It is hard to orient ourselves to our text today without its setting. The context is found in 2 Kings 16. Political and military trouble surround Ahaz in the year 735 BC. The Northern Kingdom together with Syria sought an alliance with Judah against Tiglath-Pileser III who was advancing with his Assyrian troops onto their lands. Israel had already suffered defeat from the Assyrians and knew they needed more help to resist them. So, with threats from the Assyrians to capitulate into a coerced coalition, Isaiah comes to offer Ahaz a most gracious alternate from the Lord of hosts. Isaiah tells the king of Judah not to fear because of the small threats against him (7:4-9). Ahaz must choose between trusting in the Lord or in the armies and nations surrounding him.
Ahaz is afraid and under significant pressure. If you look at the previous section before our reading you can see that the allied forces are attempting to attack Jerusalem. In terms of law development in the sermon, you could ask a question to connect your hearers to Ahaz’ fear: What fears do we have which rob us of trust?
Using the Question Answered Structure you can develop some answers to the question, which will enable you to begin to make the gospel turn from our text. To set up the turn you need to unpack the Lord’s gracious offer to Ahaz. God offers any sign Ahaz wants to convince him to trust in Him and not be afraid. Ahaz, much like humanity always does with God, because of his sinful nature, refuses the sign, saying he will not test the Lord. Idiot! This was not a test. It was an offer! Then God graciously brushes aside Ahaz’s failed pious and false objection and gives him a sign anyway. Isaiah says to the king:
“Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign” (Isaiah 7:13–14a).
By giving the sign even with the king’s refusal, God shows His people steadfast love, faithfulness, and grace. Also, since we are essentially deprived of the fourth Sunday of Adent this year due to the way the calendar lays out, you could insert a little development of 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16 here to make the Davidic connection in the Messiah. God refused even King David but gave him something better. Of course, our text immediately calls to mind our appointed gospel from Matthew. There he quotes Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name Him Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23). This is what we are heading for in the sermon. However, spending time in the context will give us a richer message which is more than just a set-up and knock-down without any development of the textual understanding, theological confession, or practical application for our hearers.
God was gracious to Ahaz, but Ahaz’s refusal becomes an interesting point to develop homiletically. Ahaz’s refusal is fascinating because of the reason he gives. When God instructs Ahaz to ask for a sign, Ahaz responds: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test” (verse 12). At first blush it seems like the right kind of answer, a reply full of piety, and something akin to Solomon’s response to God in 1 Kings 3:1-15. Do we all not secretly wonder, though, if Solomon wanted to ask for more? Ahaz seems to be piously following God’s Law, but Isaiah makes it clear that the king is thoroughly missing the point of God’s offer. Ahaz is not “testing” God if he accepts God’s gracious offer. Instead, it is God who is “testing” Ahaz. So, Ahaz’s refusal is a rejection of trust in the living God, who is graciously giving him His word and is promising to be with Him in the midst of his trouble.
Ahaz’s refusal is a rejection of trust in the living God, who is graciously giving him His word and is promising to be with Him in the midst of his trouble.
This reminds me of just about every person who refuses to go to worship on Christmas because they believe, “The roof will fall in on them once they arrive.” How many people use pious sounding language to refuse to go to church or to receive the Sacraments? How many people reject God’s gracious gifts because of sacred excuses? A better line of questioning perhaps could be: How does God meet you in unexpected ways today? How does God come to you with surprising grace? So, consider the offer God gives to Ahaz. How would you respond in trust to the God who is with us? This is a perfect line of thinking on Christmas Eve as we behold the coming of Christ the King as the babe of Bethlehem who is our Emmanuel.
Ultimately, this text is pointing past the specific context of a specific problem at a specific time in Israel’s past. Prophecy has a way of “telescoping.” Like the scene in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman, we look through the telescope and see the danger to Ahaz is really close, but it also speaks of the trouble far away from Ahaz. The distant trouble would be the Roman and Idumean context of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem and then the trouble of the world we live in as well. A sign was given to Ahaz to point him forward to the greater sign given in a manger at Bethlehem, who is the Messiah Jesus, our Emmanuel. When interpreting Isaiah in context, this prophecy concerning the child is actually more than just a little vague. For instance, we do not know the identity of the mother, why it matters she is a virgin, or how the sign of the child relates exactly to Him being Emmanuel. This is more than a little disturbing to preachers who think this is an easy text and, upon exegetical inspection, get more than they bargained for. However, for that reason, we should not give up on preaching on it. Any ambiguity is cleared up by the celebration in the Gospel we commemorate this day. The Question Answered Structure is ideally suited to exploring those tough questions which result in clarity and focus.
The certain promises of God amidst a world of ambiguity teaches us that in Christmas time, when everyone around us is brimming with confidence and commerce, there is still lingering within serious doubts and questions about life and faith in an uneasy world. Isaiah offers us a chance to name these doubts and acknowledge they are really there. So, God graciously comes to us by His word and offers us this sign of Emmanuel, the birth of the Christ. We are called to trust and have faith in God’s presence with us even when all the details are not clear. We live as a confident community of hope in a world where all the details do not seem so obvious, but graciously the answer is still given.
Silence, a novel by (and now a Martin Scorsese film) Shusaku Endo, tells the story of what it is like to find grace in suffering and to see God’s presence with us in the unexpected places of life. His fictional account is based off the real-life persecution of Christians in seventeenth century Japan. In this book, the Japanese persecutors would have a test to prove believers were no longer Christians. Those who were suspected of being secret Christians were required to trample on a “fumie,” which is a carved image of the likeness of Christ. If they did not trample on the icon of Jesus, they were brutally tortured and killed. Those who trampled it lived with deep shame. This is the powerful telling of the story.
At the conclusion, the young faithful missionary had been betrayed (again) by those closest to him and was dragged before the Japanese officials to trample on the image of Christ. As he was staring at the fumie, the face he saw in the carving was filled with exhaustion and sorrow, just like him. As the missionary continued to stare at the fumie, the voice of Christ spoke directly to him. With surprising grace, Jesus tells him to go ahead and trample the image. This seems an unusual test of his faith. Why would Christ say this? Is this a test too? Should he remain pious and refuse? Christ insists (not to make the young missionary an apostate) to teach this young man the way of the Cross. Jesus assures him that He came to suffer, indeed, to be trampled on.
This is why Christ arrived, not just to be adored at a manger, but to ultimately go to the cross. His birth is magnificent, but His future may have been a little ambiguous to those around Him. What did all of this mean? Christ would clear up all the ambiguity at the cross and empty tomb. For the young missionary, he did not understand why Jesus had him there in that moment, but it would later be revealed that it was in order for him to share in Christ’s suffering so he might share in His resurrection as well. The call was to embrace the sufferings of the cross and not to try and live in a false theology of glory, free from recognizing grace in the midst of suffering.
Endo’s difficult and profound work asks a similar question of us which is also seen in Isaiah’s encounter with Ahaz: How do we live with trust in the gracious and unexpected presence of the living God-with-us in Christ? How did Mary and Joseph do it? Well, they probably had to trust every minute of every day as they followed Him to the cross and empty tomb. We too live by faith in the saving grace of Christ who is God-with-us here in the midst of suffering by the power of His resurrection.
Craft of Preaching-Check out out 1517’s resources on Isaiah 7:10-17.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 7:10-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 7:10-17.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!