The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
How many times has it happened to you – you’re traveling down a dark, lonely road you’ve never been on before, not sure where you are or if you’re heading in the right direction? Either you don’t have GPS in your car or it’s not working. You’re looking, desperately, for a sign – a town sign, a road number, a direction.
At the beginning of my third year as a student at UVa, I took a group of students to a Christian retreat at Smith Mountain Lake. I’d never been there before, I hadn’t driven in Virginia very much, and I was following the directions to the retreat center carefully. We got there just fine, but somehow, on the way back to Charlottesville, I got lost. I finally saw a sign for Interstate 81 and, with great relief, headed for Charlottesville. Speeding along at 70 miles per hour, the five of us crammed in the Datsun talking at full volume, we were in great shape. Until a sign loomed in the twilight: Blacksburg, 10 miles. Sometimes the signs don’t say what you want them to say.
Sometimes you can see the signs, but you can’t figure out what they mean. Winter storms shift the channels in the shallow creeks on the Eastern Shore, often in directions inconsistent with the official channel markers. Early in the spring, watermen head out in their boats and stick saplings in the mud to show where the edge of the channel really is. One spring early in my sailing career we headed out Nassawadox Creek, carefully watching the saplings to stay in the channel. Suddenly we ran hard aground, right where I thought the channel was supposed to be. A waterman came by in his boat and offered to give us a tow. “I don’t understand it,” I yelled to him. “I was following the markers you guys put down.” “Yeah,” he yelled back. “You’re just on the wrong side of them.”
We’re all looking for signs. Some read the astrology column in the newspaper, some pay attention to the fortune in the cookie, some use their birthday and anniversary to play the Mega Millions card. We take vocational preference tests, we watch the Dow Jones, we listen to the talking heads on radio and TV. We play with the Ouija Board or the Tarot Cards, we go to the palm reader, we study our tea leaves – all just for fun, of course. We’re all looking for signs. Is this the person I can love, and who will love me for the rest of our lives? Is the job where I can finally not just earn a decent living but actually enjoy going to work? Is this the person I can vote for who will finally bring some hope to the mess in New Kent, or Richmond, or Washington? Is this lump, this cough, this pain, a sign? Is this comet, this political event, this crazy weather, this change in the culture a sign? We’re all looking for signs.
Two thousand years ago in Israel, there were plenty of people looking for signs. They were looking for them in the usual places – the same places we look for them yet today. They were looking for them in the palaces in Rome and in Jerusalem. They were looking for signs among the leaders of church and state. They were looking for them among the movers and shakers in the economy. They were looking for them in the scriptures, debating ceaselessly about symbols and numbers and hidden meanings. Everyone was looking for a Messiah – a Savior to rescue the people from their oppression by the Roman overlords. Caesar and Herod, the kings, were watching for a Messiah, so they could kill him. The religious leaders were watching for a Messiah, because they wanted to use him to consolidate their power. The poor were looking for a Messiah because they believed he would make them rich. The sick were looking for a Messiah to make them well. Everyone was looking for a Messiah, and looking for a sign, in all the places any sane person would look for something they expected.
Signs are wonderful. But if you’ve already made up your mind what sign you’re looking for, you might miss something much better along the way. Years ago Vicki and I were coming home from Philadelphia, and instead of taking I-95 got off on old Rt. 1. We were cruising down the road when suddenly Vicki pointed to a sign and said, “West Grove: I think that’s where the Red Rose Inn is.” We’d been reading about country inns, and the Red Rose has a long history dating back to William Penn. We took the road to West Grove, found the Red Rose, and went in for lunch. We were the only people in the entire restaurant. It was a wonderful meal, and the service was -- as if we were the only people in the restaurant. If we’d been focused on getting back to Virginia, we probably wouldn’t have noticed the sign to West Grove. Instead, we were open to something happening that we never expected.
The shepherds on the hillside above Bethlehem weren’t looking for signs of a Messiah. They were looking for signs of rain, signs of wolves, signs of thieves, signs of straying sheep. Messiahs were the business of the rich and the powerful, of the holy and the righteous. Shepherds were at the bottom of Israelite society – the dishwashers, the migrant farmhands, the construction laborers of their time. Not only could they not see the signs pointing to the Kingdom of God, they couldn’t even see the signs pointing to a road headed there. They were not looking for signs of a Messiah that night.
And because they hadn’t made up their minds about what the sign would say, or where it would appear, or what it would look like, maybe the shepherds – the poor, confused, clueless shepherds – were the only people in Judea that Christmas night with their hearts open enough to see the angels. They saw the angels because they weren’t looking. They heard the angels because they hadn’t made up their ears what the angels would say. And they were able to leave their sheep and go to Bethlehem and see this thing that the Lord had made known to them precisely because they hadn’t decided what a Messiah would look like. They were able to see the signs in the night because they weren’t looking.
Maybe Mary was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah because she was the one girl in all of Israel who didn’t expect it. And all Jesus’ life, the only people who get what he’s doing are the people who haven’t already made up their minds about what the Messiah is supposed to do and say and be. Every time somebody tries to make Jesus fit their own signs – God forbid, Jesus, that you should go to Jerusalem and be crucified – Jesus smashes their signs and their directions. And on Easter morning, God gives another sign to the disciples and to the women that they weren’t expecting in any way. We can only see the signs when we stop looking for them.
One Christmas when our children were small, Vicki and I managed to get everything on our daughter’s wish list. We were so proud of ourselves, and watched her, on Christmas morning, as she opened requested gift after requested gift. When they were all opened, she seemed disappointed. “But we got you everything you asked for!” we said. “I know,” she answered. “But there were no surprises.” Since then we’ve never asked her what she wanted for Christmas, and she’s been much happier. And so have we.
We’re all looking for signs. We are desperately looking for signs of healing, for signs of love, for signs of hope, for signs of life. But on Christmas, the most glorious signs come to the people who haven’t made up their minds what the signs are going to be. It’s when we’re out on the hillside, staring into the darkness, expecting nothing, expecting anything, expecting everything, that we’re free enough, open enough, faithful enough to see and hear when the skies open, hosts of heaven break forth, and choirs of angels lift a song of eternal love.
We’re all looking for signs in the night. Tonight, don’t. Just look, and listen, and be still. Love will come exactly when and where you least expect it.