King Ahaz is afraid. We know what that feels like. Fear has touched each of our lives.
Perhaps you have a childhood memory of finding yourself suddenly alone in a public place – you have lost sight of your mother or father – you can’t find them. Your chest tightens in fear. Panic sets in. You run – you search.
Perhaps as an adult you have encountered or known someone who is prone to anger and violence. If so, that experience of clammy hands, of a pounding heart, and of weak legs is something you know well.
On the other hand, perhaps your fear is not quite so visceral, not so full-bodied – maybe your fear is more of a steady anxiety about life, about your health, about your children, about your future.
Fear is both a psychological and a biological reality – it does not remain comfortably in synapses of the brain. Rather, fear rushes from our mind through our whole bodies, making our hearts pound, our skin sweat, and our chests heave. In intense moments of fear we are ready: fight or flight.
Ahaz, the king of Judah, is afraid. He is king of Judah in a difficult time. Under his watch Judah is threatened by the combined military forces of Ephraim and Aram. The kings of Ephraim and Aram have decided that Ahaz is vulnerable – and so they are prepared to take Judah by force. King Ahaz is afraid – he is afraid for the security of Judah – he is afraid for his life and that of his family – he is afraid for his own status as king – he is desperately worried about what lies over the horizon for his people.
In the light of this you can hardly blame Ahaz for considering a military alliance with the powerful Assyrian empire. What’s the answer to a military threat? From time immemorial, the answer to a military threat is to get yourself a bigger, stronger army. In the face of this particular military threat – in the face of his fear, Ahaz makes plans for a military alliance with the powerful Assyrians. It’s human instinct, really – when we are afraid – to look for a bigger stick, to get a bigger gun, to find a better insurance policy.
But here is where things get complicated for King Ahaz. As he wrestles with his fear, and as he deliberates about a military alliance, the prophet Isaiah appears on the scene. And Isaiah does what the prophets often do. He asks hard questions: “Ahaz, why are you afraid? Why are you allowing yourself to be driven by fear?”
Now here we should perhaps stop and remember that at some level fear is an appropriate or normal part of life. Our fear reflects the fact that there is something beautiful and good that we don’t want to lose. You might say that fear is the dark mirror image of our loves and our longings and our joys. Think again of that child lost in the mall, searching through the tree trunks of adult legs, desperate to find her parents – her fear is the dark mirror image of the love and safety and belonging she has with her mom and dad.
In Friday’s Globe and Mail, science reporter Paul Taylor wrote about research into the life of a woman who is incapable of fear. The function of this woman’s amygdala, the fear centre of the brain, has been essentially destroyed – she does not experience fear. Without an experience of fear, the woman constantly puts herself in situations of great danger – the absence of fear means that she lacks a basic emotional tool for the preservation and pursuit of a good and beautiful life. Fear, again, is a normal part of life. It is the dark mirror image of our loves and our longings and our joys.
Now when the prophet Isaiah comes to Ahaz, he doesn’t tell him he should never to be afraid. The first thing that Isaiah tells Ahaz, rather, is that he has exaggerated the threat. To use modern psychological terms – Ahaz is catastrophizing. Isaiah says: “Ahaz, why are you worried about the kings of Ephraim and Aram. They are nothing – they are merely flickering candles about to burn out.” Isaiah tells Ahaz that he is overstating the threat and that his fear is exaggerated. “Don’t be afraid of these kings. Look: they’re about to collapse all on their own.”
Very often that’s the human way, isn’t it? Time and again we take something that doesn’t really pose a threat and we turn it into a cause for fear. We adopt a fearful, or aggressive, or defensive posture in the face of something that isn’t really a threat. We live a culture saturated with fear – fear of terrorism, fear of disease, fear of harm to our children, fear of crime. We live in a culture where many, including corporations and governments, like to play on our fears. At some level, yes, fear can be appropriate – it is the mirror image of that which is beautiful and good to us. Yet as one theologian reminds us, excessive fear, misplaced fear, can drain the joy from our lives, can constrict our vision, and can feed our hatreds. Excessive and misplaced fear can undermine the freedom and joy that God wants for us in Christ.
If the first word Isaiah has for Ahaz is that he has exaggerated the threat, the second word is that Ahaz has failed to trust God. The two often go hand in hand. When we lose sight of God’s love, when we lose our trust in God’s grace and strength – then it is so easy to get lost in exaggerated threats and fears. When we lose sight of God’s gracious care for us and our world, it’s to see a world full of threats to our family, to our livelihood, to our future.
So Isaiah brings this message: “Ahaz, God is here to protect and bless and provide. Don’t put your trust in the Assyrian army, put your hope, your trust in God.” Isaiah in effect invites Ahaz to make the words of Psalm 20 his own: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”
But Ahaz still isn’t sure. Ahaz is afraid – isn’t it better to be safe than to be sorry? Isn’t it better to make an alliance with Assyria than to risk being overrun and destroyed? Maybe Isaiah is wrong – maybe the threat is real.
