Signs and Desires

In this morning’s reading in the Divine Office, God invites King Ahaz to ask for a sign: “let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!” But Ahaz responds, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” (Isaiah 7: 10-11). Isaiah does not present Ahaz as an exemplary king. Under Ahaz, Judaea suffered great military defeats and Ahaz’s response was to promise to serve the Assyrian ruler, offering him tribute from the goods of the temple. Isaiah presents Ahaz as not sufficiently trusting in the Lord, and seeking to control what he cannot control. Here, God invites Ahaz to trust more deeply in God, and to ask for what he needs.

Still, the question of asking God for a sign is complicated. Perhaps Ahaz’s refusal to ask comes from a place of piety. Imagine the student who tells God, I’ll believe in you if you only allow me to get an A on my final exam! Or even less self-centeredly, we might ask God to heal a sick person about whom we care, or to help a friend who is unemployed. It is always good to bring to God our cares and concerns and to ask God for what we desire. At the same time, we might correctly recognize a temptation in asking for signs: if my relationship with God depends upon God’s performing certain tasks for me, no matter how noble those aims might be, then I am reducing God to a servant, and seeking to control that to which I must surrender.

God’s invitation and his response to Ahaz both suggest that Ahaz’s problem is not asking for something big enough. In that invitation to ask for that which is as deep as the nether world, or high or the sky, God invites Ahaz to dig down into the depth of his own desires.

God’s response to Ahaz is to give him a sign that is both high and deep, both of heaven and of earth, a sign for which he did not ask, but which God knows will fulfill the deepest desires not only of Ahaz’s heart, but of the entire community: “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Initially, Jewish thinkers take Isaiah’s words to be a promise of a new king who will come to restore Israel as a political power. Later, Christians interpret these words as pointing ahead to Jesus. But Jesus is more than good politician or a pious king. Jesus is the gift of God’s self coming to live among us. The sign of God is the gift of God’s very self.

Isaiah’s words invite us to consider, what kinds of a sign could fulfill my deepest desires? God’s words to Ahaz invite us to consider that the answer might run deeper than solving a particular problem. God invites us, too, to dig deeper into our desires.

Question for reflection: This Advent, what do I most desire to offer and to receive in this relationship of love and friendship with God?