Rev. George Miller
“Sweetness and Light”
Dec 19, 2010
I’ve been toying with a theory this week: that almost everything is a sign. These signs help us make observations and decisions, even if we are not conscious about it.
There is body posture. When someone leans forward (like this) during a sermon, I know they’re listening closely. If they look at their watch I know I’ve gone on too long.
There are consumer based signs. For example, if you see golden arches, you know there’s a McDonalds. If you’re hungry you can stop or you can keep going.
Companies that do well tend to have a logo that is identifiable and signifies something to their core customer.
For example, let’s do an experiment. Men- how many of you know what this is? (Hold up a shopping bag from Tiffany’s)
Now, how many women know what this is?
This robin-egg blue shopping bag with white handles and black lettering is perhaps one of the most powerful, most iconic signs to people who know what this bag signifies.
This is a shopping bag from Tiffany’s, world class jeweler and glass maker. This will sound sexist, but I believe that every woman should receive a gift from Tiffany’s at least once in her life.
If you’ve ever shopped at Tiffany’s, you know that part of the experience is receiving this bag and walking through the city or mall with it. And this bag seems to give you power!
That’s because this bag signifies something. For some people, it means you have the cash to spend on something nice (and sales people are very quick to notice it!). For other’s it means you have fine taste.
For others, it means there is something beautiful inside of it. It does not matter if it’s a piece of crystal, a diamond or simply a Christmas ornament; you know that whatever’s inside this bag is exquisite.
Therefore, something happens when you carry such a bag around. For lack of better words, it just makes you feel…goooooood.
Many things in life are signs to be observed and the reaction can depend just as much on the person as it does the sign.
For example, do any of you know someone who is always looking for signs that assure them that life is A-OK?
They pick up a penny and it just so happens to be from the year they were born. Or a butterfly lands on their shoulder.
For them signs portend to good and great things and they act accordingly in cheerful bliss.
Then there are those who look for the first sign that something is wrong. They’ll notice the smallest bump on their body and right away make a doctor’s appointment. Or see a cloud in the horizon and cancel the picnic.
For them signs point to disaster and they act accordingly in a defeatist attitude.
In other words, one person will see a Tiffany bag and say “Inside is something beautiful” while another person will say “That person just put themselves further in debt.”
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. I think King Ahaz, from today’s scripture, was more of the second kind.
Ahaz is an interesting fellow. According to 2 Kings 16, Ahaz became king of Judah when he was 20 and ruled until he was 36. Although he was in charge of caring for God’s people, he did ungodly things. He sacrificed his son. He took gold and silver out of the Temple.
He was not good at acknowledging obvious and beautiful signs; he instead responded to signs of threat and defeat, acting in rash ways that put everyone in danger. We see that in today’s reading.
Trouble is a brewing in Judah. Various warning signs are telling King Ahaz that they will be attacked by two nations that have allied themselves.
Yet despite these signs Ahaz does not pray to God or seek out council from the Priests. Instead, he goes outside the city’s walls to check on the water supply.
And even though Ahaz has not been faithful to God, God has been faithful to Ahaz and has not forgotten the promise to care for and protect the people.
So God has the prophet Isaiah go to Ahaz with a message: “Don’t be afraid and don’t give up hope. These threats that you are facing are nothing more then but smoldering stumps of wood. I’ll take care of them for you. Just stand firm in your faith.”
The Lord says to Ahaz “Ask for a sign, any sign you’d like. It can be as big as a flat-screen TV or as small as a Tiffany’s bag. Ask for a hopeful sign and I’ll give it to you.”
Could you imagine? Being invited by God to ask for a sign that things will be OK? How often does that happen in life?
Yet, Ahaz is clearly not a fan of positive signs. He has no idea what to do with that. So he flippantly says “I’m not supposed to put God to the test.”
Apparently now Ahaz has some morals. It was Ok for him to steal the gold and silver from the Temple. But to ask God for a positive sign? That’s where he draws the line.
It’s as if Ahaz can only see signs of impending doom, but signs of promised hope he is blind too.
But listen to just how good God is. God gives Ahaz a sign anyway.
God has Isaiah say “You see that young woman over there, the pregnant one? She is going to have a son, and when he is no longer breastfed, this whole ordeal will be over and done with.
“So don’t do anything. Don’t make any rash decisions or try to take matters into your own hands. Don’t fret, don’t worry. I will work this all out for you.
“Oh, and by the way, the child will be called ‘Immanuel’.”
What an amazing sign to give. What a thing of beauty. Immanuel, which literally means “God is with Us.”
This sign basically states that in less then four years time Ahaz’s current problems will be resolved. And he doesn’t have to do a single thing- just wait with patience and believe that God will take care of it.
Apparently the sign was too beautiful, simple, and direct for Ahaz, because what does he do?
The complete opposite. He goes to the King of Assyria, the most ruthless, pagan man around and becomes buddy buddy with him.
In doing so, Ahaz forfeits God’s promise and the bitter irony is this: it is the Assyrians who ultimately attack Ahaz and his people.
God handed Ahaz an exquisite Tiffany bag filled with the promises of safety and care, and Ahaz, unable to appreciate the sign, dashed it to the ground and the kingdom became shattered in the process.
Some people can be like that. Refusing to acknowledge signs of peace and comfort in exchange for acting out of fear and dread.
Now Christmas is a time of signs. Signs all around us meant to assure us and remind us of “Immanuel”- God Is with Us.
Admittedly, many of these signs have been co-opted by the consumer culture and have lost their original meaning.
But they are signs nevertheless.
The signs seem to start earlier and earlier each year, usually right after Halloween. Candy canes and red ribbons tied on lampposts outside of Publix.
Strings of Christmas lights that illuminate the night. Carols that play in the stores.
I don’t mind how early these things begin, because all of them point towards a truth that no merchant can fully eradicate- that God is with Us.
Other signs begin to emerge in the middle of the winter landscape. Gatherings in which people share in a meal. Cards that are sent with bright colors signed with words like “love” and “peace”.
Trees are put up in which busy families set aside a few hours so that they can be together and decorate with cherished ornaments, some which may become family heirlooms.
People step outside of themselves and donate to local charities and buy gifts for those less fortunate.
All these things that we do, regardless if we realize them or not, are signs and ways in which the Holy Spirit breaks in to say “God Is with Us”.
Do we stop and pay attention to these signs? Can we see them as they were originally designed?
Can we reclaim them as signs of promised hope and belonging, living our lives in a way that say to everyone we meet “Immanuel”: God Is with Us?
In conclusion, let’s not be like Ahaz, seeing only signs of impending doom and acting out of hopeless fear.
Let us learn how to see the signs of God’s promised hope. Let them illuminate the night and brighten our day so we can step forward in acts of wholeness and healing.
So put up your decorations, send out your cards, wrap up gifts and tie them in bows.
As you do, realize that each act is a sign that says to others “God is With Us”.
Let these signs bring us closer to the manger, where God enters into our world and reminds us that we are not alone.
May we see and accept these signs, knowing that Immanuel, God is with Us, is indeed the most beautiful thing.
Lovelier then crystal, more important than diamonds or anything a bag from Tiffany’s will ever contain.
Happy Advent and blessings be to the Spirit, to God and to the Christ Child.
Amen and amen.