convenient pieties — holding Christ at arm’s length

King Ahaz of Judah has a problem.

Actually, King Ahaz of Judah has a number of problems. But the most pressing problem is that two neighbouring nations are threatening war against him. The northern kingdom of Israel, under King Pekah, and the neighbouring nation of Syria under King Rezin have made an alliance and are threatening to attack. It is no idle threat. We read in Isaiah chapter 7 that when they heard about this military threat, “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

King Ahaz and the people of Judah are afraid. King Ahaz is not confident in the strength of his own forces. He’s not confident in the capacity of his soldiers to repel this military assault. He is deeply fearful that this will mean death and destruction and defeat for himself and for Judah. “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

Into the middle of all of this comes Isaiah the prophet. And he comes with a word of challenge and a word of warning. His message from God to Ahaz is this: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”

In this difficult situation there will be every temptation for Ahaz to respond as if God doesn’t matter – there will be every temptation to respond as if his own wisdom is sufficient – as if the future is in his hands. But Isaiah warns him, if you don’t trust God, if you do not stand firm in the faith, then you will certainly be defeated.

Now, there are lots of questions we could ask about this first part of our text. Questions arise around what it means to show faith – and what exactly King Ahaz is supposed to do in this situation. But we are going to just skate past these questions because we really want to focus this morning on a second word that Isaiah speaks to the king.

Not only does Isaiah offer this word of challenge and warning, he also speaks these words to Ahaz, “Here is what God says: Ask a sign of the Lord your God. Let this sign be as deep as Sheol or as High as heaven.”

For Ahaz this is a challenging and fearful time. And in this moment it may be incredibly difficult to put his faith in God. It may be hard to trust God. Ahaz and the people of Judah might very well be wondering whether God is actually present to bless and help and save. And so God says to Ahaz, through the prophet Isaiah: Ask a sign from God – and God will give it. Ask for any sign – a sign that reaches impossibly deep into the earth – a sign that reaches impossibly high into the heavens. Ask for anything – a sign of God’s presence and promise.

Maybe a tree springing up green in the middle of a parched desert.

Or a four-horsed chariot pounding its way across the sky.

Or a bush erupting in flame, but never burned – there’s precedent for that one.

Or maybe just one good night’s sleep, free from worry – what a sign that would be.

 Maybe an angel in its glorious simplicity laying a hand on your shoulder.

Just ask for a sign, Ahaz.

Who wouldn’t want such a sign? Who wouldn’t want just such a clear signal that God is present – that God is trustworthy – that God is God? Especially in such a difficult and dire situation, like the one face by Ahaz? Who wouldn’t want just such a sign?

Well, it turns out that Ahaz doesn’t want a sign. Ahaz says it directly to Isaiah. He puts it like this: “I will not ask for a sign, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Oh Ahaz. You can almost hear the self-righteous piety dripping from his voice across so many so many centuries. “I’m not going to ask for a sign. God’s word is God’s word and we shouldn’t put God to the test.”

Now of course it’s true that the scriptures are a little mixed on this question. In some instances there is this sense that we shouldn’t put the Lord our God to the test – that testing God reflects a failure of our faith in God. But there are other instances in the scriptures where testing is more than permitted. And in this situation with Ahaz, more to the point, the prophet Isaiah has explicitly said: “God is telling you to ask for a sign. A sign that will make his purposes and trustworthiness apparent. Ahaz, ask for a sign!”

But Ahaz doesn’t want a sign. He won’t ask for snowflakes in the heat of summer. He won’t ask for pair of eagles wheeling through the sky in perfect formation.

But why doesn’t Ahaz want a sign? Ahaz would like us to think that his refusal of a sign is based on his orthodox faith and his deep piety. “We must not put God to the test.” But Isaiah’s not buying it. Isaiah responds: “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, must you weary God also?”

Our human relationships so often exhibit mistrust and bad faith – the human relationships of Ahaz apparently also exhibited mistrust and bad faith. And now, that mistrust and bad faith have come to expression in the relationship between Ahaz and God. “O Ahaz,” says Isaiah, “is it not enough that you are a source of grief and weariness to your family and friends – do you really have to become source of weariness for God, too.”

Why doesn’t Ahaz want to ask for a sign? This much we can surmise. He doesn’t want a sign because he doesn’t want a serious relationship with God. He doesn’t want to get too close to God. And he doesn’t want God to get too close to him – close enough to examine him or to challenge him or to renew him or refine him. Ahaz wants God at a distance. His piety – “We shouldn’t test God. It would be a lack of faith to ask God for a sign.” – his piety is just a convenient piety – a piety to keep God at a distance, a piety that shields himself rom God. This convenient piety is a way of keeping God at arms length so he can respond to this crisis according to his own ideas and wisdom and plans.

It seems to me this is a point at which this narrative meets our lives. Because it doesn’t take much time in deep reflection to realize that we all have our convenient pieties. We all have certain beliefs or attitudes or ways of being that sound very reasonable – that sound eminently faithful – but which turn out to be a means of keeping God at a distance. These noble sounding pieties end up being a means by which we avoid the call of Jesus to live in the worship and way of his kingdom.

