733 BC was a very interesting year. It was the year that king Ahaz of Judea met the prophet Isaiah by the upper pool, over the hill, down past the Fullers field, just outside the walls of the city of David. It was a regular place sort of like meeting at the Madrona playfield across from Verite.
It was there that Isaiah suggested that Ahaz: “Ask God for a sign; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” It is a sweet invitation, maybe even tender. Ahaz had a lot going on. Isaiah knew this, and so was reminding him, through this invitation, that no matter where you are, whether in hell or heaven, God is there. And God will give you a sign to let you know of God’s presence. That was true for Ahaz 2755 years ago, and it is true for you and me as well. This morning I’d like to outline a strategy for how to seek a sign from God.
Ahaz will be our partner in this effort by showing us what not to do. You see, Ahaz thought he had a better way. He was the king, the captain of his own destiny, so seeking a sign was a waste of time, particularly for someone as clever as Ahaz.
But it turns out, that not asking God for a sign was a big mistake. How big? 120,000 dead soldiers in one day, and the dis-membership of the Davidic line of kings after 250 years. That is a mistake.
And so, you might wonder if I’m suggesting that because Ahaz did not seek a sign from God, God let horrible things happen to Ahaz. But I am not suggesting that at all. Ahaz’s blunder was his own. It was his self-delusion that heralded his and his nations demise. It was as if Ahaz forgot, as one can so easily forget, that God is in the world. That God created the world and then took up residency here, and then made space for us because God loves us. And while we are free to choose any delusion we want, our choice does not extinguish or even diminish the reality of God. But engaging that reality was not something Ahaz was interested in… He had a better plan, hatched within the context of his world.
Here is what was happening: the Assyrians were on the ascent. They had developed a style of chariot warfare not seen before, which allowed them to become a dominant military force. And so, as is the temptation of nations that have an advantage, they used their advantage, and started to invade their neighbors.
In response to this threat, the king of Israel, and the king of Syria, approached king Ahaz of Judea inviting him to join them in alliance against the Assyrians. Ahaz said “No,” because he had a better plan. In a frenzy of backroom political maneuvers, as so noted in the Old Testament, book of Kings, Ahaz reached out to the Assyrians with this request: “I will be your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and the hand of the king of Israel who are attacking me” (2 Kings 16:7).
They were in fact, because after Ahaz’s rejection, Israel and Syria saw the need to pre-emptively strike Judea, and in doing so slaughtered, in one day, 120,000 Judean soldiers. When the Assyrians finally arrived in 733 BC to assist the besieged Ahaz, they completely wiped out the nation of Israel. But then they forced Judea, with its capital in Jerusalem, and wealth in its Temple, to pay reparations to Assyria, and then to pay interest on those reparations to Assyria, and then to pay for protection from Assyria which meant being obedient to Assyria, as a vassal state for the next 300 years; only to then be wiped off the map by the Babylonians.
Isaiah saw this coming, he was a prophet, after all. but what made him a great prophet was not his capacity to predict the future, but his ability to see God in the moment. What made him a great prophet was his capacity to give voice to the perspective of God, as he does in today’s scripture: “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?”
Isaiah articulates how frustrating it must be for God to be present and to be ignored; to want to assist out of love, yet know love must be chosen; to be entirely available, and yet to be thwarted by the completely self-absorbed: aka – Ahaz; or maybe sometimes you and me.
And still, as Isaiah notes, God gives a sign anyway: a child, in the world, present, in relationship named Immanuel, which means… God with us. This is the sign, God with us, symbolized by a child, any child. For nothing situates us more in the moment like a child; nothing forces us into the present like a child; nothing calls our minds to the possibility of something new and surprising like a child.
And yet, it turns out the symbolism of a child, any child, wasn’t enough, so, God came as a particular child, into the world, with a history, with a context, with a family, with a name, to be a singular sign, that God is with us. This sign is the second incarnation of God. Jesus is the second incarnation of God. So, study him, know his ways, and let them be the foundation for your actions in the world.
