signs of ambiguity

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Isaiah 7.10-16 and Matthew 1.18-25, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble.[1] In the late 8th century BCE, Syria and Israel formed a coalition against Assyria, inviting Judah to join them. Ahaz, having no quarrel with Assyria and not wanting to start one, refused. Syria and Israel declared war on Judah, seeking to replace Ahaz with a cooperative royal ally.

Ahaz, as king, is the symbol of national confidence that God will defend the divinely established throne. Nevertheless, he is terrified: “The heart of Ahaz and his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”


Enter the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming, “Fear not,” for Syria’s and Israel’s plans will not prosper. Then, addressing Ahaz’s need for assurance, Isaiah encouraged the king, “Ask God for a sign.” Amazingly, Ahaz, with the pretense of pious humility, declined the divine offer. Nevertheless, a sign was given. A young woman would bear a son named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us.”

What did this sign, this birth of Immanuel mean? “God is with us” was no promise that king and nation would be sheltered from harm. Indeed, before the child reached the age of reason, knowing “how to refuse evil and choose good”, Syria, Israel and Judah would be defeated. The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to lead an army in a season of war, signaled new possibilities.


Joseph was in trouble.[2] Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant and doubtless adulterous. Observing the law, Joseph could have accused Mary, subjecting her to a trial.[3] “Being a righteous man,” Joseph, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” But “just when he resolved to do this” enter an angel, proclaiming, “Fear not.” Mary’s child, whose origins are heavenly, shall be named Jesus, meaning “God saves.”

What did this sign, this birth of Jesus mean? “God saves” was no promise that the people would be spared from harm. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, King Herod’s fear and fury at hearing the news of one born “king of the Jews” led to the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem.[4]


And today, the children of Aleppo, the latest in history’s egregiously long list of innocents, suffer at the dignity-defying, death-dealing hands of warring, malevolent rulers and powers!

The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to answer difficult questions of moral choice, signaled new possibilities.

At times, we look for signs. Times of uncertainty. Times of anxiety…

Perhaps involving our relationships when things aren’t well. Give me a sign that my spouse, partner, or significant other, parent or child, relative or friend sees the light of what I’ve been saying for years or that I may see more clearly my part, my role in those places where we are “stuck”…

Or involving our financial well-being when we’ve lost a job or when resources for the care of aged loved ones run low, run out or when our movement toward the fulfillment of long established, long invested plans for the future decelerates to the largo tempo of a vacillating economy. Give me a sign of a new way or to clarify my choices or to signal a turnaround is near…

Or involving health, ours and those we love; living through the daily chances and changes of aging and illness or surgery and recovery and adjusting to our body’s new normal…

Or involving national security, whether our sense of peace with a new administration or in relation to America’s role in all the raging wars of this world. Give us a sign that sharpens the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of personal liberty, between self-defense and self-destruction that we will not plant the seeds of radicalized retaliation for generations to come.

At times, we look for signs, which, however, alway are inherently ambiguous; capable of being read, re-read, misread, or unread.

Looking again at the scripture, the sign of the birth of a child is the striking similitude of the prophetic pronouncement to Ahaz and the angelic announcement to Joseph. Either is ambiguous. Neither satisfied the immediate need. Nevertheless, the image of a child, whose is-ness, beingness is now, but whose fullness of being is yet to be alway points to tomorrow.

A fair, faithful interpretation of a sign, paradoxically, clearly rests in our ability and willingness to hold in tension our living in this moment as wisely as we can and our keeping watch on the horizon for what will come…to see this moment as the is-ness of now and to recognize that all that is now is not, cannot be what will be…to give birth today in this moment to an idea, a dream, a vision and to nurture it for a larger life tomorrow.

Seeing what is and envisioning also what might be is an act of hope. And hope is what a sign, however ambiguous, means.


Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)


The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The angel appears to Joseph (c. 1645), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Massacre of the Innocents (Le Massacre des Innocents) (1824), Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. Note: I favor this image of this horrific biblical story, for, in its artistic restraint absent in many renderings (e.g., Marcantonio Raimondi, c. 1510, Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1580, Peter Paul Rubens, 1611, Gustave Doré, 1865), it suggests rather than depicts the massacre. The image of the mother is poignant and powerful. Her bare head and feet are signs of vulnerability and though she protects her infant with her body, as they remain cornered, their doom is sure.


[1] In addition to Isaiah 7.10-16, all references to the Ahaz story are found in Isaiah 7.

[2] In addition to Matthew 1.18-25, all references to the Mary-Joseph story are found in Matthew 1.

[3] See Numbers 5.11-29

[4] Matthew 2.13-18

8 thoughts on “signs of ambiguity

  1. Sooooooo, this sermon touched me deeply Paul
    …. caused me to shed a few tears. It seems my entire life at the moment is looking for signs….

    What’s the world going to be like after Jan 20th and we have a new President who scares most of us to death. And speaking of death, in preparing my estate documents I had to consider lots of things.. how will I die, what do I want to happen before I do so. I hope I get signs so I’ll know when the end is near.

