“Signs of the Times”

This was the message I gave for the 4th Sunday in Advent (19 December 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 7: 10 – 16, Romans 1: 1 – 7, and Matthew 1: 18 – 25.


And the Lord will give you a sign." These are the words of God to King Ahaz through Isaiah in response to King Ahaz refusing to ask God for a sign. Israel is about to be overrun by outside armies and the king refuses to trust in God. So He responded by giving the people of Israel a sign, a sign for the future. But this does bode well for that moment in time and the threat of destruction that will once again come to the Promised Land.

In the recent District newsletter, Reverend Bassinger-Ishii notes how the liturgy for Advent is very much apocalyptic and how she didn’t want to preach in this mode. Now, I can understand this; we cannot nor do we want to see the coming of Christ at Christmas in the same vein as the coming of Christ in the Book of Revelation. The Christ in the Book of Revelation is a vengeful Lord; intent on destroying all those whom would oppose Him. The Christ that comes to us at Christmas is a peaceful child, full of hope and promise in a world darkened by despair and destruction. (Adapted from "Reflections from the District Superintendent" by Jeanette Bassinger-Ishii, District Superintendent of the Connecticut/New York and Delaware/Hudson Districts of the New York Annual Conference in the December 2004 issue of CONNYECTION.)

But how can we not see the second Christ as the one that is coming today, December 19, 2004? We wake up to hear of atrocities in Missouri or the destruction of trust in a New York City classroom. We wake up to hear of more deaths in Iraq, more corruption among our political leaders. As the days to Christmas count down, there is no discussion or description of the birth of our Savior but how the consumer must save the American economy. The meaning of Christmas has been lost in a sea of dollar bills and loose change.

And the churches of this country seem to be determined to push this country towards that apocalypse. It is my firm belief that the recent events of this country will drive people away from, not bring them into the church. Those who seek to lead the various denominations of Christianity, and I include many in the United Methodist Church, seem to desire a rigid, inflexible system of religion that can only destroy the church, not build it. And this rigidity, this inflexibility will reach beyond the walls of the sanctuary as those who feel they are the true preachers of God’s word seek to define morality in their own terms. These "true" preachers will find ways to control how we live our daily lives and what we will think and learn. Anyone who dares speak out against such modern day Pharisees will soon find themselves paying the harshest of penalties.

But these views, however harsh they are, need not be the case. We need not see the signs around us as the end of the world, for God did truly send us a sign. Against the distrust and disbelief, God promised His people that there would be someone born to set the people free. God told Joseph, bound by the traditions of his people to treat Mary as a pariah instead of as his bride, what this unborn child would become.

This child, like all children, is the embodiment of hope and promise. And the fact that he was born to Mary and Joseph, common folk, rather than royalty, tells us that this hope and promise is for us. That the birth of Jesus as our Savior was first told to the shepherds is a reminder that this promise, this hope for the future was given to us, not to the royalty and power-brokers of the day. This is a time of possibility, not destruction, even if destruction seems to be the most likely outcome.

Isaiah’s prophecy is a prophetic vision of hope that things will be different under a king who brings a rule of peace, a kingdom free of oppression, and an everlasting reign of justice. Maybe things will change in this day and age. The shepherds who heard the angels singing and went to see Jesus in the manger could only think that would be the case.

Maybe the birth of Jesus will bring people out of the oppression of dictators and governments. Maybe governments will rule by justice and with justice. Maybe the outcasts of society, the second-class citizens, the poor, the sick, the old, the infirmed will be welcomed into society. Maybe it is just possible that God came to this world as an indefensible, powerless infant who would grow up and save this world.

We might choose to ignore the news in tomorrow’s New York Times, we might choose to ignore the rising death toll in the Iraqi conflict as we have ignored the rising death toll of countless civil wars currently going on. Maybe we will hope that there will be good news and this good news will triumph and change will happen. But if we ignore the world around us, we will not hear of or see the birth of Christ in a manger two thousand years ago. And the apocalypse will come true. (Adapted from "We are a people of possibility" by Andrew J. Hoeksema, printed in Sojourners, 15 December 2004.)

But Paul tells us that we have received the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We received this grace, not because we ignored the story or looked elsewhere, but rather because we chose not to ignore the story and because, as the Christmas hymn, told us, we looked east, to a small town in a troubled land to hear a baby’s cry.

But the hope that comes from Christ’s birth can only be realized when we do something. It is interesting to note that in 1969 Richard Nixon was planning to escalate the war in Viet Nam. But two weeks before this was to be implemented there was a nationwide day of protest, the Moratorium when millions of Americans joined in local protest demonstration, vigils, church services, petition drives and other forms of opposition. The next month, more than half-a-million marched in Washington, D. C.. While an administration spokesperson announced that none of this would have any effect on the policies of the government, Richard Nixon concluded that this volume of protest was so loud and so much in opposition that he couldn’t carry out his plans. We may have felt that our opposition to apartheid was meaningless and that the white South African government would maintain its brutal oppression no matter what the cost. But in the end, apartheid could not last and many long oppressed gained their freedom. (Adapted from "The impossible will take a little while´by Paul Rogat Loeb, printed in Sojourners, 15 December 2004.)

So the signs of the times can be frightening. The signs around us can say that the world is coming to an end. But there was a birth, seemingly insignificant that changed all that. There was a birth that brought about a change. But we have to see the signs in order to make the change. We have to celebrate Christ’s birth and then help others to do so as well. We have to celebrate Christ’s birth, not solely as a day of the year but as a part of our lives each day. And when we do that, others will see the signs as well.

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