Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, is outside with his coat on, looking a tad bit disappointed. Calvin says, “If I was in charge, we’d never see grass between October and May.” Calvin looks up to heaven and says, “On ‘three,’ ready? One … two … three! SNOW!!!” But nothing happens. “I said SNOW! C’mon SNOW!” He begins to stomp up and down and pound his fists in the air, “SNOW!!!” Calvin calms down but with his arms folded across his chest and with his mouth wide open he growls, “Ok then, don’t snow! See what I care! I like this weather! Let’s have it forever!” But in this next box, Calvin is on his knees, hands clenched in prayer and a sincere, earnest expression on his face and he prays, “PLEEASE SNOW! Please?? Just a foot! Ok, eight inches! That’s all! C’mon! Six inches, even. How about just six??” Next box. “I’m waaiiting …” Next frame, Calvin is running in circles, angrily growling … he stops, exhausted from his efforts and Calvin looks up to the heavens and shouts, “Do you want me to become an atheist?”
“Do you want me to become an atheist?” We are a people who want to be sure that the God we believe in exists. We want signs that confirm our faith. “Stir up, your power, O Lord and come!” And when the Lord doesn’t come (in the manner that we expect) or when he seems to be silent to our prayers, I wonder, “Do we pray Calvin’s prayer?” … “Do you want me to become an atheist?”
In our text this morning, God’s people are in desperate need of a sign from the Lord, some kind of proof that God will be with them in a time of crisis. Remarkably, God is the one who initiates the idea of a sign. Through the prophet Isaiah, God asks King Ahaz to request a sign, but Ahaz refuses. But the Lord gives a sign … one that would reach centuries beyond the immediate context. In fact, the sign given to Ahaz and Judah in the 8th century BC is the sign that continues to assure us of God’s care and presence for all time and beyond.
The sign that God provides to Ahaz and the people of Judah is not snow falling from heaven, but God’s Son descending from his kingly throne in heaven.
Mary’s Child is the Sign, the Proof of God’s Love.
Ahaz needed a sign. He, and the people of Judah, were confronted with what is known as the Syro-Ephraimite War of 734 BC. King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Ephraim (Israel) were marching their troops against Judah. To Ahaz, the outcome looked bleak. Ahaz and the people of Judah were terrified; “their hearts shook, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind” (7:2). Would these powerful armies soon destroy them? How could they possibly defeat not just one but two opponents?
It was under these circumstances that God came to Ahaz with the words of our text. Through Isaiah God told Ahaz, “Keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart” (7:4). The Lord promised, “It will not take place, it will not happen.” (7:7) God called upon Ahaz and the people of Judah to stand firm in their faith. The Lord would not allow them to be defeated by their enemies, but he also issued this warning, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” (9) Then God gave Ahaz a sign, a sign of God’s favour, a sign that God’s promises would be kept. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: the Virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him, ‘Immanuel.’” (14)
But would Ahaz and the people trust God’s Word? The enemies looked so powerful, so impressive. Would God really keep his promise? How could Ahaz be sure?
We, too, need a sign for we have enemies that threaten us. Almost every day we are reminded that terrorists could strike again. Crime and violence seem to be all around us, even in our own neighbourhoods. An uncertain economy threatens our financial security. Health problems threaten us as well. Canadian courts and Canadian governments seem to ever be enacting laws and proposing legislation that is increasingly hostile to devout Christians. We need a sign – a sign that God is with us, a sign that God loves us, a sign that he will help us and take care of us.
Our sin also threatens us. We know that we have sinned against God’s holy Word again and again and again – we can think of countless examples. We begin to worry that our sin will put us outside of God’s love, outside of his favour. We might find ourselves worrying that our sin will destroy our eternal future. We need a sign, a sign that God still loves us in spite of our sin, a sign that God forgives us.
