The sign we refused to ask for
A few years back, the sub shop Quizno’s showed a commercial with four men standing in the middle of nowhere. Three of them were naked except for the bushes they used to cover their private parts. One man wore pants.
The others marveled at the man’s strange leg coverings. He explained, “These are pants! No more thorns and bugs.”
Two of the bush-men said, “I want to wear pants too.”
The third looked cringed and said, “I fear change. I will keep my bushes.” Then, clutching his bush pants, he ran away.
Quizno’s hoped to convince watchers that eating toasted subs are so obviously good, it’s like wearing pants instead of thorny bushes. And to eat something else somewhere else, well, that’s as foolish as clutching thorns ever closer to your crotch.
As it turns out, Judah’s King Ahaz was a lot like the man who wanted to keep his bushes instead of wearing pants. He was a young man at the time of our text, in his early 20s. He was also a pagan. Kings and Chronicles tell us that he “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” He built idols to false gods. He burned incense to gain their favor. He examined the entrails of birds for advice. He burned his own children in fire as a sacrifice to these demons. Last, but not least, he clutched to his groin the thorny crown of the king of Assyria.
Being a young king, his enemies quickly tested him. From the southeast came Edomites. From the southwest came Philistines. From the north came his own “brother,” the king of Israel in alliance with Arameans.
The southern enemies harassed and annoyed Judah. The northern enemies almost destroyed Ahaz. Chronicles tells us that in one day’s fighting 120,000 of Ahaz’s men died. The Israelites and Arameans carried off 200,000 women and children. They captured or destroyed every city in Judah except one, Jerusalem.
Understandably, this frightened Ahaz. Isaiah 7 says “the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” In the time of the Judges, we know what would have happened. The cycle of behavior at that time was sin, punishment from the Lord, repentance, and then the Lord’s delivery of Israel through a hero like Samson or Gideon. Well, we’ve got the sin part covered. Ahaz, like others before him, prostitutes himself to false gods. The people of Judah follow him in unbelief. We’ve got the punishment bit too: enemies pick apart the carcass of Judah. Now we wait for the repentance. And we wait. And we wait. It doesn’t come. Chronicles says, “In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord.”
How could that be? He’s already sacrificed a child in the fire. Well, he closes the temple. He sets up more idols. He copies a pagan altar and has it set up in the temple in Jerusalem and then uses one of the altars Solomon built “for seeking guidance,” that is, occult divination. And then, then, Ahaz, like that doofus holding the thorny bush to his crotch, Ahaz sends a text message to the big kid on the block: Assyria. He says to their king, Tiglath-Pilesar, “I’m your servant. Help me. Come and save me.”
You might be shocked to hear that that didn’t go well. Chronicles says that Tiglath “gave [Ahaz] trouble instead of help.” Oh, he knocked out Israel and Aram, but he didn’t stop there. Ahaz opened the door, and like a vampire invited in, now Assyria sucks Judah dry. For the next thirty years Judah teetered on the brink of conquest by Assyria. It culminated in another siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib.
Stunningly, at no point does Ahaz go to the Lord for help. He looks to Assyria as his savior. He digs around in the guts of birds and sheep for answers. He gets high on the coolest scents of incense. But the LORD, “Who’s that guy?”
Why? Why wouldn’t he even do what some people do in a crisis, “God, if you’re out there, help me?”
Well, you know what they say, “If Muhammad won’t go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Muhammad.” Jerusalem’s under siege. The end is near. Ahaz shakes and trembles. And the LORD sends His prophet Isaiah with a stunning message: “Do not fear. These enemies are nothing. They’ll be gone before your grandchildren die. Stand firm in your faith, or you won’t stand at all.”
Well, since Ahaz has no faith, he won’t stand. Yet, the Lord speaks to Him again! Here’s our portion of Isaiah 7. “Ask me for a sign,” the LORD says. “Go ahead, ask for anything. Anything at all.” A blank check. I can imagine a stunned silence. I can imagine taking time to make sure you ask for something really good. You only get one chance, not even the three wishes of an Arabian genie. But Ahaz does the unthinkable? “No, I won’t ask.”
Or maybe it’s not so unthinkable. We criticize Gideon for asking the Lord for signs…twice! Might it not be the height of faith to say, “God, you don’t need to give me a sign. I won’t ask you. I won’t tempt you in this way”? That’s what Ahaz says, “I will not put the LORD to the test.” That makes him sound like Jesus, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test!”
