The Human Sign

Saint James Fordham • Advent 4a • Tobias Haller BSG

The Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

In the days before the Internet, before television, and long before they started showing commercials in movie theaters, one of the most effective and common kinds of advertisement was called “the sandwich board.” Nowadays sandwich boards have returned with their original purpose, whiteboards or blackboards standing like little A-frames outside of restaurants with the specials of the day written in chalk or multi-colored marker.

Once long ago, some unknown restauranteur got the bright idea to make this fixed sign mobile, and for a few dollars a day, hired a man to wear this sign over his shoulders, and walk up and down the crowded street. No doubt the first few times this happened people were astonished and took notice, and even followed this odd human signpost back to the restaurant for lunch or dinner. But eventually, as more and more cafes took up the idea, and the streets became as crowded with human signposts as with potential customers, the effectiveness wore off, and sandwich boards went back to their place by the doorway.

Although I must confess that just a few weeks ago I encountered someone, not with a sandwich-board, but holding an old fashioned sign on a stick, on the corner of Fifty-Second Street, pointing the way to Hamburger Heaven hidden half-way down the block. (And the hamburgers were heavenly! But I’d never have known about the restaurant without that sign on a stick.)

I noticed the sign chiefly because it was unusual. Most places have given up on the “walking” sandwich board or the hand-held sign. We’ve seen the same kind of fading effect with the banner ads that appear on websites and intrude into our e-mail. The more we see them, the more they become a nuisance, and finally a bore, so that we hardly even see them anymore. We employ other software to prevent their even appearing! And as with the passing of the sandwich boards, new means of advertising have to be sought out. Just as the human signposts of the last century were soon out of work again, so too the internet ad companies struggle and founder to find new ways to purvey their virtual wares.

This is one of the inherent problems in advertising, and with signs of any sort. They may catch our attention at first, but after a while we become used to them, become bored by them, so that they cease being signs — that is, being significant — and just become a blur in the background.

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And yet still we long for signs. There are few things worse than being lost out on the road, map in hand, but without a single street sign to let you know where you are, so that you can use the map to find out how to get where you want to be. You know those signs in shopping malls— the ones that are so helpful because the first thing they show, the first thing you look for, is that all-important arrow and the words “You Are Here” — words that show you where you are so that you can figure out how to get to where you want to go. And with the increasing use of Tom-Toms and Garmins and other such electronic GPS marvels, we can carry around an electronic map that always shows us to be at the center of a virtual world, and will even tell us where to go!

God knows we long for such signs, signs that tell us where we are, to help us find the way to where we want to be. This is so not just in our ordinary daily life but in our spiritual journey as well. If only there were a GPS that monitored our spiritual location and told us how to get to where we needed to be!

God knows just how much we need such pointers on the way, so much so that once long, long ago, God commanded King Ahaz of Judah, worried half to death over the new alliance between Syria and Israel to his north, to ask for a sign from the Lord his God. When Ahaz refused to ask, God said through the prophet Isaiah that God himself would provide a sign. And this sign would not be a wonder of fire from the heavens, nor a pillar of smoke arising from the depths of the earth, but something different, something human, a human sign. A young woman, already pregnant, would have a child, and give him the singular name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” And before that child would be old enough to reject evil and choose good, God would deal with Israel and Syria by bringing disaster upon them in the form of the king of Assyria, who would destroy them both and carry their inhabitants off to exile.

Now, this human sign must have been just as, if not more, startling than walking sandwich boards the first time they appeared, and for precisely the same reason. We are not used to human signs. In those days people were used to signs made of stone or wood or cast metal, as much as we now are used to signs made up of lights or flashing on the screens of our computers or the GPS on the dashboard. We are not used to signs made of human flesh and blood.

But this was precisely the sort of sign that God chose to give to King Ahaz, the sign of the infant who would not be grown out of childhood before the world would radically change and two kingdoms fall. And more importantly for us, this is the sort of sign that God chose to give again some seven hundred years later, a sign to another Judean faced with doubts, though of a more domestic nature, but a sign that would be as high above Joseph’s worries as those concerns were below the affairs of state that so sorely troubled King Ahaz.

For Joseph’s concern with Mary was of a private, household nature: he had discovered his wife-to-be was pregnant. Being a kind-hearted man — but no fool — he had decided to deal with the matter quietly, saving her and her parents, and himself, serious embarrassment. Yet within this little domestic drama in first century Palestine, a story so low-key it would scarcely make the cut in a modern soap opera, within this family drama God suddenly enters in, raising it from domestic to cosmic. For the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph to tell him that this is no ordinary human situation. No, this is quite extraordinary — nothing less than the power of God made real in human flesh. This is completely unexpected and unusual — nothing less than the entry of the Holy Spirit into the daily lives of men and women through the actions of ordinary men and women, and most especially through the birth and life of one extraordinary child who would grow to become an extraordinary man. And they would call him Emmanuel — God is with us — and they would name him Jesus — Savior!

So it was that God, who once spoke in visions and celestial signs, in this latter age spoke to us in person — in a person, his own beloved Son, begotten of a woman through the power of the Holy Spirit, born to be God with us, and to save us from our sins. God in Christ marks the world with an indelible sign: You are Here, because he is “God with us,” and he shows us how to get to where we need to go, because he is the Way, the Way who leads us in peace to salvation.

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So it is that we have received a sign from the hand of God, but not a sign fixed to one place like the signs outside of restaurants. This is a sign that moves where it wills and reaches us wherever we may be — it is the very spiritual GPS I spoke of before, the thing we most need when we stray from the path. And guess what — we all got one for Christmas. It is right here in our hearts, if we will let Christ in; and if we listen to his voice, he will tell us how to follow him. This is a sign that seeks us out and finds us to tell us that there is something to eat and drink of which we did not know. There is food for salvation, there is a table spread and places set for us, and we need do no more than follow this human sign back to the banquet, the festival meal of those called to be saints.

On this final Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas Eve, we begin to get the glimmer of that human sign’s arrival. Christmas is almost here. Let us not in the bustle of the packages and wrapping paper, in the shower of credit card bills that suddenly appear out of nowhere in the new year, in the crowd of myriad Santa Clauses and the preponderance of reindeers, amidst the trifling whimsey of elves and the militant cheerfulness of insistent jingle bells — let us not in the midst of this sensory overload neglect or overlook the one important sign that God has given us, that human sign, that infant sign, the sign of the child born in Bethlehem, born to be God with us, and to save us from our sins.+