A Sermon for Covenant
The Signs of Our Times
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Last night I was squeezing a tube of superglue, and no glue was coming out the tip, so I squeezed harder, then harder. It was weird because it felt like the tube was emptying even though no glue was coming out. I squeezed even harder. Nothing. Only I started to notice that I couldn’t move my fingers, and it turned out the glue was actually exploding out of a slit on the underside of the tube and was spilling out all over my fingers, though at first I couldn’t feel it. I could feel it now, now that my fingers were glued hard and fast to one another. I then spent the next half hour or so trying to separate my fingers and wash off the glue.
What you need to understand is that right before this incident, I was being super spiritual. I had all these things to do: things to get ready for Christmas, for travel, for Sunday morning. The time was ripe for stress, but I did not choose stress, or worry, or angst. I took a deep, trusting breath and chose calm. I was going to patiently go about my business, listen to the guidance of Spirit, and relax into the faith that I don’t have to control every little minute of a day. It was very deep and wise and patient of me, I’m sure. Next, I glued my fingers together.
And I wondered what this could mean, as I painstakingly scrubbed and pealed while trying to keep my skin on. Maybe God was punishing me for procrastinating. This is why you don’t leave so much until the last minute, because you never know what could go wrong. Maybe this was a humble reminder that I’m really not so patiently spiritual as I had thought 20 minutes ago. Or maybe this was yet another lesson about control—surrendering my scurry and choosing trust doesn’t mean that everything is going to go the way I wanted. I decided it was most likely this last option that I was being taught, that yet again I was to relinquish control, and so instead of resisting it by speeding up like a mad woman to finish all my projects, after I finally got myself unglued, I fixed myself a mug of hot chocolate and sat on the couch and embraced the fact that not everything was going to get done.
Of course, it could also be the case that God had absolutely nothing to do with gluing my fingers together. That it was all me, and I unfortunately really am that clumsy. But I guess I just like to live in such a way that even our clumsiness has something to teach us, if we’re open.
I had a similar lesson driving down I35 this week when suddenly, as so often happens around here, I suddenly hit bad traffic. Movement ground to a halt, and I was stuck, inching along at a snail’s pace. First, the paranoia struck. I was going to be late if this didn’t speed back up really soon . . . and it did not speed up soon. Second, my fixer-brain took over and I began to try and think of an alternative route to get there by a different way; the only problem being this was a quest on which I was joined by half the other cars in San Antonio, and hence the alternative route was just as congested as the regular one, plus the added bonus that I had now chosen the long way. I felt kinda panicky. At this pace, I was going to be an hour late for an hour and a half meeting. Finally, after much internal resistance, I accepted my pace. There was nothing I could do but wait it out, nothing I could do to push myself through the congested spots, and then I remembered, This Is Life: breezing through, then unexpectedly hitting your stuck places, and you may spin your wheels for awhile, beat yourself over the head for gluing your fingers in place, and then you just relax and wait in out because you recognize that forcing it won’t help. You are just here for awhile, so you might as well sit back and look at the scenery.
I don’t really know if God actually speaks through traffic and super glue, or if I just assign them meaning to try and make sense of annoying circumstances, but the point is that all of life is open to interpretation. I used to know someone who thought everything bad that happened to him—a flat tire, a broken appliance—was God’s punishment. A bad day was God’s wake-up call, like God was saying, “Pay attention to me, already, you dimwit! I’m tired of being ignored.” I once had a boss who never used the word problem. Nothing was a problem. We only ever had challenges, and challenges were opportunities for growth. All the signs of life are open for translation, and depending on your outlook, you can arrive at very different conclusions.
Of course, one approach is to quit believing in signs altogether. Honestly, this is the least confusing way to go about life, never ever ever interrupted by the divine, but it is also the least adventurous, if you ask me. You just put on blinders to all the coincidences, all the serendipitous encounters, all the lessons, and all the miniscule miracles that grace a day. Things stay pretty cut and dry this way; there is very little you’ve got to ponder.
This is the King Ahaz approach, as far as I can tell. God tells him, “Go ahead. Ask for a sign, however deep, however high,” and Ahaz says, “Nah. No thank you. I won’t put God to the test.” Really, Ahaz doesn’t want to be tested. Signs require interpretation. Signs suggest God is speaking something to you. Signs mean you’d better pay attention to the deeper meaning. Ahaz is maybe not so sure he’d pass the test.
