Several years ago, while I was in high school, my mom was trying to make a decision that would have a big impact on her life. She was trying to decide if it was time to sell our family business which was our boat store so that she could begin working for, what was at that time, Norfolk Presbytery. She agonized over this decision, weighing the pros and cons, and of course she prayed about it as well. She wanted to do what was right; but more importantly, she wanted to follow God’s will for her life. Well, she decided to sell the business and take the job offer from the Presbytery, though there was still some question in the back of her mind as to whether this was what God wanted her to do. So she prayed again and asked God to give her a sign that she had made the right decision. It just so happened that as she was praying, my mom was driving down the road, and she came to a stop light, and a big truck had stopped behind her. Well, she looked into the rear view mirror and could see that there was a sign on the truck which said, “Trust in God.” That was enough for her and with confidence she went forward with her decision.
I thought about this decision that my mom had to make those many years ago, as, this week, I read our passage from the book of Isaiah. It occurred to me that probably all of us at one time or another has asked God for a sign, a sign to confirm either God’s will or simply to assure us of what God is doing in the world. Of course, we stand in a long line of sign seekers and finders. Noah was given the sign of the rainbow to assure him that God was not going to flood the earth again. Abraham was given the sign of circumcision and the sign of the stars to assure him that he would indeed by the father of nations. Moses was given many signs including the very name of God that assured him that God was with him, when he brought the people of Israel out of Egypt. Gideon asked for a sign, and it was granted to him that he would conquer the Midianites. When the shepherds in the fields were told by the angel that the Messiah was born, they were given the sign of the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths. We stand in a long line of sign seekers and sign finders. In my own life, I have found myself asking for a sign from God.
While I was in college, it was my turn to make an important decision that was going to have a big impact on my life. I was trying to decide whether to continue with plans to go to medical school, or if God was calling me into the ministry. It was a hard decision for me because all my life I had planned to be a doctor, and yet my real passion was for the church. I wanted to do what was right; but more importantly, I wanted to follow God’s will for my life. Well, after a night of prayer, I decided that I wasn’t going to be a doctor but instead a minister; though there was still some nagging questions in the back of my mind. I too wanted a sign that I had made the right decision. So, when I went home for Thanksgiving, I told my mom of my decision and as it turned out, she was not surprise. As a matter of fact, she told me that she knew I was to be a minister, even before I had told her. When I went to church that Sunday, I told many of the members who had seen me grow up in the church, and they informed me that they knew as well that I was to be a minister. They told me that they were waiting for me to figure it out on my own. Well, that was enough for me, and so with confidence, I went off to seminary. There is something very reassuring about receiving a sign from God. It lends strength and conviction to our faith, and my guess is that now more than ever, there are many people who need that reassuring sign from God.
This past week, I was listening to the radio and the D.J. was talking about the various gifts that children are asking from Santa this year. Of course, children are still asking for toys; but, according to reports, many children are asking for much more than just toys. Many of the letters that children are sending through the Post Office and through E-mails are asking Santa for some very special gifts like peace, security, and hope. There are also many letters in which children are asking Santa to find jobs for their parents who have been laid off over the past few months. I think that we are most ready for a sign from God. We are at war, the economy is struggling to find stability, not to mention our own personal struggles that seem to amplify themselves around holidays, like lingering illnesses and the loss of loved ones. If we only had a sign, a sign to reassure us that there is hope, a sign to reassure us that God is in control and is working all things out.
Well, brothers and sisters, a sign has been given, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The birth of Jesus is God’s sign to us that there is hope. After all, the birth of Jesus means that God is with us. God is with us in all the events of our lives. And, more than being with us, is the promise that God will always be with us, and what greater hope can we have than knowing that God will always be with us. The birth of Jesus is our sign of hope that no matter what is happening in the world around us, that no matter what is happening to us, God is still with us. This sign may not help us make a career decision. Nor, does this sign assure us that life will be free from hardships and difficulties. This is not a sign that all our problems will magically disappear. However, this is a sign that we are not alone, that the God who created us is the God who abides with us. This is a sign that the God who first called the likes of Abraham and Moses is the God who calls us to trust him and follow his ways. This is a sign that nothing in all the universe will separate us from the love of God, even our own sins. This is the sign of God’s love for us, which has no limits and which lasts forever. This sign is our hope, and for a world that is seeking such hope, they will find it only in the birth of Jesus, our sign of hope.
The birth of Jesus is our sign of hope, but it is a sign which must be received by faith. It takes faith to believe that this little child, born almost two thousand years ago, is none other than God himself taking up residence in human form. Without faith, the sign will be missed as it happened for King Ahaz. Ahaz was king of Israel during a difficult time. The people of Israel were under the severe judgment of God, judgment which would include the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, as well as the exile of God’s people. Yet, in the midst of it all, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah that all was not lost, for God would preserve for himself a remnant. God declared that he would indeed save his people. And, to show that this promise would be fulfilled, God told King Ahaz to choose a sign, and it would be given to him as an assurance that God would fulfill this promise. Yet, Ahaz did not have the faith to believe in a sign from God. He did not believe that God would save his people, and so Ahaz was unwilling to ask for a sign. He acted as if he was being pious, not wanting to put God to the test, but the truth, is that he lacked the faith, and so while the sign was given, Ahaz missed it. For Ahaz, there was no hope, because there was no faith.
The birth of Jesus is a sign that must be received by faith. For, when faith is present then the birth of Jesus becomes a sign of hope, just as it was for young Joseph. Joseph is pledged to be married to his bride, Mary, but he discovers that she is with child. Joseph is a good man who abides by the law of God, and yet who loved Mary deeply. He decided to fulfill the law and divorce Mary, but quietly so as not to bring her shame. We do not know if Joseph asked for a sign to confirm his decision, but a sign was nonetheless given. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and told his the good news, Mary was with child from the Holy Spirit, and she was going to give birth to the Savior of the world. Just as it was given to Ahaz, so the sign of Jesus’ birth was given to Joseph. Yet, unlike Ahaz, Joseph received this sign by faith. He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and with his own eyes saw the birth of Jesus, the sign of hope given for the world.
Children and adults as well, will be asking for peace and hope this Christmas, probably more so than in recent years. Such a request is nothing less than a request for a sign, to know that there is hope and that God is in control and is working all things out. Well, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, may we celebrate that the sign has been given. Jesus’ birth is our sign of hope that God is with us, and more than that, it is our sign of hope that God will always be with us. Therefore, as the world is saying, “If only we had a sign.” We can reply that the sign is given in the birth of Jesus Christ. May this sign be received by faith.