St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 6th December 09
This morning the theme of our service is all about “signs”. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it, but signs play a really important part in our everyday life. For example, if you want to learn to drive, you have to know the signs in the Highway Code. If you want to work on a building site, you have to know the Health and Safety signs posted on the fencing. Almost every trade, every profession uses different signs and symbols and it’s part of basic training knowing which signs are which and being able to read them.
And of course we also find signs in church. Lots of different kinds of signs, some of them simply giving information, some of them full of imagery and symbolism. So my challenge to you, as you are sat here this morning at St Michael’s, is this – how many signs can you see?
- Look above the doors …
- Look at the stained glass windows …
- Does anyone wearing a wedding ring?
- What about the advent wreath?
- The most widespread sign of all … the cross.
So why are signs are so important? I think the best way to explain is to put up some very simple sums on the screen. Now don’t worry if you aren’t very confident with numbers. I have already given you the answer. All you have to do is to work out what is the missing sign in the middle.
- 2 ? 3 = 6
- 6 ? 2 = 8
- 8 ? 2 = 6
- 6 ? 3 = 2
That wasn’t too hard, was it? But imagine how hard sums would be if we didn’t have signs. It might be OK writing out long-hand “two multiplied by three”, but how about “1111×2222”, for example? You’d probably spend more time in your maths exam writing your answer down than actually working what it should be, and it would be an interesting exercise, to say the least, to get money out of your bank.
Signs, you see, are incredibly useful short-cuts which replace lots and lots of words with just one easy to remember shape or symbol. So, for instance, as you go up the A38 past Exeter at 60 mph, you don’t have to try and read a long notice which tell you that motorway rules and regulations are now in force. Instead, you just have a blue sign that alert you to the fact you are no longer driving on A-road and the conditions have changed.
And maybe it’s no surprise to learn that God uses signs as well. After all, when we think of the message of Christmas our first thought isn’t lots and lots of long and complicated words which we have spent years trying to understand. It’s a picture of Mary with the baby in a stable at Bethlehem. Because, really, that picture sums up a thousand words about the meaning of Christmas. It tells us all we need to know about Jesus coming as one of us, to be born as a weak, helpless baby just like all of us.
But there is just one problem with signs that we just spend a little time thinking about . Because sometimes we can forget what the sign means, or we think it means one thing when actually it means another. I mean, you ask any celebrity who has a huge, great big cross round their neck what their latest piece of bling actually stands for, and you get all kinds of interesting replies. (Especially if they’re a bishop … no, sorry, I didn’t really say that …)
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. And yes, of course, we know with hindsight this is a verse from Isaiah looking forward to Jesus. But Isaiah’s hearers didn’t know this. They would have understood the prophet’s message very differently in light of their own particular situation at this particular point in their history. And I think it’s worth stopping for a moment and thinking what this sign would have meant to them when these words were first spoken. Not to undermine the traditional understanding of this verse, or weaken its link to Jesus. But so that we can really get to grips with this sign that is so familiar to us and be clear what it actually stands for.
So let’s go back to the beginning of the reading. When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it. In other words, here was king Ahaz under attack from two large armies from just up the road surrounding his capital city. Not only was his country and his capital under threat, these two kings Rezin and Pekah had hatched a plot to carve up the land and make a chap called Tabeel king over it. To put it simply, Ahaz was a man whose problems were multiplying. One piece of bad news was coming after another, and he just didn’t know what to do. Verse 2 tells us that the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind. And I guess that at this time of year we all know what trees shaken by the wind look like. They go one way, and then when the wind changes, they go another. And Ahaz was just like that, totally unsure what was the best way to meet all those many threats he was facing.
But help was at hand. Because there was a special person living in the city called Isaiah who had a message from the Lord to strengthen and encourage the king. And what was that message? In essence that within 65 years the kingdoms threatening him would be taken away. Yes, at the moment all these threats seemed big and scary, but these two kings were only mere human beings. They could plot and plan as much they liked, but it really was the Lord who was in control.
