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Sign

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 19, 2010.                       
Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7

Our reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah is set about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. The prophet finds himself right smack dab in the midst of some real international intrigue. He works in the court of the king of Judah, and lately has been putting in some significant overtime. The king is in a difficult situation, and Isaiah is trying to help him as best he can, advise him as to what he needs to do.

You see, King Ahaz of Judah, has got a couple of mean hombres on his trail, and things are getting a bit hot around the collar. Knowing the king could use some divine assistance, the prophet Isaiah goes to him and says, “All you gotta do is ask… of the Lord, I mean. God is ready and willing to help you. All you gotta do is ask. In fact, ask God for a sign. Go ahead. You can make it deep as Sheol (in the Hebrew mindset that was the abode of the dead, and was as far down in the netherworld you could get) or high as heaven. It makes no never mind. Just ask. Go ahead and ask. I have it on personal authority you’ll get what you want. Better yet, God will grant you not what you want as much as he will give you what you need. Just ask, King Ahaz. Just ask.”

Now let me put it to you… what would you do if you were told that God wanted to grant you the desire of your heart? Boy, you’d jump on that quicker than a New York minute, wouldn’t you? It’s not every day that you receive such a promise. Imagine, God granting you exactly what you need. Well, that’s what happened to Ahaz, in the seventh century before Christ. And, do you know what old Ahaz said? He said, “No… no… no. No thanks. I won’t ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Talk about looking a gift-horse in the mouth.

Come on, Ahaz! This isn’t the time to go and get all pious and righteous on us! You’d think someone in your precarious political situation would accept all the help he could get. You’ve been given a personal invitation by the Lord himself to make any petition you want, knowing that God stands at the ready to help you out. And all of a sudden, you decide you’re going to go it all alone. You’ve got King Rezin the Aramite, and Pekah, the king of the northern tribes of Israel, putting out a contract on you, and suddenly you’ve decided to become righteous? What do you mean you won’t put the Lord to the test? Give me a break. Give us all a break.

Tell you what… let’s do give King Ahaz a break. After all, he’s just quoting scripture. It says it right there in Exodus 17: “You shall not tempt the LORD your God…” We ought to be impressed that Ahaz knows his Bible and can quote it chapter and verse. Except… just because you can quote scripture doesn’t necessarily mean you live by it.  According to the gospels, the tempter could quote scripture with the best of them, but that doesn’t mean he finds himself in favor with God.

Have you ever met folks like this? I have. They think that quoting the Bible will get them through some tough situations, will be the answer they need for certain difficulties in which they find themselves. But it doesn’t work if you quote the Bible out of context. And besides, the Bible isn’t a book of magic that provides you everything you need just when you need it. The chances are, if you’ve memorized certain verses that are to your liking, and you have the tendency to drop them into the conversation when they become handy, then you’ll find yourself quoting them out of context. The Bible definitely wasn’t intended for that. Yet, that is exactly what Ahaz is doing.

Interestingly enough, centuries later, when confronted by the evil one in the wilderness – the one who was so adept at quoting scripture – Jesus turns around and quotes the very same verse King Ahaz used with the prophet. But in this case, Jesus is using it in context. Here, Ahaz isn’t, and he’s not fooling Isaiah, not one bit. Isaiah knows Ahaz is just using the Bible, using scripture, to do what he wants to do; which, in this case, is to follow his fears rather than trusting in God.

This has nothing to do with being righteous or pious. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. What God is asking, through the prophet Isaiah, is for Ahaz to put his trust in the Lord, and Ahaz is saying he would prefer to go it alone, couching his response in pious language that doesn’t hold up under the light of scrutiny. Ahaz is fooling nobody but himself. So, as often happens in situations like this, things aren’t what they appear to be. Ahaz isn’t going it alone at all. He’s just trusting the wrong people.

Maybe I better explain the political situation…

The biggest, strongest, mightiest nation in the world – at least in 733 B.C., when all this is going down – is Assyria. Assyria lies about four hundred miles to the north of Judah, and from that vantage point controls that part of the globe. Rezin and Pekah, the two kings we mentioned, are feeling feisty. Though their little countries are nothing compared to the mighty Assyria, they think they can take Assyria and overpower it if Judah will align with them. Individually, they know they haven’t got a chance. Together, these three smaller nations – Aram, Israel, and Judah – could muster the kind of armed forces that might at least give Assyria pause when it comes to pushing its military muscle around.

But Ahaz, the king of Judah, won’t do it. He’s afraid of Assyria, frightened of what would happen if their efforts failed. Why, Assyria would come down and squash them all like bugs. No, he won’t take the chance. He will not align himself with the other kings. So, in aggravation, Rezin and Pekah decide to take it out on Ahaz… which, of course, puts him in a Catch-22 where he’s got everybody mad at him. He’s not sure what to do, but he is leaning toward asking Assyria for protection against the two kings. That, of course, would be a big mistake. Everybody seems to know that. Everybody, that is, except King Ahaz.

