"And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the
glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid" (St.
It is easy to get into the habit of ignoring signs, especially familiar
ones. I was in Virginia, riding in a car with one of my seminary students
up a mountain road. It was dark and late, and the visibility wasn’t very
good, but we were behind schedule, and so he was trying to "push it a bit"
in order to make up for some time we had lost in a meeting. We were only
a few miles from his home, and he assured me that he’d driven the same
road hundreds of times. He could do it in his sleep.
Well, not exactly. We kept whizzing by big yellow "Danger: Deer Crossing"
signs, of the sort that appear in almost any wooded area, even in the middle
of cities. And while we weren’t in the city, we were still in the suburbs
of Charlottesville. We paid no attention, and kept rattling along, just
treating the signs as part of the landscape.
And then these two big eyes appeared in the headlights. A second later,
we saw that it was a buck with antlers like a hat rack. My friend slammed
on the brakes. We didn’t quite go into the ditch. The deer simply stood
there, as if he were amused, shrugged, and ambled away.
"I showed you," he might as well have said, as we laughed in that uncomfortable
way that people do, when they have just done something incredibly stupid
and gotten away with it. The signs were right, and they had to be taken
seriously. There were deer in the woods, and there was danger.
The most important signs in life, however, do not come from the Highway
Department. God gives signs, too, and most of us do not take those signs
seriously enough either. Some of us just tune God out and choose to ignore
him. Others decide that God must be a lot like any other decent guy. We
like ourselves most of the time, and we usually don’t mind what we are.
So, God must like us too. No problem.
And to be fair, God is easy enough to ignore. We get used to him, at
least as an idea, without thinking about him very much. He rarely sends
personalized thunderbolts down from the sky to destroy us. He rarely appears
to us personally, in some burning bush, to warn us to stop what we are
doing or face the consequences. We know the Bible stories about these sort
of things, about the signs of his will that God has given us, but they
all happened so long ago. Like the highway signs, until there is a wreck,
what do they have to do with us?
Those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night in the Gospel
account of Christ’s birth were typical human beings, and a lot like most
of us. In any number of ways, they were surprisingly modern, going about
their business, letting God take care of himself. And then the angel appeared
to them, to tell them about a sign from heaven.
They must have needed to stop for a moment, in order to realize that
this was actually happening to them. This wasn’t some old story told by
their parents or grandparents about ancient days. This was an angel, right
now, right this minute, appearing to them in the middle of their ordinary
lives. And they were "sore afraid," because human beings are always "sore
afraid" when they discover that the signs are real, and that God is at
work in their every day life, whether they notice or not.
But fear, for its own sake, was not the purpose of the angel’s visit.
His purpose was the overcoming of fear: the good tidings of great joy to
all people, of whom the shepherds were chosen to be just the first to receive
this good news. A baby in a stable at Bethlehem was the Christ, the Messiah,
the Savior, the Son of God, and the Promise of the ages. The ancient prophecies
and the many signs of God were now fulfilled and proven true. There really
is a Savior of the world.
And the angel said, "This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the
babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12). And
how long can anyone manage to remain "sore afraid," when God comes to him,
not through thunderbolts, not through burning bushes, not even through
an angelic host, but in an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger?
The infant in the manger is The Sign of God—the Sign that tells us about
God as he really is. When we look at that baby in the manger, we learn
by the Sign of Jesus Christ why God has permitted himself so often to be
ignored. We learn that God is so great that he can choose to work through
weakness. And what is weaker than a newborn baby? And yet, that is who
and what God the Son chose to become for us, to glorify his Father and
to give us salvation.
Likewise, when we look at that baby, that Sign, we learn that God has
chosen us for his own. He has chosen to work out his majesty in this world
through us, through human beings, for that baby is not only the Son of
God, he is one of us. He is a human being, born in the same way that every
one of us was born. When we look at that baby, that Sign, we learn that
our salvation comes from living, from living human lives as God intended
human life to be, when he created us to live always in faith and love.
There is no pomp or circumstance in that stable. There is nothing that
makes us think in an ordinary way about power and majesty, and yet in that
manger lies the glory of the Lord—A Sign, a simple sign, a common sign,
a sign easy to ignore, a sign that may become too familiar for many of
us to take seriously—a warning that God is among us, that God will judge
us, and that he will do so as One who knows us intimately, from the inside
Images of that stable and that Sign are all around us: here in church,
in our homes, sometimes, still, on the lawns of our public buildings. If
we are not careful, however, we may begin to ask, "What does this have
to do with me?" We might be tempted to say, "This all happened so long
ago, what difference can it make?"
But the Sign of the Infant in the manger has everything to do with us,
at least everything that is good. That infant made us. That infant redeemed
us. That infant is the fullest revelation of God that we will ever have.
And because that infant is God Incarnate, God born as a man of the Virgin
Mary, this is not a story or a sign from long ago. Jesus Christ is still
with us. He will always be with us, if we remain faithful to him. All the
creches in the world, whether gold or plaster; all the babies in the world,
whether rich or poor, are signs today that mankind need not dread God,
but rather love him, because he loves us enough to share his life with
us by creating us. He loves us enough to share our life with us to redeem
us. He loves us enough to return to us to claim us.
So we must look at the Sign that God has given us. We must stop before
it for a moment, and give glory to God for his mercy and love, offering
glory to God in the highest, and offering on earth, peace, good will towards
men. This is really happening to us. This is real. It is happening today.
Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, is the most personal sign from God
that we can ever receive. This Sign of the infant Christ is a part of our
ordinary lives, because in those baby hands, God has placed the fate of
the world. If we obey that Sign, we will live forever.
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please
credit St. Andrew’s Church and Dr. Tarsitano.