|"The Adoration of the Shepherds"; given as "Shepherds Bow" by the Google Art Project|
I must admit being a little leery of persons who see signs of divine intervention at every turn. Whether it be an open parking space, a favorite team’s victory, or finding the last toy on the shelf (the perfect gift for which you were looking), some see in this occurrence a sign of God’s favor and a confirmation that “it was meant to be.” Is God or the devil in the details? Both, or neither?
While I do not want to gainsay God’s intimate knowledge of us, I wonder if what some claim as signs is so far beneath God’s cosmic concerns as to be ludicrous. These supposed signs are usually for personal aggrandizement and offer little to the common good. They are claimed to reinforce their own sense of entitlement.
How can we discern if something is a sign from God? The Bible is replete with signs and wonders, yet how to perceive the working of the divine is notoriously vexed. At times, God seemingly invites mortals to put the Holy One to the test; at other times, there is stern warning against such a gambit.
In yesterday’s lectionary reading (Isaiah 7:10-16), the Lord prompts Ahaz, heir to the throne of Judah, to ask for a sign, which he declines. The prophet then declares that God will give a sign anyway, a child to be named Immanuel. The birth of this one will indicate a new horizon for the people of covenant. The identity of this child is wrapped in mystery yet symbolizes God’s desire to be with and for God’s own.
We will hear an echo of this text in the angelic pronouncement 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” (Luke 2:12). As they made their way toward the site of the nativity, they must have wondered if the heavenly display was a little over the top. After all, this was just another baby born to poor parents in an occupied land.
Divine signs hold a measure of ambiguity. In humility, God works through simple and ostensibly weak means to accomplish holy purposes. What is more vulnerable and dependent than a newborn? Time after time in the Bible, a coming child is the sign of God’s continuing forbearance with wayward humanity.
The child as sign displaces notions of power. We experience this when we see the small child washed up on the beach or witness the traumatized little boy, Omran, in Aleppo. More than protracted high level diplomatic engagement, these depictions prompt compassionate action.
The child as sign also portends the future. A child will see beyond his or her elders; a child may achieve what forebears could not. The coming of Christ offers a different way to experience God and God’s world. And so we pray, “Come to our hearts, Lord Jesus, there is room in our hearts for thee.”
Molly T. Marshall
Central joins all the Body of Christ in celebrating the birth of the child once again.