St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 8th December 2013
Reading – Isaiah 7:1-17
Isaiah had a big vision of God. As he entered the temple one day, He was overwhelmed by a vision of the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted. As he stood there, or more likely, fell face first on the floor, his ears rang with the sound of the heavenly choir.He could feel the doorposts and thresholds of the temple shaking. His nostrils were filled with the thick smell of incense from somewhere within from the heavenly cloud. And as he came face to face with the purity, the perfection and the power of the Lord, the only thing he could do was cry out: Woe to me! I am ruined!
Yet although Isaiah encountered the very holiness of God Almighty, what he also learnt that day in the temple was the amazing and undeserved grace and forgiveness of the Lord. God did not come to him in judgement as he expected. Rather the Lord sent an angel to touch his lips and to give him the most wonderful and unexpected message: your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. And in response to these words, when the Lord asks “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah can only reply “Here am I. Send me!”
But now today we are going forward a few years to the time of King Ahaz. And the thing to realise about Ahaz is that he has no big vision. He does not understand the holiness of God. He has not experienced grace and forgiveness from the Lord. Although he may well have understood himself to be the Lord’s anointed, he had little idea of what it means to be sent and commissioned with good news. And if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this morning, it is to see the practical difference it makes, having a big vision of God.
So what do we learn in this passage about Ahaz?
First of all, he was a man who did not trust.
Now by this stage in the Old Testament the land of Israel had been divided in two for about two hundred years. The northern kingdom called Israel (or sometimes Ephraim) had a capital based in Samaria and the first king had invented his own religion based on the worship of golden calves. The southern kingdom was called Judah. Its capital was based in Jerusalem where Solomon had built the temple of the Lord. For a long time the northern kingdom of Israel had been at peace with the southern kingdom of Judah. But for whatever reason the king of Israel, called Pekah, had now decided the time was right to invade Judah and capture Jerusalem. And to help him do this he called upon his neighbouring country, Aram, which was based around the city of Damascus now in modern day Syria.
What was the reaction down south when the news came through of this invasion? Well, verse 2 tells us: Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind. And of course on one level this is an understandable reaction. Fear is a natural human response to danger and you can’t blame Ahaz and his people for being afraid at an army heading straight towards them.
But there is a suggestion that this fear was more than just an ordinary sense of frightened. It was a paralysing fear that crippled Ahaz and as far as we can tell led him to take no action against the threat. Why was this? Because as 2 Kings 14 tells us, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. In fact he followed the detestable practices of other nations and worshipped other gods. And what Ahaz discovered was that, when the chips were down, these other gods were singularly unable to help him.
And there is a really important lesson, I believe, for all of us here. We may not worship idols of wood or stone, and we may not practice the kind of religious rituals Ahaz followed. But we all have goals or ideals, which, if I may put it this way, we hold sacred. So the most important thing in our life may be, for example, our work, or our popularity, or our wealth. The only trouble is, when the chips are down, they really don’t help us. They cannot provide the support and strength that faith in the Lord can provide.
So how does the Lord respond to Ahaz’s lack of trust? Well, we’ve already seen from Isaiah’s vision how He is a God of infinite mercy and grace. And we see this again here. Even though Ahaz does not trust in Him, even though Ahaz follows other gods, the Lord still has a message of peace and reassurance. Verse 4: Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Aren’t those wonderfully gracious words? And through the mouth of Isaiah the Lord spells out in great detail what will happen to Aram and Ephraim, and their kings. It’s a powerful reminder that the Lord can and often does act in spite of our own lack of faith, that His working does not depend on how much or how little we believe. Even to Ahaz who had turned away from the faith of his fathers there is still a message of calm and peace, if only he could listen.
But we should note that the Lord still presents him with a challenge. The end of verse 9: If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. Yes, the Lord has chosen to act on your behalf. He is doing this even though you do not trust in Him. But one day your lack of faith will catch up with you. You are only who you are by God’s grace, and you need to remember that fact – as indeed do all of us here today.
So how does Ahaz react? Well, not only will he not trust, we learn, secondly, he will not ask.
Verses 10-12: Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”
Now it sounds at first as if Ahaz here is being rather pious. The law quite clearly tells us we shouldn’t put the Lord our God to the test and it appears on the surface that Ahaz is merely follow the commands of the law. But if you think about it a little more, what Ahaz is doing here is actually refusing to accept a truly gracious offer from his God. After all, the Lord knows the heart of the king. He sees his failure to believe and yet nevertheless He wants above all else to show him in a way he can understand that He is the one true God, worthy of all worship. And so for this reason He is prepared to give a sign whether on heaven or on earth or under the earth.
