Signs of Ambiguity

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 22, 2019.


King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble. Big trouble! It’s the late 8th century BCE. Syria and Israel have formed a coalition against Assyria. They invite Judah to join them. Ahaz has no quarrel with Assyria and he doesn’t want to start one. So, he refuses Syria’s and Israel’s offer. They, in turn, declare war on Judah, seeking to replace Ahaz with a cooperative royal ally. Ahaz is terrified.

Isaiah warning King Ahaz (Isaiah 7.4), artist unknown

Enter the prophet Isaiah, declaring, “Fear not.” Syria and Israel will not prevail. Then, seeking to reassure Ahaz, Isaiah says, “Ask God for a sign.” Ahaz, with the pretense of pious humility, declines. Nevertheless, a sign is given. A young woman will 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 Ahaz and Judah wouldn’t suffer. Indeed, all – Syria, Israel, and Judah – fell to Assyria.

The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, a newborn child, the first fruit of a new generation, though unable to led an army in war, bore the promise of new possibilities.

Joseph was in trouble. Big trouble! Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant and, doubtless, by all earthly estimations, adulterous. According to the law, Joseph could have accused her, subjecting her to a trial.(1) But he, “being righteous, unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

The angel appears to Joseph (c. 1645), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Gemaldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin

Enter an angel, declaring, “Fear not.” Mary’s child, whose origin is 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 wouldn’t suffer. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, King Herod, hearing the news of one born “king of the Jews,” fearfully furious, ordered the massacre of the Bethlehem infants. (2)

Massacre of the Innocents (Le Massacre des Innocents) (1824), Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes

The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, a newborn child, the first fruit of a new generation, though unable to answer difficult questions of moral choice, bore the promise of 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 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 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 a stagnant economy is a barrier to the fulfillment of long-established, long-invested plans for the future. 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 chances and changes of aging and illness or surgery and recovery and adjusting to our body’s new normal.

Or involving our domestic stability, especially in this day of political disharmony, hostility. Give us a sign that our national unity somehow on some soon day will be restored.

At times, we look for signs, which always are inherently ambiguous. Capable of being read, misread, or unread.

Back to Ahaz and Joseph. The sign of the birth of a child was ambiguous. In each case, satisfying no immediate need. Nevertheless, though the is-ness, the existence of a child is now, the fullness, the potential of the child always is yet to be.

Therefore, a fair, faithful interpretation of a sign, paradoxically, clearly rests in our ability 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 in this moment the is-ness of now and to recognize that all that is now is not and cannot be what will be.

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


(1) See Numbers 5.11-29
(2) Matthew 2.13-18


Isaiah warning King Ahaz (Isaiah 7.4), artist unknown. Note: The scene depicts Isaiah 7.3-4: The Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, and say to him, ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.’”

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

Massacre of the Innocents (1824), Léon Cogniet (1794-1880). 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, signs of vulnerability and though protecting her infant with her body, they remain cornered, their doom sure.

4 thoughts on “Signs of Ambiguity

  1. Wow Paul!!
    HOPE….Everything you touched on here… relationships, finances, health touched me in a deep way… things don’t always work out in the way we had intended. We think we’ve planned well, but WAIT… a huge expense we hadn’t counted on, OR someone disappointed us AGAIN in a relationship.

    Someone asked me last week in exasperation”when will this end!” over caring for a parent. I don’t want to be one of those people who say “In God’s time”… so instead I try to give them hope that tomorrow will be better… a one day at a time thing…. we may not always like the path we’re on, but having hope that things will improve will get us through most any day!!

    Much love and thanks!!


  2. Loretta, you write, “Someone asked me last week in exasperation, ‘When will this end!’ over caring for a parent.” Lord, have mercy, so personal, passionate, and poignant an inquiry! And your response about taking life a day at a time and with hope in hand that life will improve, I believe, is spot-on in terms of truth-telling and empathy-bearing. Bless you and bless that person for being able and willing to be vulnerable in asking the question.

    During yesterday’s sermon, words were given to me that I hadn’t written down (and, per my norm, I didn’t include in the posted text [one day, I’ll have to consider why I usually don’t do that!]). When I spoke of the tension of holding in balance the is-ness of now and the fullness of what the future may bring, I stretched out my arms as wide as I could and said, “This is why the image of Christ crucified is a powerful witness to truth. For as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, holding in one hand our sin and in the other our salvation through his death and coming resurrection, and holding them together, so, our holding together always, daily what is and our hope of what is to come is the best, most faithful way to live!” At the end of the Mass, at the door, a parishioner said to me, “Tell me more of what you meant by that.” And I was given to say to her, “I always must hold both in hand. For if I hold on only to hope without holding the pain of the now, then hope becomes not hope, but mere wishing thinking. And if I hold only the pain of the now and not onto hope, then I end only in despair.” She nodded and said, “Thank you. I needed that.”

    Thank God for God’s Spirit-word! For before the instant in the sermon when Jesus on the cross came to mind and before the woman at the door said what she said, I had no conscious awareness of the words that came forth!

    Love you

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Powerful stuff!!!!!

    I get it why you don’t try to come home from church and recreate what you may have added to the sermon… sometimes, especially with your sermons, it’s the GIFT of being there to hear them in person! Or PRA LIVE as I like to call it!


  4. Thanks, Loretta. PRA LIVE – I love it.


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