Picture as the opening scrawl in a Star Wars movie or the opening scene in an epic war film
Judah was in trouble. During a moment of relative weakness in the Assyrian Empire the kings of Aram (modern day Syria) and Israel decided the time was right to join forces and rebel. They wanted Ahaz, the king of Judah to join with them. When he refused, they went to war against Judah, determined to remove Ahaz from power and get someone in his place who would join them against the Assyrians. Real Game of Thrones stuff.
The camera pans out to show a large battle taking place
The war went well for the attackers at the start. 2nd Chronicles tells us that during just one day of fighting Judah lost over 120,000 soldiers, including one of Ahaz’s sons. The armies of Syria and Israel besieged Jerusalem while at the same time the Philistines and the Edomites (both of whom had been subdued when David was king) took this opportunity to rise back up and begin to attack Judah, raiding villages and chipping away at territory. It was a dark moment in Judah’s history. But in that moment Isaiah comes. Isaiah, God’s prophet, meets King Ahaz and gives him a word, “Be careful, keep calm, and don’t be afraid.”
Have you seen those “keep calm and carry on” flags? You know what I’m talking about. They’ve become part of the culture, you can google “keep calm and…” and you’ll get images like “keep calm and eat a cookie,” “keep calm and order pizza,” “keep calm and pray Deshaun Watson’s knee gives out.” That one was on a Gamecock message board last year before the 56-7 drubbing. The origins of the signs are not quite so humorous. They were first put up in Britain in 1939 during the German air raids on London. The government used them as a message to the people: “don’t let this break you, don’t let the Germans win.” They knew that as great a danger as the air raids were the biggest danger was that the raids would break the spirit of the people, that folks would stop going to work, stop living their lives, that fear would accomplish what the German army was not ready to do, forcing Europe’s last hope of defense into surrender. President Bush made a similar call after September 11th, he reminded Americans that the only way terrorism wins is if we allow fear to control who we are as people. “Keep Calm and Carry on.” It’s the same message Isaiah brought to Ahaz that day: don’t fear, don’t panic, trust that God is still in control, IT WILL NOT HAPPEN. Be patient, wait for the Lord, this dark time will pass.” And he gives that wonderful reminder in verse 9, “if you do not stand firm in your faith you will not stand at all.”
Apparently some time passed. We’re not given any indication of how much time, but at some point Isaiah came again to Ahaz. Things apparently hadn’t gotten much better, the situation was still dire, the siege still ongoing because Isaiah, on behalf of God, calls on Ahaz to ask for sign. Whatever he wants, whatever sign he needs to see to be comforted and strengthened in his resolve, God will give. And Ahaz asks for…nothing. He doesn’t want a sign. “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” On face value that seems like a pretty good move on Ahaz’s part. He doesn’t want a sign, he doesn’t need a sign, he isn’t going to ask that of God. Ahaz says the right thing here. He won’t admit to wanting a sign, he’s not going to come out and say that he’s worried that God isn’t going to come through. Maybe he’s trying to look good in front of the prophet, maybe there are people at court and he’s concerned about what might happen if they see the king admitting concern in this moment, maybe he doesn’t want to admit to himself that he’s afraid of what’s going to happen, whatever the reason is Ahaz gives the pious answer, not the faithful one. Ahaz says the right thing instead of the true thing. Ahaz’ refusal to receive a sign is not a signal of how strong his faith is, it is a failure of faith. He doesn’t want a sign because the situation is that hopeless, and if he fully trusts that God is going to work in this moment and they are still wiped out by the giant army at the gates then what does he have left to believe in?
I’ll level with you, I feel for Ahaz in this moment. I believe I would have made a similar decision in his shoes. Because I believe in the power of faith and the ability of God to work miracles, I’ve seen it happen. I also believe in science and reason and fact. And so I struggle, at times, to pray for miracles, to become convinced that God is going to act in certain situation in the way I want because while I know of miracles that have happened I also know of times when a miracle didn’t come, and I’m afraid to let myself go too far down the rabbit hole of what it means if God answered one prayer and not the other. So I relate all too well with Ahaz in this moment. Armies at his gates. People starving in the streets. Everything he knows as a king and a military leader tells him this is only ending one way. I don’t think I would ask for a sign either.
Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign but Isaiah, and therefore God, gives one anyway. He points to young woman in the court. Some people say she was Ahaz’s wife, some people say she was just a random person. “The virgin, or young woman, will conceive and give birth to a son. He will be called Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” Go ahead and plan for the future, Isaiah says. Go ahead and have babies, because there will still be a city for them to grow up in. By the time her son is eating solid food for the first time the armies will be gone. By the time he knows right from wrong these nations you fear won’t exist anymore. Keep going about your life. Keep doing the things you would normally do. Keep calm and carry on. Be patient. God’s going to do something here, just wait for it.
More often than not we don’t show our faith through giant acts. We don’t show that we trust what God is doing by drawing attention to it or by making huge, flashy statements, our faith is shown in our patience. Our faith is shown by the little actions that show we believe in the future. Making plans, starting families, looking ahead. Planting seeds on the assumption that we’ll be there to see them grow. That’s faith in this passage. That’s confidence that God is still active and in control, that God can still act in a world facing real concrete problems like international politics and war. Faith isn’t shown by Ahaz’s refusal to admit his doubts, faith comes in this moment by a young woman living as she would if an army wasn’t at the gates. Sometimes the biggest step of faith we can take is to keep calm and carry on and simply be willing to wait on what God is going to do.
The scripture tells us, in other accounts of this war, that Ahaz didn’t wait. He begged the king of Assyria for help. He sacrificed to the gods of Aram to get them to abandon their nation’s army. In exchange for help from Assyria he built holy places to their gods and gave them the treasures that were stored in the temple. His lack of patience in this moment puts Judah on the path that eventually leads them to destruction and exile. He didn’t keep calm. He didn’t carry on. He wasn’t willing to wait for it. And that brings us back to the ugly reality from earlier, what about those moments when we don’t want to wait, when we’re afraid to ask God for a sign because of the doubts that consume us. My guess is that Isaiah’s prophecy about the son to be born to a virgin is familiar to you even if you had never looked at it in this context. While its important to study scripture in its own time and context we cannot ignore what Mathew saw when he looked at this passage in light of the life of Christ, that God’s deliverance did come in the form of a child yet to be born. That hundreds of years later the patience of God’s people was rewarded with a savior, one who didn’t stop simply a defending them from political enemies, but who saved them from death and sin itself. No question of the future take the place of what has happened in the past. When we struggle with looking ahead to what God will do, we are blessed with the reminder of what God has done. Deliverance is both here and there. Salvation has come and is still coming. God has done and God will do. Keep calm and carry on. Be patient. God’s not through here yet. Wait for it.