“If you think God does that, get out!” That seems to be the theme of most of the talking heads on TV and the internet- there’s the War on Christmas, arguments over whether Jesus must be white, and the recent words now under attack by one of the personalities from Duck Dynasty about who God is rejecting. I suspect people have spent more time analyzing all of these words than any actual words from Scripture. Everyone poised to win the argument. At the same time this week as the frenzy over who won Powerball began, everyone in our national media began to obsess about what it took to win. At one point, a reporter, who had nothing concrete to say blurted out-“This is what the winning ticket looks like!” And he held up a generic lottery ticket. As though by seeing that ticket people could be believe there was a winner. Like it was a sign. That in the midst of statistical improbability, we’d get a piece of something that made those words be real. Show us something that will help us believe what seems impossible- what winning looks like. And so I kind of wonder in such as world as ours, what people would make of the family tree of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew that is made up of prostitutes and drunkards and lots of other people many would call offensive or even losers. Come to the adult discussion class to hear more. Not to mention the scandal surrounding Joseph and Mary. Today we hear about God’s improbability in the face of our certainty. Where we see EXIT, God enters to be GOD WITH US and show what winning really looks like.
In Isaiah, for instance, we see Ahaz, King of Jerusalem meeting the prophet. Syria and Israel have come to attack Jerusalem. Ahaz is certain this attack will end badly, probably pondering an exit strategy. Isaiah instead says-though odds look pretty overwhelming, this will end and your world will not fall. The end of your distress will happen soon. Because Emmanuel comes. Emmanuel- GOD WITH US- in this and where you see fear and war, there will be peace. I would want a sign. What’s amazing is Ahaz should ask for a sign- that’s what you do with a prophet. But he does not. And by not asking it seems that Isaiah wonders if Ahaz really believes what God will do.
I can’t decide whether Ahaz can’t see beyond himself or whether he knew he might ask for the wrong sign. Because when you’re under attack what you want is a fellow warrior, power in the form of some kind of weaponized sidekick. And time would pass in a nanosecond. God will use a baby? And it will be awhile? That’s your idea?
When you’re in the middle of conflict, you want it to end. You want to know where you stand. It was so unimaginable. Even though Ahaz is skeptical, God determines to give a sign and to act. And the promise came true for Ahaz. Even though he fumbled with how to receive it. Where Ahaz saw EXIT, God entered to be GOD WITH US and show what winning really looks like. Then, Isaiah’s words became words so powerful, people believed they could come true again. They wrote them down and held onto them. Because however improbable, they might not just be once and done. And God’s story went on.
Fast forward to Joseph and Mary. Today’s reality TV has nothing on the back story of the birth of Christ. In Matthew, it’s not all graceful pondering-it’s fear and drama. Because Mary is pregnant, and the scandal is deep and her alibi is shaky. As we glimpse Joseph behind the scenes it isn’t pretty. He isn’t looking for a sign, unless it says “Exit.” He’s trying to take charge and manage his righteous image. And frankly anything other than getting out means he has to live in this dysfunctional life. But where Joseph sees EXIT God entered to show what GOD WITH US looks like. Where you see confusion and pain, there will be love and healing. What seems impossible is not. Signs and wonders even though Joseph fumbled with how to receive the power and presence of God. And God’s story went on.
And so too for us. “The Lord God will give you a sign” are words still for us- even when we give up looking for any signs beyond those we can make ourselves. When we wait for a Warrior God to fix our world full of people who we’re sure are wrong or who need to be defeated. GOD WITH US in all the places we fall into the trap of believing God should be like us, only bigger. And in the times we envision God as vengeful in a world obsessed with getting even. Where we point to the EXIT sign, God enters with the still unexpected vision of winning. God enters to be God WITH US.
This is the sign- A baby born to the scared and confused, in a messed up and fighting world. To people who continue to fumble the God we receive. Jesus, Emmanuel enters still to remind us that in all our fears, longings and needs, God’s love wins.And these words live. This is the sign.
One writer says, “Unless we see the sign of the child it is all too easy to turn “Immanuel, God-with-us” into a call to defeat our enemies. God’s sign of a child surprised a king and an unwed father named Joseph. This sign matters in a world that continues to worship a vengeful God who can crush our enemies. Seeing the child as sign of God-with-us paints a different picture, (one our world needs far more than our battle to be right): The Word comes as a child who can be received and cannot hurt us; a Word that does not make us afraid. What is so amazing is that when God does come among us, whatever God’s hurt or indignation, God comes not with violence, but as a child, vulnerable to our further hurt that we might receive rather than fear him.” It’s an odd way of winning, but it is salvation for all of us. On this last Sunday of Advent, as we ponder the improbable reality of Emmanuel, Jesus born to save all people and to be God with Us, I share with you these words Barbara Lundblad used to write a new verse of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” :
O come, dear child of Mary, come,
God’s Word made flesh within our earthly home;
Love stir within the womb of night,
Revenge and hatred put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,