In our study of prophecies of the Messiah from Isaiah, we come to Isaiah 7, and God does something that highly unusual.
In Isaiah 7:10-12, God gives the Judean King Ahaz the opportunity to request a sign. And not just some simple sign like Gideon’s fleece. He tells Ahaz he can ask for anything. I love how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Ask for the Moon!”
I would be drooling. I’d be thinking “Okay, God! Yes! Thank you! You remember that one time when you parted the waters of the Red Sea? How about you do that again!”
Or maybe “Lord, drop a million bucks in my bank account, and I promise I’ll give 90% back to the church and missionaries.” And I’d still have 100 grand!
This is a unique situation. God is asking giving this wicked king, Ahaz, the opportunity of a lifetime.
If you’re like me, you’re wondering why in the world YHWH would do this? Is he testing Ahaz? Is he giving him a riddle of some kind?
I would like to suggest to you that none of those reasons are why God did this. Instead this is an instance of YHWH being caring. Caring? Yes, YHWH is being caring. Let me try to explain.
God in the Bible often says “be faithful”, just like he has said to Ahaz in verse 9. You need to know a few details about Ahaz. I’ve already said that he is a wicked king, and you can read about that in 2 Kings 16 or 2 Chronicles 28. What you find there is that Ahaz was a slimy guy.
For example, in 2 Kings 16:2 we’re told that Ahaz did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He walked in the way of the kings of Israel (to the north) and even (this is hard to believe) sacrificed his son in fire, or made his son pass through fire, following the detestable ways 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. He went on to pay lots of money to the Assyrians to help him out when Israel attacked him. And Ahaz even made a new altar to foreign gods, had it installed in God’s temple and put away temple furnishings, shut the doors to the temple, and erected altars in every street corner of Jerusalem. In other words, Ahaz was a regular dirt bag.
Now in Isaiah 7:1, we find out that two local kings are threatening to invade Ahaz and his kingdom. Isaiah tells us Ahaz and the Judean people are so scared they’re shaking like trees in the wind. Where is God? He seemed distant to them. They need help badly.
It is at this moment that God shows up! He comes to Ahaz through in a message from the prophet Isaiah, telling Ahaz to stand strong in his faith. As we already found out, Ahaz doesn’t seem to have much faith. Will this message from God’s prophet be enough?
This got me thinking about us. Will God’s message be enough for us? God says things like “stand strong in your faith a lot.” 1st Corinthians 16:13 for example: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.“
And when he says “Be strong” to us, how many of us say “Thank you, Lord, that is just what I needed!”? How many of us read the words “Stand firm in your faith” or hear those words in a sermon, or in a song on the radio and think “Yes, that is all the motivation I need, and I will now be totally faithful!”?
Especially think of hearing those words right smack in the middle of a difficult time, when you are really stressed out, when you are really discouraged, or when something tragic has happened in life. When God feels far away and distant.
Just reading those words or hearing those words is good. But so often they are not enough. We don’t want words. We want the difficult situation to change. When God feels far away, what we want is for him to come close, to clearly show himself, to make things better.
In the middle of pain, we would really love more than just words. We would love some sign that the word is true.
We’re really hesitant about asking for a sign, though, because we feel we would be coming across as lacking in faith. Shouldn’t we just trust the word of the Lord? Do you ever think about asking for a sign that would prove to you that God is actually really close, that he actually cares, that he actually is going to keep his promises? But you feel like you can’t ask for a sign because you are afraid God would consider it a lack of trust in him. Been there?
What is so amazing about this story is that God not only tells Ahaz to stand strong in his faith, he also offers the sign to Ahaz! Ahaz doesn’t have to ask for it. God goes out of his way to give Ahaz a chance at a clear confirmation of the promise to rescue him.
But what does Ahaz do? He says he won’t ask, that he won’t put the Lord to the test. Sounds like a wise choice, Ahaz. Sounds righteous. Sounds very trusting in God. But does Ahaz ever say that he believes in God, that he trusts in God? Nope. The only thing he says is that he won’t request a sign, he won’t test God.
Here’s the thing though. Is this situation an example of testing God?
No! God offered it, so it is not a test. If Ahaz had asked for a sign, he wouldn’t have been challenging God at all. God was saying, very graciously I might add, that he wanted to bless Ahaz. What we actually have here is a pretty rude response by Ahaz, rejecting the Lord.
