Don’t you wish God would make you the kind of offer God made Ahaz? “Ask a sign of the Lord your God,” Isaiah told the king, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Wouldn’t you like to have that offer when you’re trying to decide whether or not to take a new job? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have divine confirmation when you’re trying to determine if the person you’ve been seeing for so long is really the one you’re supposed to spend your life with? How many times has someone begged for that sign at the bedside of a loved one after the doctor has asked whether to end life support. Usually we’re the ones who ask God, Please give me a sign.
But God offered to give Ahaz a sign, and Ahaz rejected the offer. He’d rather not have God get involved. Ahaz had already worked things out on his own.
Ahaz was king of Judah. His country was being threatened by its neighbors Israel to the north and Syria to the east. Israel and Syria had formed an alliance and laid plans to attack Ahaz’ capital city of Jerusalem. In order to protect himself, Ahaz had made an alliance with Egypt, the most powerful superpower of the day. Egypt would protect Judah, but in exchange Judah would give up some of its freedom and pay tribute to the pharaoh.
That wasn’t what God had in mind for the chosen people Judah. God sent the prophet Isaiah to remind Ahaz that the source of Judah’s strength and freedom wasn’t Egypt, the country that had enslaved their ancestors. The source of their freedom was God. Before long Israel and Syria would amount to nothing more than a couple of smoldering logs. Have faith. Hold firm. Trust in God, not in Pharaoh. God has something else in store for you. Do you need a sign to reassure you? Just ask. Ask for anything, and God will confirm what God has planned.
Ahaz tried to make it sound like he didn’t want to put God to any trouble. “I will not ask,” he said, “and I will not put the Lord to the test.” God saw through his ploy. Ahaz wasn’t being humble. He didn’t have so much faith that he didn’t need a sign. Ahaz didn’t want God interfering. Being an ally of Egypt appealed to him. It made him feel important, the way some people feel important when they have a connection with the powerful and the famous. “Oh, did you know the senator goes to my church?” “I’m in the same club with the CEO of that company.” Or as those of us from across the river liked to say before they broke up, “Did you know that Lady Gaga’s boyfriend lives in Lancaster County?” Ahaz had visions of a grand alliance with the world’s major superpower. He was willing to sacrifice his country’s freedom and its role as God’s chosen people for the security that he thought would come from being friends with pharaoh. So no thank you, he didn’t want a sign. He preferred that God keep the sign and stay out of his way.
But God wasn’t going to stay out of Ahaz’ plans. God gave him a sign anyway. And it wasn’t one of those grand, dramatic signs. It was a simple sign in the midst of ordinary life, something that is miraculous and wondrous, but as commonplace as life itself. The sign was a child. By the time that child became a toddler, the threat that faced Ahaz would be gone. God was going to work through the normal course of events to show that God was involved in the life of God’s people.
Now, God isn’t confined to working through the normal course of events to give signs that God is involved in our affairs. When God wanted to get Moses’ attention, God appeared in a burning bush that was on fire but not consumed by the flames. When God wanted to show how wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel displeased God by worshiping the foreign gods of Baal, God sent down lightening to burn up the offering Elijah had prepared on Mt. Carmel. There are plenty of examples throughout the Bible when an angel appears to someone to tell them what God wants. That’s what happened on Christmas night when the shepherds saw the heavenly host singing in the night sky over Bethlehem.
And God sometimes gives signs like that today. I have a friend named Betty who was going through a difficult divorce. Throughout the ordeal she saw a pastoral counselor who helped her find the inner resources to deal with the feelings of failure and defeat and depression that she struggled with as her marriage fell apart. One night a bright light woke her up and a voice told her that her church was to have a counseling center to help other people through life crises and that she was to be the one to make it happen. At first she worried about her sanity, but the light and the voice came to her again. She talked about it with her pastor, and to make a long story short, she listened and obeyed. Betty was a philanthropist and knew how to make things happen, and with her seed money, her organizational skills, and her testimony, she saw to it that her church, which I later pastored, had a Samaritan Counseling Center which for decades now has been a force for healing and wholeness in that community.
But that’s not the kind of dramatic sign that God gave Ahaz. Isaiah pointed to a young woman. We don’t even know who she was, maybe just a young woman who happened to be standing nearby. Her pregnancy, the birth of her child, the child’s healthy growth in the normal scheme of things would be God’s sign that God was at work among God’s people, carrying out God’s plans in ways that were not obvious unless you saw them through the eyes of faith.
