Sermon Seeds: Ask a Sign
Sunday, December 18, 2022
Fourth Sunday of Advent | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Violet or Blue)
Isaiah 7:10-16 • Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 • Romans 1:1-7 • Matthew 1:18-25
Ask A Sign
Days to Come (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Fear can be a powerful motivator to act…or it can lead to immobility. Legitimate, necessary fears elicit those responses. If you find yourself in the midst of a burning building, running out of it guides you to safety. On the other hand, if a tornado suddenly appears in your area, your best option is to find the safest place possible to hunker down. We often don’t have a great deal of time to make those decisions, which is why we have fire and tornado drills in schools and safety experts suggest having a plan for our homes and public places we frequent. It makes sense to be prepared in advance so that our actions in the moment depend upon making the right decision the first time.
A lot of our important decisions, however, do not have to be made hastily. Some allow time for pondering and discernment. We’re able to weigh options and consider alternatives. And yes, we can pray about them. Of course, those quick decisions around impending doom generate some of the most fervent prayers that may be summarized as “God help!” When we have more time, our prayers can be more dialogical. We can speak and listen. We can wait on the Holy One even when our patience is stretched beyond our comfort.
When confronted with a particularly significant decision I like to ask God for signs. In large part, that request is driven by my fear of making a wrong decision. It can also serve, at times, as a delay tactic in committing to a decision I already know is a necessary one. Mostly, for me, it’s a way of receiving assurance that God is with me on the journey. That gives me comfort and strength when decisions and their impacts require a lot. So, I ask for signs that are obvious and clear. Subtlety has its merits but I like my signals from God to flash like a neon billboard visible from miles away. I’m grateful when I receive them. Because of this experience, when I read our focus passage, I know there’s something off about Ahaz’ response to God’s invitation.
Creator tells the king to ask a sign, and it can be anything. Ahaz refuses and adds righteous indignation to his response. He seems offended by the opportunity. Perhaps, fear causes him to reject God’s assurance and guidance. Whatever his reasoning, his rejection of God’s gracious offer is astounding and confounding:
It is a measure of the graciousness of YHWH that a reluctant king is spoken to “again.” YHWH’s persistence, however, is not simply an expression of grace. Ahaz, as was true of Moses and Jonah, could continue to refuse to respond to YHWH’s instruction. The very persistence of God’s offer clarifies that the refusal is deliberate and willful, and it expresses the true intent of the one who rejects God’s ways. Ahaz could not later say, “It was a mistake. I misunderstood.” YHWH’s gift of a second chance is a double-edged sword: It does offer a way to obedience, but it also makes disobedience undeniably obvious to all. “YHWH’s gift of a second chance is a double-edged sword: it does offer a way to obedience, but it also makes disobedience undeniably obvious to all.” The new word from YHWH to Ahaz is an astounding invitation: “Ask any sign you want to of YHWH your God. It can be anything as high as the heavens or as low as the very depths of the earth” (au. trans.). Nothing was withheld from Ahaz. God was that intent upon supporting the king.
Gary W. Light
Ahaz’s fear was not his problem. Fear is not a faithless response, it’s an emotional one to particular circumstances. Sometimes, fear manifests from dire conditions. Sometimes, we manufacture potential outcomes and generate an emotional reaction to our own imaginings. Even that can be helpful as we teach children to be cautious when crossing the street or in proximity to a heated stove. Often, those imaginings are based on experience. The issue is not experiencing fear.
Our response to fear makes the difference. The Holy One recognizes Ahaz’s reluctance and refusal to follow their instruction and offers him another opportunity. This one is situated in assurance. God will provide any sign that will enable Ahaz to release his fears and proceed according to the Holy One’s plan for redemption and restoration. Deliverance comes not through the will of God alone; Creator employs and empowers living creatures–humans–to fulfill their will. We participate in our own deliverance and salvation.
