Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Signifying Something

This week my newsletter article said:

A large percentage of our lives are directed by signs. Street signs tell us where we are, traffic signs tell us how to act toward other drivers, and businesses use signs to lure us toward purchasing their products. Gigantic billboards alert us to nearby attractions we might want to check out and once we arrive, the “Open” sign on the door will tell us if the place is available to us or not.
A sign is a signal for something else, and as such a sign is always referring away from itself. The point of any sign is not the sign, but rather the point is to indicate the presence of another. When a baseball catcher gives the sign, the play is not over but rather has just begun; the sign is given to indicate the type of pitch that will follow.
Isaiah 7 indicates that the Lord will give a sign: a young woman who is with child, a son who will be named Immanuel. Looking back at this prophecy through what we know of history, it is simple to associate this image with the birth of Jesus. In fact, Matthew quotes this prophecy in his birth narrative.
God’s presence is “Giving the Sign” this week. And it is a much holier, much more meaningful sign than any of the myriad of signs that direct us through our days. And it is much, much more important to be guided by THIS sign, God’s sign, the young woman about to have a baby, than by any other sign we might run across.
It’s all about the presence – Giving the Sign.

...and my further speculation is:

Yes, it IS easy to recognize that the sign Isaiah mentions is a sign of the incarnation. When we already know the next chapter of the story, it is easy to see how the current chapter of the story leads in that direction.

But what if we didn't know it? What does the sign mean for people who don't already know the next chapter, or is it only valuable for people who already believe in Jesus? Or to think about it a bit differently, what was the sign for people who lived before the birth of Jesus?

This is a specific prophecy about a specific historical situation. The story is paralelled in 2 Kings 16, and has to do with the reign of Ahaz in Judah. Ahaz was not a good king, and when he perceived a threat from two rival nations, he sought an alliance with Assyria. Now, what he probably shoulda done was trust in the Lord, and Isaiah's job was to tell him that.

"Ask for a sign," said the Lord to Ahaz. "I'll show you whom to trust."

"I'd rather not," responded Ahaz, trying to sound pious. "I don't want to put you to the test." But what he was probably thinking was, "O crud! If I ask for a sign, then God will show me one, since that's just the kind of thing God would do. Then, I'd be pretty much screwed."

"You are a moron," said Isaiah. "So God's going to give you a sign anyway. And this is it:

"A young woman is going to have a baby with a deeply symbolic name: God-is-with-us. And before that baby is old enough to know right and wrong (that is to say, pretty soon) the delicacy of curds and honey will be available to him, because the foreign armies in the land will no longer be a threat.

"Oh and by the way, you want Assyria? God will give you Assyria, all right! Only its not going to be an alliance you get; it will be a conquering army that will turn your beautiful fields into thorn bushes, and only a small remnant will remain alive."

The sign of the young woman about to have a baby, then, meant something to the people in that time, and should not be voided of that meaning completely. Clearly it is a Messianic prediction, but the fact that the sign points to the birth of Jesus does not mean it cannot point to other things, too.

- A reminder of God's presence even in times of trouble.
- The assurance that trouble is fleeting, but God's presence lasts beyond it.
- An admonition to trust in God, and God alone, for help in times of trouble.

I do wonder how often God sends us signs that we fail to see. But now I wonder how often God sends us a sign that we do in fact recognize, but we misinterpret because we think we already know what it means. And maybe the sign really does mean that, but does that fact necessarily mean the sign might not signify something else, as well?

My prayer this season is to remain open to all of the possibilities contained in each and every sign that God is sending, and to avoid limiting what God is trying to say by trying to squeeze it through my own narrow perspective.


Linda Fischer said...

Our pastor just got done doing an excellent sermon on these verses. but I went away with the same question. the statement about a virgin bearing a child had to mean something to them back then in addition to being a prophecy. thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

Linda Fischer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.