Sermon: Signs for Saints

12.22.2013   Preaching Text: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

If you’re like I am, you probably recoil from anyone calling you a “saint.” A true saint is somebody more like Mother Teresa or St. Francis of Assisi, not Tom Leinbach of Harwich, MA! Then again, from a biblical standpoint, you and I are considered saints, members of Christ’s church!

A few years ago (thanks to the wizardry of the Internet), I read a sermon by a former colleague who talked about how his view of the church had changed over the years.

Early on, he confessed, and for much of his ministry, he had a false assessment of the various churches he had served. He had thought the churches too “lukewarm” in their faith and falling far short of the biblical ideal. In fact, he’d sometimes complain that we were, in effect, playing church rather than being the church.

But as his ministry matured, he said, his perspective also changed. For one, he began to see more clearly what was going on in the wider culture and determined that the work and ministry of the churches he had served was decidedly different from the culture around him, and as reflecting many goodly, godly things.

Inside these churches he had witnessed genuine acts of sacrificial love, charity, kindness, and respect for others, all marks of the Christian faith. That’s not to say, of course, that any church is perfect or problem-free. No human institution is perfect precisely because no human being is perfect, much less a bunch of them. Yet in comparison, he concluded, the church is a welcome sanctuary from our dissembling and debasing world of sin.

I have gone through a similar metamorphosis myself. Over time, I’ve come to embrace the idea of the sainthood of believers, which, I’m quick to add, is not the same thing as perfection. But sainthood does suggest that we in the church acknowledge a different reality, a heavenly one, and seek, however imperfectly, to live by its creed – and to share that with others.

On February 24, 1209, a man named Francis heard a sermon that changed him forever. It was based on Matthew 10:9 where Christ tells his followers they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them.

From this altogether simple message, Francis was inspired to perform a ministry that changed countless lives, even our very world.

A single human being, moved by a simple gospel message, was able to generate bold action, bringing welcome light into a world in desperate need of it.

In contradistinction, Ahaz, the king of Judah during the time of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry, is approached by God. “Ask for a sign from your God,” he is instructed. “Ask anything. Be extravagant. Ask for the moon.” (MSG)

To which Ahaz passively replies, “I’d never do that. I’d never make demands like that on God!”

In what some might view as a humble, even noble response, Isaiah instead chastises Ahaz, the king, as well as his government, for being “timid hypocrites” of whom God has grown weary!

Yet in spite of this, Isaiah announces God’s intention to send a sign anyway, a sign to the people: a child shall be born to a young mother and he shall be called “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.”

The lesson suggests that we can be too timid in asking God for big things, that we demur in expecting much. Perhaps this is because we are reluctant to admit that God has a lot invested in us, that God expects great things from us, if only we would but ask, and receive.

Maybe this is why we think of saints as those extraordinary individuals we only read about. It’s not possible that God might have great plans for us, too.

There seems to be a tension in the church found in the extremes. On the one hand we discount the tremendous work we do in the everyday life of the church. We discount how much our world has benefited from the simple tasks we perform each and every day, perhaps unthinkingly.

Yet on the other hand we know of those times when the church has acted triumphalistically, as I talked about this fall. We rightly recoil from any hint of self-righteousness and harsh judgmentalism.

In the process, though, we may forget that God depends on us to spread the word, going forth, as did St. Francis, to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is upon us. But if we don’t do it, who will?

It’s easy to get cowed by all the darkness we see on our television screens day-in-and-day-out. The world has a way of dragging us down so that our hopes and dreams grow silent. But in the darkest moments, God sends a child, the light, to illumine our life and world.

There was a sermon I read many years ago, so long ago I no longer remember the details. Its overall message, however, I remember quite clearly.

All throughout the sermon, the author spoke of times when the world seemed impossibly bleak. He spoke in specifics and named names! But then, he would tell of the birth of a lone individual, and what his or her birth portended to an as yet unsuspecting world.

Our times demand light, perhaps more so than at any point in my lifetime. We the church have a tremendous opportunity to burn that light with ever-greater intensity, unabashedly admitting the power God has granted us, together with a bold expectation of what God can do with even us.

As I’ve said before, whether we know it or not, we are God’s saints who stand witness to God’s greatness, however modestly we perceive ourselves and our actions.

When I look around me, I am overwhelmed by the goodness I see in this church and the often silent witness you present to this community and world.

Just the other day, Linda and I were at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow in Orleans. Over the years we’ve gotten to know a couple who work there, both from the Philippines.  I told them that our church’s Ladies Benevolent Society had recently donated $10,000 to the typhoon relief effort there. Extraordinary.

Earlier that same day, I got a visit from a representative from Habitat for Humanity, who dropped off a book and thanked us for our $5,000 contribution to the build currently taking place in Orleans.

In both instances, this church has made a significant difference in the lives of others. But it’s not just physical need that this church addresses. And this is what I wish to stress in closing.

It is the often subtle, quiet ways in which we stand as a spiritual and moral witness, as a beacon shining forth into the night.

On Tuesday evening we will gather once again to celebrate a child born to a young mother long ago. And once again, we will send a powerful message, a message of light, out into our world. God is with us, the Kingdom of God is upon us. Immanuel. Amen.