“Signs & Wonders”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, December 18, 2022
Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
Have you ever asked God for a sign?
I’ve asked a lot. When I was a kid on the basketball court, I’d take an impossibly long shot. If it went in, God wanted me to do x. If not, y. Or like other Bible nerds, I’ve also opened the Bible to some random place, put my finger down, and sought guidance that way. When my grandmother died, I so wanted reassurance, I prayed that I’d dream about her. Lord, a sign, please.
I guess I don’t have to tell you . . . none of these things worked. Yet the Bible is full of signs and wonders, we especially hear about them this time of year.
Some of you have asked what my vision is for TEMC. It’s a little early to answer, but I’ll tell you of a church’s vision in the north of England. Their plan was to speak the name of Jesus, to glorify the name, and to expect signs and wonders. Appropriate for this time of year. Maybe we can borrow that one for now. That church has been transfigured from empty to full for two services, largely with refugees from Iran and northern Iraq. Visitors from the east, timely. God is always doing signs and wonders. They may just be in places where we’re not looking.
In our passage from Isaiah, God appears to Ahaz, king of Judah. And makes an offer. “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as hell or high as heaven.” Go ahead, ask for a sign, anything you’d like. And King Ahaz . . . refuses. He even quotes the Bible to do it! “I will not put the Lord to the test,” quoting Deuteronomy, God’s own book back in God’s face. I gotta tell y’all if God appears to me and asks what sign I’d like, I’m not throwing away that shot.
But King Ahaz had a reason not to want a sign from God. Ahaz already had a plan. What’s the old joke? How do you make God laugh? Make a plan. Ahaz’s kingdom of Judah is in trouble. The northern kingdom of Israel is allying itself with a historic enemy, Aram, against Judah. It may seem strange that Israel is Judah’s enemy, they’re both descended from Abraham Isaac and Jacob, together they make up the 12 tribes, but then again, maybe not. You’re in a family, right? There’s rivalry, right? You can imagine one faction going to war against another, right? Enjoy Christmas, by the way. Israel, the ten northern tribes, is allying with a historic enemy, and the two together will fight against King Ahaz of Judah.
Now if there’s anything the Lord can’t stand, it’s alliances with foreign peoples. God hates that. Forming an alliance requires trusting the foreign peoples’ gods, usually with some sort of idolatrous ceremony. And to make an alliance is to seek to be safer. In other words, it’s to avoid relying on God for protection. In Isaiah 7, God promises that this alliance of Israel and Aram will come to nothing. King Ahaz doesn’t believe it. So, he seeks his own alliance to deliver Judah. It won’t work. God is begging the king: ‘now listen,’ offering a sign to prove that God can be trusted, and Ahaz won’t have it.
Which is a little like when I’ve asked for a sign. I’ve wanted God to do what I want. No luck. Ahaz doesn’t want a sign because his mind is made up, he doesn’t want God objecting to his plan. We treat God like a mascot too, like a crystal ball, a good luck charm. We want God to bless our pet projects, to make what we want happen. We treat God like a butler, whom we summon with a bell. ‘Ah good yes do this for me wouldn’t you my good man? Off you go.’
And in the middle of all this 8th century middle eastern political intrigue, we have this promise: “the Lord himself will give you a sign.” Like it or not, king, a sign is coming. Here it is. “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” This is really important for us Christians. It’s how we understand Mary, Jesus, the whole kit n’ caboodle. The story in Isaiah is about Ahaz closing his ears to God. But the story in Christianity is about Mary opening her ears to God and becoming great with child.
And that has to be my very favourite phrase in the whole English language. “Great with child.” So much cooler than just saying someone’s pregnant, or even expecting, radiant as those are. Great-with-child speaks to a whole new world getting born.
Now you may know this phrase, “a virgin shall be with child,” is controversial. It’s a translation of the Greek Old Testament text, commonly used at the time. But the Hebrew version just says a young woman shall be with child. Those two words often get conflated in many languages and cultures, virgin and young woman. Our Jewish neighbours especially point to this verse as one we Christians have misunderstood, if only we knew a little Hebrew, we’d know it never meant virgin. Our Christian ancestors would say back, it’s promising a miracle, and there’s not much miracle to a young woman getting pregnant, that’s in fact the way these things always happen.
Religion. Get two of us in a room and we have three opinions.
During the Civil Rights movement, some rabbis and some Christian clergy marched together and were jailed together, advocating for the dignity of all people. Once they were in jail, with nothing to do but wait, they could debate. That’s the right place to argue. When you’ve suffered for your vulnerable neighbour, then you can do a little interpretation of Isaiah. If the room with the two religions and three opinions is a jail cell, have all the opinions you like.