It is then that Isaiah comes to him and says, “You can’t do this with military might or with cunning, not even with diplomacy. The only option left to you is to trust in the Lord to be with you. Just ask a sign of God, and then you will see. Just ask for a sign.” And Ahaz says, “No, I won’t do it. I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Asking God to give you a sign was a big deal when I was growing up. Where you were going to school, what would be your college major, who you were going to date or eventually marry, what job you would take… Make the wrong decision and life could take a tough, tough turn. So, seek the Lord’s will in the decisions you make, and trust that God will be with you. When I was coming up, we talked about that a lot.

What we didn’t know – okay, what I didn’t know – is that life is often made up of what you will do when you’ve made the wrong decisions, when you take a fork in the road and find yourself at a dead end. What I didn’t know is that God is not a life insurance policy, designed to make sure that everything goes smoothly and life is always a piece of cake. In fact, what I have since learned is that life is usually what happens when your plans don’t work out the way you wanted.

Still, at every major turn in life’s journey we were encouraged to ask a sign of the Lord. Our favorite story had to do with Gideon, from the book of Judges. Are you familiar with him? Gideon is the one who put out the fleece at night, asking God to either soak the fleece with dew or make it as dry as the desert. God complied with Gideon’s wishes at every turn, and eventually Gideon gave in to the will of God.

Oh, how we loved that story. We saw ourselves as modern-day Gideons… not the kind who put Bibles in hotel rooms, but the kind who tossed out our fleece  to see what God wanted us to do. We did that kind of thing all the time. Every other week, it seems, we were doing something like that. Asking God for a sign, putting God to the test. Sure, it was an Old Testament kind of thing to do, but folks in those days seemed to have done it a lot, so we figured we were in good company.

And didn’t Isaiah encourage it? Sure he did. He says to King Ahaz, “Just ask the Lord for a sign. But if you won’t do it, God will give you a sign anyway. A ‘young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’” The name Immanuel means, “God is with us.”

Evidently, that was something Ahaz simply couldn’t understand, though it was, without doubt, the single most important thing he needed to hear. When he said he didn’t want to put God to the test, what he really meant was that he didn’t want to have anything to do with God, didn’t want to admit that God was with him or that God wanted to have anything to do with him. So the prophet says the Lord will give the king a sign whether he wants one or not. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” What Isaiah is really saying to the king is that God is going to do something whether Ahaz likes it or not.

We’ve already talked about how the four major themes of Advent are hope, love, joy, and peace. As far as I’m concerned, if I interpret this story in any way that is even close to being correct, we might should add trust to the list. Isaiah is encouraging his stubborn king to place his trust in God. It’s for certain that seven centuries later that is what a young couple from Nazareth did.

I wonder if Ahaz is hesitant to trust in the Lord because that is simply his nature. Maybe he got burned somewhere along the way, someone had made him a promise that went unfulfilled, and he didn’t want to go through that again.

We’ve talked before about how human relationships are like bank accounts, except in this case the currency consists not of money but emotions and feelings. In healthy relationships, we make, on a regular basis, emotional deposits. When we encourage someone, when we stand by a friend in a real time of need, when we hold true to a promise, we make a deposit. It is only when we have built up a sufficient amount of deposits that we are able to make the inevitable, but we hope infrequent, withdrawal. Withdrawals occur when we don’t encourage or keep promises, when we don’t stand by a friend in time of need. It is when withdrawals are made without a sufficient number of deposits that the relationship becomes unhealthy.

What Ahaz somehow couldn’t understand is that God always keeps his promises. It may not happen for another seven hundred years, but God always keeps his promises. And God does it by giving us a sign. A “young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Promises are based on trust. If you find yourself this Advent season aligning yourself just a bit too closely with Ahaz – as uncomfortable as that may seem to be, and by that I mean you are trying to go it alone, without asking God for help and an assurance of God’s presence – I would encourage you to take the advice of Isaiah. Go ahead, ask a sign of God and see what comes your way.

The story is told of the time Robert Frost was reading his poetry to a university audience. He closed his reading with the familiar line, “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.” A hand shot up. One of the students said, “You spoke of promises to keep. What promises?”

Frost replied, “If I had wanted you to know, I would have told you.”

Well, this is the season for telling. God has given us a sign. The question is, will we look for it? If so, this might just be the Christmas that we are found by the One who has come to save us.

Lord, come to us. Immanuel, dwell in our hearts, and may we trust that you did indeed fulfill all your promises. In the name of the One who is Emmanuel, Amen.