By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 18, 2022
Isaiah 7:10–16 (ESV)10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: 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 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.This is another one of those weeks where I enjoyed just sitting with scripture in prayer. I often speak about the life of prayer, because prayer is central to faith. In our own purpose or mission statement we say, “Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the love of Christ with others.” This I believe is the best purpose statement a meeting can have. It encompasses worship, discipleship, and mission. And the best thing about that statement is that it came about during a trial where we as a community of Friends, took the time to wait on the Lord and listen for the Spirit to move. We waited, we listened, we discussed, and that simple statement became who we are. We are a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Its a great statement, but what does it mean? Loving God is worship. Worship takes many forms. It is not just singing, although that is a large part of it. Worship is where we as a community come together to express our devotion to God. This can be in silence, in tears, in laughter, song, dance, in just about any expression you are led experience if it is done with others and devoted to God it is worship. Worship is not something that we can do singularly, it requires community. God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Genesis 2:18) We often regard this verse as speaking of only the creation of Eve, but it is a testimony of our nature. We are not meant to be alone. We need others with whom we can share life. The third aspect of this statement is, “Living the love of Christ with others.” This too speaks of community. We are not only supposed to worship together, but to work together and to encourage one another. How we live our lives among the people of the community outside this Meetinghouse will speak volumes more about our faith than memorized verses. This has been part of what Friends have taught from our founding, and it is something that saints of old have taught as well. St. Francis is credited with saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”Living the love of Christ with people, is our ministry and mission. And this mission is reared in worship within a community. It begins with worship and is fulfilled in mission, but there is something in between. Embracing the Holy Spirit. This is the part where things get a bit tricky. Worship is with others. Mission is with others. Embracing the Holy Spirit is intimacy. It is that thing that is shared with the closest of loved ones. This is prayer. Prayer is where we have conversations with God. Like spouses talk at the end of the day, when all the chores are completed and the children are put in bed. Prayer is central.I want that intimacy with God to grow within us each. And this intimacy comes when we allow scripture to direct our life of prayer. We can look at scripture as the answer book. Many wonderful ministries have been built on this, and there is nothing wrong with that. But if scripture was for deriving concrete and concise answers only, the structure is all wrong. Scripture is arranged for a conversation. And we do find answers through conversations, but we find more than answers. We find an experience. I study scripture a great deal. It is probably my favorite hobby, but there are days where I just cannot study. I will stare at the screen, yes I mostly use a screen of some sort to read lately, and I just cannot move my eyes. I have found that it is in those moments God is calling me to prayer. I also have found that when I wake up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason I am also supposed to pray. Only to later find that someone in the meeting needed the prayer at that time. As I began to study, I read the passage. I know this passage. We read it nearly every year either in the pages of scripture or in song. But for some reason, my eyes would not let me look to the good part of this passage. I could not move toward Immanuel and I desperately wanted to get there. I yearned for Immanuel, and yet my eyes kept getting tripped up by Ahaz.I would jump ahead to try to get to Immanuel, and I would find that after I blinked, my eyes were again fixated on Ahaz. It is my practice to use scripture to lead my prayers, so I was able to discern that I needed to stop and pray. I needed to let the Spirit speak to me about Ahaz. I know I do not often speak of these sorts of things in detail but I find it necessary today.“Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz.” I think this is where my scholarly stumbling began. I know who Ahaz is, I have read about him before, I have laughed with the kids as the video series we watch Sunday mornings sang a song listing him among the kings of Judah. Why am I tripping over this seemingly in consequential verse. To let you know just how odd it is, only one of my many commentaries I use gave more than a one sentence statement on this verse.Again, the verse says. This leads us to believe that Ahaz previously had conversations similar to the one in the following verses. Previously Ahaz spoke with God and was offered a sign, and yet the one thing that all the commentators had to say about it is that Ahaz did not listen. My scholarly traffic jam began to open a bit, I began to wonder about Ahaz. Ahaz was the third king of the four during Isaiah’s ministry, and he was the eleventh king of Judah after the division of the kingdoms. Just prior to the verses we read today we see Isaiah speaking with Ahaz concerning the invasion they faced. The northern kingdom (Israel or Samaria) and Syria allied together against Judah. I do not think we really grasp the reality of this invasion. Israel today is not a large nation. It is densely populated but as far as area, it is small, about the size of New Jersey in the United States. That is today, in Ahaz’s time, it was less than half that size because he was king of only the southern portion of Israel, Judah. Syria was over ten times the size of Judah. Ahaz is looking out the palace window and he sees the armies of Israel and Syria. These two kingdoms have joined together to take hold of Judah. And it is at this moment Isaiah comes to speak to the king. Take