In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s sort of a cliché, but you still see it in some shows and movies: the person at the end of his rope, at the lowest point, crying out, “God, just give me a sign!” Show me what You’re doing, or what You’re telling me, or what I’m supposed to do. Just give me a sign. I did see that down on Sunset Highway, there’s a sign that says, “You asked for a sign. –God.” Clever, but maybe not what we’re looking for.
We’re looking for something spectacular, like lightning striking the earth, or a brilliant star in the sky, or some unmistakable event that will, once and for all, put all our doubts to rest. But it happens so rarely. What would we point to? A bush that burns but is not consumed? Smoke and fire and cloud on a mountain? Manna on the ground every morning? What would be enough for us? And look at the signs God does give. In Isaiah 7, Ahaz is worried about two united armies gathering for war against Judah. And God tells him not to worry, but to ask for a sign. Make it is as deep as Sheol—the place of the dead—or as high as heaven above. But Ahaz says, I will not put God to the test. I will not ask for a sign.
So God says, why do you weary Me? I will give you a sign, then. The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and shall call His name Immanuel, which is “God with us.” Okay, the virgin part is pretty impressive, but who would know about it? There have been plenty of people who have doubted or denied that Mary was a virgin. That’s not generally something that we go about proving. So we’re left with a Child called Immanuel as the sign that God will give. But when, many hundreds of years later, God gets around to actually giving the Child born of a virgin, what sign does He give that God is actually on earth among us? This will be the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
What kind of a sign is that? The manger part is sort of weird, but a baby as a sign? Something that happens thousands of times a day? A baby wrapped up in the same cloth that any newborn would have been wrapped in? I mean, God, if You want people to take Your salvation seriously, You might have to do better than a baby. There is nothing powerful, impressive, spectacular about a baby. And Mary gave birth the way every woman gives birth: not silently, and I doubt that it seemed particularly holy.
But this is the sign of God with us: weak, helpless, completely dependent, the same way each one of us entered this world. And the fact is, no one ever would have taken that as a sign of God’s presence if they hadn’t been told. Mary was told, Joseph was told, the shepherds were told. Even the magi, who had a star to follow, never would have made it to Bethlehem if the scribes in Jerusalem hadn’t pointed them in the right direction. God’s signs in this world are not the sort of signs that we naturally see as significant. God’s signs seem pretty ordinary. And we wouldn’t notice them or believe them or accept them if God didn’t tell us.
God’s signs are all about the Word. A virgin shall conceive. To you is born this day a Savior. Go find Him. He will be born in Bethlehem. Baptize people and teach them. Forgive their sins. Eat and drink this flesh and blood. Not spectacular, not particularly impressive, unnoticed by those who cannot see and unheard by those who cannot hear. But these are the signs of God, so that we will have no doubt about where to find Him. Simply listen. Hear the Word of the Lord. He has given His signs so that we will know where to find Immanuel and worship Him.
Not in a manger any more, as a little baby. Not on the cross any more, as a dying man. But Jesus is still Immanuel, still God with us. And that Jesus will be found under the sign of water so we know how His death and resurrection come to us. He will be found under the sign of words so we know where His forgiveness is found. He will be found under the signs of bread and wine so we know where His Body and Blood will be found. We ask for signs and God has given them—maybe not the ones we would have chosen, but His own divine signs, nonetheless. And it is in this way that we know what He’s doing, what He’s telling us, and what we should hear and do.
So, all you faithful, come and worship Him where He has promised to be. Come and worship Him: Immanuel, Christ the Lord.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/24/18