12-22-13 What’s the Sign?

Christmas happened for me Friday night. Our Big Band Gospel Christmas concert was everything I hoped for. Today and Tuesday evening, we bring the celebration home, as we take a few moments to slow down and figure out what the celebration is really about. Isaiah says, “the Holy One will give you a sign.” Luke says, “This will be a sign for you.” I want us today to figure out what the sign is and what the sign means.

Matthew 1:18-25 This is how the birth of Jesus came about.  When Jesus’ mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright person unwilling to disgrace her, decided to divorce her quietly. This was Joseph’s intention when suddenly the angel of God appeared in a dream and said, “Joseph, heir to the House of David, don’t be afraid to wed Mary; it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus –‘Salvation”—because he will save the people from their sins.” All this happened to fulfill what God has said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and give birth, and the child will be named Immanuel” —a name that means “God with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of God had directed, and they went ahead with the marriage. He did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth, she had a son, and they named him Jesus.

Dec. 22, 2013        What’s the Sign?            St. Luke UMC

Think how many signs we pay attention to in a week’s time.
Traffic signs, advertising, directional signs, promotions for events, signs to keep us out or keep us in, signs to warn us and signs to permit us, signs of spring and signs of winter. I’m not sure which kind of sign we’re getting today really – signs of spring, which are actually leading the way to winter.
There are so many signs in our lives that we hardly notice them. We hardly realize we are paying attention to them.
When we ask for a sign, though, we’re usually talking to God, talking to however we conceive of God. We’re so busy at Christmas, we don’t have much time to pay any extra attention to signs, but this is a time when scripture talks a lot about signs.
As we saw, Isaiah says, “the Holy One will give you a sign” and in Luke we read every year about the angel saying to the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  We don’t usually think of a child as a sign.  What kind of sign is this?
I read a book in preparation for the Christmas season this year called “The First Christmas” by Marcus Borg and John Crosson. As they usually do, they were concerned with interpreting modern scholarship for the lay public. They point out, as I do every year, that there are just 2 accounts of Jesus birth in the gospels, in Matthew and Luke.
Mark, the earliest gospel, begins at the beginning of Jesus ministry. John, one of the later gospels (Luke might be later) begins a beginning of the universe and posits Christ as being present with God from the very beginning of time. Matthew and Luke are the ones who tell birth stories.  They are quite different from each other – Matthew’s being rather short – we read the whole thing this morning, and Luke’s being the extensive account of predictions and angels and shepherds, so we usually read that one.
Borg and Crosson posit that both Matthew and Luke use the birth stories as a kind of overture to their gospels. An overture, as you will recall if you think about it, tries to let you know what’s coming in a piece of music. The overture introduces the various themes and tunes, and prepares you for everything that is coming.
In the same way, each gospel of Matthew and Luke, in the birth stories, let us know what their major concerns are, and what they want to emphasize about Jesus’ life. Luke is already in the birth narrative, emphasizing the presence of women and poor shepherds. Matthew emphasizes Hebrew scripture and the way in which Jesus fulfills that scripture.
Both of these gospels relate an early Christian emphasis that we don’t totally get in our 21st century context. Both of them are telling a story that would have been somewhat familiar to people in the first century Roman empire. It’s the story of the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus – born from God and a virgin woman, born to rule, to be the king of all the people.
Folks in the first century would know this claim about Caesar and they knew that it was dangerous to change the name of the lead character -to say that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar, to say that Jesus was their king, their sovereign ruler, descended from the Living God. These claims were quite subversive, as you can imagine.
So when we declare Jesus king, sovereign or Lord, when we celebrate Jesus as child of God, we are claiming that God’s life has sway over our lives more than the life of the dominant system – more than the materialistic, militaristic, consumer oriented domination system that we live in.
We celebrate the birth of the Christ child as the rebirth in us of a commitment to live liberated from the forces in our society that push us to buy too much, eat too much and throw away too much; the forces that say we are more important than anybody else in the world; the forces that say “our” people are the only ones that matter. We celebrate the birth of the Christ child as the rebirth in us of a commitment to real community, real caring for the poor, real concern for the outsider, the stranger, the outcast, the lost, the lonely and the least.
That’s a celebration worth having; that indeed gives meaning to the season; that’s worship that will transform our lives and transform the world. This is God’s good news.

Responsive Hymn: 220 Angels from the Realms of Glory