This prophecy from Isaiah gives us some of the most famous words that we associate with Christmastime:
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (v. 14)
(You can almost hear the Hallelujah Chorus playing in the background, right?)
But this foretelling, upon which so much of the Christian faith hinges, is just one small part of Isaiah's message, which goes on to speak of coming destruction and even a bit about the personal growth of the promised child, "God With Us."
What fascinates me, though (and to be honest I'm not sure just what to make of it) is how this prophecy is initiated, in a conversation between God, Isaiah, and Ahaz, the king of Judah. In the face of a military rival, threatened by armies at the city gates, Ahaz is comforted by God, who encourages him to "stand firm in [his] faith, or [he] will not stand at all." (v. 9) God even offers Ahaz an unusual opportunity; God gives Ahaz the chance to request a sign from God, a visible reassurance that God will protect his faithful ones.
Ahaz, in his humility, declines the offer, saying "I will not put the Lord to the test."
I would've thought his deference would be a good thing, an indication of his unwillingness to make demands of God, or to try to force God's hand. (In Matthew chapter 4 verse 7, Jesus himself quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, specifically forbidding the people to put God to the test!) But instead of patting him on the back, Isaiah the prophet seems ready to bang his own head against a wall, or to grab Ahaz by the shoulders and give him a good shake! He even accuses the king of trying God's patience!
But whether or not Ahaz was ready to ask, God was ready to give the sign: a young woman, a child... an incarnation. Even if Ahaz's humility (or, perhaps, his lack of faith) got in the way, God's promise was going to be made. And for all of us, ready or not, that promise has been, is being, and will ever be fulfilled.
God, we don't want to be so presumptuous as to put you to the test, to send up demands and challenges. But we do want to be confident in asking you to include us in your work and in your promise. Open our eyes to the signs you show. Open our hearts to receive your comfort. Open our minds to possibilities that are beyond our understanding. Amen.