This post is one of a series of articles about “Closing Shop,” lessons learned from my 19 years founding, owning, and operating a small business. Read more of my story here. To see other posts in the series, click the “Closing Shop” category link in the sidebar, including the first post here.
Today, March 25, is the Feast of the Annunciation. In the Christian tradition, this day marks the visit by the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary, telling her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would bear a son named Jesus. “He will be great,” Gabriel said, “and will be called the Son of the Most High.”
As I was reading the lectionary selection this morning, one portion in particular stood out to me as being helpful in these uncertain and anxious days. Here is the passage, from Isaiah 7:10–13 (HCB):
Then the LORD spoke again to Ahaz: “Ask for a sign from the LORD your God—from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven.”
But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask. I will not test the LORD.”
Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men? Will you also try the patience of my God? Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign:”
Mostly when I’ve read this passage over the years, what has stuck with me is the part that follows it—the part about a virgin conceiving a son who is to be named Immanuel, God With Us. It’s the part that gets emphasized and reinforced, whether through Handel’s Messiah, the old Amy Grant song, or in Christmas sermons. In fact, I think I’ve only read once or twice that part I just shared with you—the part about the LORD inviting Ahaz to ask for a sign—and Ahaz refusing.
I got curious. Why did the LORD invite Ahaz to ask for a sign? What was going on in Ahaz’s life that made God want to reach out and reassure him? What exactly was the nature of their relationship?
So I read back a little farther, back to verse 2 in the same chapter:
When it became known to the house of David that Aram had occupied Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the hearts of his people trembled like trees of a forest shaking in a wind.
Oh my, that sounds familiar. The hearts of so many families, business owners, and leaders are trembling like the trees of a forest, shaking in a wind. Not knowing how long this forced slowdown will continue. Seeing the potential loss of livelihood. Fear for our health and safety.
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out with your son Shear-jashub to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, by the road to the Fuller’s Field. Say to him: Calm down and be quiet. Don’t be afraid or fainthearted because of these two smoldering stubs of firebrands, Rezin of Aram, and the son of Remaliah. For Aram, along with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has plotted harm against you. They say: Let us go up against Judah, terrorize it, and conquer it for ourselves. Then we can install Tabeel’s son as king in it.”
I am not a Bible scholar. I’m no academic. I’ve been taught that it is wise to study and “dig into” a passage. To really know the history around a Scripture, to have a better understanding of context. I believe that is true, and I wish I had a better track record of doing so.
I also believe that a passage can be helpful on its surface. Surely even simple students like myself can find hope in sacred texts.
What this passage says to me is that God is very specific. He knew whom to send—Isaiah. He knew exactly where Ahaz could be found: “Go with your son Shear-jashub to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, by the road to the Fuller’s Field.” How much more detailed can you get? Isaiah practically had Ahaz’s GPS coordinates.
God knew Ahaz’s emotional state. Ahaz was upset. And God told him to calm down and be quiet. He knew that Ahaz, as the leader of the house of Israel, could not do anybody any good when he was in such an anxious and agitated frame of mind.
He knew Ahaz’s specific circumstances. He knew that there was a threat—an existential threat—to Ahaz’s kingdom. He knew the names of those that were threatening. He knew their motives. He did not minimize the threat or say that the threat wasn’t real.
Now here’s the tricky part. Here’s where we want what Ahaz got: reassurance. A promise that all will be well. God gave him that. God told Ahaz that his worst fears would not be realized:
This is what the Lord God says:
It will not happen; it will not occur.
This is where we get stuck sometimes. We want God to protect us, to save us from our enemies. To tell us that all will be well, and that no harm will come to us.
And we think we know what “well” looks like.
We don’t. Not always.
I remember with our business, how I wanted to believe that all would be well. That we would emerge intact. And so often, it looked like that would occur. I mark the beginning of our “troubles” as Fall 2007. We did not close until July 2010, with an official all-paperwork-done date of December 2010. Our struggle lasted a while, and as I said, it so often looked like we would make it.
We came close. In fact, I was told a year or so later that the very day we announced our closure, we were to have been awarded the major contract we’d been holding out for. I have no idea if that’s true or not. It sure makes for a good story, though.
What gives me hope in this reading is the passage I quoted at the top of this post. Not the part where Ahaz is reassured that the invading kings will not succeed. But the part where the LORD invites him to ask for a sign.
From the depths of Sheol—the face of death itself—to the heights of heaven, we are invited to pour out our requests for assurance and promise. God wants that from us. Really.
I love it that the LORD was persistent. I love it that Ahaz refused. I love it that the LORD gave him a sign anyway.
Apparently, it’s okay to ask for a sign. Despite our resistance, even our false piety that we dare not “test the LORD,” God invites us to do so. And even when we refuse to accept his offer, he chooses to bless us, to reach out to us, and to look out for our future.
I did—and still do—ask for signs. In the case of our business, I looked for signs that the business would survive. We’d get a payment earlier than expected… a sign! An unexpected project… a sign! A reprieve from a creditor… a sign!
Now, further in my journey, I look for different signs. Signs that God is present with me. That he knows me and has not forgotten me. That those I love and lead are going to be okay. And that there is promise for the future.
The signs are plentiful. I see them everywhere.
Maybe you don’t consider yourself a religious person. That’s okay. Ahaz’s story can still be of value to you, even if you see it as nothing more than a myth or an allegory. The same questions still apply.
Are you asking for a sign? What kind of sign? If you’re not asking for one, why not?
Do you need to calm yourself, like Ahaz did? Do you realize you need to do that, or will it require someone else—remember, God had to tell Ahaz—for you to see it?
Who is speaking into your life right now? Who has come looking for you, finding you, and sees you exactly as you are, where you are right now?
What is showing up in your life, right now, in the midst of this turmoil, that is good and hopeful? What promises are you seeing that go far into the future, beyond the immediate challenges of today?
What invitations are being extended to you? Are there any you are absolutely determined not to accept? Is your refusal to accept these invitations exasperating the people around you? God?
What spiritual resources are available you—waiting and wanting for you to reach out? Are you refusing them?
I am a follower of Christ. And I see this passage as one of love. How loving of the LORD to say, don’t let your situation stir you up. How loving of him to say, ask me for a sign. How loving of him to say, how I can let you know that I know exactly where you are and what’s coming against you? And that no matter how much you refuse or resist, I am determined to bless you?
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Thanks for the insight and encouragement Sarah.