>The following is a sermon that I wrote and preached in PR620, my preaching class at Asbury Theological Seminary. This was actually the second sermon I have ever preached, and I thought I’d throw it out there for y’all to see. Hopefully it will speak a timely word to someone out there as we approach the season of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” 13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16 But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. (Isaiah 7:10-16).

We’ve all had difficult times. This time of the year we’re stressed out about papers, presentations, tests and sermons. The weather outside is constantly changing, playing havoc on our sinuses. Some of us here tonight are probably battling some sort of illness. To top it off, we live in uncertain times – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; reports of nuclear tests in North Korea. There is no doubt that these are troubling times, and our response in the midst of these challenging times is the true mark of our faith. Now, let’s flashback to Palestine 2800 years ago.

Ahaz is the king of Judah, the southern kingdom. The Assyrian Empire is the greatest military force seen since the days of Egypt, having much of the area under its control. Syria, Israel and Judah are among the kingdoms paying tribute to the Assyrians, when Syria and Israel get the outlandish idea to join together and go against Assyria. This plan includes Judah. However, Ahaz is no fool. He wants nothing to do with the situation, and refuses to join them. At this point, the kings of Syria and Israel decide to march against Judah, overthrow Ahaz and replace him with someone who would bring Judah into the alliance. Undoubtedly, these are troubling times, and it is into this context that God speaks.

There are three key elements in the situation surrounding Isaiah’s meeting with Ahaz. First, Isaiah is accompanied by his son, Shear-Jashub, whose name means, “a remnant will return.” Second, Isaiah is to meet Ahaz at the end of an aqueduct. Aqueducts were important structures in the ancient world, especially in the event of a seige by an enemy army. Third, the meeting also takes place on the highway. Highways in the ancient world served two major purposes – as trade routes and as a way to easily move military forces. As you can imagine, Ahaz sees the irony of the situation. He is already worried about the coming armies of Syria and Israel, and now he is meeting with Isaiah surrounded by the symbolism of war. In spite of the symbolism surrounding the meeting and the dark cloud of war hanging over the nation, Isaiah is there to give Ahaz comfort.

Even when all of the signs point to the unthinkable as an immanent reality, God is still present. Remember the story of Joseph? His brothers sold him into slavery. He was eventually thrown into prison, but he ended up as Pharaoh’s second in command and saved the line of Israel in time of famine. And what about Acts 12 when Peter is in prison? Things were not looking good for him. Shortly after Herod had James killed, he arrested Peter, presumably with the same intention. The night before Herod was going to try Peter, a group was praying for Peter’s release. An angel appeared to Peter and helped him escape. No matter how dark the situation looks from our perspective, God is still in charge, and He has a way of turning situations around. The question here is, “Will Ahaz let God turn things around for Judah?”

Isaiah’s message of comfort is found in 7:7-9. He tells Ahaz that the plans made against him by the rulers of Syria and Israel will not come to pass, and this word of comfort also comes with a greater promise. “If you do not stand firm, you will not stand at all” (Is. 7:9b). Isaiah promises that Ahaz will make it through this difficult time, in spite of all that is coming his way, in spite of how bad things look at this time, and to top it off, he will be established by God if he only remains faithful.

The second part of the message is tonight’s Scripture, and it was intended to increase Ahaz’s faith. Isaiah tells him to ask for a sign as proof of the promise just given. Biblically speaking a sign typically has a twofold purpose. First of all, it points to something beyond itself. Secondly, it encourages one’s faith. While it is not unheard of for God to give a sign – He does so in 1 Sam 10 after Saul is anointed as king – it is not very common outside of the ministry of Jesus. So the Lord offering a sign to Ahaz was a pretty big deal. Ahaz’s response in this particular situation is indicative of where his heart is and does not reflect the kind of response that the Lord was wanting from Judah’s king.

