Tuesday, December 7
Elizabeth comes from solid stock, a descendant of Aaron and, along with her husband, righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.
We pick up her story as she moves from her acceptable role in the culture as “little woman” to a stalwart female who shocks the crowd when custom dictates the proper way to do things. When the safest place to be is in the boat. Don’t miss the intensity of these words: …they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” This isn’t a simple “I don’t think this is a good idea. Let’s discuss the issue.” Elizabeth’s “NO!” silences the crowd. Her words are better translated as “Not so!” “By no means!” “Oh, no you don’t!”
Normally the father would lead in this ceremony but since Zechariah cannot yet speak, he is on the sidelines. Why was naming the child so important, so emotional, such a bone of contention? Had the child been ‘Little Zach,’ he would have been expected to grow up as a priest just like his father, but God had another, a grander, plan. This child would be the announcer, the prophesied herald of the Messiah.
What were you expected to “be”? What were and are your own expectations? How do you react when the plans you’ve anticipated for yourself are dashed or delayed? Physical weakness, illness, limited resources can prevent mountain climbing or mission trips, but praying and writing encouraging notes is a calling worthy of pursuit. Yale, Wellesley, or Wheaton may be outside your budget as you follow God’s Kingdom call, but learning in small steps is a beginning. Use these Advent days to examine how God may be whispering–or as in Elizabeth’s case–shouting “NO! I have something better, more life changing, more fulfilling for you.” John would become a witness, a way-paver. Imagine what plans God might have for you. Dream big no matter the present circumstances.
Monday, December 6
Luke, master of literary flashbacks, leaves us with Mary returning to Nazareth after a three-month visit with her cousin. He is concise beyond belief in Elizabeth’s birth narrative: After When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son, he immediately turns to the reaction of friends and family: they shared her joy. At any woman’s age, birthing a child is time for rejoicing, but when this child is born, it’s miracle time.
Are you using your imagination to see, feel, hear the stories hidden within Luke’s stories? Sit with Elizabeth. What do you hear? How does she feel? And where is Zechariah?! Elizabeth is old and tired, her body literally stretched beyond belief during the birth process. As she slowly moves around the room, cradling the son she never believed would be hers, she is already thinking of what must happen next. According to Jewish law, a son will be circumcised eight days after birth and plans are already being made for the ritual even as people crowd in the small rooms.
We’re about to see a bold woman unexpectedly take a place of leadership usually held by a man. We know, of course, that Zechariah can’t give the required verbal naming instruction so when the religious leaders basically ask, “What is to be the child’s name?” they assume the name will Zechariah Junior, and the child will become a priest as he follows in his father’s footsteps. Such assuming is just the way it goes.
Based on family, church, or community custom, what do you “assume” is your role in the Kingdom? What footsteps will you follow? Have history, customs, expectations limited you? Perhaps still limit you? John Ortberg writes, “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.” What keeps you in the boat? What can you say or do this Advent to break the pattern of assumption? What will happen if you climb overboard? The first step always involves risk. Are you ready?
REMINDER: BE SURE TO ALWAYS READ THE BIBLICAL TEXT BEFORE CONTINUING WITH MY WORDS!
Sunday, December 5
When our daughter’s friends were expecting their first child, the pregnant mom–excited about the impending birth–also expressed fear. In the era of of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, how could this child of mixed-race parents thrive in a racially radicalized America? Would he be free to succeed? Would he lead marches and demonstrate in pursuit of equality? Would he write books? Compose music? Preach from the pulpit? Become president? Perhaps sadly and more realistically, would he survive?
While Mary’s anthem recorded by Luke rightly honors God, her words could also be printed on marchers’ placards of the day. Her inspired paragraphs, if understood by Caesars and Herods (and certainly by those who claim authority today) should be fair warning of their limited power. Do they understand that human dominion is restricted by the God who laughs at kings of the earth who conspire against him (Psalm 2:2-4)?
Young, powerless Mary is not only an example of humility (I am the Lord’s servant), but a forerunner of bold women through the ages who have changed the course of history by obediently following hard after God by placing themselves in opposition to accepted cultural–and even religious–custom. Women like Corrie ten Boom, Katharine Bushnell, Lottie Moon, Marie Curie, Katie Davis, Gladys Aylward. (If any of these names are unfamiliar, use the internet for discovery and blessing.)
Are we teaching our daughters and granddaughters to follow such paths, awarding them praise for educational pursuits, business acumen, religious callings? Can we confront them as did a wise-beyond-her-years friend who recently challenged a group of young moms with a talk entitled, “Motherhood Is Not Your Greatest Calling”? Mary, whose greatest calling is often understood as “mother of our Lord” and described by Elizabeth as “blessed among all women,” was also a courageous prophet. Encourage the budding female prophets you know this Advent as you tell this story of Mary.
Saturday, December 4
Elizabeth has lived in physical and marital silence and seclusion for long months. One day, perhaps resting uncomfortably on a shaded wooded bench near the door, she spies a small group of women raising dust on the village path. (It’s unlikely that Mary traveled alone on the three-day dangerous journey from Nazareth.) Elizabeth hears a voice calling out to her, perhaps using the traditional “Peace to you,” and recognizes the greeting of her young relative.
Before any “woman talk,” God breaks in with physical force. As Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, Elizabeth clutches her protruding belly as the child within her leaps. This is no gentle nudge of a growing in utero baby but a punch that takes Elizabeth’s breath away. Luke later uses the same word when he quotes Jesus describing Kingdom joy: Rejoice in that day and leap for joy…Before exiting the womb, this child who will be named John, miraculously recognizes and reacts to the still growing seed he will one day herald as the Lamb of God.
