad years, I felt the stirrings of a call to vocational ministry. One of the questions I always asked was, “How do you know that you’re called?” Would there be a miraculous sign? I went so far as to ask this question of pastors and heard a variety of responses. I didn’t feel any of them applied to me, and I was quite content to continue in my unknowing, as I didn’t feel that being a pastor really fit with the life that I wanted to lead. I didn’t want to give up that much control.
One of the pastors that I didn’t ask the question “How did you know?” of was my father, who, from a young age, had devoted his life to vocational ministry. He never pushed me, and I suppose I didn’t want to make him feel he was unduly influencing me by asking the question or even discussing it. He had a library of around 2,000 books and would occasionally give me one to read or ask how my reading was going. I would say, “Oh, fine,” but really felt that those books were more his thing than mine.
My father died rather suddenly on December 12th, 2004. He went into the Emergency Department of the hospital in Walkerton on Friday and died in Owen Sound General on Sunday. In life, we find that things do not go the way we thought they would or as we expected, and this was the first time in my life I experienced such an outcome. It was difficult. Over the coming months, I took around half of the books from his library and put them in our basement. I began to read them. I became involved in leadership here at Blythwood and was becoming more and more aware of what reliance on God means (I’m still learning). I began to feel that tugging on my heart toward vocational ministry more strongly, though the question remained, “How will I know?”
Summer of 2007. I awoke too early, as I often do (5 am). I went downstairs to find something to read. Looking over the bookshelves, I found this unassuming paperback copy of a book published in 1984 by William Willimon. It’s called Preaching and Leading Worship: The Pastor’s Handbook. Nothing unusual. I opened it up, and I must say at this point that my father was in the habit of inscribing his books, at least with his name and address; sometimes writing about who gave him the book, that kind of thing. He would underline things and often make notes in them too. I opened up the book, and this is what was written inside – “George M. Thomas June 1989. You just never know, David, this book may prove useful to you. Dad”
Coincidence? Providence? God’s hand at work? It depends on your point of view, I suppose. Outwardly there’s nothing miraculous about an inscription in a book. My own faith told me that it couldn’t be ignored. I enrolled in my first course at McMaster Divinity College that summer, and here I am today.
What is a sign but an indication of God at work or an indication of God’s promise? “Ask the Lord for a sign.” This is what the prophet Isaiah tells King Ahaz. Signs can be a difficult thing. To perceive a sign from God can demand things of us. We might think we would be better off to not bother asking for one or looking for one in the first place. We like to be in control, after all. We like to think that we’re able to solve things. I didn’t ask God for a sign per se, but I knew that I could not ignore it. Even though it would be a letting go of control over my life. A letting go of the reins. A falling backward in trust. It’s fitting that the “falling backward” move is such a big part of trust exercises – you have no control when you fall backward. Of course, at the same time, God is whispering, “I’ve got you.”
A sign needn’t necessarily be miraculous. A sign at the root is an invitation to us to trust in the love of God. An invitation to trust in the deliverance of God. It’s an answer to that question we’re always asking, consciously or not, “Who will save us?” This is a question that’s particularly meaningful when things have not gone or are not going the way we thought they would. When things are spinning out of control – and if not out of then most certainly beyond our control. We cling on to the myth of our self-sufficiency. I’m watching my tv, and a man comes on and tells me, “We’ve got dreams. Gotta make them happen.” According to this man, patronizing a certain online investment service will enable him to realize his dreams and to sleep like a baby.
To which I reply, “You mean waking every two or three hours and screaming?”
Or maybe that was just my experience as a baby.
What do we do, though seriously, when we are literally or figuratively waking up every 2-3 hours and screaming? When forces are out of work which is outside of any control, we might, in our pride, think we have. If there is one thing we’ve learned over the last three years, it’s that none of us are immune to forces which are beyond us. King Ahaz of Judah was facing forces beyond his control. Literally - military forces from Israel (Israel or Ephraim had split with Judah at this point) and Syria which threatened Judah. “Ask the Lord for a sign,” Isaiah tells him. “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test,” replies Ahaz. The king is clothing his refusal in most pious language. The clothing is just to cover the fact that his refusal to ask God for a sign has more to do with his refusal to trust God at all. Ahaz’ plan is all about realpolitik. He will make an alliance with the Assyrian Empire rather than trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This will end badly for Judah. For now, though, Isaiah tells the king, “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.” The sign is God with us. The sign is a child. Deliverance from the forces that threaten is at hand. “He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” Curds and honey means blessing. It means goodness by the time this child is old enough to know right from wrong. “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 destroyed.” Goodness. Blessings. Deliverance. The promise of God with us.
