Where do we start in the Christmas story? Many of us begin with Luke 1:26-38 which tells the story of Gabriel’s announcement of the astonishing news that she will become pregnant with the Savior. Some remember that there is another announcement of a child to be born which precedes this one. Today, read the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, two righteous people who lived with the deep disappointment of barrenness in a world where not having a child was a “disgrace” (Luke 1:5- 25).
This story bears some interesting parallels to Mary’s story:
- Both Mary and Zechariah meet with the angel Gabriel.
- Both are terrified.
- Both are told by Gabriel that they will be bearing a son.
- Both ask the question “how” of the angel.
And yet, there are some noticeable differences:
- Zechariah is a ‘man of the cloth,’ in the temple for the one big moment of his career, officiating at the sacrifice, when the angel meets him/
- Mary is an ordinary young woman minding her own business.
- Zechariah is married; Mary is a virgin, betrothed to be married.
- Zechariah has been praying and waiting for a son for years; Mary is still anticipating her marriage.
- Zechariah is a man; Mary is a woman. (Obvious I know, but it is worth noting that God did not limit his messages to men.)
- Zechariah’s son will be the one to announce the Messiah; Mary’s son will be the Messiah.
- Zechariah asks a slightly different question than Mary: “How can I be sure of this?” Mary asks, “How can this be?”
- Zechariah is struck mute until the baby is born; Mary is given a “rational” answer to her question as well as a story, the story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
I have always wondered about the similarities and differences between Zechariah and Mary. I have mainly wondered why Zechariah is struck mute when he asks his question and Mary is given an answer. Yes, the questions are slightly different: Z’s seems to be more of a demand for certainty; Mary’s just a curiosity. I don’t pretend to know the answer. What I do observe from the story is this:
- Our hearts are similar because they reflect God’s image: we all hope and wait and wonder and fear.
- Our individual stories are very different, and God knows our hearts and knows what is good for our growth in his glory.
- What may seem like a ‘punishment’ could in fact be a favoring: as Darrell Bock points out, the sentence of silence placed on Zechariah comes with the promise that his son will be born. And it is likely God wants Z to live in this period of silence as a way of preparation for the story to come.
I’ll pick up with this story tomorrow (after all, we haven’t even looked at the son announced!). Today, spend some time pondering and praying a few questions:
What are you waiting for, what are you hoping will happen? How long have you been waiting?
Have you ever been waiting for something a long time and then been surprised when it actually happened?
Do you have any fears about this dream coming true?
- 2nd December 2009
- Filed under: advent
I hadn’t thought about it this way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that God became human because of his deep love for human beings. Reading his words about the incarnation made me realize how much time I spend trying to shake off my humanity. The fact is, God became human so that I could be more human, more my true self, the one God created and redeemed for his glory.
“God becomes human, really human. While we endeavor to grow out of our humanity, to leave our human nature behind us, God becomes human, and we must recognize that God wants us also to be human – really human. Whereas we distinguish between the godly and the godless, the good and the evil, the noble and the common, God loves real human beings without distinction …God takes the side of real human beings and the real world against all their accusers…But it’s not enough to say that God takes care of human beings. This sentence rests on something infinitely deeper and more impenetrable, namely, that in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took on humanity in bodily fashion. God raised his love for human beings above every reproach of falsehood and doubt and uncertainty by himself entering into the life of human beings as a human being, by bodily taking upon himself and bearing the nature, essence, guilt, and suffering of human beings. Out of love for human beings, God becomes a human being. He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I Want to Live These Days with You, December 2.
- 1st December 2009
- Filed under: advent
Incarnation means “In-flesh” and refers to the fact that God became flesh and “moved into the neighborhood” of this earth. Read John 1: 14- 18 in The Message translation and listen to what Eugene Peterson has to say about the Incarnation:
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
15John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.”
We all live off his generous bounty,
gift after gift after gift.
We got the basics from Moses,
and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
This endless knowing and understanding—
all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
No one has ever seen God,
not so much as a glimpse.
This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
who exists at the very heart of the Father,
has made him plain as day.”
“‘No one has ever seen God’ (verse 18) but we do see his glory,the bright splendor that marks God’s presence. We saw it at Sinai, in the tabernacle. We saw it in Jerusalem, at the Temple. But most of all, we saw it in Jesus.
