Home      Back to Christmas Day




The Sign
L. R. Tarsitano—Saint Andrew's Church, Savannah
Christmas, 2000
"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. Luke 2:9).

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 out.

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.