There are a number of different directions we could take the discussion this morning. But perhaps we begin with sentiments of ours that are similar to those expressed by Ahaz – specifically religious sentiments. The challenge here is that almost everything we do in the context of faith can easily become a means of holding God at a distance. Almost everything we do can become a convenient piety by which place a wall between ourselves and God, rather than taking the beautiful risk of encountering God.

To offer a specific example, even the idea of attending church can become a convenient piety – “I go to church on Sunday. It’s important to go to church on Sunday.” But this sentiment easily becomes a convenient basis for essentially ignoring God the rest of the week – a convenient way of forgetting Jesus’ call to prayer and radical discipleship in our everyday lives.

We may say our prayers at night before bed – “I say my prayers.” But saying our prayers can easily become, whether intentionally or not, a convenient excuse for not growing deeper in the life of prayer. And saying our prayers can become a convenient way of avoiding the prayerfulness that God invites – that openness to the moving of God’s Spirit that is characterize our everyday.

For the preacher, there is a very specific and convenient piety – “I read scripture and preach every Sunday.” But that reading and preaching easily becomes a convenient piety by which the preacher avoids a sincere wrestling with the voice of Christ that calls him or her very personally through the scriptures.

This morning we can also push beyond the realm of what we typically think of as belonging to the religious or spiritual life. The logic we’re considering can be applied to so many everyday aspects of our lives. And given the season we’re in, we could offer a couple of examples in terms of the celebration of Christmas. If ever there was a time of year that makes us prone to convenient pieties, this has got to be it.

As an example, when it comes to the giving of gifts, and when it comes to the call to resist the rampant consumerism of our culture, there is sentiment that parents are very easily to trot out: “You know, we can’t just give some goats for a family in Malawi instead of gifts to our kids. The kids won’t understanding – they’ll feel bad not getting a gift.” But of course this is a simply a convenient piety that prevents us from taking the call and way of Jesus’ seriously, that prevents us from taking the capacities of our kids and families seriously. It’s a convenient piety that allows us to remain comfortably like everyone around us.

Often at this time of year we hear this sentiment expressed also: That Christmas is a wonderful time for family. And certainly that can be the case. But the sentiment that Christmas is a wonderful time for family, so easily translates into a convenient piety by which we hold neighbours and friends – those who are lonely or isolated, or just difficult – at a distance. We prioritize our family, rather than our neighbours, for whom Christ died, whom we are to love.

Just a moment’s reflection on our everyday lives and on our religious sentiments, particularly those around the celebration of Christmas, will quickly bring us face to face with our convenient pieties. Sentiments and attitudes which can sound so reasonable and faithful, by which we hold Christ and his difficult/beautiful kingdom at a distance.

King Ahaz says to Isaiah – I don’t want a sign of God’s faithfulness. I don’t want a sign that will require me to take the will and way of God too seriously. I don’t want a sign that carries it the implication I am invested in this relationships. We will manage just fine as we are, thank you very much.

And Isaiah comes right back at him – the word of God comes to Ahaz – Well, you know what, Ahaz, you are going to get a sign anyway. You have your pious sentiments – you have your defences against God – but you are going to get a sign anyway. And here is the sign God will give: A young woman is going to have a baby.

The sign that Isaiah describes in chapter 7 is a difficult one for us today, because there different ways of understanding the sign. Perhaps it is Mrs. Ahaz who is going to have a baby. Or perhaps it is Mrs. Isaiah that’s going to have a baby. But whoever is going to have that baby, when it reaches the age of maturity something dramatic will happen in Judah – something unprecedented. But here’s the thing – there is a profound ambiguity around that something that is going to happen. On the one hand, when this child reaches the age of maturity, it seems that the threat from King Pekah and King Rezin will be gone – that threat of violence will pass. Grace prevails. But then after our passage it becomes clear that this peace will later give way to an attack by the Assyrian empire. The child to be born is to be a sign of both God’s grace and God’s judgment.

Centuries later, when an angel speaks with Joseph, the ambiguity is gone from the promise. The angel says to Joseph: “Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew the gospel writer himself adds: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us’.”

This child is the sign Ahaz didn’t ask for.

This child is the sign we didn’t ask for.

This child is a refusal of all the distance that exists between us and God.

This child is a declaration that God will not be God without us.

And as the sign of God, this child is a refusal of all of our convenient piety – all those convenient sentiments by which we try to shield ourselves from the hard and beautiful life of God’s kingdom.

This child is an invitation to live in the compassion of God.

This child is an invitation to seek God’s face in prayer.

This child is an invitation to love our neighbours – whether that neighbour is friend or stranger.

This child is an invitation to resist our culture’s insatiable appetite for more.

This child is an invitation to meet one another in integrity and honesty and grace.

This child; this child; is God with us – alongside us – leading us – calling us – pushing us – correcting us – saving us – forgiving us – renewing us – healing us – loving us.

This Christmas season we may not be looking for a sign of God’s nearness. Or maybe we are looking for a sign of Jesus’ lordship for life. This Christmas we may be content with what life and Christmas have become in our culture. Or maybe we are just tired of it.

In either case, God gives us a sign. In this season, and day by day, may we find grace to get past some of our convenient pieties – to see him, and hear him, and follow him, perhaps for the very first time.

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