On the surface, Ahaz’s response is actually very good. Deuteronomy 6:16 is a specific commandment that says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” We’ve heard this quoted before, haven’t we? It is the same response that Jesus gives Satan at the pinnacle of the temple in Matthew 4:5-7, when Satan tells Jesus to throw himself down and let the angels catch him. So, for Ahaz to refuse to test the Lord is actually a very pious thing, and an act of obedience to the Mosaic Law. Actually, let me correct myself, it is an act of obedience to the letter of the Mosaic Law. You see, this is Isaiah’s problem with Ahaz’s response. If we read the flow of the narrative, it doesn’t seem to make much sense for Isaiah to be so upset with Ahaz. His reaction does not seem to fit with Ahaz’s response. Isaiah appears to be displeased with Ahaz, but on the surface, all Ahaz does is defer to the commands of the Mosaic Law. So, why would Isaiah react in such a way?

Isaiah’s response comes out of knowing the heart of Ahaz. Ahaz was not considered to be a good king. He may have been politically savvy and able to temporarily save Judah from Israel and Syria, so in the eyes of the world, he may have been a successful king; however the Old Testament reveals a different standard, and it is a standard that we all face – the standard of righteousness. The writer of 2 Chronicles gives the following verdict on Ahaz’s reign, “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Chron 28:1). If we look at 2 Kings 16, we see the same statement. Idolatry and child sacrifice were among the charges brought against him; neither of which were really all that uncommon in his day, nor were they really condemned outside of Scripture. While the annals of history may look favorably upon what Ahaz accomplished in his reign, Scripture gives a different measurement. And let’s think about it, how much do we know now about Ahaz’s reign in Judah? Outside of Scripture, what sources even mention Ahaz and the things he accomplished as king? His legacy is forever linked to his unfaithfulness, not to his worldly success. And let’s not fool ourselves, the same measure stands for us today.

Ahaz’s response to Isaiah’s request to ask for a sign was met with such contempt because it reflected the same unfaithfulness that was seen throughout his life. Ahaz had no intention of trusting in the Lord. Shortly after this meeting, Ahaz would ask the Assyrian king for help. In doing so, he allowed one of the world’s most ruthless armies to camp in his backyard. Sure, it eased the problems he had with Syria and Israel, but it also brought on a whole new set of issues for his country to deal with after his death. Ahaz fell into the trap of thinking that the Lord was just like the other gods of the ancient world. If you say and do the right things, then they would be on your side. But God isn’t like that. God is not satisfied with us simply going through the motions of faith, all the while lacking true faith. God looks deeper, even to the depths of our hearts.

In spite of Ahaz’s response, the Lord gives him a sign. It’s known as the Sign of Immanuel, and throughout Christian history it has been understood to have fulfilled something far beyond what Isaiah was talking about. A young woman who was not yet married would conceive and bear a son, whose name will be Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Before the time when this child would know the difference between good and evil, the enemies of Judah will be no more. In the immediate context, Isaiah was either talking about a young woman who was near, or the prophetess who is mentioned in 8:3. The demise of Syria and Israel was not far off.
However, Matthew 1:23 views the prophecy in a new light. Matthew sees the birth of Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Immanuel, “God with us,” cannot be more fulfilled than it is in Christ Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. And not only does Jesus bring forth the fullness of the prophecy, he shows a completely different response in the midst of troubling times. Where Ahaz fails, Jesus gives the ultimate demonstration. On the eve of his arrest, Jesus is praying in the garden at Gethsemane. He knows what awaits him in the coming day, and yet, he submits himself to God.

In the face of difficult times, Ahaz decided that it was best to rely on the strength of the Assyrian army, rather than on the trustworthiness of God. Now, contrast that attitude with the attitude of Jesus. In the face of all sorts of trials and persecution, Jesus never strayed from obedience to the Father. Was it difficult? I think Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane shows the inner struggle that he was going through, but he obeyed the Father no matter the cost. And ultimately it cost him his life. Jesus humbled himself to the point death, and through this humbleness, he was highly exalted by God. What did Ahaz’s response get him? Until Christ returns, people will learn from Ahaz that there are severe consequences for failing to trust in the Lord. He will always be the example of what NOT to do.

So, the question tonight is, “Who will you rely on in the difficult times?” Will you look for strength within the context of what the world thinks is right? Will you dig down deep, pull yourself up by the bootstraps and plow through the difficult times? Or will you seek a different path? Will you have the courage to rely on God in faith? Will you look away from what the world says is right and towards the refuge that is available by the grace of God through Christ Jesus?

Just some musings from a traveling pilgrim

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