"Upside Down 04: Unconventional Wisdom"
by Tim Suttle
2016.12.18 – Upside Down 04
Isaiah 7:10-17 – Conventional Wisdom v. Faithfulness
Chuck Klosterman anyone? Last year he wrote a book called but What If We’re Wrong? It’s a fascinating book… in it Klosterman says:
When we judge history we use a criteria that is completely different from the criteria we use when we are judging the present day.
So inevitably, people from the present day—like us—when we look back at any time-period in the past…
And we consider what they believed about the world and how things work, most of the ideas they held back then…
They’ll seem kind of absurd to us now… y’know what I mean?
Klosterman points out: if it’s true of pretty much every time period in the past:
(In hindsight, much of what people used to believe in past eras is false)
Then we have to admit the same will probably be true of us!
Our conventional wisdom will likely be proven wrong in the future.
Example: In 1799 George Washington was on horseback for about 4 hours overseeing work on his farm.
It was drizzling… drizzle = rain... rain = sleet… sleet = snow…
Washington got wet & extremely cold.
The next day he came down sick w/a sore throat and fever.
They sent for a doctor who, in keeping w/the latest thinking of the time, punctured a vein & took a half-pint of blood out of his circulatory system.
When he didn’t get better, the next day the doctor took 32 ounces of blood, and gave him a series of enemas (… gross I know).
And as if that wasn’t enough, he also induced vomiting.
… by the end of the next day Washington was dead.
In hindsight we know they did the opposite of what they should’ve done. Today we would pump him full of fluids, not drain him …
These were the: best-trained physicians of the day.
(plus, you know, Washington was no slouch!)
But what they did most likely led to his death.
It was the conventional wisdom of the day.
PT: So, next time you appeal to the wisdom of the founding fathers, remember you’re appealing to the wisdom of men who were convinced that you could cure an infection through bleeding, vomiting, or going number two…
That was a mere 240 years ago… 240 years from now, how much of our conventional wisdom will be proven wrong?
It’s like that famous Mark Twain quote: “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
This idea fascinates me: how much of what we consider to be part of the conventional wisdom of our day will be proven false someday?
It’s one of my favorite party questions…
Our txt for today is a battle btwn the conventional wisdom of the day & the ancient story of a God who comes for his people in the form of a little child.
And we’re encountering this idea that…
Part of what it means to be the people of God is that we agree to throw in our lot with God over & against conventional wisdom of the day.
Very often what God is going to ask of us in our lives will fly in the face of conventional wisdom…
… and our story begins with a king named Ahaz.
For the story to make sense we need to see a little geography. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah take place in Israel before the exile.
The kingdom had been split in two.
The Northern Kingdom was called Israel and their capital was Samaria.
They never had a good king, and the prophet Isaiah always paints them in a negative light.
The Southern kingdom was called Judah and their capital was JER.
The house of David ruled their throne, & their kings were a mixed bag.
Some were good. Some were bad.
But Isaiah usually portrayed the Southern kingdom in a positive light.
Our story for today is about king Ahaz, who out of all the kings of Judah may have been the worst of them all.
He set up altars to worship Baal, he worshipped Molech, he oppressed the poor, and immigrants
He didn’t seem to care at all about being faithful to YHWH.
He had even made human sacrifices of his own children.
This is a king from the lineage of David doing this.
So, Ahaz is portrayed in scripture as a terrible king.
The super-power of the day was Assyria, way up in the North.
They were a constant threat to the other nations, especially to the Northern kingdom of Israel.
So the Northern Kingdom decided to try and put together a coalition of nations to stand together against Assyria.
They joined with their neighbor to the east: Aram.
These two countries came to king Ahaz and asked him to join their coalition to resist Assyria.
Ahaz said no way, he didn’t want to join their dumb coalition.
So the two kings up North: king Pekah (pay-cagh) of Israel, and king Rezin (ret-zeen) of Aram decided… let’s move against Judah.
Let’s attack Jerusalem (the capital of the South), depose Ahaz, & conscript his army.
We’ll steal his army & use it to fight Assyria.
When Ahaz learned the 2 kings were about to attack him, we’re told:
“The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” Isaiah 7:2.
And he was right to worry because when Israel and Aram attacked the armies of Judah, Ahaz lost every battle…
He once lost 120,000 men in one day, once.
Tons of his soldiers were taken prisoner.
He was about to be deposed.
