We have before us this morning a story of political intrigue, which involves three kings, a woman, and a child. However, the kings are not from the East, and although this woman and child point forward to another woman and child they are not woman and child you are looking for me to speak of. What you probably do not realize is that this story is ultimately a story of a cowardly king, who crouches afraid in his palace unsure what to do, and unwilling to ask the Lord for a sign, when the prophet of the Lord, tells him to ask for a sign.
Ahaz the king of Judah is afraid. Rezin, the king of Aram, and Pekah, the king of Israel came to him with a plan, best plan, the greatest plan, the plan to end all plans. They wanted Ahaz to join forces with them and attack the Great and Mighty Assyrian Empire. They thought that although each of them had three little ity bity armies that together their forces would be great and they could take down giant Assyria. Ahaz, who was afraid of Assyria, did not think this was such a good plan and refused to join them. So now, Aram and Israel had these armies all set up and ready to go to battle but nobody to fight. Well they could go fight Assyria but without Ahaz and the army Judah to join them, that was definitely not a battle to win. So there they were with these soldiers, all dressed up, with nothing to do. They had a solution to that! They were mad about Ahaz for not joining them in their ultimate show down against big bad Assyria, so why not use these armies to show him just how mad they were.
So now, Ahaz is alone, with no allies and he is afraid. He was previously afraid of attempting to take down the great and mighty army of Assyria, but now he is afraid of the armies of Aram and Israel. Although, two little armies might not be as big and scary as one HUGE army, they were still two little armies joining together to form a slightly larger army coming after him and his little ity bity army. Dead is still dead no matter what size the army is that kills you.
Ahaz does not know what to do. He is afraid. First, he was afraid of Assyria and now he is afraid of Aram and Israel. The world is full of so much fear! Earlier in this chapter we are told that when Ahaz heard about Aram’s and Israel’s plan to come after Judah, that his “heart shook as trees of the forest shake in the wind.” Therefore, when I say that our passage this morning finds Ahaz cowering in his palace, I do not think that I am taking too much poetic license.
I think we all know how Ahaz feels right now. The world is ganging up on him. He is faced with a choice. He has weighed the costs and the benefits. He checked the odds and analyzed all the equations. He did not make the decision lightly. He believes he has come to the good and logical way to handle the situation, but it was all for naught. In the end, the decision created two new problems, and they are big and burly and are coming at him with chariots and swords. We have all been there. We make the right choice, we were careful, thoughtful, we did what we thought was best, but it did not pay off. Things are worse now.
How many times have we felt like we were surrounded on all sides, that our allies have turned against us and there is nowhere to turn? It seems we cannot do anything right. Everything we do, do makes things worse. How many times have found ourselves in a no win situation? When there is no good way forward and turning back is not an option. There are enemies to the right and dangers to the left and all we can do is shake like a windblown tree. We have all had moments, heck entire seasons of our lives when we have been where Ahaz is right now.
So, Isaiah comes to Ahaz, as he shaking like the leaves of a tree in a strong wind. And the word of the Lord to Ahaz, as he is hunkered down, hiding, hands over his head, afraid of being demolished by armies on all sides, is “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.” God is essentially telling him to stand up; stand strong. Do not hide, do not shake, there is nothing to fear. These two armies, these two kings are nothing more than smoldering stumps of firebrands (that’s what God says, go look it up). They are nothing more than firebrands who are just going to burn themselves out. They wanted a fight and when you refused to join in their game, they decided to take their ball and throw it at your head. They are hotheaded bullies, who are angry because you spoiled their fun when you would not join in their dangerous game. Let them do what they please. You have nothing to fear.
Apparently, although God tells Ahaz he does not need to be afraid of these two kings with their attacking armies. Ahaz sees their pointy swords and hears their clinking armor and the stomp of their boots and can feel the breath of their horses, and is afraid. Their armies are coming, they are fit for the battle they were looking for. They wanted a fight they could win and he can see that they believe they have found it. They seem to be a force with which to be reckoned.