I have another friend, Carla, who had a sign like that. One summer day her husband Earl had a massive heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital where he was on life support for several days. Late one afternoon Carla left the hospital to return home and check on their preteen daughter who was being watched by a friend. It had been raining all day, and as Carla drove through the country back to her home she saw in the distance a rainbow. It was a simple sign, and not all that uncommon in central New Jersey in late August. But for Carla that natural phenomenon was a sign. It assured her that God was going to hold her and her daughter up no matter what happened. It gave her the strength to make it through the next few days and be with Earl as he died. It helped her grieve her loss knowing that she was held in God’s everlasting arms, the same arms that welcomed her husband into eternal life. And it gave her strength to carry on as a single mother in the challenging days and months and years that lay ahead.
When Paul wrote to the Romans, he reminded them that Jesus had been born of a woman just like every other one of the billions of human beings who has ever lived. Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh.” He was not beamed down from heaven; he was not sprung from the head of the divinity like some Greek goddess. He was born, just like you and I. When God raised him from death, God gave him the power to raise us up with him and to call us into his work of drawing all people to God. And just as God was involved in the life of Ahaz and of Judah, God is involved with us. We know God through our Immanuel, Jesus, who was born of another young woman, the virgin, Mary. Jesus guides us, and he directs us in doing his work that proclaims justice and life and goodness, even in those places where injustice and death and evil have the upper hand.
We can nurture our ability to recognize those signs when they appear. We can get to know God well enough that we recognize God when the holy one is in our midst. That’s how the people of Le Chambon knew what God wanted them to do. Le Chambon is a tiny village in the South of France. In 1942 two khaki-colored buses pulled into town. “They were the buses of the Vichy French police, and they had come to round up the Jews who were there. The police knew that Le Chambon had become a refuge for them, so they rousted everyone into the village square. The police captain stared straight into the face of the pastor of the Protestant church, Andre Trocme, ‘warning him that if he did not give up the names of the Jews they had been sheltering in the village, he and his fellow pastor, as well as the families who had been caring for the Jews, would be arrested.’
“The pastor refused, and the police, after a thorough and frightening search, could find only one Jew because the others were so well hidden. They loaded him into an otherwise empty bus. Before they drove off, ‘a thirteen year old boy, the son of the pastor, pass[ed] a piece of his precious chocolate through the window to the prisoner, while twenty gendarmes who were guarding the lone prisoner watched.’ The rest of the villagers began ‘passing their little gifts through the window until there were gifts all around him – most of them food in those hungry days of the German occupation of France.’”
After the war a scholar wrote a book exploring why this village put itself at such risk by hiding Jews from the Nazis. The author was not a Christian, but what he discovered was that the people of Le Chambon had been shaped by the experience of Scripture. There were many intimate groups in the village who spent time studying and experiencing the Bible – groups of miners, children, women and young people. Their Bible study wasn’t an extracurricular activity that they did to enhance their lives. It was their life. When they read the Bible, they didn’t ask the question, “What does the Bible say?” They asked, “What is God using the Bible to do to us and in us and through our lives?” Through their Bible study and their prayers they came to know God better and better, to be convinced, not just in their minds but in the depths of their beings, that God is faithful; God keeps promises. They didn’t see the world through the distorted refractions of deceit and alienation and hatred, but through the eyes of God who created it in love and redeemed it by grace. So when the Jews came to their doors in the middle of the night looking for refuge, they did what people do who are engaged in a living, growing relationship with God. They opened their homes to the Jews. When the police threatened to arrest them unless they turned in their guests, they did not respond out of fear but out of love, a love shaped by an ongoing relationship with God.
In that relationship with God, we can see signs of God at work among us in ordinary places, like the shepherds saw the divine light of Christ in the manger in Bethlehem. At Christmas those signs are a little more obvious. Regardless of what signs we’ve seen or overlooked all year, at Christmas we are reminded once again through acts of kindness, lights in the darkness, the story of the young woman with child, that God is with us, Immanuel.
The English poet John Betjeman put it like this:
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in the frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.
 Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999), pp. 56-57, from Philip Haillie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).
 John Betjeman, “”Christmas,” John Betjeman’s Collected Poems, enlarged edition (London: John Murray), 1977, p. 188-190.