Immanuel: a sign of Hope and Judgement
I have to admit that this is a difficult time
for us as a family.
Yesterday morning Hedi had a wonderful conversation
On the phone with her dad.
A short while later her brother called back from Paraguay
To let us know that Hedi’s dad
Had been taken by ambulance to the hospital
And it didn’t look very good.
The rest of the day
We basically sat by the phone to await any news.
It appears that he had a massive stroke.
As we continue to wait for news about his condition
We ask for your prayers.
We need your prayers.
And now to my sermon,
I had a really hard time making heads or tails
Out of the scripture lesson for today,
And as I was thinking about the passage
I felt for our Sunday School teachers
Who were preparing this lesson for today,
And are most likely to be teaching this lesson right now…
Incidentally, more than once when I looked at this text
I was tempted to lay it aside
And choose another sermon for today.
But, after reading the text a number of times,
I realized that Isaiah is really trying to speak Hope
Into the lives of God’s people,
And encourages Judah to trust in God.
Isaiah gives Israel the assurance that
“The Lord himself will give you a sign:
The virgin will be with child
and will give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel” (v. 14).
Isn’t it amazing to see how God works?
It is easy for us to say that we trust in God.
Our behavior would suggest
otherwise as we rely on money
or the ability of another person
or some greater human power to help us.
When God says something in his Word,
can we trust him that he will carry out his work on our behalf?
1. When you are threatened…
The opening verses give us a nutshell of the situation.
“When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah,
was king of Judah,
King Rezin of Aram
and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel
marched up to fight against Jerusalem,
but they could not overpower it” (v. 1).
More of the story is told in 2 Kings.
What we do know is that the northern kingdom,
Israel, led by Pekah,
and Aram, led by Rezin,
wanted to form an alliance against Assyria,
Ahaz refused to join them.
The two kings decided that the best thing to do
was conquer Jerusalem
and depose Ahaz
putting their own king on Judah’s throne.
Then they thought they could
resist the great superpower of Assyria.
Ahaz and all of Judah trembled at the thought.
What do you do when you are threatened by bullies?
Hire a bigger bully to beat them up.
That’s what Ahaz did.
He gathered up the gold and silver of the temple
and sent them to the king of Assyria
hiring him to deliver Judah
from the threat of Israel and Aram.
It was a foolish thing to do.
The situation would have been similar to Poland
asking the Soviet Union to help them
fight the Nazis in World War II.
When the war was over the Soviets didn’t leave Poland
and the Poles remained a threatened people,
a people living in fear.
Fear can force us to make rash decisions.
When we are threatened by seemingly overwhelming odds
we tend to trust what we can see.
God is unseen and to human comprehension so very far away.
Our temptation then is to reach for what we can do ourselves,
or arrange for ourselves.
We will solve our own problems.
This behavior goes against what we as followers of Jesus
say we believe.
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5-6).
Fear and doubt, if we let them,
will rob us of the Lord’s plan to rescue us.
That’s what happened to Ahaz.
2. “Trust Me”
God knew of the fear that paralyzed Ahaz
and sent Isaiah to tell him two things.
The first was this:
“Then the LORD said to Isaiah,
‘Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub,
to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool,
on the road to the Washerman’s Field.
Say to him,
‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid.
Do not lose heart
because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood…”
In two words God says to Ahaz,
Ahaz has two fears.
One is that Judah will be invaded by Aram and Israel
and he will lose the throne.
The second is that if he joins Aram and Israel,
Assyria’s retribution will be worse
than anyone can imagine.
But God says not to fear
because Aram and Israel are all used up,
they are nothing but smoke and ashes.
There is no fire in them.
And there is no need to ask Assyria for help as a result.
The second thing the Lord says through Isaiah is this:
“It will not take place,
it will not happen,
for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered
to be a people.
The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all” (Vv. 7-9).
God clearly says the invasion will not happen.
It just won’t.
There is nothing to fear.
These people are weak
and they can’t pull it off.
God is like a spy in the enemy camp.
He can see the enemy forces
and he reports that there is nothing to them.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.
That is a warning to Ahaz
and the people of God.
In Hebrew it is a play on words
that in English would go something like this:
‘If there is no belief,
you will find no relief.’
While this is taking place,
while Isaiah speaks to Ahaz,
there is a little boy who says nothing and does nothing.
The son of Isaiah, Shear-Jashub,
stands quietly by his daddy.
Yet his very presence gives the prophecy meaning.
His name means “a remnant shall return.”
Now here is Shear-Jashub,
standing like a prophecy before Ahaz.
“A remnant shall return”
said two things to Ahaz.
On the one hand there was a promise
that the people of Judah would not be completely wiped out,
a fraction of the people will be saved.
On the other,
the presence of the little boy spoke of disaster
because something terrible would happen
to leave only a remnant of the people.
Simply by his presence,
Shear-Jashub represents a promise
that God can be trusted.
This little boy plays a key role in this passage,
as we will see later.
3. Meet me at a place of trust
When God asks us to trust him,
he asks that we meet him at that place of trust.
We have to show that we are willing
to put everything in God’s hands.
Then God is able to show us
how trusting him will benefit us
beyond what we can imagine.
The place of meeting where Isaiah meets Ahaz
carries this significance also.
Yahweh had told Isaiah to meet Ahaz
at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool,
on the road to the Washerman’s Field.
From our modern English perspective
the meeting place means nothing.
Careful investigation tells us that God had a purpose
in this meeting place however.
Why this spot?
There was a double-meaning in the exact location
God commanded for this meeting place.
Remember in Isaiah’s commissioning
that God said to Isaiah,
“Go and tell this people:
‘Be ever hearing,
but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed” (6:9-10).
Now Isaiah speaks and Ahaz must listen
and hopefully perceive.