And in the middle of this, the Lord told Isaiah to go to Ahaz & calm him down, & give him this message:
Isaiah 7:4-9; “Listen, calm down. Don’t be afraid. And don’t panic over these two burnt-out cases, Rezin of Aram and the son of Remaliah. [king of the Northern kingdom, Pekah] They talk big but there’s nothing to them… They’ve conspired against you, saying, ‘Let’s go to war against Judah, dismember it, take it for ourselves, and set the son of Tabeel up as a puppet king over it.’ But God, the Master, says, “It won’t happen. Nothing will come of it…”
And then there was a warning. It was like the Lord wanted to tell Ahaz, Look, I’m going to watch out for you cuz you’re part of the house of David … but I’m warning you (v9) “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”
So this is the message that Isaiah was supposed to give to king Ahaz…
but Ahaz doesn’t want to hear it.
Ahaz doesn’t want to rely on YHWH.
Ahaz doesn’t even believe in YHWH.
Ahaz is a king. And kings have responsibilities. They have certain outcomes that they must produce.
Easy problems don’t come across the desk of a king
Only the problems that no one else can solve… it’s hard to be king.
It’s harder for Ahaz, because he is committed to solving his own problems in the surest and fastest way he can.
So, he does what any other king would and did do… He cut a deal.
He snuck off in the cover of night and made a deal with the mighty superpower itself, the Empire of Assyria.
He formed an alliance with Assyria against Israel and Aram.
Instead of trusting God, he went with the conventional wisdom available … which brings us to our main passage for today:
10-11 God spoke again to Ahaz. This time he said, “Ask for a sign from your God. Ask anything. Be extravagant. Ask for the moon!” 12 But Ahaz said, “I’d never do that. I’d never make demands like that on God!” [typically this is rendered, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”]
So, this line “ask for a sign from your God,” is Isaiah’s way of saying, ask the Lord for help!
And the answer Ahaz gives is “I will not put the Lord to the test,”
Anybody recognize that line?
It’s what Jesus says when tempted by the Devil in the wilderness.
But while Jesus is using that Scripture to remain faithful & obedient…
Ahaz is using the same Scripture to be unfaithful & disobedient.
(…Something to think about.)
Two people quoting the same Scripture, one with a heart desiring God, the other with a heart closed off from God.
PT: What Ahaz is really saying, is, “No thanks, God. I’ve got this covered. I want to do it my way… if I humbled my heart and listened to what you might say, that would mean I might have to listen to you and do what you want, and I would rather just not hear from you on this, thanks very much.” And he quotes Scripture to say that much.
13-17 So Isaiah told him, “Then listen to this, government of David! It’s bad enough that you make people tired with your pious, timid hypocrisies, but now you’re making God tired. So the Master is going to give you a sign anyway. Watch for this: A young woman who is presently a virgin will get pregnant. She’ll bear a son and name him Immanuel (God-With-Us). By the time the child is twelve years old, able to make moral decisions, the threat of war will be over. Relax, those two kings that have you so worried will be out of the picture. But also be warned: God will bring on you and your people and your government a judgment worse than anything since the time the kingdom split, when Ephraim left Judah. The king of Assyria is coming!”
PT: OK, so what do we make of this? There are some strong resonances here with the story of Christ… Immanuel is associated with JS. But before we get to that, there’s this important twist in the story I don’t want us to miss.
Because pretty much anyway you look at it, geopolitically at the time, what Ahaz did was the smart play… by conventional wisdom = right move.
But there’s this tension in the story, btwn conventional wisdom, & a life of faith
A choice is put before Ahaz between trusting in God & what is obviously the smart play.
But conventional wisdom was not what God was after.
What God wanted, really, was a faithful king to preside over his people;
Isaiah 50:10 says, “Who is among you that fears the Lord, that obeys the voice of His Servant, that walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. But you who live in your own light and warm yourselves from your own fires and not God’s... you will lie down with sorrow.”
Do it your way, live in your own light (your own understanding), and you will end up where you do not want to end up.
Just keep with the way that you are sure will work (instead of God’s way) and see what happens. … not going to like it…
I just wonder how often WE face this kind of decision?
Between trusting in God & God’s agenda for our lives…
Or… what conventional wisdom of the day.
You see protecting Israel was no big deal for God.
YHWH is powerful.
YHWH moves nations and raises up kings at will.
God was not geopolitically cornered in this situation.
God could protect Israel with or without Ahaz.
What God wanted was the king’s heart.
There’s some question as to the identity of the child that is born who will be called Immanuel… the Christians squabble over it quite a bit.
The Jewish rabbis have always contended that this is referring to Ahaz’s own wife and soon to be first son: Hezekiah.
If that’s right, then this was much more than a random sign…
It was a promise that the line of David would continue… not because Ahaz was a good guy, but because God had plans for it...
The text ends on an ominous tone: ”…be warned: God will bring on you and your people and your government a judgment worse than anything since the time the kingdom split, when Ephraim left Judah. The king of Assyria is coming!”
PT: In other words: this deal you just made is going to come back to bite you. In fact it would be the downfall of Israel in the end. And yet the promise was still valid: This child would be born. God will still be with Israel.
