Today we come to the twelfth day of our Lenten journey, God bless you as you travel the path to the Cross and to our Lord’s resurrection. Our reading from scripture is Isaiah 7:1-14.
And it came to pass in the days of Achaz the son of Joatham, the son of Ozias, king of Juda, there came up Rasin king of Aram, and Phakee son of Romelias, king of Israel, against Jerusalem to war against it, but they could not take it. 2 And a message was brought to the house of David, saying, Aram has conspired with Ephraim. And his soul was amazed, and the soul of his people, as in a wood a tree is moved by the wind. 3 And the Lord said to Esaias, Go forth to meet Achaz, thou, and thy son Jasub who is left, to the pool of the upper way of the fuller's field. 4 And thou shalt say to him, Take care to be quiet, and fear not, neither let thy soul be disheartened because of these two smoking firebrands: for when my fierce anger is over, I will heal again. 5 And as for the son of Aram, and the son of Romelias, forasmuch as they have devised an evil counsel, saying, 6 We will go up against Judea, and having conferred with them we will turn them away to our side, and we will make the son of Tabeel king of it; 7 thus saith the Lord of hosts, This counsel shall not abide, nor come to pass. 8 But the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus, Rasim; and yet within sixty and five years the kingdom of Ephraim shall cease from being a people. 9 And the head of Ephraim is Somoron, and the head of Somoron the son of Romelias: but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand.
10 And the Lord again spoke to Achaz, saying, 11 Ask for thyself a sign of the Lord thy God, in the depth or in the height. 12 And Achaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord. 13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a little thing for you to contend with men? and how do ye contend against the Lord? 14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.
There are many parts of this reading that have something to say to us, but let’s focus on the response of Achaz, when he refused to ask for a sign from the Lord. He was frightened by the pact between two of his enemies, Rasin of Aram and Somoron of Ephraim, not only because they might have the power to overtake his kingdom, but also because of the treachery of Ephraim, which was one of the twelve tribes. Isaiah met Achaz by a pool and told him that he had nothing to worry about, that the two armies would not be able to defeat him. He added that Ephraim would not be one of the twelve tribes after this happened. This should have impressed Achaz - that’s quite a victory when your enemies disappear as a nation.
But it didn’t. We know from IV Kingdoms (II Kings in Protestant Bibles) that Achaz was an evil and unbelieving man (16:2-4): “he did not that which was right in the eyes of the Lord his God faithfully, as David his father had done. And he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, yea, he made his son to pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen whom the Lord cast out from before the children of Israel. And he sacrificed and burnt incense on the high places, and upon the hills, and under every shady tree.” It’s not entirely clear to us, but this describes pagan worship. Achaz followed pagan rituals, and was a very evil man. Did you hear how Isaiah pronounced his judgement on the “house of David” at the end of today’s reading? He was reminding Achaz of his ancestry, and that he was a descendent of the great King and faithful believer David. Achaz was nothing like David, and had no faith in God at all.
So what did he do? He played the holy card, the humble card. “Oh, who am I to ask a sign from God? God has told us not to ask for a sign (Deuteronomy 6:16, which Jesus quoted to Satan at the temptation), so I will be a true believer and not ask for one.”
But why? Jerome tells us that Achaz was afraid that a sign would indeed be given, and he didn’t want the responsibility of belief that a sign would bring. In other words, he was content to have nothing to do with the God of his fathers, and to have a great miracle happen (as Isaiah said: “Ask for thyself a sign of the Lord thy God, in the depth or in the height.” Some ancient manuscripts read: “ask anything even as low as hell or as high as heaven”), to have a great miracle happen would force him to believe.
What do you fear? Do you fear becoming one of those super-religious people who pray and go to church all the time? And what will you be willing to give up, what gift from God will you turn your back on, in order to avoid that?
And in the long run, a sign will be given to us anyway, and has been given: “behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel,” that is, God with us.