Oh, pious Ahaz! Oh wait, he’s not! Ahaz burns his children in fire sacrifices to demons. Ahaz cuts open animals because he think he’ll get guidance from the way their intestines fall out. Ahaz thinks a pagan altar works better than one divinely designed.
Worse, Ahaz now disobeys a direct order from the Lord. Lecturing on this verse of Isaiah, Martin Luther told his students, “To put God to the test is indeed evil when it is done with a word of God. He who is commanded to put God to the test and does not do so is sinning. God is not being tempted when he himself orders it.”
God said, “Ask!” God handed Ahaz a check. It’s not wrong to write a number on the line. Why would Ahaz be so foolish?
Because he’s so sinfully shrewd. Ahaz would rather do things of his own “free will” than be put into a box by God. Thus, he refuses to ask for a sign. Because when God gives one, then he’ll be bound. He has the proof; he has to follow God. This way, he can continue to burn children, read intestines, build pagan altars, and summon foreign princes and call them “Savior.” This way, Ahaz can claim just enough ignorance of God’s will to do just about anything he wants in search of God’s will. But, if he accepts a sign from the Lord, then he’s committed, he’s bound.
Likewise, as long as we can decide what God’s will is or isn’t, might or mightn’t be, we’re not really bound. We can do what we want. We can float this way and that. We can do this, ask for that, follow this method or course and say, “Well, if it’s God’s will.” In reality, we bind God. We do this, because we know that once God gives a sign, a word, a promise, and once we acknowledge that sign, or word, or promise, then we’re bound to that. Then we know God’s revealed will. And we don’t really want to be bound to that.
It gets worse for Ahaz. “Hear now, you house of David!” Isaiah said. He reminds Ahaz of his stock, his lineage. He’s from the “house and line of David,” like a certain engaged couple we know. Ahaz has the words and promises of God going back centuries in his family history. Now he really tempts God.
Likewise, we sit in the Church, as Ahaz did. We sit surrounded by God’s signs and wonders. Because, as Luther took great delight in pointing out, this is God’s normal mode of operating. He loves to attach signs and wonders to His words and promises. “No more floods,” God says. And gives a rainbow. “A seed of the woman will crush the serpent,” He says. And later commands the practice of circumcision to remind us where this Seed comes from. Think of the bronze serpent, the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion. God attaches His Word to things. God binds His word to things, and in so doing, binds us to those words and promises. Do you want to know where God’s salvation is? Do you want to know what God’s promises really are? There they are. Eat. Drink. Wash. There’s God. There’s forgiveness. There’s life.
Note well, God wasn’t just talking to Ahaz. When he said, “The LORD Himself will give you a sign,” He used a plural form of “you.” I will give you-plural a sign. God included the whole nation of Judah. He included all people of all time. “This sign’s for you.”
And you can’t stop it. No matter how hard you try. “The LORD, He will give you a sign.”
The sign? “Behold, a pregnant virgin.” Again, in our Ahaz-ness we even reinterpret this. Many in our world read this to say “maiden” or “young girl” instead of virgin. It makes it easier for our brains to swallow if a young girl gets pregnant.
But what kind of a sign is that? “Behold, a pregnant young girl.” They’re all over the place. How breathtaking is that? God said ask for a sign, a wonder, a miracle. He gave Ahaz a blank check, “Highest heights or deepest depths,” He said. Only a pregnant virgin comes close to meeting God’s criteria.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when Ahaz decided to throw God’s promise back in His face, God didn’t say, “To hell with you.” He said, “Behold, a pregnant virgin. And giving birth to a son, she’ll call Him Immanuel.” God with us, “from blessed Mary’s womb you came, a victim pure for sacrifice.”
This is the sign for which we refused to ask. So God just went ahead and gave it: a sign, a wonder, a banner. He attaches His Word to a visible thing: to a child, His child, His Son, to flesh – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. A Son called Immanuel, a Son called Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins. Because He will save me from my sins.
This is God’s sign to you. This is how God filled in the blank. God binds us to one and only one way of salvation: His Son, Jesus, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law by sacrificing Himself for us. God with us. God for us. God saving us from our sins. God attaches Himself to this sign, this wonder, this miracle: Jesus. For you. Amen.