Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
Once upon a time there was a king named Ahaz. Not a storybook king, but a real king. In 735 B.C. Ahaz ascended the throne of Judah. He was only 20 years old at the time. In those days the kingdom of Israel over which King David once ruled had split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Ahaz became ruler of the Southern Kingdom and ruled there for nearly 20 years.
Now, Ahaz was a very religious king. Problem was, his religious practices had nothing to do with God. Instead of worshipping God, Ahaz turned to the idol worship popular in the surrounding pagan cultures of his day. He participated in forbidden fertility rites and, if you can believe it, even offered up his own firstborn son to be burned as a human sacrifice. Ahaz was indeed a very religious king, but religious in all the worst imaginable ways.
Now, in those days there was conflict in the Middle East. (Can you imagine!?) During the reign of Ahaz a great power had grown up east of Judah. The nation of Assyria, located in what is now modern-day Iraq, had become a dangerous threat to the whole region. In response, several nations in that area formed an alliance to try to stand against the Assyrians. Ahaz, however, refused to cooperate. In response, the nations of Israel and Aram declared war on Ahaz, a move that apparently left the king fearing for his life. Isaiah 7:2 says that on hearing the news, “the heart of Ahaz…shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” Ahaz was shaking like a leaf on a tree!
In desperation, Ahaz decided to ask for help from, of all people, the Assyrians. And it was at that time that God decided to intervene, and in the beginning of Isaiah 7 we read how the Lord sent his prophet Isaiah to go and try to talk some sense into this reckless king bent on throwing his lot in with the enemy and driving his nation to ruin. Our scripture passage this morning records what happens when Isaiah goes to speak to Ahaz on behalf of the Lord.
Listen now to the Word of the Lord.
10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” (Isaiah 7:10-16, NRSV)
Have you ever asked God for a sign? Maybe there was a point in your life where you had to make a very important decision and you had a sense that God was leading you in one direction but also felt like the other direction offered some attractive options. Should I take this job or that job? Is she the one I’m supposed to marry or is there somebody else I should be waiting for? Lord, do you really want me to move my family all the way over there?
If you have ever asked God for a sign you are in good company. All through scripture we see men and women asking God for signs, for tangible indications from heaven that they are headed in the right direction. And God, more often than you might think, is quite willing to give a sign. The Bible, in fact, is littered with signs, from rainbows to pillars of fire, from traveling stars to talking donkeys.
It is, however, difficult to think of a time in the Bible when God seems more eager to give a sign then he seems to be here with Ahaz. Isaiah is basically pleading with the king when he comes to him and says, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Ahaz is given carte blanche, basically told to name his sign. God is saying, “You want the moon to turn pink and purple? No problem. You want the clouds to rain down blueberry ice cream? I can do that. You want me to make your camel speak fluent Egyptian and give you the message himself? Piece of cake. Just tell me what sign it will take to convince you that what you are about to do is a bad idea and I will give you that sign.”
And in response Ahaz says to Isaiah, “Oh, no! I could never do that. I would never make such a demand on God! How could I ever put God to the test?” It all sounds, on the surface, so reverent and humble. Ahaz really is such a considerate young king.
Ahaz is full of it. What a monumental piece of hypocrisy. He says he doesn’t want to trouble God with a sign. What he means is that he doesn’t want a sign because then it will be all too clear what God wants and he has a pretty good idea that what God wants is not what he wants. And as long as we’re on the subject, let’s be honest. We do this all the time, with one another and with God. How many times have you steered clear of somebody else, even God, because you know that the truth they have to give you is not a truth that you want to hear?
What makes Ahaz’ avoidance so despicable is that he masks his inward unbelief with outward piety. His mask, of course, doesn’t fool God. It doesn’t even fool Isaiah. Immediately, Isaiah warns him. “Ahaz,” he says, “is it not enough for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? You’ve used up my patience. Will you now use up God’s as well?”
It’s this warning that makes what happens next so unbelievable. This wicked king who has spent his life thumbing his nose at the God who gave him his position in life in the first place and who is now playing two-faced games when God steps in to try to keep him from making the worst decision of his life, this wicked and two-faced king is about to get another chance.
Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, but God decides to give him one anyway. “Look,” Isaiah says to Ahaz, “the Lord is going to give you the sign you refused to ask for. A young woman who you know is going to get pregnant. Eventually she will bear a son and she will name the boy Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ By the time the child is old enough to know right from wrong, the threat of war will be over. The two kings from Israel and Aram who have made you so afraid will be gone. This will happen just as I have told you, Ahaz, so watch for it.”
Over the years biblical scholars have debated the identity of this young woman. Since the Bible never reveals her identity we can’t say for certain exactly who she was. What we can say for certain is that not long after this, when this child would have been about two years old, both the nations of Israel and Aram were, in fact, laid to waste. Apparently, God not only gave Ahaz his sign but hit him over the head with it. And what was the message of that sign? What did it point to? The message of the sign was all wrapped up in the name of the child. The child shall be called Immanuel, a beautiful name which simply means “God with us.”
It is hard to imagine a person more wicked, stubborn, hard-hearted, and devious than Ahaz. He doesn’t want a sign from God. He insists on going the opposite way from God. And yet – and yet! – God sends him a sign anyway and at the heart of that sign is a message God has been sending his stubborn, hard-hearted people as long as they have been his people. “Ahaz,” God says, “I am with you. I have always been with you. I will always be with you. I am your God. You are my people. I will never leave you or forsake you. No matter what you face, you do not face it alone. May the name of the child remind you, I am with you.”
How could God send such a sign to such a man? Amazing! Nobody in the history of the world has ever overestimated the grace of God. Nobody. There is nothing in this world which is as extraordinary as the faithful, patient, enduring grace of God.
What did Ahaz do in response to God’s grace? Well, in response to the sign Immanuel, in response to the reminder that God was still with him, Ahaz went immediately and stripped the Lord’s Temple of its silver and gold and carted it off to offer as a present to the king of Assyria in hopes that he would earn his favor. While there in Assyria he was so impressed by the pagan altar he saw in Damascus he had a replica designed back home in the Temple in Jerusalem. Clearly, this man who did not want to trouble God for a sign was not going to be troubled with one when God sent it anyway. Apparently, there are just some people who simply do not want God with them no matter how much God may want to be with them.
Once upon another time there was a man named Joseph. Like Ahaz, this man really lived. Unlike Ahaz, this man was not a king, not by a long shot. He was a carpenter, simple and poor. At one point he became engaged in marriage to a young woman from his village. Everything in his life seemed to be progressing in very ordinary fashion until one day just before the wedding he discovered that this fiancé, with whom he had never slept, was pregnant. Now, even in our day that sort of thing will put a kink in the wedding plans. In those days it was enough to destroy the reputation of an entire family.
Though ordinary in most every other way, Joseph was, however, extraordinary in one way. He was an honorable man, the sort of man who always sought to do the right thing. Nobody in those days would have blamed him if he chose to expose his fiancé to public disgrace, and yet Joseph decided instead to spare her the humility by dismissing her quietly. I suspect that he believed this was what God would want him to do.
By any stretch, Joseph was in a tough spot, the sort of spot in which you might expect a person to ask for a sign from heaven. Whether or not Joseph ever asked for one, God gave him one. That very night, in fact, the sign came in the form of an angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream. The angel told him not to be afraid and that he was to go through with his initial plans of taking this young woman as his wife because though she was pregnant she was, in fact, still a virgin. Mysteriously, the child conceived within her was from no man but was instead from the very Spirit of God. The child was a boy and Joseph was to take him as his son.
Matthew, who records this story of Joseph in the first chapter of his Gospel, inserts this line. In Matthew 1:22 he writes,
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet [Isaiah]:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
In Joseph we find a man who, like King Ahaz years before him, faced a set of extraordinarily difficult circumstances. And yet the message God sends them both is essentially the same message. “Immanuel. I am with you. The way forward seems impossible, I know. But you are not alone. A child will be born who will show you that my guiding, protecting, presence is never far from those who will trust in me.”
Well, you know how the story goes. Joseph wakes up from his wild dream and he does exactly that the angel told him God wanted him to do. He takes the young woman, whose name was Mary, he takes her as his wife and in time she bears a son. Joseph, as you know, named the boy Jesus, a name which means “the Lord saves.”