That is an essential component of the Christ event to remember this Advent season. The Sovereign God’s commitment to human agency and responsibility is so great that when the Creator enters our condition, they enter as Creation. The promise of this story, that God’s will does not depend on the action of Ahaz, does not mean that God will act without humanity. The promise is that God will not give up on humanity. The promise is that one is coming who will faithfully respond to fear. In this text, that one is Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah:
Modern critics, particularly Peter Ackroyd, have noted that the Ahaz narrative in Isaiah 7:1-8:15 is formulated as a counterpoint to the presentation of Hezekiah in Isaiah 36-39. Ahaz appears to be unwilling to trust in YHWH or Isaiah, and Judah suffers invasion and subjugation to Assyria as a result. Hezekiah places his trust in YHWH and Isaiah in Isaiah 36-37, and the city of Jerusalem is delivered as a result.
Marvin A. Sweeney
As Christians, we often read this as another instance of the messianic promise. We observe Jesus in the story even if the story was specifically about the impending arrival of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. The larger story is one of humanity trusting God enough to participate in our own salvation. Ahaz had the opportunity and squandered it. When given another, he rebuffs God under the guise of piety. The Holy One recognizes the ploy.
Of course, the polished halo act does not fool YHWH, Isaiah, or the reader. Ahaz does not want to ask for a sign, even the most impossible heavenly or hellish one, because he is convinced that YHWH indeed would grant it. If it were granted, then Ahaz would have to change his plan. Ahaz could not even tolerate the thought, so he used piety as a cover-up for a lack of faith. Faith, remember, is not so much a belief as it is a trust, the willingness to lean on YHWH.
Gary W. Light
Asking for a sign is a movement of faith. It’s a reaching toward God for confirmation and companionship. When we ask a sign, we invite guidance and direction from the Holy One, and we commit ourselves to act. It appears that was the challenge for Ahaz, who refused to ask for a sign, not because it was an affront to God, not out of piety, and not because he did not believe God would provide a sign.
Ahaz was sure that God would fulfill their promise. There’s no expressed doubt in God’s ability or willingness to provide the sign, no matter how high or low the request may have been. Ahaz knows that God would do it, and that was his ultimate fear. Because once the Holy One supplied the sign, the only legitimate response would be for Ahaz to act according to God’s will. Many of us refuse to ask for clarity and direction from God because we already know what will be required of us.
We so often know what to do, what is needed, and what is beneficial. We don’t ask a sign because we fear becoming the sign. We’re afraid of the cost of discipleship. We’re afraid of standing or speaking alone. We’re terrified that we will have to reconsider our world view. We dread the loss of relationships, position, and privilege that comes when we follow Jesus wherever they lead. We recoil from the unknown consequences of being bold carriers of the gospel. We appreciate what Jesus did, but we don’t want to emulate his journey.
No matter. It turns out that we don’t have to ask in order to receive. The Holy One will provide a sign without our permission or participation. The signs are there if we allow ourselves to recognize them. Fear does not prevail when we place our faith and trust in Emmanuel.
Ask a sign.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“I Can Trust” by Daniel Webster Davis
I can not see why trials come,
And sorrows follow thick and fast;
I can not fathom His designs,
Nor why my pleasures can not last,
Nor why my hopes so soon are dust,
But, I can trust.
When darkest clouds my sky o’er hang,
And sadness seems to fill the land,
I calmly trust His promise sweet,
And cling to his ne’er failing hand,
And, in life’s darkest hour, I’ll just
Look up and trust.
I know my life with Him is safe,
And all things still must work for good
To those who love and serve our God,
And lean on Him as children should,
Though hopes decay and turn to dust,
I still will trust.
For further reflection
“There are times when a storm is just a storm.” ― Erin Hunter
“The inability to get something out of your head is a signal that shouts, “Don’t forget to deal with this!” As long as you experience fear or pain with a memory or flashback, there is a lie attached that needs to be confronted. In each healing step, there is a truth to be gathered and a lie to discard.” ― Christina Enevoldsen
“I believe in signs….what we need to learn is always there before us, we just have to look around us with respect & attention to discover where God is leading us and which step we should take. When we are on the right path, we follow the signs, and if we occasionally stumble, the Divine comes to our aid, preventing us from making mistakes.” ― Paulo Coelho
Light, Gary W. Interpretation Bible Studies: Isaiah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.Sweeney, Marvin A. “Isaiah 1-39.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered community to ask a sign in prayer.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Isaiah 7:10-16 • Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 • Romans 1:1-7 • Matthew 1:18-25
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=3