Some things God says are clear as crystal
but His people do not understand.
The word “pool” in Hebrew can also mean “blessing.”
In a dry and thirsty land like Palestine
it is easy to see how a pool of water could be a blessing.
The word “upper” means more than a higher level of pool;
it can also mean “the most high.”
Put it together and we have
“the blessing of the Most High.”
This meeting place west of Jerusalem
was where God wanted Isaiah to make his promises.
Beside this pool was the road/or highway
to the Washerman’s Field.
A highway in the OT always means an ascent.
In ch. 35 it is called the highway of holiness.
Our symbol of a highway to the laundry man
is of a way to righteousness and moral cleansing.
When we put these two symbols together,
the Upper Pool and the highway to the laundry man,
we have a meeting of the
“upward way of cleansing and of washing,
meeting the downward flow of the channel of blessings
of the Most High.”
What does that remind you of?
We know that from the Gospels
this can only be Jesus Christ.
He is the way of cleansing of our filthy rags
and the blessing of the Most High.
You see where this is going?
4. Believing in a sign you can trust
God knew that Ahaz still had doubts
about being spared an invasion.
So the Lord offered Ahaz some assurance:
“Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz,
‘Ask the LORD your God for a sign,
whether in the deepest depths
or in the highest places.’
But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask;
I will not put the LORD to the test’” (10-12).
Sounds like a pious answer doesn’t it?
It’s not right to put God to the test.
But in this case it is a sniveling, doubtful,
cowardly excuse for a king who insults his God.
This was his chance to see that God was trustworthy,
that he could put his faith in God.
“Then Isaiah said,
‘Hear now, you house of David!
Is it not enough to try the patience of men?
Will you try the patience of my God also?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:
The virgin will be with child
and will give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel” (13-14).
It is in this moment that Ahaz seals the fate of Judah.
He had sold out Judah to Assyria,
to God’s enemies,
and the future of Judah was doom.
Had Ahaz shown some faith in God at this moment,
this precise moment,
Jesus might have been born in a palace,
as the son of kings.
Instead Ahaz ensured that Judah would go into captivity,
the nation would never recover,
and Jesus would be born in poverty and obscurity.
And yet whether in prominence or obscurity,
God’s Son would be born of a virgin
to fulfill this prophecy,
and more importantly, this promise.
When Isaiah gives this sign he no longer addresses Ahaz
as an individual,
he addresses the house of David.
This is for the whole house of David.
A young man was full of fear
when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant.
What will people think?
What about my reputation?
How could my lover be so unfaithful
as to have another man’s baby?
Reaching for the only solution that made sense
he opted to break off the engagement.
Then an angel appeared to him and said,
“Joseph son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,
because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will give birth to a son,
and you are to give him the name Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:20-21). Like Ahaz,
Joseph is faced with a decision:
trust God or go with conventional human wisdom.
Joseph decides to trust God
and Matthew tells us this is the fulfillment
of Isaiah’s prophecy,
of Immanuel’s coming – Immanuel –
which means “God with us.”
And Matthew concludes this gospel with Jesus’ words
“And surely I will be with you always,
to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).
God with us. Always.
Back in Isaiah we read
“He will eat curds and honey
when he knows enough to reject the wrong
and choose the right.
But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong
and choose the right,
the land of the two kings you dread
will be laid waste” (15-16).
This may sound like it should apply to Immanuel
but this is a bit of a problem with our English.
How could Jesus’ birth 700 years later
coincide with the destruction of Israel
only years after Isaiah preached this?
Clearly this sign is for Ahaz and the problem he faced.
To whom does the “he” refer?
That’s why Isaiah brought along his little boy.
Two sons and two signs.
One for now and one for later.
Shear-Jashub was a sign to the unbelieving king
concerning the invasion of Judah.
That sign was the only comfort Ahaz
could know is that “a remnant shall return.”
I have just told you a remarkable story.
The greatest challenge we face in telling a story like this
is how we are going to respond to it.
For you see this is not merely a nice story to tell at Christmas time,
it is really a history of failure;
failure to learn the lesson of this story
and trust God.
The questions that we ask now are crucial
for how we go on from here.
Is God trustworthy?
Can you trust God?
When you are threatened by financial crisis,
by family issues,
when your business is at risk,
when your health is in jeopardy,
can you trust God?
Are you tempted to rely on your own resources,
on conventional wisdom,
or on the advice of those who are not of God?
Do you believe that God will work out
the problems in your life for his glory?
Do you believe that what happens to you
is above God’s ability to fix?
Or do you trust that he is able to do immeasurably more
than all we ask or imagine?
How can we know that God is trustworthy?
Let me tell you,
we know this through the birth of Jesus Christ
who is God in the flesh.
Jesus is the sign of God’s faithfulness.
It is ironic that we are continually reminded
of the affluent and materialistic society we live in,
that we have more spending power than in any time of history,
and yet…we do not trust God with our finances.
We do not believe that God will be faithful to us
and supply all our needs if we sacrifice to his causes.
Can we tithe and offer gifts to God?
Can we give a little more to the church
And open our heart to our community?
NO, because we do not trust him with his money.
Can we step out in faith and let God do more in us
in our workplaces than we ever thought possible?
NO, because we do not trust him with our lives.
Will you come forward publicly
to declare that you are not living as you should
and now you want to dedicate yourself to Jesus,
whatever that may mean for your life?
NO, because we are afraid.
Without faith it is impossible to please God,
we read in our Bibles.
Do we take this seriously? I wonder.
Jesus’ birth was foretold 7 centuries before he walked the earth.
Is that not sign enough
to tell you that God has his eye on you
and that he loves you and that he wants you to step up?
We can trust him.
He will not let us down.
Come let us believe together
that He is able to spend our lives wisely.