A nervous breakdown is what sent him to this place away from home. He had been shaving one morning and all of these unresolved feelings from his past began to overwhelm him. And all of the sudden, he quit shaving. He called for his wife, and when she came to the bathroom, she found him sitting on the bathroom floor and he told her, “Something is wrong with me. I don’t even remember how to shave.”
And now he was in a hospital far away from home and in denial that he even needed any help. He was desperately looking for a sign from God.
On an extremely cold January evening about fifteen years ago, I was in the family room of our home in Toledo when Penny and I heard a knock on our front door. Penny was surprised to open the door and find one of the youth of our church standing on our front step shivering and not wearing any coat. She invited him in and I said, “Terry, what are doing out on a cold night like this?”
His lips were quivering as he told me, “I need to talk with you.” I could hardly understand him – that’s how cold he was. Penny, noticing what was going on said, “I’ll make some hot tea for him.”
While we waited for the water to boil, he tried to share with me why he had walked a mile and a half on a windy and single digit January night without any coat to see me. And even when he started to warm up, I still couldn’t understand what he was trying to say to me.
He was very confused and mixed up inside. He was now living with his mother and step-father, both very nice people and members of my church. His father was living in California and Terry and his father didn’t get along at all and that’s why he was now living with his mom and step-dad in Toledo.
But things weren’t working out for Terry in his new home either. He wouldn’t go to his classes at the High School and he was very unhappy and confused.
He spent a good two hours at our home getting warm that cold night. And I talked to him about God’s infinite love and concern for him. I talked about how God was present for him and wanted to help him deal with his problems. But I could tell that I wasn’t getting through to him. He was pretty mixed up inside.
Around midnight, I took him to his house and we must have talked for another hour in his driveway because he just didn’t want to get out of the car. And again, I reiterated how much God loved him and cared about him. I could sense that he felt very distant from God and I just wanted him to know that God was there for him.
Have you ever felt separated from God’s love? Disconnected? Confused where you wander aimlessly?
Nothing pains me more as a pastor then when I see people fall away from their relationship with God and with the church.
I remember a stretch of time when I felt disconnected from God. I really didn’t want to pray. And when you face those times of disconnection, it’s really easy to gradually fall away from the spiritual support system that is so essential for you and me in our faith journey.
And by a spiritual support system, I mean weekly worship, having a daily quiet time with God, and being involved with a group of Christians that support you in your relationship with God. Sometimes, the circumstances of life can lead us to fall away from God.
Maybe you have felt like George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, from the Christmas Classic, It’s a Wonderful Life when George is facing a terrible time in his life. He was going to be sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and so he prays for God to help him.
Let’s watch a clip from this movie where George Bailey prays to God for help.
Can you relate to George Bailey? Do you ever feel like life is just beating you down?
The prophet Isaiah was living during a time when the people of Judah who made up the southern kingdom were being threatened by outside armies. In fact, these armies were laying siege on their capital of Jerusalem.
It was a scary time for the people of God. They were in desperate need of God’s saving hand.
And unfortunately, the people of Judah were led by a King who wasn’t turning to God for strength and help. And when you have a leader who is disconnected from God, it’s really hard on the people because they are looking for spiritual leadership. And in this situation they weren’t getting any godly leadership.
King Ahaz is in panic mode. Things look bleak for the people of Judah.
Until the prophet Isaiah arrives on the scene with a sign from God.
This morning, I want us to think about God signs. God signs are vitally important to each of us as we face doubts and struggles in life. Without God signs, we would be left to despair and hopelessness.
By looking at this scripture from the seventh chapter of Isaiah, which is probably one of the most important Old Testament scriptures as it relates to the foretelling of the future birth of Jesus Christ, we are able to discover and become much more aware of the importance of God signs in our lives.
What are God signs?
Let’s look at this text from Isaiah and learn more about God signs.
The first thing we see in this text is that God signs are meant for everyone and not just for a select few.
King Ahaz was one of the worst kings of Judah and yet God sent him a sign. You know, sometimes we think that God only sends signs to people who are deeply religious people. God doesn’t discriminate. God offers signs to everyone. The question is are we looking for those signs and are we open to those signs that God sends our way.
I love how this text in Isaiah says how the Lord spoke to King Ahaz directly. The Lord tells Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Here you have this open invitation for King Ahaz to ask the Lord for whatever he wants to help in this very threatening time for the people of Judah, and yet he refuses to receive a sign from the Lord.
Sometimes, we can get so set in our ways, that we too can refuse God’s obvious signs. Sometimes we can sink so much into despair, that even when God shouts, our ears are closed.
One of the most incredible things about Christmas is how the news of Christ’s birth came to people you would never expect. The first people who found out about Christ’s birth were shepherds of all people! Shepherds weren’t known for their devotion to God. They were considered the outsiders because of their occupation. And yet, God’s announcement of Christ’s birth first came to them.
God’s signs come to each of us. Nobody is left out. God’s grace is offered to each of us. That’s not only good news for us to know that God sends us signs, it’s also good news for us to know that God is always reaching out to the people around us.
Some of us can probably think of people who do not yet know the Lord and we would give anything for them to know God in a personal way. This text reminds us to not give up hope on anybody. Keep praying; keep reaching out to them with the love of Christ. God’s signs are for everyone.
A second thing about God’s signs is this: God’s signs might come in a way that we least expect them. This is an important point about God’s signs. Sometimes, we look for the dramatic sign from God or the earth shattering sign from God.