Ahaz can see and hear the armies approaching. He trusts what he can see and hear. Ahaz can count the number of men who are coming to attack; he can number their weapons and their strength. He knows the odds are against him. He trusts facts figures. He is a king who “is about to go to war against another king. . .” and has first sat, “. . .down and consider[ed] whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?”(Luke 14:31). He does not trust God.
So, Isaiah says, God wants you to trust. You do not need to be afraid. God wants to replace your fear with faith. So, ask God for a sign, any sign. It can be as great or as small as you like. Ask God for a sign and God will give it to you. Ahaz’s response? “I will not put the Lord to the test.” And Ahaz’s response sounds pious, it sounds righteous and good. (In fact, Jesus quotes Ahaz’s words in Matthew 4 he is tested in the wilderness) But it, like everything else Ahaz has been doing, is motivated by fear. He is afraid to ask God for a sign, afraid that he might not receive it, afraid that he might. Remaining where he is (in fear) is safer than stepping out, than going anywhere. He is much more willing to deal with the danger and turmoil he does know, instead of reaching out and taking a hold of the hope and the promise that come from faith and trust in the unknown, which he must embrace if he did so.
It is always easier to remain where we are. We might not like where we are. Where we are might be causing us to live in fear. We may be unhappy, unable to move forward. We may be surrounded on all sides by enemies and obstacles. “Here” might be absolutely awful, but we know “here.” “Here” is where we are, we understand “here,” no matter how awful (or even amazing) it might be over there, we know can live here. We know it, because we are “here” and we are alive. “Over there” is scary. We do not know what is “over there.” We do not know what it will be like, it could be better, but it could be worse. It could mean living in the light; it could mean living free of the pain we are now in, it could mean living without fear. It could be safe, it could be secure, it might possibly be the most amazing place we have ever been, but it might not. We do not know. “Here” is good. Let us stay “here.”
That is why when Isaiah says; ask for a sign, Ahaz responds from the place where he is. He is living in fear, and God is calling him to faith. Ask for any sign, anything at all. Show a little faith just a little bit, move from fear to faith, come over here where I am, come see what life can be like when you are a tree standing strong, deeply rooted, not turned this way or that by any gale that might come. Come learn to be strong, be brave, to be quiet, to trust, to have a heart full of hope, peace, joy, love and faith. Come here with me. Ahaz in his fear responds in fear, “I will not test the Lord.”
And Isaiah gets frustrated with him and completely loses it. It is too small a thing for you to drive the people around you mad with frustration; you must challenge yourself by attempting to do so to my God as well. It is almost like there is an unspoken if that is what you think of God, that when God is testing you, by giving you permission to put God to the test, you refuse to give God the test God is permitting, because you are afraid to trust God; then YOUR God must not be MY God.
I can completely understand Isaiah here. As a parent I know the tone he is using, when one of the girls refuses to listen to me and keeps on just doing whatever, even when instructed to not. I know how his blood must be boiling and I can almost hear the tone of voice he uses when he rounds on Ahaz. He is exasperated. He is frustrated beyond all get out. He wants to slap him silly but there are laws and guards with pointy sharp things, with which they will poke him, if he does. Ahaz will not listen. He is insisting on doing what he wants to do. He wants to cower before the nations who are opposing him. He wants to be weak and pitiful. He wants to be a tree bent over in a strong gale, snapped, broken and ruined. And will not hear any reason that will save him, make him stronger give him exactly what he needs to not only survive this but thrive in its wake.
So, God offers Ahaz a sign, even though Ahaz does not want one; refuses one. Isaiah tells Ahaz that a woman is with child. A woman they both knew. But not only that Isaiah tells Ahaz that the woman will bear a son, and that she will call him Immanuel. And that before that baby grows to be child, that the firebrands of both Aram and Israel will burn out, that their countries will be left empty, made barren. But, his country alone will remain. Aram and Israel my move against him today, but tomorrow Assyria will come and decimate them all, nothing will be left, their fires will be quenched. You and you alone will flourish; your land and your people will be spared and will live on.
