Signs Endure (Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25, Romans 1:1-7)
By Rev. Julian DeShazier
The onslaught of "fake news," concocting stories about the Other, erect seemingly inseparable cultural chasms between us. They reinforce "echo chambers" of homogeneity, and regardless of the "facts" deliver a fake narrative: people that disagree are enemies. Here's the thing though: real news may use facts but only as a weapon to do the same reinforcing; in many ways all news is becoming "fake news." (No wonder it's so hard to tell the two apart!). The truth, as ever, is less exciting and more telling.
The young, black activists that want to abolish the police are as misunderstood as the rural, white activists that want to abolish equal rights for all, and both have more in common than we'd like to admit. There are reasons for this, of course.
Here's what they have in common: deprivation. Whether it's what sociologist Robert Merton called "relative deprivation" (seeing what someone else has and feeling they should have it), or the very real sense of brokenness that sociologist Charles Glock split along economic, social, physical, ethical, and psychic lines, the vast majority of people that yell "Black Lives Matter!" or "Make America Great Again!" are burdened with the realities of deprivation.
Both groups are responding to a very real sense of danger and loss.
Both groups receive the threat of the other personally.
Both groups are fed up with our capitalist democracy-slash-oligarchy.
Both are reading the signs of the times.
These times, and throughout the history of social movements (including churches), have been about how we make meaning of brokenness, or in other words, how we read the signs.
Signs - street signs - function in two categories. The first set of signs tells us WHERE WE ARE, they tell us to Caution and Stop and Do Not Touch , signs that say, "The bus comes here," and yellow tape/velvet ropes that signal, "You don't belong here." These signs tell us something bad has happened, and they are not to be ignored. Signs of present danger.
The second set of signs point us to where we are ABOUT TO BE... EXIT 42A - 3 Miles away, Construction Zone Ahead, Lane ends in 500 feet...signs that tell us of what is to come. These signs are important too: if there's an accident, I'd like a Detour sign. On those long road trips, we always appreciate this second set of signs that occasionally update us of how much closer we are to a place that seems very far away. Signs for right now. Signs for later on.
Now this is curious: when traveling, we read both sets of signs fluently, rationally, and without tension. We rarely have any issues embracing the tension of future hope and present danger...in literally every trip we make. Why is that tension so difficult to embrace in the rest of life?
Some people are like King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:10-16 ; he was surrounded by two armies, and therefore too overwhelmed by signs of present danger to pay any attention to the future. He puts religious language around it, but the truth is plain: he's too worried to hope. Ahaz will resonate in these times of communal sorrow and anger, denial, bargaining or whatever stage of grief we find ourselves in. The backlash of our political times is not that different from Isaiah's Israel: there's too much going on to stop and hear from God. I hear young Ahaz-es saying all the time, "Stop bothering me with that if you aren't going to do anything."
A sign of the future can feel like a burden, but there's much to love about Isaiah's response. Hey, you want a sign right now? Ahaz says, "NO." OK, here's a sign. Even in tough times, signs persist. Even as we wrap our critical minds around the present reality, we need to be reminded of even the small slivers of relief and joy and love. We need to affirm the victory at Standing Rock, to hear and tell how a small people grew larger because they would not leave. There are signs in the dread, and no matter how small or insignificant they appear, they deserve our mentioning and our celebration now, not later on.
This is an important point because, for most Christians, the baby in Isaiah is read as a sign to come, not as a sign with any particular relevance for Ahaz. In other words, it reads as if Isaiah is saying, "Relax. God is going to take care of it but, you know, a thousand years from now." It reads like the preaching of some black folks during slavery - Phyllis Wheatley and Richard Allen would talk about how the "New Jerusalem" (after-death) would bring redemption. If we are not careful the theology of "Not now/Later on" will create pathologies of suffering and pacify injustice. I'm putting out a Warning sign to not read Isaiah in this way.
As much as we'd like Isaiah 7 to be a prediction of baby Jesus, it doesn't need to be for us to still keep Advent and Christmas. Consider this possibility: what if the child to be born and named Immanuel was not Jesus "later on" but a baby in their midst, born during Ahaz's time, and meant to be a sign that God was still in control? That scripture even says that before that baby would know right from wrong, Ahaz and Israel would be saved. The baby isn't doing the work but is a sign that the work is being done. This is a less violent read of Jewish text that also allows every child born to represent a sign of God's blessing in the midst of dread, including Jesus, who spends so much time saying, "Folks, it's not about JUST ME!" Our faith should be able to see "God with us," even with Jesus gone.
And if you want to avoid potential heresy this week, Matthew 1:18-25 is still about signs and how we respond. Joseph is at least willing to see the signs - a step up from Ahaz - but it's his response to what he has seen that makes him worth mentioning here (Mark and John make no mention of him; in Luke he's merely a chaperone to the inn). In Matthew 1, Joseph names the baby, which is huge (baby naming was a rite performed in their times mostly by women, and in Luke's case, an angel); he is invited to participate in the miracle. This sign causes him to question his tradition, which made divorce the only way forward. God's signs often have a way of showing us a new way forward, if we are willing to risk.
If weary Joseph can live it out and he doesn't know, what more is possible for those that do know the gospel! In Romans 1:1-7, Paul not only wants us to heed the signs of hope but also boldly point out these signs for others to see.
Isaiah, Matthew, and Romans: three different responses to one reality: God's signs persist whether we want them or not. We might as well use them.
Bible Study Questions:
1. What are signs of good that we can affirm in these times? Where is progress or assurance located?
2. What "set" of signs - present reality, or future hope - are most difficult to grasp?
3. How can we read the present signs clearly while making room for hope?
For Further Reading:
Glock, Charles. "The Role of Deprivation in the Origin and Evolution of Religious Groups," in Religion and Social Conflict, ed. R. Lee and M. E. Marty. Oxford University Press, New York, 1964
Runciman, Walter Garrison. Relative Deprivation and Social Justice: A Study of Attitudes to Social Inequality in Twentieth-Century England. University of California Press, 1966
Stanton, Graham. The Gospels and Jesus. 2nd Edition: Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.
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