Because, you see, the Lord delights to hear the prayers of his children. That’s why he promises, for example, to Jeremiah in Jer 33:3: Calltome and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know. Or why Jesus tells the disciples in John 14:14: You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. Or why Paul commands the church in Thessalonica: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:16-18). God wants us to pray and He wants to show us more and more who He truly is.
But Ahaz has no vision of God and so he does not ask. In fact what he does instead is to invite the regional superpower of the day, Assyria, to come to his aid. Because as far as he is concerned, the help Assyria can give is far more real and far more effective than any help the Lord can give. He sees the invasion of his land as a human problem and so he seeks a purely human solution.
And for a while it seems that Ahaz’s diplomacy is effective. 2 Kings 15 and 16 tell us how the king of Assyria comes and captures Damascus. He then turns his attention to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, takes away most of its territory and then installs a new king to replace the aggressive and warlike Pekah. Indeed within a decade the whole of this kingdom comes under Assyrian control. Its inhabitants are exiled, never to return and only little old Judah down in the south remains.
But while in the short term it seems that Ahaz has been successful, in the long run he is only storing up problems for himself and his nation. It’s bad enough that on a human level he is making an alliance with a ruthless and pagan superpower called Assyria. But even worse he is rejecting the grace and mercy of the Lord God Almighty. It’s a stark reminder that just because something we do produces the right results, it doesn’t mean that it’s always the right thing to do. I wonder how many of us, when we’re in a tight spot, instinctively turn to the Lord rather than to our own wisdom and strength?
Ahaz, however, will not trust. He will not ask. And he will not learn.
You see, what Ahaz has not realised is that the Lord is different from the idols he worships. He can control those idols and they serve him at his convenience. What he has not grasped is that the Lord is sovereign and whether he likes or not, the Lord is still in control. So even though he has refused to ask the Lord for a sign, the Lord will give him a sign anyway: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Is 7:14).
Now when we hear these words at this point in the passage we instantly begin to think of the Christmas story. It’s hard not to, really, when Matthew uses exactly this verse to explain what the birth of Jesus is all about. And we can have no doubt Isaiah’s words do indeed point forward to the coming of the Messiah about seven hundred years later. Here is one of those precious and important prophecies which prove that Jesus’ coming into the world was no divine accident or afterthought but an event carefully planned and prepared since before the beginning of the world.
But before we get ahead of ourselves and think what the verse means to us, I believe it’s worth thinking what this verse might have meant to Ahaz. After all, if this verse simply referred to the coming of Jesus all those years later, he would have hardly have been impressed. It wouldn’t have made much difference to his life then, and it wouldn’t have made him think twice about asking the Assyrians for help. No, in the first instance Isaiah’s prophecy must have referred to a significant birth Ahaz would have recognised and perhaps even responded to.
The only trouble is, we have no way of knowing exactly which birth the Lord had in mind. The most likely explanation is that it referred in the first instance to the child that was born to Isaiah himself, and indeed many see a connection between Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 8:3-4: And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the child knows how to call “My father” or “My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria.
Which, as we have seen, is exactly what happened. Ahaz asked the Assyrians for help. They came, they took Damascus and they invaded the northern kingdom of Israel. But even as they came riding over the horizon, Ahaz would have done well to remember this very sign in this passage. Because if he only had eyes to see, he would have realised that events were unfolding exactly in accordance with Isaiah’s predictions. Not even the most powerful empire in the region moved apart from the Lord’s command.
And if Ahaz had reflected that this part of Isaiah’s prophecy had come true, then so would the second part – that before too long the Assyrian empire would come and attack his own land. Verse 17: The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah – he will bring the king of Assyria. It should hardly be necessary to add that this in fact is exactly what happened, and if you read further on in 2 Kings 18 you will learn that the Assyrians began to harry the southern kingdom of Judah in the time of Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz.
So if we think about this passage carefully, we begin to see that for Ahaz the birth of this child was never meant to be glad tidings of comfort and joy. It was meant to be a warning to someone who had no vision of the Lord, who did not trust, who did not ask and did not learn. That’s why the Lord gave the sign.
And once you understand this, don’t you begin to see the Christmas story in rather a different light? At this time of year so many people will sing O come, O come, Emmanuel. They will attend nativity plays and exchange cards with pictures of a cute child in a cosy manger. But they have no understanding of just who God is – the pure, perfect, powerful God that Isaiah glimpsed in the temple or why it was necessary for Jesus to come to take away their guilt and atone for their sins.
And I hope you can see that to celebrate Christmas without knowing Jesus as Saviour is a most awful and most sincere tragedy. So let me ask: will you be prepared to follow Isaiah’s example? Will you say to the Lord this Christmas time: Here am I. Send me! So that by our lives and our actions others understand who Emmanuel truly is, and are prepared to trust, to ask and to learn of the Lord. For the sake of His glory and His kingdom. Amen.