Fear and failure and insecurity make for a three-headed monster that too often roars in our ears and hides in our shadows. These things can be extremely draining, sucking life from within our souls. And, in typical fashion, we will often cope with these by furiously scrambling to make our lives work, to take control that we otherwise need to yield to Another, to manage our circumstances with very tight leashes. We do things this way because of the very fears we are trying to mitigate. We do things this way because at our core we are rebels convinced we can handle things and know better than Another. We do things this way because we are exhausted. And the list goes on and on.
No small wonder the prophet Isaiah sought to intervene, as God’s representative, in a season of fear in the life of a Jewish king named Ahaz. Nations were lining up to destroy him and his people. Back-channel conversations were unfolding in a desperate attempt to thwart the awful threat—alliances were being pursued by Ahaz that he had no business pursuing. Desperate people do desperate things. He and his people found that their hearts “shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (see Isaiah 7:2).
But through Isaiah God offered an opportunity. “Ask a sign of the LORD your God,” Isaiah demanded of Ahaz. “Let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Isaiah 7:11). Let God show you how big he is! Take him up on this! Ask, beg, demand! God wants so much to prove how faithful and mighty and caring he is for you and your people.
But Ahaz refused. His pride kept him from taking God up on this most significant opportunity to see God be really big. Had Ahaz embraced Isaiah’s demand, then Ahaz would have had to forego his own back-channel plan. He would have had to dismiss his own effort to manage the scenario unfolding around him. And giving up that kind of control was every bit as frightening as the geopolitical threat itself. Ahaz would rather take his chances with his own fragile plans than with the Infinite God and his protection. Pride does indeed put us in that spot.
And yet God offered a sign anyway. Note Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. In the face of Ahaz’s obstinance, God, unfazed, provided proof nonetheless. God is passionate about bludgeoning our fears and insecurities with proof that he can be trusted and that he can take care of his people. He relishes granting hope that overcomes our fears. And so it is through the prophet Isaiah God spoke of a child to be born who would embody the reality that God is with us.
Centuries later this child came. And it was a descendent of Ahaz who would be caught up in the unfolding drama of this sign’s fulfillment. Joseph, the man betrothed to a virgin woman named Mary, would be forced to deal with the most bizarre reality that his virgin girlfriend was now pregnant. And as Joseph unpacked all of his fears before God the words of Isaiah were brought to his mind: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (Matthew 1:23). But unlike his kingly forefather, Joseph would not refuse this sign. According to the biblical text, Joseph committed himself to the entire cause of seeing this child—Jesus—come into the world and grow into his mission.
But in what way was this sign so helpful for these fearing men? How could this sign be helpful to you? First, the promise and then ultimate fulfillment of the sign, manifested as it was when a virgin gave birth to the God-Man Jesus, proves yet again that God is faithful to his promises; he does what he says he will do, therefore, he can be trusted. Thus, when God says, as he does in Isaiah 41:10, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” he means it, and it will happen. He will help and provide strength and uphold you!
Secondly, the conversation about and provision of the sign of Christ proves that God willingly meets us in the midst of our fears. When Ahaz was genuinely afraid and needy because of a violent enemy, Isaiah the prophet showed up with a word from Jehovah God. When Joseph was understanably distraught and confused about Mary’s pregnancy, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear . . .'” (see Matthew 1:20). The God of Heaven and Earth meets us in the middle of our crises, manifests himself in fearful moments, seeking to stand in the gap on our behalf as our defender and faithful friend.
Thirdly, God relishes the idea of us reaching out to him boldly for assurance. Isaiah all but begged Ahaz to take God up on the opportunity to ask for a sign (see again Isaiah 7:11). This is not about a rebel trying to manipulate God for selfish gain, as perhaps the Pharisees of Jesus’ day or the Israelites of old in the wilderness. This is about a humble and tired child crying out for assurance that God will be big, that God can come through, and that God will act on God’s many promises.
There is hope for overcoming our fears. And this hope is wrapped up in a bundle known as Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the ultimate Sign of the Ages.
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“Write This Down…” provides a restatement of selected points or observations from various teaching venues at which Pastor Matthew speaks. The preceding material is from Pastor Matthew’s sermon entitled, “Hope to Overcome Our Fears,” and presented on the weekend of December 4, 2011, at Bethel Church.