God has come to us through the prophets and apostles and made promises to us. He has promised that he would be with us always. He has promised to work all things together for good. He has promised to meet all our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:19). He has promised not to give us more than we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). But can we trust God to keep his promises? Will he really do all these wonderful things that he has promised? Will God be faithful to his Word? A sign would help us to believe and be at peace. A sign would help us too.
God gives us a sign of his favour and love. It’s the same one the Lord gave to Ahaz. In Isaiah 7 we read, “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz [through Isaiah], ‘Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights’” (10-11). God understood how helpful a sign would be for his people, and he gave Ahaz carte blanche to choose it. Incredibly, Ahaz refused God’s offer: “Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, I will not put the Lord to the test.’” Ahaz’s response sounds so pious, but in reality it is a response of a hardcore unbeliever. He wanted nothing to do with the Lord. Ahaz had already decided what he was going to do to bale himself out of the crisis: he would seek an alliance with the even more dangerous Assyrians. Ahaz wasn’t about to place his trust in the promises of an invisible God. Instead, he believed that those who have the biggest battalions win the wars. Assyria had more batallions than Syria and Ephraim and Judah combined. As it turned out, the Assyrians did come to his aid, destroying both Ephraim and Syria, but soon after also turned on Judah.
Never mind. God’s kindness wouldn’t be put off by the king’s foolishness. “Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign’”. (13) If Ahaz didn’t want a sign to reassure him in the there-and-then, God would do one better: the Lord would give a sign for the ages, one that reassures his people in each one’s own here-and-now. God’s sign of his love for us is this: Isaiah announced, “The virgin will be with child and will birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (14), “God with us.”
The sign was, of course, fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel reading, Matthew tells us that Mary is the virgin whose womb was the cradle for God’s Son for the first nine months of his life. Jesus is the promised Immanuel. Jesus is God in human flesh – our Lord Immanuel. God came down from heaven to live and dwell among us.
The miraculous conception and birth of Jesus is the sign of God’s favour. Jesus is the sign that God loves us and will take care of us. For Jesus came into this world and took on human flesh so that he could be nailed to a cross and give up his life as the payment for our sins. Jesus was born of a virgin – born in the flesh, suffered in the flesh, raised in the flesh. As he lives, we also will live forever. Jesus is the sign — the “yes” to the promises God has made to us in his Word. He is the proof of God’s love and forgiveness and faithfulness!
The psychiatrist Dr. John Rosen was known for his work with schizophrenics. Instead of staying aloof from his patients, Dr. Rosen moved into the ward with them. His bed was by their beds. He lived the life they had to live. He loved them. If they didn’t talk, he didn’t talk either. It was as if his being there communicated something that they hadn’t experienced in years – somebody loved them. But he did something else too. He put his arms around them and hugged them. He held these unattractive, unlovable people and loved them back into life. Often the first words they spoke were simply “thank you.” This is what Jesus did. He moved into the ward with us. His bed is among our beds. He hugs us, he loves us, and leads us to a restored life. With our life we say to our Lord Immanuel, “thank you.”
Because God gave us a sign and fulfilled it, our hearts can now be at peace. Worry and anxiety do not have to be our daily companions. God loves us! He is with us! Our sins are forgiven! Heaven will be our eternal home! God will take care of us and help us make it through life in this oftentimes difficult world! Jesus is the sign that all these things are so.
In less than a week we will celebrate Christmas. But what will we really be celebrating? Will it be simply an occasion to have a few days off from work or school? Will it simply be an opportunity for us to get together with family and friends for some festivities? Or, will Christmas be about celebrating the sign … the sign God gave us of his love, protection and favour? “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel” (14).
God doesn’t want you or me or anyone else for that matter to be an atheist! That is why he has given us this wondrous sign! The sign of a virgin conceiving our Lord Immanuel is how we know that God is with us and for us and will keep all his promises. May this sign lead you to truly celebrate Christ’s birth this year and to offer him your life [your allegiance] throughout your life! In the name of our Lord Immanuel, Amen!