But maybe we Christians were wrong to say a young woman being with child is normal. It’s actually a miracle that any of us is here. The odds against us existing at all are astronomical. That our two parents would meet, get together, that one particular egg and one particular seed would meet, that we’d survive pregnancy and life and be together in this room now. This configuration of humans will never exist again in the history of the world. If we paid attention we’d be floored, staggered, all the time. No one could calculate the odds against all that. And yet here we all are. WH Auden said “Nothing that is possible can save us. We who must die demand a miracle.” We’ve had a couple of tiny babies around here lately. I got to baptize a few last week. I love being able to pick up a child not your own, smell their baby smell, kiss their little head, stare into their eyes and tell them how beautiful they are. After they’re a certain age if you do this, it’s weird. But with newborns it’s perfectly okay, expected even. That one’s a miracle too. And so is the one doing the holding and cooing.
Let’s be clear. The passage we read is not knowingly looking forward to the Son of God and saviour of the world. It’s just hoping to avoid a war with regional powers, no small ambition that, just ask Ukraine. But here’s what God does. God reaches into the ordinary and makes something extraordinary out of it. ‘You’re hoping to avoid a war,’ God says. Good. ‘I’m planning on getting born and saving the world.’ Anytime anyone has a child it’s a win for humanity. I like to congratulate total strangers who are great with child. They never seem unhappy. When Jaylynn was pregnant once I had had back surgery and couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds. She’d waddle out of the grocery store with all our bags, and I’d walk out holding nothing. Total strangers would say rude things. I didn’t blame them. Every pregnant woman is carrying our whole future. How much more so when God is the one in that womb? When that pregnant mom, flush with radiance on her cheeks, is the mother of God?
This is our last Sunday of Advent. A week from today will be Christmas morning, a whole new season. I’ll miss Advent. Advent is when we prepare for the coming of Christ. We do it right in here with decorations and fanfare. But Advent runs concurrently with the shopping season, so we can lose some of what makes Advent distinctive. Advent is anticipation . . . for Christ’s coming again. In his first coming, Christ heals, preaches, dies, and rises. But he didn’t make everything right yet. For that, he has to come back. One of the best Jewish objections to Jesus being messiah is simply to say this: look out the window. Does the world look repaired? Well, world repair is the messiah’s job, so . . . Our awkward answer is this: repair started with Jesus. It’ll finish when he returns. Apparently world repair is a story that comes in two parts. Weird, awkward, but . . . true. Advent is a hope that looks past Christmas to a new dawn that is not yet, but we promise is coming. Christ will repair everything we have ruined, just y’all wait.
But that brings up something else awkward. You know how folks were surprised at Christ’s first coming? God promises a saviour king, and what we get is a baby, a weird preacher, a dead man on a cross? We went back and said, oh yeah, that was the plan all along. But there’s no doubting it—the saviour we got, Jesus—was a surprise. Here’s the question. . . Will we be just as surprised at his second coming? I mean, we have expectations. He’ll make right everything that’s now wrong. Not a broken thing in creation he won’t fix. I think we’re right about all that. But we’ve been surprised before. Won’t we be again? And just how much distance will there be between what we expect and what comes?
No one knows. No one.
Someone wise says the difference between a living God and a dead one is a living God can surprise you. Only dead gods, idols, are perfectly predictable. But the living God can pull a fast one. Say oh, yeah, uh, sorry, decided to do a new thing. Don’t worry, trust me, it’ll be better than you imagined.
One great rabbi who marched in those rallies with King was Abraham Joshua Heschel. He liked to say that Jews and Christians agree the messiah is coming one day. One of us says he hasn’t been here before. The other says he has. So, Heschel proposed this in that jail cell: when the messiah comes, we can ask him, have you been here before? And he, Rabbi Heschel, plans to run up and whisper into the messiah’s ear, please, for God’s sake, don’t answer.
And at the center of all this is Mary, an ordinary Jewish girl from nowhere important. After she agrees to God’s wild way of saving the world, Mary finally gets a moment alone. And she prays. She’s poor, only informally educated, but her prayer shows she’s far from unintelligent. It’s a synopsis of all the hopes of Israel. It’s called the Magnificat. And it’s a dangerous prayer. So dangerous, in fact, when the British East India company took the Book of Common Prayer or the Bible to India in colonial days, they ripped the pages with the Magnificat out. This prayer could start a revolution. Here it is in your bulletin, say it with me, would you? If you dare.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Now that might be the best prayer anywhere in the Bible. It’s steeped in the wisdom of Israel: especially Hannah’s prayer when she learns she’s great with the child Samuel. Mary’s been listening, long before Gabriel showed up, so she’s ready to pray one powder keg of a prayer. Some quote it online and then tease, no, this isn’t Karl Marx. It’s Mary of Nazareth. I mentioned the Mary is my homegirl t-shirt last week. There’s another I like even more. It says, “hail Mary, full of grace, punch the devil in the face.”