hold. Names in ancient times carried meaning. They often became a prophecy in themselves. I do not know if this is inspired or simply because people have a tendency to become what they believe they are meant to be, so if your name means something in particular you make it happen. My name means Ruler called by God, so if that is the case I guess I should run for president. Ahaz’s name is derived from a verb that means to take hold or grasp and was often used in reference to property. This does not necessarily mean that when used as a name it bears the same meaning, but when we look at the timeline I think it is important. Ahaz is looking out at the encampment outside of Jerusalem, and the prophet is there speaking with him. Isaiah tells Ahaz:It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.This is why I hit a road block in my study. As Ahaz looked out the window, seeing the armies of his enemies, God told him that they would not stand. Not only would they not stand, but within a generation they would all but cease to exist. And God is urging this king to take hold of that promise. Grasp onto the words. Have faith! God is crying out to the king of his covenant to trust the very God that gave him the land and entrust his life to him. Ahaz, I imagine, had the history of his people running through his mind at that moment. The signs of Moses, the parting of the Sea, the conquest of Joshua, the struggles during the era of the Judges, and the golden era of his ancestor David. How many times had his people been in a place very similar to this, and how many times did God remain true to His word? And God is asking Ahaz to believe.“Ask a sign of the Lord your God;” the Lord says to Ahaz, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God is pleading for Ahaz to trust him, he is just waiting for him to open the door and face the battle set before him saying, “as for me and my house I will trust in the Lord.” But that is not what Ahaz does.“I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Ahaz relaxes his grasp and lets go. Ahaz turns away from the God that had watched over his people for generations. He turned from hope and instead of having faith he grasped fear and this fear consumed him. He embraced any and every superstition, offered sacrifices to any deity whose priest claimed assistance and he even looted the temple so that he could pay a tribute to Assyria to save him from the invasion set before him. He put his trust in the kingdoms of men and he lived out his days in fear. “O house of David!,” God says to Ahaz, “Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” This sentence structure comes across odd in English. To weary is to annoy physically or mentally. But it can also refer to giving up, struggling, or becoming tired. Ahaz gave up on his own army, he gave up on his own people and God is asking if he is going to give up on him as well. Ahaz was offered anything he could imagine, and God looks at Ahaz’s response and he saw through the words. “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test,” were the words that Ahaz used. To us this might sound good, even pious. But what is he saying and what are we saying when we say these words?We see a form of this response all over. “I will not go to church until I have my life in order. Or if I step foot in church lightning would strike it.” These are things we often hear as excuses given by outsiders. But even people that claim to have faith say similar things. “The Lord does not give more than you can handle.” It sounds good, until you actually read scripture. How we word things often points to what our faith is in. In both the insider and outsiders’ response the faith is not in God but ourselves. When we are unwilling to take our concerns to God, we are telling God that we do not trust him. When we are unwilling to even trust the smallest things to God, when the armies come to camp outside our gates how will we trust God in that situation? We do not trust, we give up just as Ahaz did. We say things that sound good, but our actions speak differently. There is no intimacy, only empty words.But God knows who we are. God sees us, and speaks to us not from where we think we should be, but in the reality we are experiencing. God knew Ahaz. He knew that Ahaz was nothing like his ancestor David. He knew that Ahaz was more closely aligned with the enemies at his gates than the God that put him into the throne. And yet God encouraged Ahaz to ask for a sign. It is interesting what sign God encourages him to ask for, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God does not even care what he asks for at this point, only that he asks. God is willing to unleash Hell on earth if that is what it would bring Ahaz back to Him. We often do not know what we ask as we pray. Only after years of experience do we recognize the folly of our words, and yet often God does grant us what we ask. And there are times God leaves our prayers seemingly unanswered. The reason is not because God does not care, but it is because he does. Each of us is at a different place within our life of faith. Some of us are able to see the hand of God working in something seemingly insignificant where others require the dramatic. God will do what is necessarily from His own perspective to deepen your faith. Notice I said from his own perspective. Often, we pray for our own desires. And often we do not get what we ask. When we pray for healing and we do not see the results, it does not mean God cannot heal, it simply means that the influence of the Kingdom spreads in a greater way without the healing than with. I know that sounds crass. But I have seen it in my own life. I prayed that my little sister would be healed. And I was told that if I had enough faith she would be healed by many well-meaning Christians. She was not healed, and as I have matured God has shown me why in many ways. It is not about us personally, but the Kingdom. Yet God tells Ahaz, ask for anything, from the depths of hell to the highest heaven. What will it take for you and your nation to turn to God? He was given something that we could only dream of. He was given basically the same offer that God gave to Solomon, and instead of taking hold of it Ahaz let go. He let go, but that did not stop God. