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Jericho Ridge Community Church (Archived)

The Sign of the Saviour

“The Sign of the Saviour”
 Message @ Jericho Ridge Community Church – Sunday, Feb 21, 2016
Text: Isaiah 7-9 // Series: Isaiah: New Day Dawning

I know it’s hard for us to imagine in our day and time, but there was a period in history where there was peace in the Middle East.  In the 8th century BC, the geo-political landscape of the Middle East had remained largely unchanged for over 200 years.  In the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah, there had been relative peace and stability since the time of King Solomon and the building of the great temple.  But as we come to the time of Isaiah the prophet, all of that is about to change.  A new day is dawning.  You see, a new power was rising, one that within the short span of a single generation, would wipe out nation after nation after nation until it became a dominant world power.  The nation of Assyria was coming.  History tells us that Assyria was the first pan-Mediterranean empire that the ancient world had known.  They were the first global military power to emerge and their military might and scorched earth policies even today make the most hardened military strategists shudder.

 

So in 735 BC, the king of Israel and the king of Syria decided to get together and try to attack the nation of Judah, likely as an attempt to force Judah to join a military coalition with them against the coming onslaught of the Assyrian army.    

News comes to the Judean royal court that Syria is allied with Israel against us!” and Isaiah 7:2 says that “the heart of the king and his people trembled with fear, like trees shaking in a storm”.  They lost power, metaphorically speaking, just like happened to some of you in that violent wind storm Thursday morning! 

 

Judah’s King Ahaz is flustered at an impending attack so he takes a trip outside of the city walls of Jerusalem to check on the security of the city’s water supply.  He knows that his city might have high walls and be well fortified but if an attacking army can cut off your water supply, they can force you to surrender long before you are ready to.  And so it’s here in Isaiah 7:3 that Isaiah takes his son and finds King Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct that feeds water into the upper pool, near the road leading to the ancient community laundry mat. 

 

And God gives Isaiah a message for King Ahaz.  Look with me at Isaiah 7:4-6.  God says to Isaiah…  [read].  If Ahaz, had a Pinterest account, God would have said to him “don’t pin stuff about military strength.  Don’t search for water supply fortification photos.  You want to pin something? Pin this “Keep Calm and Don’t Be Afraid”. Let’s keep reading and we’ll see why God says not to be afraid. 

 

Isaiah 7:7-9.  I love that last verse!  The NIV puts is another way, again, good for your Pinterest board: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all”

We’re going to see today that God’s message for Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah is a cluster of three instructions.  And they all start with something NOT to do, and an invitation TO DO something quite different.  These invitations stretch down through history and touch our lives today in very practical and specific ways.  You’re going to be encouraged in your faith today, just like it said in our Life Journal reading plan yesterday in Romans 1.  (Bookmark is in the I.S.) 

 

Isaiah first Instruction – DO NOT be afraid, Stand Firm in your FAITH. 

Sounds really good, doesn’t it?  Sounds like something you would want on your Pinterest board or tweet that verse out. But here’s the thing. If I’m Ahaz, I look at Isaiah and I would say to him “are you detached from reality?!  Do not be afraid!!!  Have you read the morning paper?!  Do you have any clue as to what we’re up against here?!  I have the two closest nations to me actively pursuing plans to wage a war against me that I don’t have the military resources to defend against.  AND on top of that, this war is actually a ploy to get me to join in an even more futile venture, that is to get the three of us little nations to band together and go up against the largest and most brutal military power the world has ever known!  Have you seen their chariots?  Their shields and bows and archers and their beards?  These are not hipster beards, these are seriously frightening business, Isaiah.  And you waltz in with your little son and say “don’t worry Ahaz. God will protect you Azah”.  Look around you Isaiah.  What in the world gives you the audacity to even THINK about saying “do not be afraid”.  Pin that, you punk!

 

And to be fair to Ahaz, he does have a point.  The situation is not looking great.  And even Isiah’s prophetic word doesn’t’ really seem to help in the face of such immediate and pressing danger.  “Hey Ahaz. God says do not be afraid.” “Oh really, Isaiah? Why is that?” “Well, God has revealed to me that within 65 years, the nation coming against you will be destroyed.”  “Oh, thanks for that.  And this helps me right now HOW AGAIN?!”  But here’s the thing that it’s important for you and I to remember…

 

There are two primary kinds of fear that often occupy space in our mind and hearts.    The first kind of fear is a

  • Horizontal Fear: rooted in our circumstances (in what & who we can see)

We look around us, we see what we are up against in life and we are afraid.  Sometimes legitimately so. We go the doctor and we hear the lab results.  Its bad news.  We look at our bank account and think “how in the world am I going to pay that bill?”.  We think about how we’ve being treated at school and the bullying and teasing and we are afraid to go back after Spring break.  We think about the complexity of the relationship damage that we’re walking into when we visit relatives and an emotional and visceral response inside of us wells us that is horizontal fear.    