So when John tells us that Jesus, the flesh and blood Jesus that everyone can see ‘moved into the neighborhood’ (verse 14), he clearly means us to understand that Jesus is the new Tabernacle and Temple of the Hebrew people. But what’s so striking is that Jesus isn’t like an architectural structure waiting for us to come to him. Instead, he comes to us.
Do you want to see God present among you? Do you want to come into the presence of God and worship him? Here he’s making himself at home among you: Jesus — pitching his tent, building his home, and moving into the neighborhood.
YOUR neighborhood!” Eugene Peterson, Conversations: The Message Bible with Its Translator
- 30th November 2009
- Filed under: advent
The following is an excerpt from Watch for the Light, a collection of readings for Advent published in 2001:
“Though advent (literally “arrival”) has been observed for centuries as a time to contemplate Christ’s birth, most people today acknowledge it only with a blank look. For the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called the “holiday season” turns out to be the most stressful time of the year.
It is also a time of contrasting emotions. We are eager, yet frazzled; sentimental, yet indifferent. One minute we glow at the thought of getting together with our family and friends; the next we feel utterly lonely. Our hope is mingled with dread, our anticipation with despair. We sense the deeper meanings of the season but grasp at them in vain; and in the end, all the bustle leaves us frustrated and drained.
…Advent marks something momentous: God’s coming into our midst. That coming is not just something that happened in the past. It is a recurring possibility here and now. And thus Advent is not merely a commemorative event or an anniversary, but a yearly opportunity for us to consider the future, second Advent — the promised coming of God’s kingdom on earth.”
The good news of Christmas is that God’s kingdom has come in Christ! One day it will be completely established and there will be no more dread or fear. In the meantime, consider these two questions:
What hopes and fears, anticipation and dread do you experience during the Christmas season?
How might your fears change if you look for God “coming into the midst” of hard stories?
- 29th November 2009
- Filed under: advent
The following is an excerpt from my Christmas letter written in 2004, the year Hurricane Ivan devastated Pensacola and much of the Gulf Coast.
Our world is in a ditch. I borrow Jackie’s coinage of the word “ditch,” as in, “My hair is in a ditch,” (meaning, I’m having a bad hair day) to attempt description of our post-Ivan land. Many of you have kindly inquired or wished-well on our hurricane recovery. I will summarize: our world is in a ditch; there is glory amidst the ruins.
As one eloquent friend put it, “Our landscape has been rearranged.” Debris, destruction, devastation, damage are just a few of the ‘d’ words in our vocabulary. We have learned many other new acronyms and phrases that previously belonged to the lands of third world countries. Though our family emerged utterly unscathed (i.e. – no need for roofers from Texas; no need to begin again with the renovation process; no cars caved by pines), we grieve with the many in our community who have lost – homes, wedding albums, nurseries awaiting babies to be born, and even lives. Personally, our greatest loss has been in the midst of a metaphorical storm that coincided with the physical storm and wreaked havoc on our church which has been home and community for many years. We grieve, and we wait.
We wait. Two weeks ago, I sat in a movie theater, where a church in Washington state gathers for worship weekly. I missed my church, my home, and my family. The pastor spoke. He explained, “Advent means coming.” He went on, “In this season, we celebrate the coming of new life which brings new life. But before the coming comes the waiting.” And the tears welled in my eyes, as I watched with these worshipers for something new to rise from the ashes. We have already seen redemption in the midst of tragedy, but we wait for more. Still very much struggling to find the words to describe this waiting, I will quote the Jesuit priest, Alfred Delp, who wrote the following words from a Nazi prison shortly before he was hanged:
“The horror of these times would be unendurable unless we kept being cheered and set upright again by the promises that are spoken. The angels of annunciation, speaking their message of blessing into the midst of anguish, scattering their seed of blessing that will one day spring up amid the night, call us to hope. These are not yet the loud angels of rejoicing and fulfillment that come out into the open, the angels of Advent. Quiet, inconspicuous, they come into the rooms and before hearts as they did then. Quietly they bring God’s questions and proclaim to us the wonders of God, for whom nothing is impossible.”
May we wait well for the God of the impossible to show up again. And then, may we join with the loud angels of rejoicing at the brand new thing that has come.