See, there are roughly two ways to talk about God lifting up the poor. Only one of them is good news for most of us. In one view, the poor are brought up to the level of the rest of us. This costs us nothing, it just equalizes everybody. This is like some visions of capitalism: more wealth benefits everybody, rising tide lift all boats. And sure enough there’s been no economic engine better for lifting the poor out of poverty than the free market. Communist efforts so far have not made everyone equally wealthy; they’ve just made everyone equally miserable. But there’s another way to talk about lifting up the poor. Not a rising tide that floats all boats, but a sort of seesaw, for one group to rise, the other must fall. The rich and the poor switching sides. And I have to tell you, Mary of Nazareth sounds more like a seesaw than a rising tide. Y’all prayed this with me just a minute ago.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Is this good news? It depends on where you stand. If you stand like me in the upper middle class of one of the richest countries in the history of the world, it might not be good news. But if you’re outside that tiny sliver of humans, the seesaw is probably good news for you.
Notice this too. Mary doesn’t even appear in her own prayer. Neither does Jesus, the church. When Mary prays it’s not personal. She prays a prayer of economic and political upheaval. In the black church they often sing of the bottom rail being on the top next time. That’s what Mary asks for. A world where poor peasant girls are queens. And those formerly in charge must learn how to beg for the first time.
I don’t know how to imagine this. But let me try. When Jewish people lose someone they love, they have an obligation. They have to pray. The prayer is called the kaddish, a mourners’ prayer. Relatives go to synagogue and pray it for months. On Saturdays at schul anyone in mourning stands for kaddish. It goes like this: “exalted and sanctified be God’s great name. In the world God created according to his will. May he establish his kingdom. May his salvation blossom and his anointed be near.” It goes on like that, a prayer about God, not us. Nothing about mourning, about the loss, about the grief. No, when someone suffers a crushing blow, the God of Israel gives them a prayer that’s not about them at all. It’s about God healing of the world God loves. Maybe Mary’s prayer is like that. She doesn’t pray about the scandal of being pregnant unmarried, the glory of God getting born through her. No, she prays for a world in which the poor are full and the over-full like me learn hunger.
Lemme try this. Where I’m from in North Carolina we get hurricanes. Every fall you plan things loosely, storms are comin’. Once there was a fancy wedding planned, every delicacy ordered. A storm came thundering down the bowling alley of the Atlantic, and bam. Hit hard. Wedding off. But the hotel already had this food set out when the party was cancelled. So, what’d they do? Well, who’s in town and hungry? People with resources are hunkered down, not going out. Someone said, call the shelter. And Durham’s homeless, its resourceless, went to its finest hotel and dined on caviar and coq au vin. And somewhere, Mary smiled. Her prayer answered, just a little. The incarnation is a hurricane, smashing into our way of doing things. And God’s dearest friends, the poor, dine like kings.
I’m gonna admit something to y’all. Most of my prayers are pretty small. They’re for my family, my work, my success. My my my. Those are fine, pray whatever is on your heart, it’s not hidden from God anyway, God wants your good. But I look at how Mary prays and . . . wow. She prays for so much more. Sometimes I think I even pray to manipulate God. So . . . if I pray the right thing, you’ll give me what I want, right? As if God can be tricked. What if instead I learn to pray from the girl from Nazareth? Start by memorizing her prayer and praying it, until its words affect the rest of our imagination. Prayer is so important God doesn’t let us make it up for ourselves. God gives us prayers. Our Father, who art in heaven. Good. You know that one. Learn this one too. My soul magnifies the Lord. And look and see whether the poor aren’t lifted up a little, and the mighty start to quake.
I started out talking about signs. There’s a scene from a Steve Martin movie where he’s a widower considering another marriage. And he stands before a portrait of his deceased wife and prays to her (not exactly orthodox, but hey, it’s a Hollywood comedy). And he says, ‘Dear, if you don’t want me to re-marry, give me a sign. Anything. But tell me now.’ And the picture starts to move. The house starts to shake. The lights flash on and off and a voice screams: “No!” The picture starts to spin around, and his hair blows back. When it all stops, he looks no different. ‘Okay then since there’s no sign, I’ll marry her. Here let me straighten this picture.’ Most of the time when I ask for a sign, I want to be God and I want God to be my servant. Here, fix this, do that, make the world the one I want. Here’s prayer according to Mary: God, make us the world you want. And I’ll do anything, anything, to help make that happen.