The challenge when we hear or read ‘do not be afraid’ is that our immediate response is “you don’t understand. Fear is the most rational response to what I am facing.“  Isaiah doesn’t de-legitimize the threats or say to Ahaz ‘you’re being a big baby – just get over it!”. No. He simply places the fear into a bigger context.  Isaiah says “what needs to drive your thinking about this circumstance is another kind of fear.  And it’s confusing to us because we use the same word to describe it, but it has nothing at all to do with emotions or circumstances of our lives.  That second kind of fear is a…

  • Vertical Fear: a “single-minded trust in God’s strength”

The Bible says over and over again “fear the Lord”.  When I was little, I thought this meant that we should be afraid of God.  Cower in a corner.  Mike rightly reminded us from Isaiah 6 last weekend of God’s holiness and His majestic power and how none of us could stand in God’s presence.  But vertical fear or the fearing the Lord is not about being afraid.  It is about reverence and trust.  When the Bible commands us to fear the Lord, it is saying “because of who God is, you must place your full hope and confidence for the challenges of life in Him.  “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart.  Lean not on your own understanding. In all of your ways acknowledge Him and he will make your paths straight.  (Prov 3:5-6).  To fear the Lord is to rightly acknowledge His control of the circumstance of our lives and our world and then to think and act accordingly.  Even if trusting God and walking in obedience to Him doesn’t seems to make rational sense in the face of the circumstances you and I might be facing. 

 

I’m reading a daily devotional called “On This Day” and it takes journal entries of various Christians from all through history and brings them to life.  This week, I was reading an entry from John Wesley’s journal in 1736.  That year, Wesley went by ship from Britain to the United States to conduct evangelistic campaigns in the Americas.  One day, writes about a group of German Moravians believers:

 

“At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.” And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”.

Wesley was deeply impacted by the fact that the Moravians feared God more than the feared death.  Picking up on that nautical theme, one translator puts Isaiah 7:9 this way… “Trust in the Lord, no other life-line will hold.”  In other words, the fear of the Lord over-rides but does not delegitimize or minimize the fears and cares and concerns of our lives.  It places them in the right context.  

 

Isaiah 8:12 reiterates this promise: “Don’t live in dread of what frightens them. Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life. He is the one you should fear. He is the one who should make you tremble.  He will keep you safe.” (8:12b-14a)  Wesley observed such a fear of God in the Moravians that they were not afraid of being mocked and ridiculed or even being killed at sea.

 

Now, this is all fine and good to say, but can we agree that it’s hard to live out?  And God knows this. So God graciously offers Ahaz a sign that God will come through for him.  That God with be faithful to His promise.  But the exchange does NOT go how we might expect it to go.  Look with me at Isaiah 7:10-14

 

God says “Ahaz, I know that this will be difficult for you so I want to give you something to assure you that I will be faithful to my promise: a sign.” And here’s the kicker – God was amazingly gracious: ask me for ANYTHING!  Make it as difficult as you want!” Ahaz says “um, no thanks!”

 

Which seems on the surface like a very humble and very gracious response.  “Oh, no. You see Isaiah, in Deuteronomy 6:16 and Numbers 14:22, we are strictly prohibited from testing God.  So I’ll decline, thank you very much, on the whole “sign” thing”.  Sounds pretty spiritual, doesn’t it? 

 

But here’s the thing.  It is actually God who is testing Ahaz not visa versa.  God is asking Ahaz to be daring to ask for something big. Something hard. Something that would take real faith to believe that God could actually do it.  The fact that Ahaz hides behind false piety and polite wording shows that he really doesn’t believe God at all. 