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” We know this prophecy well. Through Ahaz’s weary rejection of God, God does not give up, instead he doubles down. Immanuel. This is a compound word in Hebrew. El means God so it is a declaration or profession of a relationship with God. Remember this word for God is not only Hebrew, but it is the name for the Most High deity even among the idolatrous nations fighting against Ahaz. The next part that is of special interest is “im”. Im means to be with, or in some cases as good as if with. So, God with. And the last part is relational, “manu.” This is basically us. God with us. This could be taken in the literal sense or symbolically. By saying that this young woman would name the child Immanuel, is God telling Ahaz that though it looks dire right now the people of your land at this very moment are considering this, Immanuel, as a name.Stop and think about that for a moment. Remember these words were written to be encouraging at that moment, as well as providing future hope. A prophet’s writing would not have survived this long if there was not something important at that moment to glean from the words. We read this passage through 2000 years of church history and we clearly see this as a reference to Jesus, but what did it say to Ahaz and what could it say to us?“Behold the virgin.” If you have done any study on the internet at all you will find countless videos attempting to tell us that the word for virgin is referring to a young woman and not a technical virgin. Those internet scholars are not completely wrong, there is a word that could have been used to speak of an actual virgin, but instead Isaiah chose to use young woman instead. This is cultural. In ancient times, once a woman reached the stage of maturity they were given in marriage. Often these weddings were arranged years in advance, so the likelihood of a woman not being a virgin prior to conceiving is slim. This young woman is coming of age at this very moment. She is entering into her adult life with all of this turmoil going on around her, and as she bears her first child the name she urges her husband to choose on the day of presentation is, God with us. Remember this is not only a prophecy of the far future, but a word for the moment. Isaiah is telling Ahaz there are people alive right now, looking at this chaotic situation and instead of looking at it with dread as their king is, they are looking at it with hope. God is telling this weary king. Even though you may not grab hold of what God is offering you, your people will. With or without you God’s influence in the world will prevail. God will be with his people. Isaiah continues to tell us what God is revealing and says, “He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”This child, Immanuel, will be born into a world filled with war. His formative years of development will occur under the ever-present shadow of terror and threat. When wars break out we often forget the toll it has on the children. The children of Ukraine at this moment do not go to school. Their schools are trying their hardest to offer online classes because they do not want to bring the children into one location because Russia has chosen to target the innocent in this war. Often children suffer during times of war. The children of the deployed worry about their parents. And so many children will never know the love their parents had for them because they gave their life in defense of their nation. Isaiah is telling Ahaz, this is war yes, but the emerging generation will name their children Immanuel, and these children will not eat the meals of the destitute, but they will eat the fruits of the land. When Moses spoke about the land God promised to Abraham, he described it as the land flowing with milk and honey. This is a phrase that alludes to abundance. In an age without refrigeration one does not just keep milk around. It spoils. So you make it into cheese. And if you have milk to make cheese, this means that the livestock are so well fed that there is more milk available than the offspring can eat. Isaiah is saying the boy will eat of the luxuries the land has to offer. Ahaz is dreading the war, but the people coming into adulthood at this moment will not be cowed by the threats of the godless. And God will be with them just as he was with their ancestors. Finally, Isaiah says “before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” Before the child is considered an adult, before he reaches adolescence or the age of majority, the land you dread will be desolate. God did fulfill this promise. Ahaz saw the land of Syria and Israel laid waste by the king of Assyria. But at that moment Ahaz did not trust God. He heard these words and they did not give him hope, but pushed him further into the dread that gripped his soul.These words do speak to us about our life of prayer. Prayer is intimacy with God. It is where we and God meet face to face, and God is with us. What is God telling us as we look at these words in prayer? Are we hearing the hope? Are we being called deeper to the point where we can entrust more aspects of our life to God knowing that he will carry us through? Are we assured that the trial that we face in this moment will not last forever?“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God is calling out to us to trust him. He asking us to give him a chance to show us an immanuel life. I sat looking at this passage wondering where I might go since I could not seem to get out of the first verse. And I realize now that we made it all the way through, God is simply calling us to pray. He is calling us to remain in that place where we can Love him through our worship, where we can live the love of Christ with others, but most of all he wants us to remain in the center, and embrace the Holy Spirit in prayer. Will we grab hold of that life offered to us through Jesus the fulfillment of this prophecy? Will we take possession of his life and lifestyle here today? Or will we sell ourselves and our people out for the false securities offered by the kingdoms of men? Ahaz had a choice. He grew weary of God and instead grab hold of Assyria. He put his trust and his faith in the kingdoms of men. From that moment on, until a brief era in history the people of God were by all accounts ruled by an outside empire. The choice of one man changed the course of history. Will we choose Immanuel?
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