According to 2 Kings 16, Ahaz was only 20 at the time he ascended to the throne. Almost immediately the King of Aram and the King of Israel threatened him. Harassed by his neighbors, Ahaz sought an alliance with Assyria to protect his kingdom. Isaiah was fiercely opposed to such an alliance and steps in to assure Ahaz that God will be a present help in this time of trouble—all he needs do is ask. He does not need to rely on earthly powers to preserve the nation. But, under the guise of ‘not testing the Lord’, Ahaz says no thank you, I don’t need consultants, I can handle this. He allies himself with the Assyrians. Unfortunately for Ahaz, though the Assyrians did conquer his neighbors, the Assyrians then made him a vassal and he remained only as a puppet king. While it could be argued, he made the best deal possible, the Jewish historians judged him harshly for his turning to secular security instead of trusting God.
Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree. (2 Kings 16:2-4)
I have several disparate thoughts before we discuss the central reason this passage is part of our advent prophecies. How do signs work in our lives? Which signs do we listen to? How can we stay open enough to listen to signs? And finally, can we tolerate where the signs are leading?
In ordinary relationships, we need signs to guide us and assure us. It is rarely sufficient to be told we are loved. We need some indicator that supports the promise. It is important to tell someone we care about them but that promise gains depth when we call them when they are troubled, when we visit them when they are sick, when we bring food to their home. Each of us receive signs of love in different ways and it is important to be aware of the signs we trust. In FIRL the first question was, what are the signs we trust? How do we trust God’s love, how do we trust the love of another?
Likewise, we seek signs as we make important decisions or try to discern what is our path in life. These are two different kinds of signs. In this passage, Ahaz is offered a sign he did not want and did not trust. Ahaz is being reminded of the immediacy of God’s presence (God will act in a short time span—in the time it takes for a baby to be born and for it to be old enough to eat solid food) and he is being asked to make his decisions based upon that promise. It is clear that Ahaz did not trust that promise. And in all fairness, most of us would have difficulty trusting God with an army of enemies on the border.
Signs are almost always filled with ambiguity—except perhaps when we view them in retrospect. This week I received a note from my eldest son. It is the first direct communication in many months. The relationship has been strained, angry and distrustful. He has been heavy on my heart. His note was kind and respectful. Yet I am cautious. Is this a sign that something new is happening or a sign that more disappointment is ahead—or both? I will have to wait to know. But I will have to make decisions before I know.
The same is true for two women in my practice. They have each lost a spouse, one to death and another to infidelity. They are each being courted and each say they have never been treated better. But they have felt that way before and have ended up alone. Can they risk their hearts again? That is real life. We never have enough information to make an important decision. And faith in real life is that we are called to live in God’s promises in the midst of life’s uncertainties.
Another dimension of Ahaz’s predicament that sounds all too familiar in our present is that though Ahaz’s response sounds pious, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test,” Ahaz did not really want to ask God for a sign. Though there are certainly times we use our request for signs as a test of God’s faithfulness, in this case, Ahaz was told specifically to ask for what he wanted. There were no limits. His request could be ‘as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven’. In general, I think it is difficult to actually ask for what we want—whether that is from God or from each other. There are many reasons—such a request might sound selfish, we might be afraid we will be disappointed or we might be afraid that a sign will require action we are unwilling to take. But asking God—for anything—is not the problem. The problem is waiting and the problem is God’s way may not match our requests. Sometimes it seems better not to ask than to find out.
In Ahaz’s case, he had a plan. I would suggest he wanted a ‘yes man’ not collaboration and certainly not a dissenting and risky alternative. Whoever has primary budgetary responsibilities in your family knows this dilemma. Very frequently in families, one person will run the numbers and come up with a plan. It is very disconcerting to be asked, ‘Can we afford?’ , ‘Do we have to put so much into saving?’, or ‘Shouldn’t we put more into saving?’ Once the the budget has been made (often unilaterally, and/or benignly parental), alternatives, even good ideas are difficult to receive. The trick is to present the problem, not the solution. The same is true with God. We can present any problem to God—as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. That leads to collaboration. Presenting the solution usually excludes new ideas and certainly excludes God.
Ahaz did not want his life more complicated. He believed in himself and/or he may have been too frightened to trust God. This might have been a sin of arrogance or a sin of fear but in either case, at least in the eyes of the Israelite historians, he turned away from God. In real life, however, I don’t know many twenty somethings that don’t think the world is manageable with enough hard work and ambition.
So now I finally turn to the promise of Immanuel that is the primary reason this passage is in our Advent series. In the near fulfillment of this scripture, it is recorded out of sequence. Ahaz had already made his alliance with Syria and the threat from his neighbors was already eliminated. There was already ‘proof’ of God’s immediate presence. This protection was offered whether or not Ahaz sought it. But Ahaz could not see it. He thought it was his doing and his subsequent pandering to the Assyrians demonstrated that. He not only could not rely on God, he could not see God.
What happened with Ahaz often happens to us. We have the signs but do we really want a savior that comes as an infant and who dies on a cross? Do we really want to live a life of vulnerability? Can we stand to trust God? The way of swords fails but can we put them down when we are in danger? Or less dramatically, when we are criticized or accused, will we seek to listen or will we prove our case or diminish the other.
God’s sign, Immanuel, takes us to places we usually do not want to go. As Jesus put it in John 21:18:
“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
Most of my life, I have been a planner. I have been reasonably disciplined but as I age, more and more I realize the limits of my self-sufficiency. As I wait during this advent I feel a kind of grief. I believe it is my grieving the loss of my own self-sufficiency. I actually feel this is a ‘good grief’ because I know—at least cognitively–that this is the doorway through which I must walk to find God. It is the doorway to surrender, the doorway to vulnerability and finally the doorway to peace. Aging teaches us this lesson but it is true throughout our lives. It is true in every single relationship. Caring and inclusiveness almost always requires putting down our defensiveness, indignation and righteousness.
God’s way is hard and God’s way is expensive. Our secular world worships ‘me first’, my country first, my safety first. Trusting that the vulnerable matter as much as the powerful, that vulnerability leads to love and that retaliation will only beget retaliation is a narrow path.
Do we really want Immanuel? God is with us. How will we respond?
Grant us the surrender that allows us to see your signs. Give us the courage to follow you. Let it be so.
10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.