If you’ve seen the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” you’re familiar with the scene near the beginning where Bruce, frustrated with his life, is driving down the road begging God for a sign. He sees a road sign that says, “Caution ahead,” and a truck delivering all sorts of other caution road signs passes him. But he’s too busy being angry with God to notice. He’s angry with God for letting his life go down the drain. He says God isn’t doing God’s job and should be fired. All he wants, he thinks, are answers—and maybe a break.
He wants a sign. I’ve experienced moments when I’ve asked for a sign…and then wondered if I missed it. When I’ve anticipated changing directions in life, when I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing, when the future seems uncertain. How would you recognize a sign from God?
It seems to me the crew around Jesus had it easy. Angels went around telling everyone what to look for and what to expect. Gabriel gave Mary and Joseph a heads up. The heavenly host told the shepherds that they were looking for a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Even the magi had a star to follow. Life today doesn’t feel quite so informed, does it?
If you spend any time on Facebook, you’re barraged by people who suggest that if you’re truly Christian, you’ll behave in a certain way. If you’re truly Christian, you’ll be pro-life, you’ll be anti-death penalty, you’ll be for immigrants, you’ll be for gun control, you’ll be against gun control, you’ll be for national health-care, you’ll be against social welfare. The list goes on and on. And we find ourselves asking for a sign—mostly, we’re asking for a sign that the people who disagree with us can see clearly so that they know that they’re wrong. But in any case, we’re asking for a sign.
But how do we know when we’re looking at one? How do we recognize God’s activity in the cacophony that surrounds us?
A colleague shared the story of Christ Church, which put on a live nativity every year about two weeks before Christmas. They had the perfect location: downtown on the square across from the clock tower. Everyone who drove into the business district went right by the front lawn of the church. They set the nativity up on the lawn on the designated evening after dark and flooded it with carefully placed spotlights, a Christmas card come to life.
At first it was just a few bales of hay stacked up to give some semblance of a stable, a couple of sheep and two sets of parents with small babies who took turns portraying the holy family. But as the crowds grew each year the nativity became a bigger and bigger production with shepherds, wise men, an innkeeper, King Herod, a small flock of sheep with lambs for the children to pet, a donkey for Mary to ride, all kinds of other animals. The star the wise men followed rolled along on a track which had been laid out across the roof line of the church.
The latest addition had been a 40-voice angel choir, with the choir director dressed and playing the part of the arch-angel Gabriel; and they sang from an elevated stage erected on the far edge of the lawn in front of the church’s three large air conditioning units. Surrounded by clouds painted on cardboard, and raised and lowered hydraulically, it made for a wonderfully dramatic moment when their lights came on and they appeared out of the darkness singing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” For the grand finale at the end of each half-hour performance they formed themselves into a giant living Christmas tree and sang “Joy to the World.”
One year, at their late summer planning meeting, the director announced that they needed a sign, a big billboard somewhere downtown, perhaps visible from the freeway, with a picture of the nativity and an invitation for everyone to come and see it at Christ Church. He said it would be a good way of expanding their ministry and it would be great publicity for the church. The senior pastor said that she knew a retired sign painter in the congregation and offered to ask him to paint the sign. Someone else offered to make arrangements to rent the billboard and to talk to some of the wealthy members about paying for it. Everyone thought it was a wonderful idea.
At their next meeting in mid-October it was reported that plans were well under way and the sign would be ready just after Thanksgiving. The retired sign painter had responded with great enthusiasm, saying it had been a life-long dream to paint a sign that would be a witness to his faith. He had asked for only one consideration — “a free hand in painting the nativity as the Holy Spirit led,” was the way he put it. And they were glad to agree. They had seen his work and they knew there was no one better in the sign painting business. No one was to see the sign until the unveiling on the first Sunday of Advent.
As Advent approached there was an air of excitement in the church like they had never experienced before. When word got around about the billboard, everyone wanted to be in the nativity. They had to create several more roles: shepherd boys and shepherd girls, the innkeeper was to have children hanging on his arm this year and a wife doing chores in the background, and there would be a dozen more angels.
The unveiling was scheduled for noon, after the last worship service, on the first Sunday of Advent. The church was packed and, after the benediction, the choir, dressed in their nativity costumes, led the whole congregation out the door, around the square and down a couple of blocks to where the billboard was located near the downtown off ramp next to the freeway. At such a great location, two hundred thousand people would see the sign every week.
The retired sign painter was standing by. It would be his moment of triumph. A newspaper photographer was to take his picture standing in front of the sign after it was unveiled. One of the television stations had sent a reporter and a camera crew. Everyone had a sense that this was to be an historic moment.
The ceremonies started with a brief speech by the nativity director, followed by a few words of greeting from the mayor, and finally a prayer of consecration led by the pastor. Then came the moment they had all been waiting for. The choir began to sing “Away in a Manger” softly in the background. The director signaled for the cloth that was covering the sign to be raised. They all craned their necks upwards and waited. At first there was a kind of quiet murmur that rippled through the crowd, then gasps, followed by a din of wonderment which grew into what sounded like a roar of disapproval.
They couldn’t believe what they were seeing! It looked nothing at all like their beautiful nativity. The sign painter had painted a simple cardboard shack with a contemporary Joseph and Mary who looked very much like the street people who lived in the park a few blocks from the church. Baby Jesus was wrapped in rags and lying in a tattered disposable diaper box. There were no shepherds or wisemen, no angels with gold-tipped wings. There was only a bag lady and a cop who had come by on his horse. They were both kneeling in front of the diaper box, and the babe appeared to be smiling at them. Underneath the picture were painted the words:
This will be a sign for you:
you will find a child wrapped
in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
The sign is God’s presence among us. That first Christmas, God’s presence was particular—a child, born to unwed parents, essentially homeless for a time, hunted by a king, and completely and utterly vulnerable. Since that moment, God’s presence comes to us in many and various ways—in the child who lights up to see the presents under the tree as well as the child who will spend tonight trying to stay warm in her parents’ car; in the family cooking a meal at the mission as well as the family pulled apart at the border; in the grandmother hosting the family Christmas, the grandfather alone in the nursing home, and the elderly couple with no children receiving a Meals on Wheels delivery.
This will be a sign for you. You will find Christ wrapped in the clothing of humanity, sleeping and eating with the vulnerable. You will find him in the wilderness being tempted, you will find him along the roadside healing a leper, you will find him feeding thousands by the sea, you will find him raising the dead, you will find him hanging like a criminal from a cross, and you will find him beyond an empty tomb, having shed the cloths that swaddled him in death. You will find him in the bread and wine we share as a community. You will find him in the manger God creates in your hearts, in your homes, and in your lives. Not to worry, you will find Jesus—because he has found you, and you will see the sign—for his sign will be the life and light of all creation.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church