The tension in this text is all loaded into the name of the child. Immanuel:
God with us… God … is with us…
This can either be really good news, or really bad news.
The deciding factor seems to be whether you are following conventional wisdom of the day, or following God …
(even when it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense).
If you are sold out for conventional wisdom, the prophet says, beware… sooner or later it will come back to bite you.
In this case, Assyria would extort Ahaz, oppress & weaken Israel until they were a shell of a kingdom.
130 years later they’d be completely wiped out.
As I’ve been studying this story, I have been struck by the way that vulnerability lives at the heart of this story.
Isaiah is asking king Ahaz to become vulnerable to God & the world around him, & Ahaz can’t do it.
He opts for security over faith.
It’s interesting that the sign God gives is a young woman with a child… the most vulnerable thing you could imagine.
Vulnerability’s tough … we don’t like that… we like security & control.
We’ll even take the illusion of control over having to feel vulnerable.
EX: I have a friend who had one of those home security systems?
They lived in this house for like 6 yrs paying a security company.
When they sold their house & the inspector explained to them that their alarm was installed incorrectly & had never actually worked.
I asked him if he was ticked, paid all that money & not working
He said, “No, because we had the illusion that we were safe.”
PT: That’s how much we resist vulnerability… we’ll take the illusion of safety over feeling like we’re vulnerable. Trusting in God, laying our decisions before God & asking for God’s input… this puts us in this vulnerable place… where God may ask us to take a risk… to choose to follow God against conventional wisdo
There’s a couple in our church = really faithful financially over the years.
During our capital campaign they really sacrificed, gave a lot over & beyond their usual 10%.
They met with their financial planner that year.
When he looked at the numbers he said.
“You’ve got to stop giving so much money to your church. It just doesn’t make good financial sense.”
And it was this moment for them of, “oh yeah, we’re going totally against conventional wisdom here… but we want to be faithful so we’re going to do it anyway.”
PT: This is the choice we are all faced with over & over in our lives.
We’ve talked about this many times: there are these 3 gods of conventional wisdom at work in our society: individualism, consumerism, and nationalism.
That couple from our church went against the god of consumerism that says your worth as a person is bound up in your wealth.
That’s the conventional wisdom.
They went against that god… & the culture pushed back on them.
PT: To be a Xian sometimes means you don’t follow conventional wisdom, you follow this child… God with us … who led us toward an entirely different way of life where up is down, in is out, & conventional wisdom gets turned on its head.
The god of nationalism is really powerful in our culture. Our 2 party system of politics is just nationalism in bite-sized pieces called: Republican & Democrat.
Both… have conventions… their own conventional wisdom.
Neither… is synonymous with faith in God.
Christians need to have a robust critique of both political parties… especially the party you embrace more naturally.
If we don’t have it, then we’re probably more beholden to the conventional wisdom of the party… than the wisdom of the KOG.
I’m just saying… not L or R thing… it’s a Jesus thing…
The god of individualism is another powerful god in our culture.
We’re big on personal rights and freedoms.
But Christianity … is big on community.
We’re supposed to sacrifice our wants & needs for the common good.
That it’s actually impossible for us to flourish unless we are interconnected.
The confrontation btwn prophet Isaiah & Ahaz is the confrontation between a life that is rooted in faith in God, & a life rooted in conventional wisdom…
Those things lead to very different visions of the world…
And two very different worlds will emerge from those two projects.
The world that proceeds from conventional wisdom is not the KOG.
The world that grows out of vulnerability & faithfulness often flies in the face of conventional wisdom…
But it turns out, that’s the world God envisions… it’s called the KOG.
Well Assyria went to work on Aram first, and conquered them, then went to work on the Northern kingdom, which fell a few years later… and then …
Assyria slowly drained the coffers of Ahaz & oppressed Israel
Finally Ahaz died… unheralded & unsung…
But there was this son … Hezekiah…
The child who was to be a living example of how God is with us.
Hezekiah… became the next king of Israel.
And Hezekiah was faithful in everyway Ahaz was not.
He tore down the altars to baal.
He removed the pagan symbols from the temple.
He restored the priest to their posts.
He led a massive liturgy of repentance throughout Israel.
He led the country in following the Jewish calendar of feasts & festivals.
And the people began to worship YHWH again.
But there was still this lingering problem of Assyria.
Every few months they would come & extort money or take slaves.
They were getting more & more brazen.
Finally, the king of Assyria invaded Judah.
He started gobbling up all of their fortified cities.
He fought his way to the gates of Jerusalem.
Where he sent a letter to the king of Israel, Hezekiah… saying…
You are outmatched… you can’t go against me… I’ll loan you 2,000 of my own horses to use against me just to make it more of a fair fight.
