The Sign: An Advent Reflection

Joseph the Carpenter and King Ahaz of Judah might not seem as if they have much in common, but in fact they're both confronted with a confounding claim: a child as the sign of God's presence.

Isaiah 7:10-17

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you[c] a sign: The virgin[d] will conceive and give birth to a son, and[e] will call him Immanuel.[f] 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[d]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[e] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[f] because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[g] (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

This morning’s sermon is really a story.

Actually, it’s two stories—about two men, living in the same city, approximately 735 years apart. They’re relatives: a 15-times-great grandfather; a 15-times-great grandson.

But they couldn’t be more different.

One is a powerful king. The other is a humble, perhaps impoverished, carpenter.

Both face the most difficult decision of their lives.

Both receive some fairly ludicrous advice.

Both respond in completely opposite ways.

This story is called THE SIGN.

And as I tell it, I invite you to lean back, listen closely, and imagine yourself right in the middle of it all…

* * *

It’s 735 BC. You’re Ahaz, the King of Judah. Can you put on your crown?

You live in Jerusalem. You rule over a small city state close to two much more significant political powers that are constantly at war with each other—Damascus and Assyria.

A couple hundred years back, your kingdom had a really bad break-up with the kingdom to your north, Israel. Civil wars are always the most brutal, and the blood still boils hot. Now you have a tendency to invade each other, even though you believe in the same God and have the same prophets. It’s ugly. You don’t get along.

But there’s an even bigger threat: Assyria.

And now the king of Israel has come to you, the King of Judah, to strike a deal. He says, “Hey, Ahaz. These Assyrians are suuuuuuper sketchy. They’re trying to conquer everyone. Let’s team up with Damascus and fight them off, okay?”

But you don’t really trust Israel. And anyway, you realize that Assyria is HUGE—here’s some context—

—and you figure that your small army isn’t going to make much difference, so what do you say?

Exactly, you’re like, oh, haha, that’s a big fat NOPE.

* * *

Cut to a change of scene.

It’s the year 0. You’re Joseph, a carpenter, and you also live in Jerusalem. Although your 15-times great grandfather was King Ahaz and you’re descended from a royal line, you don’t think about that very much. You don’t have any power, or really, any money. You’re just a regular guy with a regular life. Day after day you do what regular guys do: get up, eat breakfast, go to work, and maybe after work spend some time with your fiancée, Mary.

One day, Mary sits you down. She can’t meet your eyes. Finally, she stammers out, “I’m pregnant,” and pauses to let the news sink in.

You’re shocked. You know you’re not the father, because you’re a good Jewish boy, and you weren’t planning to have marital relations until after you were, well, married.

You’re heartbroken. You’re angry. The betrayal stings. You know that your religious duty is to make a big deal out of it, to break the engagement publicly, to say, This woman is impure, unfaithful.

But then you look at Mary.

Perhaps Mary is pleading with you, “Please don’t tell everyone about this. Please just keep it a secret.” Or maybe she’s just weeping silently, too afraid to say anything at all.

Either way, your anger softens—you don’t want to disgrace her, and even though people don’t just cancel engagements, you consider breaking up with her privately. Let her go to her cousin’s to have the baby, where she can put it up for adoption or something. Just tell the neighbors it didn’t work out. They’ll look at you funny, maybe judge you a little, but you can handle that. Nobody has to know.

On the other hand, your honor is at stake.

You’re conflicted. What do you do?

* * *

Back to Ahaz. Assyria still looms large—and now Israel and Damascus are threatening you for refusing their alliance.

So you do what shrewd statesmen have done throughout the ages: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Align with the larger power and hope to high heaven they don’t destroy you.

Sure, it might mean making some religious compromises—sacrificing to the Assyrian god, Moloch, defiling the temple with Assyrian idols—but religion has to come second when you’re dealing with matters of life and death.

There’s just one problem.


He’s this really annoying guy who’s always meddling in things. He’s always saying stuff like, Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow; trust in God, not yourself. He goes so far as to accuse you—the king—of having hands full of blood! He says God doesn’t accept your sacrifices or your worship of him, because you haven’t trusted enough in God! He says you’ve turned your back on God!

You think, Like, okay, dude, while you’re out there self-righteously condemning me, I’m over here trying to keep us alive! Right? This is politics, not the boy scouts! What naivete! Is it ideal to align with Assyria? No. Is it necessary? YES. Life is messy, sometimes you have to do your best with the hand you’ve been dealt.

So one day, you’re out tending to extremely important kingdom business, when Isaiah comes up to you and says, “Ahaz, listen. You’re right not to align with Israel and Damascus, but don’t align with Assyria either. Don’t make deals with the devil. God’s got us! We’re going to be okay! We can trust God.

Then he says something that sounds almost threatening: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”

You look at Isaiah. You sigh. This guy, you think.

