For us who hear it just before Christmas, the annunciation to Ahaz (Isaiah 7:10-14) is full of sweetness and light. Ahaz heard it differently, awaiting as he was the destruction of his country. Assyria was mounting a massive assault. The anxiety that reigned in Jerusalem, notes Isaiah, was such that Ahaz’s ‘heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind’. Ahaz wasn’t a good king. Religiously he made terrible compromises. Politically, he was a pragmatist void of principles. To this agnostic monarch, in these tormented circumstances, the promise was made: the Virgin will conceive; God will be with you; you will know the mystery of Emmanuel. Centuries passed before the promise was fulfilled. But it was henceforth in the air, resonant, orienting, hope-bestowing. God speaks to improbable people at improbable times. We’d better pay attention.