4th Sunday of Advent

December 18, 2016


The Signs

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria!” (Isaiah 7:10-17 ESV)

The story of Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz in our first reading is largely ignored today because the original context and fulfilment is hard to determine and it is ‘drowned out’ or ‘blinded’ by Matthew seeing it fulfilled in Jesus. Back in Isaiah’s time – which we’re hearing through Advent, Christmas, and well into the Sundays after The Epiphany – God was calling out to his rebellious people who were doing what people always do – live as best they can for the moment – do what one needs to do pragmatically to get through this world with as much as possible – as much assets, power, influence – because with these we have a chance to live as we wish.

Politically Judah and Jerusalem were caught between the rise and fall of empires and neighbours. King Ahaz was aware that Syria and Ephraim (or Israel) wanted him to join them in their opposition to the growing might of Assyria. But Ahaz didn’t want annoy Assyria and was considering whether an alliance with Egypt would work. Now Ahaz hears that Syria and Ephraim are going to move against him – take him out – and install their own puppet on the throne. He’s not strong enough to fight them and he’s considering with whom to make an alliance – Egypt was weak – and so he was considering making a treaty with Assyria itself.

Shrink the distances a huge amount – pretend the USA is the same distance away to the west of the UK as Europe is to the east. Pretend that the Middle East is unified under Saudi Arabia and looking north. And now pretend that Queen Elizabeth and Theresa May have heard that the USA and Europe are going to take control of the UK before Saudi Arabia gets here – and in response the Queen and Prime Minister are considering making an alliance with Saudi Arabia which as a vassal state would mean the UK adopting Islam in some form akin or above the Church of England. If you’ve got a sense of this pretend scenario then you’ve got a sense of Isaiah 7 and what Ahaz was facing.

Pretend you’re you – how do you feel? It’s not nice being a pawn in the big game. Keep your head down and try and make the best of it is what most people do. But it brings to mind the importance of leaders – and whether they are self serving or not.

God sends Isaiah to Ahaz to tell him (a) that God wasn’t going to dessert Judah and Jerusalem; and (b) that Ahaz should be faithful to him and let the Torah guide his decisions – particularly about worshipping other gods – because Syria and Ephraim will ‘lose’ – in fact Ephraim will be utterly destroyed within 65 years – which it was. God is direct with Ahaz, ‘If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established’ (Isaiah 7:9b).

Our text is Isaiah giving Ahaz an opportunity to test God – to ask for a sign – any sign like Gideon asked for signs – so that he can be encouraged and strengthened to serve his people by making the right decisions. Now here’s the kicker – Ahaz refuses! Maybe Ahaz thought Isaiah a religious nut but Ahaz wasn’t going to box himself in by asking for a sign because what if it happens – then he’d feel he’d have to trust God – better he refuse any sign – claim to be righteous and not put God to the test – when in effect, in this case, his refusal to ask for a sign was a sign that he didn’t trust God and he didn’t want to obey God – he wanted to keep his options open!

Now Isaiah replies that the Lord himself will give a sign – a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel. Before the child is too old – before he knows the details of right and wrong – the two kings of Syria and Ephraim will be no more – and the people will rejoice and say ‘God is with us’. But then just when you thought you were clever the Lord will bring on Assyria – and there is worse to come.

Who is this young woman and her child? We have no idea. It is unlikely to be Ahaz’s wife and child. It is just as unlikely to be Isaiah’s wife and child. It could be a generational description – using a single person – to describe the coming events – but we don’t know with any certainty. What Matthew knew when he quoted the text was that Isaiah’s prophecies happened – and Ephraim and Syria were snuffed out – and Assyria came and went – and then Babylon came and Judah and Jerusalem were destroyed – but then Babylon left – and there was a promise of the people returning to God from where they’d been scattered.

Please remember that Matthew sees Isaiah by the light of an empty tomb and understands the importance of signs if you read them correctly. And that was Joseph’s difficulty – he was reading the signs with his own eyes – with biology intact and he wasn’t the father of Mary’s child – but God gave Joseph what he needed to follow him and obey him – no matter what the world thought.

Ahaz was offered words to make his eyes see and to strengthen his faith. He rejected the words because he didn’t believe – and certainly didn’t want to take the risk of possibly believing.

Joseph receives words that explained the sign in front of him – the growing pregnancy bulge – and despite what the world would think of him – he now saw Mary and her child as part of God’s plan and because of his relationship with Mary, he knew what to do.

Isaiah’s promise of Immanuel can, of course, lead us straight to Jesus but only when we already have faith. Originally, it seems that God’s message to Ahaz was one of judgement. Now here’s the interesting point – that whether in scandal and facing an uncertain future, whether in rebellion, whether we are in trouble and calling out for help or whether we are wanting to do things on our own – in other words whether we need to hear Law or Gospel – Immanuel is with us.

We might ask for all sorts of signs but these become personal and people might see answers to prayers as God doing it or rationalise them as coincidences but for us today, like Matthew, the only signs that count each Advent, each Christmas, each day of our life – are Jesus’ cross and empty tomb. If this true – and I declare to you that it is – that makes Baptism and Holy Communion more than signs – though they are signs they are also sacraments through which Jesus is Immanuel – God with us.

This means we are called to faithfulness – to obedience – in the stations of life we’re in – in our relationships – by doing what Joseph did – let God’s Word make it clear what signs we need to notice – and then follow Jesus each day.


Bible References

  • Isaiah 7:10 - 17