It's about that time of year when the Christmas shopping list is whittled down to that one person you can't find anything for.
They insist they don't want or need anything, so anything you get them might be wrong, but it also feels wrong to get them nothing at all.
The Bible has a name for this impossible person: King Ahaz.
And God feels your frustration too.
Ahaz needs to be cheered up after working himself up into a lather about the neighbors.
Two nearby kings tried and failed to attack Jerusalem, so in Isaiah's words, the heart of
Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
Ahaz is very scared of very little.
So God sends Isaiah, who says to him: Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let
your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps...
Or, in the words of a more recent prophet, Settle down, Beavis.
It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.
Still Ahaz continues to fret, so God decides to take him shopping with that rarest of offers, a
divine blank check.
Ask a sign of the LORD your God: let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven.
What can I show you to convince you that I am God and the local bullies are not?
You name it, I'll do it.
God doesn't make this offer very often, so please, don't expect it.
Ahaz, king of Judah, leader of the nation, and nervous little twit, replies like a timid Lutheran.
I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.
Oh, you don't have to get me anything, I don't want to be a burden...exactly what you would
expect to hear from the biggest burden on your list.
Isaiah is not impressed.
Is it not enough that you exhaust people—now you have to exhaust God too?
Pause the story here, because this might be exactly where we find ourselves right now.
We are a people whose hearts are shaking like trees before the wind.
We have so many vivid fears without the perspective of God to see exactly how big or how small they really are.
The president has been impeached.
His mood swings resemble the weather, which is why climate change terrifies many.
Immigration and Brexit and gun violence and homelessness and a hundred other issues make hearts shake in the storm, which blusters at exactly the wrong time of year.
For most of us over the age of seven, these holidays add pressure and stress: extra demands, higher expectations, year-end deadlines, travel headaches, difficult relatives, and a colder wind blowing through broken, grieving hearts.
Nature itself, the very way we are wired, works against our frantic purposes.
God has created us to gain weight and slow down as winter sets in.
The days are shorter and darker; life is stepping on the brakes and downshifting into a lower
gear, and something deep inside us is deathly afraid of this.
Will things ever improve?
Will the sun and the summer ever return?
Maybe if we speed up and work harder we can haul it up over the horizon and secure it in the sky, and avoid the darkness that limits our sight and exposes how little we power we
actually have, even over our own hearts.
In automatic panic we jam-pack our schedule and pray to Santa for more things to distract us, to shield us from the darkness around us and inside us that feels so terrifyingly empty.
Wouldn't it be nice to be offered a sign that our fears will evaporate and everything will be okay?
Ahaz didn't know how good he had it.
And neither do we.
God had already given the sign before Ahaz failed to ask.
The young woman was already pregnant before Isaiah pointed her out.
The healing of the earth and the republic and the relationship are already hard-wired within them.
God created winter to shelter the spring that autumn has already extravagantly planted.
We fear the darkness, but do you remember what's really dark?
Look, the young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a son, and will name him God-with-us.
By the time he's potty trained your two big bad bully neighbors' houses will be empty
lots, but little God-with-us will keep growing.
Ahaz, chill out man.
Take heed, be quiet, do not fear.
Yes, fear and hope are such mismatched sizes.
The bluster is so big and the sign is so small.
Yet trees fall and weeds persist; big problems come and go, but grace powers on.
With any and all signs possible, from the basement to the attic, God points Ahaz to an
It's not even a baby yet.
It's hidden in darkness.
It's tiny and insignificant and can't be enlisted in the army against frightening foreign kings.
It's not at all what Ahaz is looking for.
And neither do we.
Matthew remembers Ahaz and sagely pulls from his story to tell us the miracle of Jesus.
He is a child of unwed parents with a lineage pockmarked by strong, scandalous women
and men you don't remember.
Righteous Joseph has to be talked out of doing the right thing by an angel in a dream.
Salvation grows in a dead zone, a garden with no seeds, a dark womb with nothing in it.
God with us begins exactly where we are afraid to go.
The earliest Christians, therefore, made the inspired choice to tie Christmas to winter solstice.
When light is faintest, when hope is dimmest, when life is darkest, when fear is strongest,
when doubt is deepest, when we are emptiest, God surprises us with a sign and a gift we
would never guess or request or suspect.
Salvation is fragile and hidden and tiny and certain.
Our fears will fade and finally disappear, while God with us continues to grow.
The light will lengthen, and winter will begin to crack.
So today, on the shortest Sunday of the year, we dedicate our solar panels.
They are prayers of gratitude and billboards of hope.
Not only will they conserve energy and save money; they will also teach and remind us
how to position our hearts: still in the storms, secure in the darkness, and open to the
light that will surely come.