But in this text from Isaiah, the sign is in a future child. The Gospel writer Matthew shows us that this child is Jesus Christ. But people were not looking for God’s sign to be a child. People were looking for a more dramatic sign from God.
Most bible scholars on this Isaiah text believe that this passage about a young woman who will bear a son, also refers to a child who would be born during King Ahaz’s reign. Some scholars say that Isaiah is referring to a future son of King Ahaz while other scholars would say that the son is a future son of the prophet Isaiah. But they would all agree that Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.
Christmas reminds us to not look for God’s sign by only focusing on the spectacular and the dramatic, but to look for God’s sign where you might least expect it. Even if that sign from God just so happens to be bundled up in some old rags and nestled in some straw.
As we near the celebration of Christmas, I invite us to not miss those signs that God is placing all around us. We just might miss those signs like so many people did 2,000 years ago.
A song that I listen to from time to time has this wonderful line from the chorus. It says,
“Freedom has a scent. Like the top of a new born baby's head.”
I love that line because the scent of a new born baby’s head is something that you never forget. It was this scent that became confirmation of God’s sign to Mary.
I spent last week with my family in Pennsylvania and stayed at my brother’s newly remodeled home. He had done most of the remodeling work and when I first arrived he took me on a tour of the house, pointing out all of the little nuances that he added to make it feel like home.
The most striking feature of the house is a new stone fire place that is situated in the main room of the house. The stones that make up the fire place are from the fields of our family farm. And like the tiny window that my brother took from our family’s old barn to use as an interior window for his study, the stones of the new fire place are a constant reminder of the land and the farm that were a big part of our childhood.
As my brother was showing me his new fireplace, he asked me if I could see the shape of a cross that he had asked the stone mason to incorporate as part of the fireplace design. It took me a few seconds, and then I could see it.
If you look at the picture of the fireplace and specifically at the chimney, you can see the shape of a cross leaning to the right. It’s subtle enough that you can easily miss it if you’re not paying attention to the details. One of the reasons my brother remodeled his home is because he wanted a bigger home to host large gatherings for meals and fellowship. He incorporated these subtle God signs into the design of his home to help people who visit his home to experience the presence of God.
God’s signs. They come to everyone. And these signs sometime come in a way that we least expect. Who knows what signs God will send our way next?
He was desperately looking for a sign from God. He had now been in this Columbus area hospital for several weeks and all he wanted was to get back home. To be back with his wife. To be back in his own home. But the doctors said he wasn’t ready to go home. He would need to stay for the foreseeable future, they told him, in order to deal with those unresolved issues from his past. He didn’t want to hear that. And he was still in denial that he needed this kind of intensive help.
And then one day, a very good friend of his went to see him at the hospital. After they chatted a bit, this friend said, “I have something for you that I want you to have.” And he handed him a little cross that fit into the palm of his hand. And he said, “Now you know how much this cross means to me. This cross is a sign for me of how Jesus Christ came into my life a few years ago and literally changed my life. And you know how I have carried this cross in my pocket every day, ever since that day that I received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. You know what a difference Christ has made in my life, in my work, and in my marriage. I want you to keep this cross as a sign of Christ’s love for you and how He will give you the strength to stay in this hospital until the doctors feel that you are ready to come home.”
That little conversation brought tears to their eyes.
He thought a lot about what his friend said to him after they prayed and said goodbye to each other that day, but he still felt distant from God. “God, give me a sign. Give me a sign.” He prayed.
And then one day, he was walking by a piano in the patient lobby of the hospital, when he noticed an open hymn book on the piano stand. He looked closer and he noticed that it was opened to the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
And for some strange reason, his eyes latched onto the last phrase of the third verse of that hymn which says, “And grace will lead me home.”
It was at that precise moment when he read those words that he knew that he had stumbled upon a sign from God. He thought about the cross that his friend had given him and then he thought about that phrase, “and grace will lead me home” and that’s when he finally decided to quit resisting and to start trusting.
He ended up getting out of that hospital a couple of months later after much needed emotional healing. And I can’t even begin to tell you the number of people that he has inspired since that several month stay in the hospital, including me.
God’s sign to him was a good friend’s cross, and a little phrase out of an opened hymn book in the lobby of a hospital.
During these days leading up to the big Christmas celebration, let’s be open for the signs that God has for each one of us. Even the signs that we least expect.
One final thought about God’s signs. Not only are God’s signs meant for everyone and that they might come to us in a way that we least expect. Number three – God’s signs always lead us to God’s presence.
Isaiah tells King Ahaz that a “young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Matthew, in telling the wonderful Christmas story from the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, adds an editorial comment, just in case people like you and me might not know the literal meaning of Hebrew names. Matthew tells us that the Hebrew word, “Emmanuel” means, “God with us.”
Notice that Matthew tells us that Mary’s baby is to have two names; “Jesus” which literally means “God saves” and “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”
It’s interesting that after the Christmas story, Jesus is never referred to as Emmanuel even though this is another name for him. Throughout the Gospel, it’s always Jesus, but never Emmanuel, that is, until the very last verse of his gospel. It’s so subtle that we can easily miss it.
As Jesus gives the disciples the Great Commission to go into the world and continue the ministry that he had started, Jesus then says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” There’s that name again. Emmanuel. God who will always be with you.
And this is really good news especially if you feel like you’re out in the cold and trying to find your way home. This Christmas, may we allow the many God signs that are all around us to lead us home, to that place where we can know with assurance that God is our Emmanuel.