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Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Sign

Old Testament: Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalter: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Epistle: Romans 1:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25

God is a sign painter! One of God's favorite hobbies is putting up signs in places obvious and hidden, clear and oblique, that reveal the "outskirts of his ways." The signs tell people that God is present with us.

Aeons ago when the race was young, God painted a sign in the heavens to forever remind us that we are indissolubly linked with God's purpose: "I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (Gen. 9:13). The rainbow is a reminder that God's promise to us is forever fixed. Even today God uses "signs and wonders"; they are present everywhere for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

In Isaiah's day the country of Judah was being bullied into a "covenant of death" against the escalating power of the Assyrians. The citizens of Judah panicked; as Isaiah writes, "... the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind" (7:2). God whispers to Isaiah to whisper to King Ahaz that the way out of the situation is to "Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood [Israel and Aram]..." (7:4) Those burned out royals were history.

However, King Ahaz is too afraid of these former military giants to heed the prophet's advice. God whispers to Isaiah yet a second time, 'Ask the LORD your God for a sign ..." God is magnanimous to Ahaz. God tells him to ask for any sign he wishes—as deep as hell or as high as heaven. But in a pious charade, Ahaz replies that he would never want to put the Lord to the test.

Isaiah erupts in anger when he recognizes that Ahaz is playing "cat and mouse" with the Almighty.

"Hear now, you house of David! b not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also?" (7:13).

He continues,

"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (7:14).

In the Bible, a sign is an indication of God's purposeful activity, but it is never proof enough in itself. The sprinkling of signs throughout the story is a vivid reminder that God is not aloof from the world of daily affairs, nor is God bound by the ironclad cause-and-effect relationship. God does leave hints, clues, signs, and wonders along the way that give evidence of God's redemptive working, but the signs are ambiguous enough that at the last what is required is faith and trust.

Signs do not stand in isolation. That would be like parking under a round sign that read "New York City—325 miles," and thinking that you had already arrived in New York. Signs are attached to the prophetic word. The sign is the child himself, not the manner of the birth of the child. This child would come to a particular time, and be born to a particular family. Most likely the mother was known to Ahaz. Some suggest that the woman was the Queen and the child Hezekiah.

The name Immanuel is also a theological declaration: "God with us." Isaiah points to the sign—the birth of a child in the immediate future who would grow up among his people as a sign that "God is with us." Even before the lad reaches the "age of discretion," the threatening kings will be a historical footnote.

The evangelist Matthew also believed that God was a sign painter. With quill in hand, Matthew researched the pages of Isaiah's signs. Matthew knew one thing for certain and that was that in the man Jesus, God had come to dwell among people. The man Jesus and God's life had intersected. As the gospel writer wrestled with Isaiah's signs, he was certain that no higher designation could be awarded to Jesus than the sign that Isaiah painted in this seventh chapter. Immanuel then and Immanuel now—"God with us"—was ultimately the truest sign that could point to Jesus.

The difference is that in Isaiah the sign must forever point forward; in Matthew the sign has come to rest on a person. Ahaz, amid his fearful distractions, could also know the promise of the sign. The birth of a son could be an eloquent announcement that "God is with us." Matthew says, in a fuller and more total way than either Isaiah or Ahaz could ever imagine, that Immanuel or "God with us" is a name that is given to that baby, born in a barn, who in his very helplessness, powerlessness, and vulnerability announces to a waiting world "God is with us." Now the sign has become the reality, and the shadows meld into light: "by this sign we shall conquer!"

Suggested Anthems

"Arise Now, Daughter of Zion," Saint-Saens
[Schirmer]

"Come Down, O Love Divine," Ampney
[Oxford]

"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," Jefferson
[Flammer]

"Dona Nobis Pacem," Bitgood
[Gray]

"Go Now in Peace," Sleeth
[Hinshaw]

"O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," Handel
[from Messiah (Schirmer)]

"O Zion, that Bringest Good Tidings," Stain-er
[Hall & McCreaiy Co.]

"Peace I Leave With You," Roberts
[Schirmer]

(Note: Many other suggestions for congregational and choral music based on Scripture lessons for this Sunday are included on page 31.)

For the Children

Preparation: You may want to prepare some new symbols for your Jesse tree. The focus of today's lesson is on signs. If you don't have any of God's "signs" on your tree, prepare a few to add today: rainbow star.

Again, gather the children around the Jesse tree. Remind them that the tree helps us remember God's promises. Invite them to tell you about some of the ornaments. Then draw their attention to the rainbow and star. Ask them what special promise the rainbow reminds us of. Then invite them to tell you what the star reminds them of—what special promise came true in a small stable in Bethlehem? Explain to the children that these signs from God remind people of God's promises—and God always keeps those promises!