And he sent this letter to the people of Jerusalem, saying:
Isaiah 36:14-16; “‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. 15 Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 16 Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern.”
So… here’s Hezekiah in pretty much the same situation as his father.
The enemy is at the gates of Jerusalem.
Israel is not strong enough to repel them on their own.
It’s not a fair fight!
And Hezekiah reaches down deep, & does what his father could never do: he remembers the words of the prophet Isaiah…
“If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”
And then we get to one of the best moments in this Game of Thrones intrigue.
Is. 37:14, "Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers & read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord & laid it out before the Lord."
Hezekiah takes the heaviest burden he could possibly hold, his greatest worry, his fear, and instead of doing what his father Ahaz did…
… which is cut a deal & make things happen & ignore the voice of God.
Hezekiah takes this unsolvable problem & lays it all out before the Lord
This is Hezekiah’s prayer to God; one of the great prayers in the Bible.
We all do our best praying when we are really up against it, I think.
Hezekiah did too… this is:
Isaiah 37:16-20, “You alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You made heaven and earth, nobody else. And you can deliver your people. So deliver us so that everybody will know that you God, you alone are God."
And God responds, "Because you took this piece of paper and spread it out before the Lord, let me tell you what I’m going to do!”
God then tells Hezekiah he will not allow Assyria to take Judah.
Then the Lord turns to address Assyria, saying:
“I know your rising up and your sitting down, your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. 29 Because you have raged against me and your arrogance has come to my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth; I will turn you back on the way by which you came.”
So this is what happened.
Jerusalem is under siege… they are outmatched.
It’s just a matter of time before Assyria takes the city…
When all of the sudden the armies of Assyria came down with some sort of plague & they all started dying & they had to quit…
They had to leave & return home to Assyria…
Israel was saved without having to fire a shot.
All because of Hezekiah… the faithful king…
Who laid his worries on the altar before God & said:
…tell me what to do & I’ll be faithful no matter what.
It was that little child… the symbol of God with us…
Who led the people faithfully.
So hundreds of years later in the same area of Judah, the people would walk in darkness again, trying to get along by their own light.
And God spoke again to a man, named Joseph, in a dream.
Joseph’s fiancé had just become pregnant and Joseph thought he would have to divorce her. But God said:
Mt 1:18, “Joseph son of David…” (God wants Joseph to remember he is of the lineage of the house of David, like Ahaz & Hezekiah…)
“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid…” right? …cuz fear will push you right into the arms of conventional wisdom…
“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
And Matthew, who didn’t want anyone to miss how Jesus was going to fit into this great story of God, evoked the prophecy of Isaiah to Ahaz.
Mt 1:22-23; “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).”
The story of JS, is the story of Ahaz & Hezekiah it’s all the same story!
God’s movement is going to come in the weakness and vulnerability of an infant, through the dangerous and precarious process of childbirth.
Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit.
This child, Jesus, would be the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy.
This child leads us in right worship… teaches us how to live.
This child takes away the sins of the world.
This child closes the distance between a God who seemed far off.
Now this God is coming for us in human form.
And I think this is mostly lost on us… because you & I (if we’re being honest)… would still rather put our faith in the sure thing…
…the conventional wisdom, the power, prosperity, and security move,
And God? … God still seems like a long shot by comparison.
We would rather have power, wealth, and security through systems that would allows us to live how we want…
And to crush our enemies.
We still tend to run to align ourselves with those people who can make that happen for us.
But Jesus comes as a king w/a kingdom that is the exact opposite of that.
He comes in poverty, not prosperity.
He comes to be crushed for his enemies rather than to crush them.
So our decision this Advent, is really not that different from the one Ahaz, or Hezekiah, or Mary & Joseph had to face.
Will receive this kind of a king?
One who comes not in great pomp & circumstance.
But one who comes in scandal & weakness & poverty & humility.
Anytime there’s someone there to receive this king … our Immanuel… God with us… the kingdom of God advances.
That’s what we’re doing during advent… preparing our hearts to receive this king.
PT: And this king comes not in theory, but in practice. Because our lives involve countless decisions about whether to walk in faith to this king, in vulnerability & weakness, in community & love & peace… or follow the conventional wisdom of the day… individualism, consumerism, nationalism and all the selfishness and power & violence that goes along with them. And the wisdom of the prophet shows the way for anyone who will listen:
“If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”
1. What conventional wisdom do you sense God is asking you to question?
2. What do you fear about the vulnerability of non-conventional wisdom?
3. What current conventional wisdom (individualism, consumerism, nationalism) is the most difficult for you to admit in your own life?
4. Where in your life does God feel like the long shot?
5. What do fear in receiving the King so the Kingdom of God can come?