Sermon for December 18, 2016: Send us a sign (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen to sermon here:

Many of you have probably already heard the news story about the very religious man who was caught in a flood.  He climbed onto the roof of his house and waited for God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”  “No thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  A short time later a police boat came by. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”  “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  Finally, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead and let down a rescue swimmer who said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”  “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”  All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he got to heaven he angrily confronted God, saying, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I trusted you to save me from that flood and you let me die.” “Listen” replied the Lord. “I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter.  What else did you want”?

It’s an old joke, but, like all good jokes, it says a lot about human nature.  I don’t know if this joke was around in the eighth century before the Common Era, but it seems like King Ahaz could have benefited from hearing it.  Unlike other rulers throughout history who have asked God to send them a sign of God’s favor, Ahaz refused to ask for a sign because he didn’t want “to put the Lord to the test.”  On the surface, this seems like a good decision on Ahaz’s part.  But, when you look at the context in which this exchange between Isaiah and Ahaz happened, you begin to see Ahaz’s response in a different light.  He was not demonstrating his faith, but his fear.

Ahaz was the king of the southern country of Judah, which was one half of what had been the great Israelite kingdom under Solomon.  Israel had joined together with another northern kingdom to attack Judah, and Ahaz was worried about the coming conflict.  When he called his resident prophet, Isaiah, for help, Isaiah told him not to worry about it – that God would take care of it.  But Ahaz had already made an agreement with the Assyrian king – and he decided it was wiser to bet on that concrete political pact than some vague commitment from a far-away God.

It’s a decision many of us might have made.  What are you going to trust – a rational, human alliance that will keep your people from being slaughtered, or the vague word of a crazy religious leader? But God does not like being refused, so God told Ahaz he’d get a sign anyway – a very ambiguous one. “On the one hand, Immanuel’s birth [would] mean the end of Ahaz’s enemies,” but it would also end with the Assyrian king taking advantage of the alliance and conquering…Judah.”[1]  Isaiah’s prophecy – both for Ahaz and as a sign portending Christ’s birth, was a double-edged sword.  It shows us “a God who is both comforting and disturbing, threatening and assuaging.  [In other words], the God of Isaiah 7 is the God we know in Jesus Christ.”[2]

It is a God who does not always speak to us in the way we would hope.  In an age in which we communicate in a maximum of 918 characters (if you text) and often as little as 140 (if you tweet), God’s way of talking to us through someone else seems annoyingly unclear.  “We live in an age of promiscuous communication”[3] – one in which we are in such a hurry to get answers and leap into action that we feel comfortable leaving out a simple “Hi, how you doing”? and moving straight to the heart of the matter.  We are efficient, if not polite.  That’s why today’s reading from Romans, which consists entirely of Paul’s greeting to the community, sounds to our ears like the voices of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon – “mwah, mwah.”

That’s why it’s so easy to miss the part where Paul talks about what it feels like to be called by God- to “belong to Jesus Christ.”  That’s a shame, because, in a season in which we are bombarded with messages about what we want, what we need, and, most importantly, what we must hurry up and buy, it would probably be a relief to know that we have already been given the greatest gift we will ever receive – the grace and peace of God.  That message is a quiet one.  Because although we will pull out all the stops at St. Clement’s to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the true message of Christmas comes to us – just as it did to Mary – only when we ponder it in our hearts.

That’s what Joseph had to do when he was presented with what was potentially the most significant decision of his life.  A devout man who faithfully followed the laws of his religion, Joseph was confronted with the embarrassing choice of what to do with a pregnant fiancé with whom he had had no “relations.”  Should he simply divorce her and let her go her way, saving her disgrace but potentially making him look weak and insincere in his religious beliefs, or allow her to be stoned to death for her sin?  But just when he decides to “quietly” dismiss her, he has a dream in which an angel tells him to go with “Option C” –to marry her and adopt her child who – by the way- will save the people from their sins.

We don’t have any information about Joseph’s initial reaction to this stunning event, but nowhere in this reading does it say that Joseph asked God for a sign.  We only know that, based on his dream, he decided to go ahead and marry his seemingly unfaithful betrothed and raise the child as his own.  I suspect that not many of us would have done the same.  From our modern perspective it seems completely irrational to make a significant life decision based on a dream.

But that is what faith is about – committing our lives to the principles that are tangible only in our hearts.  Let me be clear: I am not saying we should believe without evidence; what I am saying is that the evidence that is within us – our dreams, feelings and interactions with others – is just as valid as the scientific proofs we have come to rely on.  Joseph knew that.  Paul knew that.  And Ahaz forgot it – much to his later dismay.  God does not communicate with us the way we communicate with each other, but God does communicate with us.  God sends us the signs we would ask for before we can ask for them – and we ignore them.  John Glenn, astronaut and scientist, when viewing the earth from space said, “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.” For him, the beauty he saw and the technology that allowed him to see it were both signs from God.

I can’t tell you how God will communicate with you – I just know God will.  And I know that if you ignore it, you, like Ahaz, will regret it.  Because all God asks of us is this: to answer his call – to say “yes” to what she offers us – to choose to believe.  We are separated from the perfect comfort of God’s presence not by God’s unwillingness to hear or help us, but by our own refusal to take God’s help.  “Sin is the choice to minister to ourselves, rather than to allow the savior to minister to us.”[4]  That’s why sin hurts. As we draw near once again to our remembrance of the birth of that savior, let us open our hearts and listen to what God is offering to us-  and let us without fear and with great joy answer him, witness the light of her countenance, and be saved.  AMEN.

[1]Michael J. Chan (2016), “Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16,” in Preach this Week,


[3]David Wood (2010),  in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Advent IV), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 3277.

[4]Daniel Harris (2010),  in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Advent IV), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 3561.


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