There’s an old joke about a man whose house is flooding. The man climbs up on the roof and prays, “God, I love you! I believe in you! I know that you will save me!”
The water rises higher, and neighbors row up in their rowboat. They call to the man to let them help him into the boat and carry him to safety. He refuses, telling them that God will rescue him. The boat leaves.
The flood waters are lapping ever closer, and the man prays again. “God, I love you! I believe in you! I know that you will save me!”
Rescue workers in a powerboat arrive, and they urge the man to get into their boat with them and let them carry him to safety. The man refuses their help too, saying that God will rescue him. He is waiting for God. The rescuers speed away.
The waters have almost reached the man, and he prays earnestly, “God, I love you! I believe in you! I know that you will save me!” He has just finished his prayer when a helicopter flies overhead. Rescuers have a ladder they can send down, and they plead with the man to let them pull him up to safety. The man refuses, assuring them that God will rescue him. The pilot and the rescuers in the helicopter reluctantly fly away to save other stranded folks.
The waters overcome the man and he drowns. He gets to heaven, and when he meets God face-to-face, he says, “God, I love you and believe in you. Why didn’t you save me?”
God looks at the man and says, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What were you waiting for?”
Whenever I have ever heard this story told, it has been used as an example of how God works. This is how God answers prayers. This is how God helps. This is how God sends signs. God works through other people. God sends uses ordinary means. Obviously the man in the story expected something far more dramatic. Perhaps he was waiting for the hand of God to reach down through the storm and lift him up and set him on dry land. That may be how we want God to save us, but that isn’t how God works. So, if you’re stranded on top of your house, with the flood waters rising, and you pray for help, and a boat comes by – get in the boat! That’s God at work.
God uses ordinary means to do extraordinary things.
I would hope that I would have enough sense to see God’s hand in an offer of rescue. Just like I hope that if God actually offered to give me a sign, so that I would trust him, I would accept that sign. Most of the time, signs from God are not always easily recognizable. Often, signs from God are ambiguous at best. I’ve had to make many leaps of faith in trusting that I had recognized a sign from God. How wonderful it would be if God would just offer me a sign, any sign. Surely, I would never ever be foolish enough to refuse that offer.
But that is just what Ahaz did in our verses from Isaiah. The Lord offered a sign and Ahaz refused. The Lord didn’t just offer a sign, the Lord told Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sign.
“Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
There were no limits to the sign that the Lord would give Ahaz. All Ahaz had to do was ask. Yet Ahaz did not respond in the way we might think.
“Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”
At first, this sounds like an acceptable response. Ahaz knew the Law and followed the Law. It would also seem that Ahaz was not greedy about signs. He was modest. He was not going to push the Lord or test the Lord, even if God opened the door for it. Surely to our ears, this would have been the correct answer, because these are the same words Jesus spoke to Satan when he was tempted by him in the wilderness.
However, as one commentator pointed out, Jesus spoke these words to Satan. Ahaz spoke them to God. God offered to give Ahaz any sign he asked for, no matter how big or small. God wanted Ahaz to trust him, so God was willing to give him a sign if that would ensure Ahaz’ trust. Yet Ahaz’ excuse was that he did not want to test God. Responding to God’s invitation is not testing God. If anything God was testing Ahaz. God wanted Ahaz to trust, so if a sign was necessary for that trust to flourish, then God would give Ahaz a sign.
This is actually the second sign God gave Ahaz. To fully understand the context of our verses, we need to look back the first verses of this chapter. Ahaz is the king of
southern kingdom, the .
Two other nations, land of Jerusalem Israel
and Syria, had
formed an alliance against Judah.
They wanted to overthrow Ahaz, capture Jerusalem
and set their own “puppet king” on the throne. Knowing this, Ahaz and the
people of Judah
God sends Isaiah and Isaiah’s son to reassure Ahaz that all would be well. The powers of the two nations threatening him and his people would not stand. A child was a symbol of hope and promise, and the presence of Isaiah’s son would have pointed to that.
I don’t know if Ahaz didn’t seem assured enough with this first sign, because immediately God made the offer we read about this morning. A sign, any sign, just trust God. Ahaz’ refusal tested God’s patience. Ahaz may not have wanted a sign of God with him, but he was going to get one.
“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name Immanuel.”
Immanuel – God with us. When we read this passage from Isaiah and our passage from Matthew together, it seems logical that this sign for Ahaz pointed to Jesus. Perhaps it did, but Ahaz would have heard that prophecy in his own time and context. While we might immediately conclude that these were happy words to hear; in reality they are ambiguous. Not only would there be a child born named Immanuel, God with us, by the time that child was old enough to know good from evil, the nations that Ahaz feared so much would be as nothing, deserted.
“The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from
Were those good days or bad days? What would it mean for God to be with them? Perhaps Ahaz refused God’s offer of a sign because he didn’t really want to know what God had in store. Perhaps Ahaz wasn’t so sure that God with him would be a good thing. Ahaz was faced with military and political disaster, and in that moment trusting that God would be with him may not have seemed as certain as trusting in another leader, another nation. Other sources reveal that’s what Ahaz did. He put his trust in the ruler of the Assyrians. It didn’t end well.
What does it mean for God to be with us? I suspect that many of us hear this as comfort. God is with us, all shall be well. God became like us because God was and is Immanuel because God wants to be with us. God loves us. God pursues us. God wants to be with us. Yet God with us is not just about sweetness and happiness. God with us brings light; light that invades even the darkest corners and chases away every shadow. God with us means that we are brought into the light, and the light reveals everything about us. God with me means that God sees me – all of me, everything that is good and everything that is bad. God with me means that the parts of my life that I have shoved into the deepest, darkest recesses are exposed and uncovered. God with me makes me vulnerable. Being vulnerable can feel frightening.
Yet isn’t the incarnation about God entering into our vulnerability? Wasn’t Jesus as helpless and vulnerable as any newborn baby? Wasn’t he as dependent on the care of others as any infant? It seems to me that God with us is somewhat of a double-edged sword. God with us makes us vulnerable. God with us shows us the truth about ourselves. God with us brings us into the light, whether we want to go or not. But God does not choose to be with us out of some need for vengeance or spite. God chooses to be with us out of God’s infinite grace and mercy. God chooses to be with us out of a place of relationship. God chooses to be with us because of love.
God with us is a present reality and a future promise. God with us does not give us security or safety. God with us gives us hope.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.