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Extraordinarily Common
a sermon based on Isaiah 7:10-16,  Matthew 1:18-23
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Our lesson today reminds me of Woody Allen’s sage advice to a graduating class a number of years ago (my paraphrase): "You’re at a fork in the road, students: one path leads to nuclear holocaust; the other path to complete annihilation; may God give you the wisdom to make the right choice." King Ahaz in our lesson this morning can probably see his two choices from the royal veranda. Looking southward toward Egypt, he watches as hordes of Egyptian troops advance on the city. On the other side--facing northward--he sees even more insurgents swooping down from Damascus. The view is so awe-inspiring that royal courage has slumped into royal cowardice. Ahaz is shaking worse than cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. May God give Ahaz the wisdom to make the right choice.

And as it happens, that’s just what happens; for at that very moment, God enters with wisdom for cowardly kings.

Isaiah announces, "God says, ‘Ask me for an impossible sign--in heaven or on earth--and I will grant it. What? You want for me to part the Red Sea again? Turn the moon to cheese? Rain down frogs? Flood the valley with milk? Just ask me for any sign you can imagine!

Now this is not the first time that God has provided a sign--a revelatory symbol of reassurance--to inspire faith and trust when someone really needed it. God once called out to the cowardly Gideon, "Hey, you mighty man of valor . . ." Gideon looks over his shoulder certain that God was speaking to the janitor. But no, God had come on the scene in the midst of a national emergency with the promise to help get Gideon and his community out of the present jam.

But in this case Gideon initiates the request--"Could you, like, turn this handful of fleece into a sponge that is drenched with water while the grass all around it is bleach-bone dry?" Sure thing. The next morning God has granted the sign.

What an extraordinary sign!

"But maybe that was a freak of nature or something," this mighty man of valor wonders. "How about the opposite this time, God?"

"Okay; sure, fine."

Sure enough, the following morning the grass drips with dew while the fleece is fluffy dry. How extraordinary! How convincing! Atheists would have a tough time remaining in their calling given such unique signs.

Yet even that extraordinary sign doesn’t do the trick for cowardly lion Gideon. It will take yet another sign--overhearing two of the enemy expressing their fears--to finally convince Gideon that God has promised to be with him in battle.

At this moment I am involved in an ecclesiastical trial as Counsel for the Church. I feel more Gideon and Ahaz on most days than mighty representative of the ministers in our conference. The stakes are high--a high profile case, an open trial, and revolving around one of the hottest debates that is raging in our country. The outcome could trigger similar trials across the country. As the trial has loomed closer the calls have come in from reporters, anxious pastors, special interest groups, high visibility personalities, and friends.

One Sunday several weeks ago just when I was feeling intense duress and stress as I was preparing for this trial, a member from the congregation I pastor left an envelope on my desk. Inside was a symbol: five stones buried inside her 2 year old’s sock. "Just wanted you to know that as God was with David, so you can trust that God will be with you as you face this trial." So I have carried those five stones in that little sock around in my coat pocket to remind me when I feel especially inadequate and unsure, that God is with me no matter how things turn out.

Not all signs are created equal, however. I just missed winning the grilled cheese on Ebay that purportedly had an image of Mary the Mother of Jesus on it. A casino bought it for $28,000. (I stopped at $28.00). Extraordinary--yes--at least in the price it garnered. A sign? Well . . . Sometimes our seeking for signs can end in disaster. "Give us a sign from heaven, Jesus, then we’ll believe you," said some religious leaders to Jesus on several occasions. Jesus’ response clearly indicated that sign-mongers will rarely what they crave.

In our story, God initiates the sign; opens heaven and earth to Ahaz and says, "Ask me for a sign--anything you can imagine, and I’ll grant it."

How would you have responded? What sign would you have asked for? A Roman general, facing his own uncertain battle, once dreamed a strange dream. In it he looked up in the sky and saw the sky covered with crosses; he took that as sign that the Lord of the Christians would help them win the battle. So he had the troop’s shields painted with that cross and the banners bore the sign he had seen. Constantine came forth victorious and from that moment on, favored Christianity among all the religions of the Empire.

What an extraordinary sign!

Ahaz eventually responds to this grand offer to ask for an extraordinary sign. "Well, gosh, God, I ah think that, well, I don’t need a sign; that would be testing you." Ahaz puts on his pious mask and pulls a spiritual on God! We ministers do that all the time. You want to help me? Oh no, that’s all right; really. I’m happy to do it. How are we doing? Oh, I’m sure we’ll reach our goal--you’ve given enough; I just couldn’t take it.

God reads the riot act to the pious act. Neither is Isaiah pleased with Ahaz’ response. In fact, Isaiah breaks off from being the divine mouthpiece to being his own mouthpiece: "C’mon, stop masking your disbelief with bravado, Ahaz; you’re scared and afraid to ask God for a sign, because you think it won’t come."

"Okay, Ahaz, God will personally give you a sign."

Ahaz probably rubs his hands together. "Good, God’s going to give me an awesome sign of reassurance!"

"There it is--the sign!" Ahaz squints his eyes in the same direction. "Where? I don’t see any sign."

"Look at that woman walking past us."

"Okay, I see her--she’s about seven months pregnant, so what? So where’s the sign?"

Isaiah says, "that’s it!"

That’s it? A woman in her third trimester?

"Yeah. She’s going to have a baby boy and guess what she’s going to name him?"

"Haven’t a clue."

"Immanuel--get it? God-with-us," says Isaiah. "And by the time the kid is weaned, your enemies will no longer bother you."

The sign gives Ahaz much-needed hope and the entire community is buoyed up every time some pregnant woman walks down the street--everyone is reminded of God’s promise to help. The name alone embodied for this king and community the symbol of God’s saving presence.

Isn’t that what the Advent and Christmas season really means to us--when all the wrapping and Christmas lights are packed away again? We have in an extraordinarily ordinary sign--a baby--the promise that God comes to be Immanuel once again.

In the Isaiah passage, this obscure prophecy reflects a divine pattern and characteristic--that from generation to generation God comes to us when we just don’t have the faith to trust or to ask God for a sign of saving presence. But the remarkable thing about it is that God doesn’t come on the scene to wow us with cosmic alterations or terrestrial tectonic shifts, but in very common--very unextraordinary--ways.

Sometimes it’s a cup and bread. Common enough, we use the stuff nearly every day in life. But every once in awhile God comes to us through those ordinary things and reassures us that Immanuel has just entered the room and into our lives.

Sometimes the sign is in a word spoken in season. Or a gesture that welcomes. A word that heals. Or five stones buried in a two year old’s sock. Just never know what sign God will give you to remind and reassure you that you are never, never alone in this world.

So hear the Good News: As God spoke to Ahaz a word of presence, so God is present with you in the sign of the Son. In a new birth, in a new start, in the pregnancy of new things, God will be with us.

I recently received a letter from our bishop concerning the upcoming trial. In the letter he quoted one of John Wesley’s most memorable sayings, "And best of all," Wesley wrote, "God is with us."

Immanuel--God is present--God is near--God is with--us. Amen.