Trust in the Lord and you will truly know the greatness, which God alone can provide. God calls Ahaz from a place of fear to a place of faith and his sign is Emmanuel. The sign is a child and the child is, “God with us.” Ahaz refused a sign because he is afraid and God’s sign is a reminder that God is with him, with the people. God with us, a call to faith when fear is what is easy. When surrounded by all that there is to fear. When the darkness threatens to overwhelm, God with us, the sign God gives, when it seems all is lost and there is nowhere to turn. You are not alone. You are not doing this on your own. Never alone, God is with you.
But it is not a new proclamation. The idea that God was with them was not new. “God with us”, was the very foundation of God’s relationship with God’s people. It was a reminder that God is always the God who is “with us.” From the time of the Exodus, through the times of the judges, all through the prophets, God was a God who was with the people. God was never far off, on a high mountain unreachable, unapproachable- looking down from a distance, seeing everything from afar. No, God was with us. Always, God with us.
From the moment God gave the staff to Moses at the burning bush, God was the God, “who is with.” Every time Moses used his staff, it was a sign that God was “with him.” When the people left Egypt, God was with them in the pillar of cloud and fire, always with them always leading them. But God did not leave them when they left the wilderness. God was with them in the sign of the arch that traveled with them not only in the desert but with them, going before them into the sea and into battle always parting the waters and the armies before them until they settled the land. But God did not leave them then, God was with through the judges and through the prophets, who reminded them of “God with us,” every time they said, “hear the word of the Lord.” The voice of God, speaking through the prophets speaking to them in their times of distress, giving them the words they needed. God was always with them, working for them, speaking to them, guiding and directing them. God was, is always, “God with us.”
The people always seemed to need reminding, God always found a new way to show them. Even if they got it for a little while, they like Ahaz in our passage today, always turned away. Faith is hard, trust is hard, believing in the always present, always active, always trustworthy God is hard. Especially hard, when things are not going our way, when our worlds are crashing down around us, when no matter which way we go, no matter what we do, what choice we make, it seems that disasters mount up around us. There never seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, our clouds have all lost their lining and we find ourselves in the middle of the longest darkest, most unending winter and begin to fear that Spring is never coming. There seems to never be any relief. These are the places we find ourselves and these are the places God’s people found themselves time and time again. With God continually reminding them, I am here, I am here, I am here. I am the God who is with you.
So then, the woman was with child. But this time there were three different kings and instead of them fussing over armies, they come bearing gifts. And we hear the gospel writer reciting the words of this passage and telling us that the child is God with us, not merely named, not merely a symbol but actually, for really and truly God with us.
God has always been with us, God is always with us, but in Jesus, we see it even more clearly. God sent priests and prophets, signs and symbols but the people never got it. So God, Jesus Christ, became God with us, so that we would actually take notice. So that perhaps this time, when God says, “be still, be quiet, do not be overwhelmed.” We will hear. God is with us. A human with us, who is God. God with us, who is human. All the power of the universe in an itty-bitty baby. God with us.
In the birth story of Christ, we find the words of the Isaiah to Ahaz, reiterated, redefined. In Christ, we see that God is serious about this being with us stuff. If we can’t believe Moses; if we can’t understand when we are guided by a pillar of cloud and fire; when we do not see God at work in the judges; hear God’s voice speaking to us through the prophets; when we do not understand the symbols God gives us or the signs presented; then God shows us. God becomes us, so that we can see once and for all know that God IS with us. Do not be afraid, our God is with us. Not just when Christ walked the earth, not just b/c Christ left the spirit behind when he ascended. God is with us, because that IS WHO our God is. God’s name might be, “I am, who I am, I will be who I will be.” But who God IS is the God who is with us. With US. Always forever, where ever we are, never far away, always reachable, always touchable. Always here. Be quiet, do not shake like a tree in the wind, do not let your heart be trouble, I am with you always! Do not fear.
So we have a choice this morning we can stay where we are, in the place where we are. We can choose fear this morning, or we can trust, rely on, the God who not only promises to be with us, but has proved to be with us time and time again, if not in our own lives, throughout all of human history. God with us, in all things at all times, in all places. Do not be afraid! Trust, believe, have faith.