Sunday, December 19, 2010
Since this is my 100th post (woo hoo!) I wanted to do something special. But this sermon really spoke to me so I thought that I would share it with all of you for my 100th post. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with his permission.
There’s a difference between ‘asked for’ signs and ‘looked for’ signs. And we can explore this distinction in the life and work of one important religious figure from our own time. I’m referring, of course to the eminent priest, clairvoyant, Saturday Night Live character, and Dennis Campbell look alike, Fr. Guido Sarducci.
In case you missed it, Guido Sarducci returned to public life this October when he offered the benediction at the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the Washington D.C. Mall. And during his meandering prayer, he pointed out to God that since there are so many religions in the world, it’s kind of hard for us humans to figure out which one is the right one. So he asked God to send a sign. Fr. Guido would recite the names of the world’s religions, and then, he suggested, God might send a flock of swans to fly overhead when he got to God’s favorite.
Unfortunately the swans never showed up. So the prayer didn’t manage to cull the herd down to a single true faith. But Guido Sarducci’s swan request is a good example of the asked for sign. We ask God to send us a sign to prove that something is so.
Now, I was also watching about 20 years ago when Fr. Sarducci appeared on the David Letterman Show. As I recall, he was plugging his wildly unpopular instructional video, “Bocce Ball My Way”. And I have no idea why I remember this.
But the interview took place in December, so Fr. Guido also made several very specific predictions about the coming year in politics, sports, and the lives of several celebreties. After Fr. Guido finished his prophecies, Letterman asked when he first realized that he possessed these strange psychic powers.
He said, “Well, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I went to the supermarket with my mother. And as we were walking back to the car, my mother said, ‘Guido! I don’t have my pocketbook!’ And I said, ‘Well, Mom, maybe it’s back there in the supermarket.’ And when we went back inside, there it was sitting right beside the cash register.”
The supermarket miracle was not an asked for sign. It was a sign that had to be noticed. It was a looked for sign, one that clearly proved Guido Sarducci’s powers of clairvoyance, of course.
Now you may have reason to question the usefulness of the swan sign or the pocketbook sign. But you can see the distinction, can’t you? Usually signs are either things we ask for or things we look for.
In the seventh chapter of Isaiah, God tells King Ahaz to “ask a sign of the Lord, your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” As far as we know, the flock of swans was Guido Sarducci’s idea, not God’s. Ahaz is actually invited by God to ask for a sign, but he resists.
King Ahaz says, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” The response sounds pretty pious. But he was probably avoiding the test because he didn’t want to hear what God was going to tell him. Ahaz was king of Judah, and he wanted to form an alliance with the Assyrians to defend Judah against an attack from Damascus and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahaz didn’t want to be told not to make a pact with the Assyrians.
Then the prophet Isaiah steps in. He tells Ahaz that even though he doesn’t want to ask for a sign, he’s going to be given one to watch for: “Look. The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
Ahaz will not ask God for a sign. But Ahaz is given a sign to look for. A sign to watch for. Ahaz is told to pay attention.
Now Christians reading this lesson from Isaiah on the fourth Sunday of Advent are pretty sure they know who the young woman is going to be and who this child named Immanuel, or “God with us” is going to be. We’ve heard this story. We know this sign.
Or do we?
You see, there are probably two possible young women that Isaiah might have been referring to in his prophecy. And neither of them was a first century virgin named Mary.
The young woman Isaiah spoke of was probably either Ahaz’s wife or Isaiah’s wife. Ahaz was told to look for a birth. The birth of someone close to him. And he was told that that birth would be a sign of God’s presence. God was with Ahaz. There was no need to put his trust in military allies.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “If I have to choose between George Frideric Handel and this preacher, I’ll take Handel in a second. Don’t tell me that Immanuel, you know, the Prince of Peace and all that, wasn’t Jesus. I don’t care what your commentaries say.”
But you may not have to choose. Because here’s where we begin to see the great difference between asked for signs and looked for signs.
Asked for signs function kind of like a divine party trick. The sign itself can be almost anything. The point is that if God pulls off the trick, God’s message is validated or God’s power and identity are proven. They’re impressive, and they’re relatively tidy as signs go. That’s why they’re so appealing. Sign happens. Truth is proved. Case closed.
Well, we Christians usually treat the Incarnation like an asked for sign. We didn’t ask for it per se, but we like to think that the nifty way the prophecies fit together proves that God really did become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
But the notion that Isaiah wasn’t really talking about Jesus at all doesn’t debunk the prophecy. It should simply remind us that the most important signs are the looked for signs. And looked for signs aren’t exhausted of their meaning when they come to pass.
Isaiah told Ahaz to pay attention. Isaiah told Ahaz that he would see signs that would convince him that God was truly with him. But the king had to look carefully at the world. The truth that seems obvious, like beefing up his military by way of alliance, might be dangerously false. The prophet was focusing Ahaz’s vision as he moved into the future.
When an asked for sign comes to pass, an answer to some question or dilemma seems to be provided. We’re finished with the sign as soon as it appears. But when we look for signs out in the future, we look to the world as it opens up. Which means that it was perfectly faithful and appropriate for Christians to see in the story of the birth of Mary’s child more than five centuries later another fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. In fact, by making this connection, Christians were living just as Isaiah was trying to convince Ahaz to live. Look. Watch. Pay attention to this world. Because God is indeed with us.
So reading this prophecy in Advent is not about bolstering our case for the truth of the Incarnation. And we’re not letting this prophecy and these signs go to work on us as we could if we treat them only as sacred artifacts of the 6th century BC or the 1st century AD. Maybe reading the Old Testament should have us asking Where might we see Immanuel? Or for that matter, where might we see the rainbow after the flood, or manna in the wilderness, or the burning bush in our own lives? How do we keep looking for the signs?
The Welsh priest and poet R.S. Thomas once wrote, “I know that bush, Moses; there/ are many of them/ in Wales in the autumn, braziers/ where the imagination/ warms itself. I have put off/ pride and knowing the ground/ holy, lingered to wonder how it is that I do not burn/ and yet am consumed.”
The burning bush was a present reality for R.S. Thomas. It wasn’t just an event in ancient history or a handed down legend. The story of Moses and the burning bush altered the poet’s own way of looking at the world. It proved nothing. But it illumined everything.
And so it must be for us if the prophecies of Isaiah or the truth of the Incarnation are to matter enough to come back here Sunday after Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, generation after generation. If the signs and prophecies are all spent, if their meaning was exhausted long ago, then so was our faith.
If we treat the stories of our faith as asked for signs, as tidy little proofs that validate some religious truth but are then finished of their meaning, why keep telling them?
But the Christian story still illumines the world for some of us. For you, I suspect, since you’re foolish enough to spend your Sunday morning in a church, not only hearing these stories from the past, but embodying them in the present. Praying and singing. Receiving the mysterious body and blood of Christ for ourselves. Being the risen body in the simple act of gathering in his name.
And the last action of the signs, and wonders, and looked for prophecies is to turn us toward our own future. To tune our attention and heighten our expectation as we watch for bushes that still burn, for the barren and virgin ones bearing children, for the lame who walk, the speechless ones who sing, for the once dead bodies now resurrected. Alive and illumined for even us to see.
“The Lord himself will give you a sign,” says the prophet. “Look!” Amen.
And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.