Of course it’s one thing to receive a promise from the Lord. It’s another to actually claim it and put your trust in what He says. So let me ask you – when you’ve been faced with a situation that was beyond your control, when you didn’t know what to do, how much did you actually rely on and trust in a promise from God’s word? Was it your first thought to read your Bible and pray, or did you do these things when everything else had failed? You know, when you read this story, it’s all too easy to criticise Ahaz for his lack of faith and say he should have trusted the Lord. But what did we do when we had that unexpected piece of news, when we lost our job, when we found we couldn’t cope with life any more? There’s a warning here at the end of Isaiah’s word in verse 9 and it’s one we all ought to take to heart: If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.
This doesn’t mean however that the Lord simply expects us to bury our heads in the sand, and assume that come what may He will provide. He knows that we are weak and human, and He understands that sometimes we do find it hard to trust in what He says, especially when the odds are stacked against us. So in this instance, to help Ahaz, He promises to add a sign to His word. Verses 10-11: Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” What a tremendous offer! The Lord Almighty, the Lord of heaven and earth, offering to give Ahaz anything he wants to prove he is in control.
But Ahaz refuses the offer. I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test. And again before we all rush in and criticise Ahaz, we need to stop and ask whether we have acted any differently. After all, we know from Jesus’ temptation in the desert, one of the Lord’s commands is Do not put the Lord your God to the test (Matt 4:7). When the Pharisees and the Sadducees came and asked Jesus for a sign at the start of Matthew 16 Jesus refused point blank and said that A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign. Relying on signs, and using them to shore up our faith, is, at least according to Scripture, generally a bad idea.
However what Ahaz failed to grasp is that there’s a world of difference between saying, “I will only believe in the Lord if he gives me a sign” and saying, “No thanks, Lord, I don’t need a sign from you”. Yes, it’s wrong, even as some Christians still do today, to be always looking for visible proof that God is at work before you do anything, even before you step out of the front door of a morning. But it’s equally wrong when the Lord promises to bless you to refuse the offer of His blessing. That kind of attitude indicates that deep down you don’t really want Him in your life, that you are quite happy managing as you are, even if, like Ahaz, threats and challenges are piling up all around you.
And, you see, what Ahaz had also failed to grasp is that when the Lord decides to do something, it’s not up to us to say whether it’s a good idea or not. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But as I’ve been saying all along, I think there is more of us in Ahaz than we care to admit. “The Lord is going to send revival!” “Oh, I don’t know about that, we’d better discuss it at the PCC” “Well, it sounds a good idea in theory, but do we really want all these newcomers?” “I’m busy enough at the moment, thank you very much”.
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. And of course at this point we think, and rightly so, of the good news of Jesus born in Bethlehem some 700 years after the prophecy. But for Ahaz this sign was going to be particularly bad news. Because when this boy Immanuel came to age, it wouldn’t be two little kings from up the road Ahaz would have to deal with. It would be the big, bad king everyone in the region feared, the king of Assyria. He would lay the whole country waste and become everyone’s worst nightmare, leaving farms unattended as he slaughtered their owners, and laying fields waste. Which in fact was exactly happened in 701 BC as the king of Assyria swept through the whole land capturing every city except for the capital, Jerusalem.
So back to that a picture of Mary with the baby in a stable at Bethlehem. How does knowing all this background from the book of Isaiah help us to more fully understand the sign God has given us? Very simply, that this sign is one of division. For those who have eyes to see that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, in human flesh, the Christmas story is one of salvation and hope and peace. But for those who refuse to see Jesus as any other than a sweet little baby in a pretty story from long ago, the Christmas story brings with it judgement upon their inability to see and to believe. Now we don’t like to think of judgement at Christmas. We like to think of presents and turkey with all the trimmings and family times in front of the fire. But think about it – why was Jesus born as a Saviour unless we needed to be saved?
So my challenge to you this Advent is to consider what exactly we will be celebrating in a few weeks time. Is it for you a nice make-believe story amid the winter gloom or is it urgent tidings of Jesus on a rescue mission to free you from your sins? Because as Isaiah shows we need to make a decision and there can be no middle-ground. We can either turn our back on the Lord like Ahaz and forfeit His blessing, or we can believe and trust like Mary and welcome Jesus into our lives. What exactly is the choice you are going to make?