Let me give a little background. We only read vv.10-17 just now, but if we read the whole story, Ahaz is in an utter panic because two other kingdoms are threatening war against his kingdom. The text says “the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by wind.” They were flipping out. They were probably feeling stuck, glued to a fate they did not choose. They were probably frantic, minds racing for a solution, something they could do to rescue themselves from impending danger.
Isaiah the prophet shows up, and it turns out God is going to give them a sign whether they ask for one or not, which, fortunately, is typically the way God works. The sign is this: a young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a son, and before he is even full grown, the two kingdoms threatening Judah will be a threat no more.
As far as words of comfort go, this sign isn’t really all that clear or reassuring. A pregnant woman is hardly going to prevent a war, and yet somehow she and her son are the sign, the promise, the word of hope in dire times.
The sign is not at all instructive—it doesn’t give fretting Ahaz anything he can actually do to save his people. There is just something to observe—a pregnancy—and that’s all there is. Maybe Ahaz was already familiar with such signs and that’s why he didn’t want one. He didn’t really see how they helped.
According to the prophet, this child to come is a sign that God is with us. Scholars debate who Isaiah is even talking about when he mentions this child about to be conceived—maybe it is a reference to Ahaz’s own son, or maybe Isaiah himself will have another child with a prophetic name as he has in the past.
Of course, we all know Who the child is once we fast forward to the book of Matthew, and the angel quotes this very passage from Isaiah to Joseph, but in its first, original context, when Isaiah is talking to a man troubled by the threat of war, it seems to have a more immediate promise attached to it, that a child will be born soon, and Ahaz will not face the war he is fearing. So, this promise that God is with us serves sort of like a double sign, a meaning right then and there for Ahaz, and then another meaning for Mary and Joseph and the rest of the world later. It is a promise that gets recycled and reinterpreted in a new era with new and even richer meaning the second time around.
Nearly all God’s signs are like that. They are hard to nail down with precision, and they get repeated over and over, but the meaning is often the same. When God gives a sign, it means, “God is with us.” It often means, “Stop trying so hard. God is with us.” The signs mean, “You are loved.” The signs mean, “We are not alone.” The signs mean, “God has not forgotten you; God has not abandoned us.” The signs mean, “You can stop panicking now. You can trust.” The signs, like angels, mean, “Fear not.”
You can go through life like Ahaz, leery of signs, afraid to ask for them, timid to hear out a prophet, content to shake in the wind of your fear rather than put your hope in shifty signs. But as best I can tell, the faithful live by signs that God is with us.
Which leaves us with the question: What are the signs of our times that God is with us? I don’t know about you, but I see the signs when I listen to heartfelt poetry. I see the signs when I see the courageous responses people have to tragedy. I see the signs when we retell stories of breakthrough from the Civil Rights movement. I see the signs when I watch a documentary like the one I did last week about the push for the ordination of Roman Catholic women to the priesthood. I see the signs when I am cared for with love and grace and kindness by my church as I go through divorce. I see the signs when I hear your voices singing, and I see the signs when we shower a family in need with Christmas gifts. I see the signs when I watch an underdog rise to victory. I see the signs when I hear about ethical business practices being instated in a company or when I read about creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable issues. I see the signs when I witness the changing seasons. I see the signs when I hear startling accounts of reconciliation, and I see the signs when I watch someone find her voice. I see the signs. Do you?
I think we are a people who need signs. Not writing-on-the-wall signs, not billboard-sized signs, just something to signal to us that it’s going to be okay. Something to remind us, Spirit is on the move. Something to nudge us back towards trust. Something to hint God is nearby, God is here, God is coming.
I say: Ask God for signs and don’t be shy. Ask because God will give them. Ask because seeing the signs will point the way to what your part in it is. Ask because the signs are there, but most of us need a little vision adjustment to bring them into focus. Ask because this is the season for signs. Ask because it will not weary God to hear your voice, saying with urgency, “I need a little help over here, if I’m gonna stick with it.”
It is all open to interpretation; I get that. Signs are not a black and white business. Like Mary, we will have to ponder these things in our hearts. Like Mary, we may wonder, “How can this be?” Like Mary, we may face the wonders of child-birthing and witness the grief of cross-bearing all in the same wild and messy life, and nothing else will see us through but the signs.
When in doubt about the meaning of a sign, name it Emmanuel. Name it “God is with me.” Name it “God with us.” Don’t shy away; ponder the mysteries until they embrace you. Amen.