But today we are not going to talk about the second incarnation of God. Today we are going to explore signs embedded in the first incarnation of God. That is what Isaiah was inviting Ahaz to look for when they met outside the walls of the city of David, just down the road from the Fuller’s field, by the upper pool, in a regular place just like the Madrona play field; because God is always around, even in the regular places, especially in the regular places, for it is there we encounter the first incarnation of God… and this place has a name – creation. The world. The place and space where we employ our senses perfectly designed for us to experience the signs of God. Creation was made with this purpose in mind, to be a back drop against which to see God.
So, how does one seek a sign in God’s primary incarnation, this creation? It’s three-step process: slow down, look around, follow the surprise; and so do within the context of a problem you want to resolve. It is a strategy. Take an issue, write it down, spell it out so, it is clear in your mind. Then work through it by slowing down, looking around, and following the surprise. For Ahaz the issue would have been pressure by Israel and Syria to join their coalition.
So, let’s explore these three steps. First, slow down. Luckily, we are in the season of Advent which is all about slowing down. Now you don’t need me to tell you how to do this. You know: schedule less, sleep more, take walks, pray… the “how tos” are easy. The “what fors” are what I’ll comment on, because slowing down is about shifting our orientation and perspective from internal regurgitation over the issue at hand, to outward exploration of what God might lead us into. In slowing down we move from a self-centeredness to incarnational worldliness.
When we move out of our internal patterns and routines, we encounter a different perspective that is delightful and insightful. Slowing down is needed to move our perspective from in here (in the head), to out there.
Once we’ve slowed down, we start looking around. And looking around is about moving our head, but more importantly, it is about firing up our curiosity, seeking to imagine how a word or an event or a coincidence might be a sign from God.
Looking in the faces of people we meet, or in the design of snowflakes, I don’t care where, in the words of a song, or in the patterns of a picture, or in the print of a book… it is from God. This is all part of God’s first incarnation, which is creation. What we see around us is the canvass upon which God writes love notes to humanity.
So set aside time to gaze at the world. Wonder about little things, the man you see washing clothes in the Fullers field, or the man you meet serving coffee at Verite. Listen to their words or to the music playing in the background it might be O come, O come Immanuel.
Slow down. Look around. And finally, notice what surprises you. What is outside the pattern of your expectations?
We have a good example this time of year. The Magi. For them it was a star in the night sky appearing outside the regular constellation of their routine; beckoning, blinking, pulsating in the distance, calling to their hearts, seeking their souls; guiding them to a new place, a surprising space, where they met a baby born a king, in a cave. That was surprising.
What is surprising you? What is calling your heart? What is seeking your soul? What is appearing to you outside the regular constellation of your routine? This is how we seek a sign from God. Slow down. Look around. Follow the surprise.
With that said, as I finish up, I want to insert a qualification: If you employ this sign seeking protocol to gain clarity and direction around an issue… good, but there is no guarantee the issue will resolve. Even if you see a sign clear as day. Even if you follow the surprise diligently right to the manger, still, the issue may remain.
But even if that is the case; God is good, and God is there, and God is with you, and God is present, and God loves you, and God knows you, and God will never leave you, no matter what happens to that problem. Whether a sore back, or a bruised friendship, or an ill relative, whatever it is that is in your mind, know that God is with you.
This world is our witness. Creation was made so we can seek, see, and experience God, in the good and in the bad, in the joy, and in the suffering. because God is there carefully, solicitously, lovingly calling us towards our best life, irrespective of our circumstances in the moment.
And if those signs in creation are too hard to see, as they were for Ahaz, then turn to the God who has a face, and is from a place, and did a thing to help us live in this complicated world. Turn to Immanuel, who will remind you, at all times, and in all places, irrespective of your circumstances that God is with you.