Isaiah’s first word of instruction is Do not be afraid, but STAND firm in your faith.  His second builds on this: “DO NOT TEST GOD CASUALLY, TRUST HIM COMPLETELY”

This notion of testing God or asking God for a sign brings up a good question. That is “should you ask God for a sign?”  Another character in the Old Testament named Gideon did it.  You can read his story in Judges 6, he was afraid and so he put out a fleece, a piece of sheep’s wool, on the ground and asked God that if he was to go forward in his assignment with defeating the Midianites, that God would make the ground around the fleece all dry but wet with dew.  And God graciously did that for him.  Yet even that wasn’t enough for Gideon!  So the next day, he asks God to reverse the sign. He asks for the exact opposite: that the fleece would stay dry but the ground around it would be soaking wet.  And that second night, God did what Gideon asked.  Sometimes I wonder if I was Gideon, if even that would have been enough for me.  I think I may have been like this cartoon: “Ok God. Gideon here. Let’s try this again. Today, if the fleece is dry, the rock is soaked and the ground is merely damp then that means the Midianites and I cannot be friends”  meanwhile, look at poor Gideon’s sheep!  That’s a lot of fleece to keep putting out and putting out and putting out. 

 

But it does give us a chance to ask ‘why did God grant Gideon’s request for a sign and gets angry at Ahaz?”  Is it wrong or is it OK to ask God for a sign?   

Commentator John Oswalt says “We should note that the most of the kinds of signs offered by God in the book of Isaiah, and indeed in the Old Testament were not designed to create faith. That is, they were no some supernatural act that made unbelieving people believe on the spot. Rather, they were typically events occurring in the future that would confirm that the faith exercised in the past was correct” (142, NIV commentary).  Did you catch that?  A sign confirms faith, it doesn’t create it.

 

This is one problem we often run into when asking God for a sign when it comes to direction in our lives.  We have no intention to follow whatever direction He might choose to graciously give us!  We really are going to do whatever the heck we want to and drag God along for the ride.  And then we’re looking for a divine sign to bless that which we have already decided. Here’ the interesting thing to note about this situation in Isaiah 7.  In 2 Kings 16:8 we read that Ahaz has actually already gutted the temple of the Lord of all gold and precious metals and sent that money as a tribute to the king of Assyria to ask for protection against the two little nations who are coming after him.  So he is not waiting and asking God what he should do.  He is already setting out along a course of action and then asking God if he’ll come along for the ride and bless it.  By already sending that money out the door, Ahaz has already made a very clear and very public statement that his trust is NOT in the Lord but his trust is in hoping to broker an alliance with Assyria.  So when God comes to him and says “ask me for a sign” God is the one testing Ahaz’s faith.  And Ahaz fails the test miserably. Why?  Because Piety is not the same as faith

 

Ahaz’s response to God’s challenge sounds pious. Sounds very spiritual.  But piety is the appearance of religion, while faith in God is the substance of religion.    Piety is external actions that people undertake to look and seem religious while all the while, underneath there is no vitalized relationship with God.  In the gospel accounts, Jesus is most upset with people who are pious but who lack genuine faith.  Pharisees tithe, the give to the poor, they attend religious services with conviction and punctuality and regularity. BUT it was all a show!  Their hearts were not in it.  In 2 Timothy 3:5, the Apostle Paul writes about those who have a form or the external appearance of godliness, but who are missing the substance of the relationship.  You see, piety is the by-product, not the end product.  Radical faith in God is the root, piety is the fruit.  When you love someone and trust them, your actions flow out of that place.  As opposed to someone else who simply has the external actions all down pat, but who doesn’t have a deep and loving relationship with that person.  Friends, I think this is why many people are turned off of religion.  They’ve seen religious activity or piety.  Bible reading, avoiding lust, greed, selfishness, offensive speech… but you can do all of those things and still not have a genuine, life-changing faith in Christ!  You can have piety but lack faith.  And friends, that is a tragic possibility for any one of us.  Focusing on the external behaviours and not on the root, which is radical faith.      

 

This is where Ahaz was completely off base and this is why God is upset with him for asking for a sign.  Because there is no faith there to confirm in the first place!  Here’s the deep irony of Ahaz’s situation, he would rather place his trust in his ultimate enemy, the king of Assyria, to deliver him from his temporary troubles with Israel and Syria than he would risk trusting God.  And so Isaiah goes on in chapters 8-12 to point out the tragic consequences of trusting your worst enemy while trying to leave the transcended God out of the equation of your life” (Oswalt, 136). This is why despite Ahaz’s refusal of a sign, God gives him one anyway.  Because as we are going to see as we proceed through the book of Isaiah, things are going to get really, really dark. 

 

Look with me at a short section of Isaiah 9 – ““Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever…  The people who walk in darkness will see a great light.    For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine… For you will break the yoke of their slavery and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders. You will break the oppressor’s rod, just as you did when you destroyed the army of Midian.”