Our anxiety is real. Our fear is in our bodies – in our pounding hearts – in our clammy hands – our fear is in anxious thoughts. Where is God? Can we trust God? It is often very difficult to break out of the circular logic of fear. We start to let go of our fear and someone is quick to remind us why we should be afraid. We start to let go of our fear, but then we pull it back quickly, because we feel vulnerable without it.
King Ahaz is afraid. And even after the intervention of the prophet, Ahaz is unwilling to trust God. But Isaiah won’t give up. “I understand, Ahaz. I understand your fear. But if you’re having trouble trusting God – at least ask God for a sign. Ask for a sign of his loving presence.” In the text it goes like this: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Ahaz – just ask for a sign – an earthquake beneath your feet or lightening in the sky. God will show himself to you. God will reveal his face to you. God will help you let go of your fear.
You’d think Ahaz would leap at this invitation and opportunity. But Ahaz will not ask for a sign. Indeed, he offers a very pious reason for his refusal – “I will not put God to the test. We’re not supposed to test God.” But his piety is a cover for his lack of trust. Ahaz is happy to live with his fear – he takes his fear more seriously than he takes God’s presence. Under the cover of moral seriousness, Ahaz hangs onto his fear. “This situation is too serious to bring simplistic and airy-fairy God-talk into it.” Sometimes it’s easier to stick with our fear than to trust God to lead us into a new way of being in the world – of freedom, joy, and service.
Isaiah finally relents: “Ok then, Ahaz. If that’s what you want, have it your way. If you want to stick with your fear, that’s up to you. But here’s the thing, Ahaz: God is going to give you a sign anyway. You don’t want a sign, but God’s going to give you a sign. This will be the sign: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel – which means, God with us.”
Who is this child? We immediately think of Jesus. We are well trained to think of Jesus when we hear these words. But that’s not who Isaiah is speaking about. We don’t know exactly who this child is, but Isaiah is probably speaking of a child to be born either to his own wife or to one of the maidens of King Ahaz. In either case, however, Isaiah says that this child is going to be a sign – a sign both of God’s judgment and of God’s mercy. The child is a sign of God’s judgment because when this particular child reaches the age of maturity, King Ahaz will be defeated by the Assyrians. Within 10 short years, Ahaz will be defeated by the Assyrians.
To quote Canadian singer and song-writer Alanis Morissette, “isn’t it ironic.” In an ironic twist, it turns out that king Ahaz will be defeated and destroyed by the very Assyrian empire in which he put his trust.
Ahaz found his source of security. He found his insurance policy. He found the answer to his fear. But it turned out that his answer was no answer at all. When the child born of the maiden reaches the age of maturity, Assyria itself will come against Judah with violence.
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” Place your trust elsewhere and you will ultimately be disappointed.
But there is also good news. The child to be born is not only a sign of judgment. This particular child is also a sign of promise – the promise is written in his name. Immanuel. In Hebrew that name means ‘God with us’.
When the darkness approaches – Immanuel.
When Ephraim and Aram threaten – God is with us.
When we face with exaggerated fears – Immanuel.
When we lie awake at night with anxiety – God is with us.
In the face of all of our fear and anxiety, God gives the sign of a child – a child whose name means God is with us.
Does it come as any surprise that the gospel writer Matthew, when he set pen to paper describing the origins and birth of Jesus – does it come as any surprise that he went back to those words of Isaiah. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’.” As we saw a few weeks ago, the prophet Isaiah offers a dramatic, hopeful vision of God’s kingdom – where violence is no more, where peace triumphs, where fear is no more. Matthew looks at that beautiful vision on the one hand, and he looks at Jesus on the other hand – and Matthew says to himself, “This is it. Here is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision. Here is the kingdom he envisaged. Isaiah may not have known it, but he was talking about Jesus.”
We all struggle to put fear in its place. We all struggle to let go of the exaggerated fears cultivated by our culture. It is a difficult thing to break out of that logical circle of exaggerated fears. We start to let go of our fear, but someone quickly reminds us we should be afraid. We start to let go of our fear, but then pull it back in quickly, because we feel vulnerable without it. Can we really trust God?
Putting our fears in their place isn’t something that happens in one fell swoop – isn’t something that happens overnight in most cases. But the good news of Advent and Christmas, the good news of Isaiah and of Matthew, is that God has given a sign that will help us to put our fears in their place:
a sign that sets us free,
a sign that gives us joy,
a sign that liberates us for love,
a sign that loosens the grip of our exaggerated fears.
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’.” Immanuel – God with us in the child of Bethlehem – God with us in the healer of Galilee – God with us in his suffering cross – God with us in his resurrection life. In this Jesus, God is with us, and our fear finds its proper place. Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with the words of the angels: “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy, which is for all the people.”
In a couple of places in this sermon I have leaned on Scott Bader-Saye’s book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.