False piety & the sign of the virgin

The Christmas story is one of our favorite and best. There’s no shortage to the ways it speaks to us of our great need and God’s great love.

But among all of its beautiful themes, it is a cautionary tale. It’s a head-on collision with our false pieties, our religious posturing that looks like faith but is actually far enough from it to fall flat.

The sign of the virgin in Isaiah 7:14 seems simple, even if humanly impossible:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

It’s quoted in Matthew 1:23 as part of the angel’s dream-message to Joseph. Its message there is plain: In Jesus, God is with us. As such, it pairs nicely with the very last verse in Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Jesus is the always-with-us God.

That’s massive. Millions of sermons have be preached on it and rightly so.

But the sign of the virgin in Isaiah is less like a hug and more like a slap in the face.

King Ahaz was in a tough spot. Armies were gathering and he could feel the political winds turn against him. So, he was considering what moves he could make to leverage himself against the mighty powers arrayed around him. It was into this turmoil that God sent the prophet Isaiah to speak his mightier presence with Ahaz and the people of God.

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights” (Is. 7:10-11).

In what seems like humble piety, Ahaz demurs. Who is he to ask God for a sign?

But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” (Is. 7:12)

We’re not supposed to test God, right? Didn’t Jesus say something like that later on?

But this isn’t piety. This isn’t faith. This is rebellion. Ahaz doesn’t want to ask God for a sign, because he might get one. And if he gets one, he’ll have to trust God to do what he’s afraid of.

This is where I find myself far too often: Wanting to look and feel faithful while retaining control over myself and my decisions. I want to worship God as king while remaining king over my self-decisions.

To this, the prophet Isaiah replies, “All right then. If you’re not going to ask for a sign, you won’t get the sign you want. But you’re going to get a sign anyway. A painful, unhappy sign. It’ll be a sign of destruction. You’ll get the sign of the virgin.”

The child to be born of the young woman would be called Immanual, “God with us,” not as a comfort, but as a judgment. You see, “God with us” is vague in meaning. In which way is God with us? Is he with us to embrace? Is he with us to discipline?

The false piety of Ahaz is laid bare and the sign of the virgin is devastating: The country will be laid waste.

Almost immediately after the sign of the virgin in Matthew, we come across a similar false piety in the gospel story. Magi come to Jerusalem and the pastors and Bible scholars are called to tell them where the king of the Jews would be born. They know their Bibles well and point to Bethlehem. But here’s the problem: They don’t go there themselves.

Knowing and loving our Bibles without stepping out of our comfort in an attempt to find Jesus out there somewhere is a vacant spirituality.

So, I’m left with the question: Where has my perceived piety grown thick where my obedience has grown thin? Because of that, in what way will God be with me today?