Note even here the reference to Gideon’s story.  Gods first instruction through the prophet Isaiah is Do not be afraid, stand firm in your faith.  Secondly, do not test God casually, trust Him completely.  And lastly,

  1. DO NOT DESPAIR, GOD IS WITH YOU

 

Whether Ahaz admits it or not, God is WITH Israel and this is not good news if Israel rejects God.  Yet even in times of terrible and despair, God gives a sign.  The sign of Immanuel.  You see, even in times of darkness and despair in our own lives, God’s ultimate purpose of hope prevails.  His desire to rescue us from the kingdom of darkness and transfer us into the Kingdom of His Son, whom He loves, is the guiding influence of God’s actions toward us. Ahaz and Israel rebelled against God, turned their backs on Him and yet God still comes in mercy and gives them the sign of a saviour to deliver them.  Romans puts it this way “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.  Friend, perhaps that’s you today.  Living far from God. No hope. No picture in your mind that you deserve God’s mercy and grace. And the truth is that you don’t.  The wondrous truth is that NONE of us deserve God’s grace. But yet he still sent His son Jesus, Immanuel, to be with us.  Sent to save us.  Sent to show the fullness of the Father’s love for His wayward children.  Friend, my deepest desire for you would be that you would know that love.  Even in the place of your rebellion and sin.  That you would be gripped with it, that God would come and find you in that place of despair and that you would know that God is WITH YOU.  This is why this text is read at Christmas, because it is a prophecy of the coming birth of Jesus Christ, God himself come near to save and redeem.  “For a child is born to us… 9:6-7     

 

And friends, because God is With US, God is near to us, God is present right her right now, this is why we do not have to be afraid.  This is why we can trust God completely.  Because He is not some distant force.  He is a very present help in times of trouble.  He is our source of strength in times of weakness.  Isaiah reminds us that God is great, he is powerful and yet He is also tender and loving and close enough that He can be trusted with the stuff of our lives.

 

So as we close here today, I want to ask you to respond to God in three areas:

  1. What are you afraid of today?
    • Where does that fear take you?

Some of you need to bring that horizontal fear and bring it to the Lord and say “God, I am giving this to you. I have been running around expending inordinate amounts of energy to manage it, mitigate against bad things happening to me… I have let it paralyze me so I can’t move forward in my life.  You need to bring this fear to God.  I want you to picture yourself walking into the throne room of heaven with your fears held in your hands.  And as Jared and the team come and lead us in response in song, I want you to physically open up your hands as a symbol that you are releasing those fears to Him.  Pray and say “God, I am giving these to You.”  I recognize your Kingship and power over all of my life and this fear has taken me to places of trusting in things other than You.  I repent of that today.  I want to trust you.  Help me, Spirit of God, to do so more and more each day.  Hebrews 13:6 reminds us that “we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear”.   
 

That’s the first posture of response: battling fear.  The second is the question of embracing faith. 

  1. What do you need to believe God for today?
    • Areas you have tested God instead of trusted Him?

Areas you have been waiting and saying God, give me a sign.  Or like Ahaz, you’re pretending to trust God but you have your own plan all worked out already.  Some of you are facing big hurdles.  I think of Jon and Anita McCarthy who are working to raise money to live and serve in Papua New Guinea for two years.  I think about Darryl and Jodi serving in Mazatlán, Mexico and they need to believe for God’s provision of strength and finances for them to work and serve and minister there as a family.  I think about some of you who are facing significant health or financial or relationship struggles and you need a fresh reminder today to trust in God.  That’s why our prayer team is here. To stand with you and invite God to stir faith up in your life.  Gary and Betty are at the one side – these are missionaries – people who love by faith, they would LOVE to pray with you.  Meg and I will be at this side.  Wont’ you come.  It doesn’t have to be a big, scary thing.  It might be that you need to believe God for something small today.  It’s not about the size of the request; it’s that you come to God believing that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.   

 

Lastly, the response is one of worship and praise. 

  1. What deep waters has God walked with you through that you can thank Him for today?

 

This is why we worship.  We respond with thankful hearts because God has demonstrated his With-ness with us again and again.  Even when we are faithless, He remains faithful.  And so we respond, not just with sung worship, but with the whole of our lives.  Offering them to God to serve His purposes and to encourage others around us.  Let me invite you to stand with me as I pray for you and we’ll sing these two songs together. 

 

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