And before you can even respond, Isaiah tries another tactic, “Ask for a sign, Ahaz. Anything in the entire world. God will give it to you, to prove to you that he can be counted on. Ask for anything you want—whether on earth or in hell or in heaven. What do you want, Ahaz? God will give you anything you want.”

You want sic your guards on him, that’s what you want, but you’re a good diplomat who understands political realities—unlike this wacko—so you deftly refuse him.

“Thanks Isaiah,” you say, “but I’m not going to ask for a sign. In Deuteronomy, we are told not to put God to the test.”

You turn back to your work, certain you’ve outwitted him by turning his own scriptures against him, but to your supreme annoyance you can feel him still standing there, looking at you.

* * *

Just like Mary is still standing there, looking at you.

Your mercy gets the better of you, and even though you’re reeling from her news, you make her a promise: Yes, okay, I’ll break up with you privately.

She looks down at the ground, thanks you. You shrug and grunt a response. You’re not in the mood to talk.

That night, you head home, weary and depressed. If only there were a pint of ice cream in the freezer (if only they’d invented ice cream by then). You lie in bed, and when your mother comes in to inquire about what’s wrong, you tell her you just want to be alone.

You’ve just drifted off to sleep when suddenly there’s a light in the room, and it grows brighter and brighter.

It’s a dream, but it’s the most real dream you’ve ever experienced. Standing in front of you is a messenger from God—terrifying and utterly incomprehensible.

You’re too afraid to say anything, and the messenger speaks first. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”

You blink. What?

The messenger continues: “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

You blink again. DOUBLE WHAT?

He concludes, “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

And as soon as you look again, he’s gone.

When you awaken the next morning, you rub your eyes and marvel about what a weird dream that was. You can barely even process what you heard. Was that your mind playing tricks on you, or was it something more?

* * *

Isaiah won’t take no for an answer. Now he’s yelling at you.

“Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of God also?”

You roll your eyes, try to pretend he’s not there, but he continues: “You’ve rejected God’s offer of a sign, but God will give you a sign anyway!”

He points to a woman off the side of the road:

Do you see her? he says. She’s going to give birth to a son! And before the boy is even two years old, these two kingdoms you fear, Israel and Damascus, will be obliterated! The boy is a sign, and you’ll know it by his name: GOD-WITH-US.

He turns and leaves you there and you scoff, both annoyed and afraid.

A child? As the sign from God?

It’s the most ludicrous thing you’ve ever heard.

You think, If a child is all God’s got, if a child is God-With-Us, it’s better to partner with Assyria anyway.

You’re decided: you’ll make whatever deal you have to, thinking all the time, This is why religious zealots make terrible politicians.

But history won’t remember you kindly. For your compromises, and particularly your idolatry, you will become known as one of Judah’s most wicked kings—and upon your death, you won’t even be given a royal burial.

* * *

735 years later. You’re still in bed. You still can’t believe what you dreamed.

A child conceived by the Holy Spirit? A son who will save his people from their sins? It’s the most ludicrous thing you’ve ever heard.

You’re about to shake it off, to chalk it up to an overactive imagination, to wishful thinking about Mary, when you remember.

A story from many generations back—one that’s been passed down through the ages, who can say if it’s even true, you know how it is with old family lore—of a 15-times great grandfather who was given the sign of a child.

A child who would be named GOD IS WITH US.

You’ve never really understood what the story meant. It was always so confusing, so strange. In the midst of war, with foreign powers breathing down your great-grandfather’s neck, of all the things on earth and in hell and in heaven, God gave the sign of a child?

A child is the sign of God’s power?

A child is the sign of God’s presence?

A child is meant to show us that GOD IS WITH US?

And in an instant, as strange and as ludicrous as it sounds, something bubbles up in you, like a realization, like delight, like you can’t believe you never got it before, because it’s so clear, it’s so plain.

Yes, of course it’s a child. Because God’s power is holy and vulnerable, like a small baby.

Because God shows up in sorrow, in shame, like a child in an unwed mother’s womb.

Because if God were to come, it wouldn’t be in a blaze of gunfire, but on a quiet night to a young mother and her gentle fiancé, trembling with love and awe.

Of course this is the sign, because no other sign could capture quite as well the spectacular, absurd, unbounded love of God.

And now you understand your dream, too.

The child in Mary’s womb is the fulfillment of the sign given to your great-grandfather so many years ago. The sign that love is stronger than war. Hope is stronger than despair. Faithfulness is stronger than deluded self-reliance.

The sign that when God triumphs—and, now you see plainly, God will—it won’t be through violence, but through mercy.

You arise. You go to Mary. You marry her, her stomach already swelling with the source of all life and hope.

And when the baby is born, you hold him close to your chest, weeping at the miracle of it all—this child, the one who will save his people, who will save all people, God’s glory and power cradled in your arms, asleep, this promised Messiah, this GOD WITH US, this sign named Jesus.

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