Here is God saying basically “Ahaz, I want to rescue you and your people, and to show you how much I care. I even want to manifest myself to you through a sign.” In other words, God is saying “I don’t want to be distant from you, Ahaz, I want to be close.”
And Ahaz says “No thanks…”
God, as you can imagine, is quite upset by this. In Verse 13 he confronts Ahaz for trying his patience, and in verse 14 God gives a sign anyway, the promise of a virgin who will give birth to a son named Immanuel. Immanuel means “God with us.”
That name is really interesting given this story of Ahaz. We think of Immanuel every Christmas. We immediately know that it refers to Jesus and his birth, and that he is Immanuel.
But think with me for a second what Immanuel meant for Ahaz. Here’s Ahaz, a wicked king, not really concerned about God. But Ahaz is freaked out about being attacked by neighboring nations. Maybe God feels distant from Ahaz. But Ahaz doesn’t seem to have ever walked with YHWH, and is much more focused on pleasing the Assyrian gods.
Then when God comes to him, when God comes close, when God is with him, even offering to show himself to Ahaz through a sign, through more than just the words of the prophet, Ahaz says “No, thanks.”
So what does God say? “You don’t want me close? You don’t want a sign? Guess what buddy, you’re getting a sign, and that sign will be a child called ‘God with us’.” Kind of a slap in the face to Ahaz, isn’t it?
God says “You don’t want me close? I’m coming close.” God is a God who comes close. In the prophecy God promises a day in the future when his Messiah will come and God will be with us.
That is a promise we can apply, that in Jesus alone is the hope of Promise. In Matthew 1:23, in the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew quotes this prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, applying it Jesus!
Let’s take a look at how Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. He is God in the flesh John 1 tells us. In Philippians 2 we learn that he became human. In Hebrews 4:15 we are told that “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
Then think about how the Holy Spirit is God with us. We are told in 1st Corinthians 6:19 that our body is the temple of the Spirit. We learn in 1 Cor 2:10-12 that the Spirit helps us understand the mind of God. In Romans 8:26 the Spirit prays for us. In John 15-17 is our comforter and guide. When we read in Acts that the Holy Spirit filled the first Christians, and when we read in Ephesians 5 that we can be filled with the Spirit, we have an amazing way of understanding God with us!
Isn’t it amazing to think that we have Jesus as God with us, and the Holy Spirit as God in us.
So have you been asking “Where are you, God?” People experience God in a variety of ways. Some super close, some distant, some in between.
Perhaps the impact of “God with us” is lost on us because we have always assumed that he is with us? We get to read in the Bible about Jesus walking the roads of Israel. We’ve been told the Holy Spirit is with us. And at Christmas, with all of the Nativity scenes people put on display, are we looking at the birth of Christ as just a quaint story of a little baby?
But how do we make Immanuel matter to our actual lives? We might know all the facts about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but if we are honest with ourselves, we feel distant from God. Or he feels distant from us. What can we do if we feel far away from this God who wants to be close?
In James 4:8 we read: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
We need to see the amazing importance of what God did to be God with us. Christmas is a momentous event! It is the radically altered version of life on planet earth. God took on flesh. He drew near. Then he gave his life for us to smash the barrier which separated us from God. That barrier is sin, and when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, he tells us that a new way of becoming close to God is now possible. If we repent of our sins and give our lives to trust in a follow him as his disciples, we are ushered into a new relationship with him.
That’s how it all starts. But many of us have started a relationship with him, maybe many years ago. Now, though, we feel distant. Maybe the ups and downs of life have made that relationship fade.
It is possible to draw near to God again!
Do you remember Brother Lawrence? I’ve been talking about him a lot these past few months because I’ve been reading his book, where he describes how he drew near to God. The practice of the presence of God. God was already there in Lawrence’s life, like he is already in yours and mine. But Lawrence made a choice to deliberately concentrate on the presence of God, to intentionally remember that God was already there. Lawrence made a choice to acknowledge God’s presence by talking with God. All the time.
Sometimes, he says, it was an audible conversation. Mostly, though, it was a conversation in his mind. But it was intentional. Whether he was working in the monastery kitchen, or on a trip, or in a worship service. He kept up a conversation with God. The result was that he experienced the presence of God like never before. It was such a powerful connection with God, that he could hardly contain his joy. In fact, he said that he had to wrestle with him emotions because he didn’t want to become a distraction to the other monks or brothers at the monastery. Lawrence didn’t want to be the center of attention.
I urge you to read his book. It is available free here.
How will you draw near to the God who is with us?