    The birth of a child 5 years ago was a clear sign to me. She gives us hope in an otherwise bleak time in our lives. I also see her as a gift from God…. a sign that even though she was born to a mother who was one week shy of 40 years old, that we needed her in our lives!

    I do have hope that there will be signs to come! Since Tim’s death, I received so many signs from him… in my mind pointing me in the right direction to find things around the house and giving me encouragement to conquer tasks I didn’t think I could do! I also look for signs from God. How will we move forward in 2017, how will race relations fare. I hope that the tension you explain in what is and what will be tomorrow. Looking forward to tomorrow is why I get up in the morning, it gives me up!

    Thanks for this sermon and for the hope.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Loretta, your questions are my questions. We cannot know what January 20, 2017 and beyond will bring, but that does not restrain us from engaging our uncertainties and fears.

      Nevertheless, I continue to hope. And, yes, Kendal is so bright an incarnation of hope. I pray and trust that we will not place upon her shoulders the undue weight of our expectations.

      As for preparing for the future, which, of course, includes dying, I think of that daily. In this, sometimes I consider how different my life might be had I made different choices. Sometimes I think of folk I used to know, things I used to do, places I used to live, etc. Then, knowing the impossibility of recapturing any of that, I focus on, as I termed it in the sermon, the “is-ness” of now, for that, in truth (and, yes, connected to all that was, indeed, all who I was before; therefore, verily, the fulfillment of the “is-ness” of what was present in the last!) is all I have. Then, looking at that…me now, I dream my way into my tomorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Paul. I’ve made it a point in my mind not to expect too much from Kendal as that’s unfair to her. I simply want her to be healthy and happy and will support her in any and all of her endeavors.

        Even in living in the “is-ness” before we die I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reaching back and reconnecting with folks from the past. I’ve tried doing that since attending my HS reunion. It’s neat to see what everyone has done in the forty plus years since I’d seen them.

        Wishing you happiness in your “is-ness” and much love and joy in 2017.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Paul,

    This sermon is so rich with the flow of God’s endless creativity in relationship to humanity. Why does it take some of us so many years of living to grasp that God’s ways and God’s tools are not the ways and tools that we humans always seem to call on to propel history? Why do we have to learn that over and over? God’s signs always point a path that we could and would not have imagined with our limited perceptions and capabilities. The power of stories like the ones you relate here is to help us understand that indeed some of us can and do learn, from time to time (Isaiah, Mary, Joseph…), to utilize our “is-ness” to enhance rather than hamper God’s ongoing active creation of a world where love, justice, and mercy prevail over fear, greed, power-hungriness and other abject human weaknesses. Once more, as every Advent, every day, we are called upon to do that in this ever-evolving world.

    Thank you so much for the encouragement you offer in this sermon. I especially love the Cogniet painting, with which I was not familiar. What a chilling evocation of what is going on in Aleppo and elsewhere right now. I heard a new Christmas carol this morning on Minnesota Public Radio that reflects a new sensibility I think we must consider about what it means to shush the Christ child’s crying. I will send you via email a link to the cite so that you can hear and read the lyrics. It is very moving.



    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Karen, for sharing the Christmas carol – I look forward very much to listening! – and always for your reading and commenting on my posts…

      Yes, the Cogniet rendering of the massacre of the innocents is poignantly painful. The assurance of looming, soon coming death anguishes me, for more than, as I mentioned in my footnote, other more clearly depictive/descriptive paintings of the horror.

      As for our learning God’s ways, yes, we humans need the constant reminders. Still, given what I behold of our behavior (including my own!), I am not as sanguine that we retain much of what we must re-learn.

      Love and peace to you, my dearest sister, Ted, and Emilia. AND, please, thank Ted for the stollen!


  3. Cogniet captures the anticipation of the horror and conveys even more anguish than an actual holocaust scene, I think. That woman’s face will haunt me for a long time.

    You’re right about our needing to learn and re-learn each and every step along the way to God’s peace – the agonizing, slow miracle of evolving into what we are being created to be, I suppose. It recalls something I heard and was comforted by a couple of weeks ago: “You have been asked for in this hour; if not, you would not be alive.” The idea that, whoever we are and whatever and however we do, we each bring something to the work of creation that is in progress, something that no one else could possibly have brought, is so compelling. If we could each truly KNOW that in every moment of our lives, what a difference it might make in how we live and how we love each other and the world.

    I will convey your thanks to Ted. We hope you and Pontheolla enjoy the Stollen and share some with your friend Marcus too. Ted’s is not the traditional German yeast Stollen, but we do like it a lot and love sharing it with people we love.

    Peace to you this day, my dear Paul, and much love to you and Pontheolla.


    Liked by 1 person

    • I do so truly believe, Karen, as you that each of us alive, in each moment of our living, is called to God’s creative purposes – I dare say God’s co-creative purposes. When my discernment is this clear, even when I am not and cannot be certain precisely how that calling is to manifest itself in the concrete particulars of a given moment, I DO know it – whatever it is and is to be – has nothing to do with my innately selfish, self-focused, self-serving individual human instincts. That awareness restrains me from acting on those instincts, about which I AM clear!

      And, yes, our dear friend Markus Braun is on our “stollen share list”!

      Love you


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