No one knows for sure how this promise was fulfilled in the days of Isaiah and Ahaz. The child of Isaiah? The child of Ahaz? Nothing miraculous about this child born of a young woman. An everyday occurrence without eyes of faith to see and ears of faith to hear God’s promise – Immanuel. God with us. Deliverance. Blessings. The goodness of God. Ahaz engaged in the art of the possible. God engages the art of the imaginable. God’s imagination is boundless!
Which brings us to our nativity scene. A story is told of a little girl who came home one day from school, excited to tell her parents about her part in the school’s Christmas Play. The only problem was she couldn’t remember what part she had been given. She only remembered that it started with “B.” Her family spent some time trying to figure out who “B” might be but couldn’t come up with anything. On the night of the play, it was revealed that their daughter played one of the bystanders.
When we look at the Christmas story as it is told by Luke, it is very easy to see Joseph in a kind of bystander light. He’s mentioned only in association with going to Bethlehem because he is descended from the family of David; at being amazed by Simeon’s words in the Temple; at being mentioned by Mary as she’s telling Jesus how worried she and his father have been when he went AWOL during their visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12.
Joseph is not so much a bystander in Matthew’s story, but we see outside forces acting on him. Things have not gone the way he expected them to. In the middle of these situations, we have choices to make. Joseph wanted to do the right thing. He did not wish to expose Mary to public disgrace. He wanted to call off the whole thing quietly. He receives a sign – an indication of God at work. An indication of God’s promise being fulfilled. Do you believe God speaks to us in dreams? I do, absolutely.
“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 (do not be afraid to trust God), 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 form their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil 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.’”
Trust in God is not always easy, and it could be costly (at least in terms of things we may value). We don’t know what Joseph and Mary faced in terms of reaction to this scandal in Nazareth or Bethlehem. Someone has said, “Our choices are not always easy to make or to keep. The consequences are sometimes painful, but there are always choices. We need not be bystanders to our own lives. We can, like Joseph, make the hard choice to believe that God is at work, that God is present, even in the most troubling of situations. We can choose to be obedient to the call to commit ourselves to follow, to commit ourselves to honour… even when it becomes difficult to do so.”
But what else would we do? Here's the wonder of the sign of Emmanuel, of God with us. God refuses to abandon us. What else could we do but to trust to commit ourselves to follow? What else could we do but put ourselves into this Nativity story which has been ongoing for over 2,000 years?
There are two things I pray we do as we close. The first is this - Let us name and claim Jesus this Advent season. There are two names given to the child born in our Matthew 1 passage. The first is Jesus. Yeshua. “God saves.” Deliverer. The second is Emmanuel – “God is with us.” Look at the last thing that Joseph does as a sign to us – “… and he named him Jesus.” To name this child meant that Joseph was claiming him as his own. I am his. He is mine. May we ask God to give us eyes to see the signs of God’s promises all around us. May we ask God to give us eyes to see the signs of God’s wondrous love all around. Signs that God refuses to abandon us. Such signs are all around us. A group of our elders sitting around a candlelit table in the Friendship Room filling out gift boxes for those who have a hard time getting out of the home. The smell of hot chocolate filling a house on St. Joseph street where, on a Saturday afternoon, people who may feel forgotten are reminded of love and grace. A group of children singing of the wonder of Jesus’ birth. Emmanuel’s birth. The birth of “God saves.” The birth of “God is with us.”
Secondly, pray that God would make us signs of God’s wondrous love. The angel’s message to the shepherds was, “This will be a sign for you…” May our prayer be, “Let us be a sign to all.” May God call things into being in and through us – things like the hope that is to be found in Jesus, the vision of peace described by Isaiah, the joy that is known in Christ no matter our circumstances, the wondrous love of “God with us.” – the wondrous truth that God refuses to abandon us.
May God help us see such signs and be such signs. May this be true for each and every one of us. Merry Christmas, dear family.