Scripture text: Isaiah 7:14-16
Among Christians this passage in Isaiah is one of the most beloved in the Old Testament. We have heard it read at Christmas celebration after Christmas celebration. Following the gospel of Matthew, we read it as a prediction of the virgin birth of Jesus. If we read it without those Christmas trappings, however, it speaks a much more jarring message.
In its original context, the passage is set during the reign of the Judean king Ahaz. Judah is under severe threat from its two northern neighbors, Israel and Aram. They have invaded Judah or are about to do so. When they capture Jerusalem, the two kings of Israel and Aram plan to overthrow the dynasty of David and set up a puppet king in its place.
The threat seems desperate enough that Ahaz is contemplating inviting the king of Assyria to come to Judah’s rescue. (Ahaz ultimately does just that, with disastrous results for not only Israel and Aram, but also Judah.) At this moment of crisis Isaiah visits Ahaz and delivers a word from God. Don’t take any such action, God tells Ahaz. Instead have faith in God, and you, Ahaz, will be firmly established.
As a confirmation of this word, God gives Ahaz a sign. A young woman shall bear a son and name him Immanuel (which in Hebrew means God with us). Before the child has emerged out of toddlerhood, the two kingdoms of Israel and Aram will be gone.
This sign is meant to confirm the promise of God and to strengthen Ahaz’s trust. But notice how the sign works. It places the guarantee of God’s promise into the future. That’s not how we usually expect a sign to work. We expect a sign to provide a solid, unchallengeable reason in the present to trust the divine promise.
The sign God gives calls upon Ahaz to trust in God’s promise without a present guarantee. This means that Ahaz must trust without any guarantee other than Ahaz’s trust in the reliability of God. (The ultimate guarantee is God’s own character.)
This means also that if Ahaz decides to trust in God’s promise, he must step out and accept a risk, a high risk. The life of faith becomes a way of living riskily.
This is quite the opposite to the way we often hear the life of faith presented in our churches. The more common way is to present the life of faith as a way of life that leads to security and stability. We enter into God’s shalom by trusting in God. Yet such an approach tends to obscure the reality that the life of faith always involves some acceptance of risk.
When we walk with God by trust, we can never know in advance where it will lead us. It may lead to a resolution of our problems, to emotional stability, and even to prosperity. But it does not always do so. It can lead us as well into situations of danger, persecution, high anxiety, and even deprivation.
Yes, the life of faith is backed up by God’s promise that he is leading us into his kingdom of peace and wholeness in the end. But getting there can involve accepting real risk. And I think we need to accept that as a fact of the life of faith.
Is it possible that learning to live life riskily is also part of the way Christ fulfills his promise that he has come to give us life, full life? A rock climber seldom feels more alive than when he or she is climbing a steep mountain cliff. The climber must be fully alert and conscious of each movement he or she makes. Is not the thrill of skydiving not tied up with the realness of the risk involved?
In a comparable way, is the life of faith never more fully alive and vivid than when we are called to step out into a situation with some risk in following