It’s enough to make a person wonder if all God’s signs to us essentially say the same thing: “Immanuel. I will be with you. I will always be with you. Every moment of every hour of every day of your life I will be with you. Even in the darkest hour I will be with you. I will be with you and because I am with you, you can be assured that I will save you.”
You know, we want to make these sorts of promises to people we love. As a father there have been many times when I have been tempted to assure my own children that I will always be with them. I’ve resisted the temptation, however, because it is a promise I know I cannot keep. My own father died when I was just four years old. I know that tomorrow on this earth is guaranteed for no one. Even in the most sacred relationship of marriage we don’t promise to be with one another forever but only until death do us part.
You see, only God can make such a promise to always be with us. And He does, over and over and over again. In fact, I am here to tell you today that no matter who you are and no matter what you are facing, God wants to tell you, “I am with you.” God is with you.
Take a moment to think about what that means. If you do, you’ll see that the implications are both comforting and unsettling.
On one hand, it’s comforting to know that there is a God who shares our lives, a God who is with us both in the danger and the drudgery, a God who walks with us through joy and sorrow and everything in between. There is tremendous comfort in knowing that we are never alone in this life.
On the other hand, it’s also unsettling to know that God is always with us. For you see, God is not some divine butler who only comes when we want something from him or a heavenly ambulance that only shows up when we call for help. No, God is holy, and sovereign, and righteous. God always does what God wants to do and what is right to do, which is, by the way, not always what we want him to do. God is good, yes, but God is not safe. And above all, God does not come to leave us as we are. God comes to save. God comes to judge. God comes to transform. God comes to be with us, yes, but when God comes he always comes to be with us and turn everything in our lives upside down.
Ahaz knew this. So did Joseph. Ahaz knew this about God and it was the reason he wanted nothing to do with God because he did not want his world turned upside down. Joseph knew this about God as well but, unlike Ahaz, he trusted God. His world still got turned upside down, and in ways that he likely would never have asked for or imagined, but he trusted God nonetheless. And this was the crucial distinction between these two men that made all the difference in the end.
Now as for you, you might never have asked for a sign from God. You might not have ever even wanted a sign from God. You got one anyway. 2000 years ago a child really was born in a humble stable, a child unlike any child the world has ever seen. He was given many names, one of which was Immanuel, “God with us.” He was, of course, given this name because this child literally was God with us. As John writes at the beginning of his Gospel, the eternal “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
A sign has been given. The Creator has become a creature. The One beyond time and space has stepped himself into time and space. And when God entered history as the child of a Jewish virgin he did not stay a child. The child grew to become a man who took unto himself all of humanity. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “[In Christ] heaven drew earth up into it and locality, limitation, sleep, sweat, weariness, frustration, pain, doubt, and death became, from before all worlds, known by God from within.” God came to be with us to such an extent that God came to know us from within. And the child grew to become a man who taught, and healed, and loved, and amazed, and suffered, and died, and rose from the dead, and did it all so that all those who would trust that he truly was God with us would find a way home to be with God forever.
This is the sign that we have been given. We did not ask for it. We may not have wanted it. We certainly did not deserve it. But by the pure grace of God we have been given it nonetheless. No matter what circumstances you have ever faced in life, face even now, or will ever face in the future, the heart of God’s sign to you today is simply Immanuel. God is with us.
Ahaz did not want God with him. He turned his back on God. Joseph was, in the end, glad God was with him for he had nowhere else to turn.
What about you? That, of course, is the question.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Have you ever asked for a sign from God? Have you ever been given one?
Read Isaiah 7:10-16. What do you notice here first?
In verse 12 Ahaz says that he would rather not put God to the test? Is he being sincere here? Is it a bad thing to put God to the test?
Why would God give such a wicked person like Ahaz so many chances? Are you glad he does?
Do you think you would do whatever God asked you to do as long as you knew that it was truly God who was the one asking?
Do you want God with you all the time? It’s said that the idea that God is with us is both comforting and unsettling. Is that true for you?
If God was going to make one thing clear to you in life what would you want that one thing to be?
When is the last time that you felt absolutely certain that God was with you?
 See II Kings 16:1-4.
 I’m borrowing liberally from Michael Card who makes this wonderful point in Immanuel: Reflections on the Life of Christ, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 27.
 John 1:14, NIV.
 Cited in The Book of Jesus, edited by Calvin Miller, (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996), p. 211.