We’ll return to what happens to Elizabeth but stop now to imagine. As the cousins John and Jesus grow, attending family reunions, perhaps traveling together to ritual observances in Jerusalem, see the boys moving off to the side of their families: “Did your mother ever tell you about…? Do you ever wonder…?” Imagining such scenes takes nothing away from the holiness, the miraculous, the divine. One theologian writes, “Imagination is not the opposite of reality or the enemy of truth… Imagination is the partner of the intellect.”
Take time to imagine the scene. What do you see as the women meet? What are their facial expressions? What do they talk about? If you had been there, what might have been your reaction? Would you have believed what was happening?
This is what miracles look like. Usually in the midst of the ordinary. Look for one this Advent.
Friday, December 3
Yes, the Luke verses are repeated today. There’s more to ponder. Uniquely female questions occur to me–but they are for men as well. Mary, a chaste woman (I am a virgin) asks a logical and personal question (How will this be…?) Perhaps even at this point of the conversation, Mary has an inkling of the consequences that lay ahead: misunderstanding at the least, excommunication, divorce and even death are all possibilities.
Artificial insemination, surrogacy are not options. Gabriel bluntly announces, You will conceive… The Holy Spirit will come upon you… My question: when did the Holy Spirit “come upon” Mary? When did conception take place? Was it shortly after Mary’s, I am the Lord’s servant? Was Mary aware of the moment?
Madeleine L’Engle poetically describes the Holy Spirit’s mysterious work in Bearer of Love:
The great swan’s wings were wild as he flew down…
And Mary sat, unknowing, unaware,
The angel’s wings were wilder than the swan
as God broke through the shining, waiting air…
young Mary, moved by Gabriel, acquiesced,
asked nothing for herself in lowliness,
accepted, too, the pain and then, most blest,
became the bearer of all holiness.
When does God “birth” new plans within us? Is it when we still have questions without answers? Or when we say–at any age–“I’m ready to say anything, go anywhere, be anyone”? Gabriel may not be asking, but God still waits to hear our answer.
Thursday, December 2
Luke interrupts the Elizabeth/Zechariah story but uses it to date the next episode when Gabriel’s next assignment will be revealed: In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy … God sends his messenger to Nazareth, what one historian described as a “tiny off-the-beaten path hamlet.”
Re-read the conversation because it is upon these verses that much of our historical and personal faith rests. Here we see God’s long-awaited, appointed intervention in the sad story of human history. The words recorded in Judges 21:25 were again sadly true: In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as they saw fit.
Gabriel announced the astounding details to Mary with clarity:
God sees you, God is with you
Conception will be an act of God
The child’s name will be Jesus
The child will be great and will be the Messiah
Understandably Mary doesn’t seem to grasp the Grand Plan. Her first response is down-to-earth and personal. “I hear all that, Gabriel, and I’m edging toward belief, but do you realize this is physically impossible?”
Without berating Mary for incomplete faith, Gabriel says “This will be a totally God thing, Mary, so that only God will get the glory. But to help your belief along, let me tell you that something similarly impossible is happening in your cousin’s life. God is set to do new things in new ways.”
I’ve heard it said that old keys can’t open new doors. But old keys and old doors are the familiar ones, we know what’s behind the old doors. New doors with new locks present challenges we’re ill prepared for. What new door faces you this Advent? Are you ready to turn the key?
Wednesday, December 1
We could easily skip to the heaven-exploding birth of Jesus, but Luke isn’t quite ready to whisk us off to Bethlehem. We’ll read tomorrow about Gabriel’s next announcement in another town, but let’s stay with Elizabeth and Zechariah for a day. Since John will be conceived by human means, it’s important to notice a few simple words to which we can imaginatively add “the rest of the story.” Although Luke is the gospel author who emphasizes the lives and works of women, today we simply read, When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant… Became pregnant! Think for a moment how faithful, mostly male scribes might have blanched as they sat at their wooden desks transcribing that understatement. God performed a miracle but Zechariah provides the means for the miracle.
And so it is for us. God may be on the verge of initiating a holy work in the life of a neighbor, family member, or child in a Tibetan village, but he often expects us to do the accompanying work. He frequently intervenes only after we’ve delivered a plate of warm cookies, sent an appreciative note, or a check. Or maybe smiled at a stranger.
Take time to think how God might be asking you to do the mundane in the midst of Advent days. Don’t miss out on participating in a miracle!
Tuesday, November 30
God’s direction is sometimes glaringly succinct, his voice unmistakable. “Talk to your neighbor…NOW!” Or as with Peter by the sea, “Follow me.”
But Gabriel’s charge to Zechariah is full of detail. His essential announcement could have been condensed: “Don’t be afraid. God has heard your prayers. You and Elizabeth will have a son.” But as we soon discover, Zechariah desperately needs more nitty-gritty information, and we know it wasn’t a mere brief chat because people waiting outside the Temple were getting worried when Priest Z didn’t exit according to schedule.
Becoming parents past the age of child-bearing is miracle enough, but Gabriel delivers the whole load: the child’s anti-cultural name (under normal circumstances, he would unquestionably be ‘Zachariah Junior’), the joy the child will bring, and details of his spiritual destiny.
In spite of the “This Is Your Life” announcement, Zechariah asks for more verification. How can I be sure of this? I’m almost ready to give Zechariah a pass at this point, but Gabriel steps in with thundering authority: “I AM GABRIEL…God has sent me. Pay attention!”
Stories in scripture and history are full of people who question God, and soon in Luke’s detailed account, we will read of Mary’s own query. Questions aren’t inherently wrong. But there are also circumstances when it’s time to stop the questions, time to listen, trust, and obey. Without answers. A lesson Zechariah will have nine quiet months to learn. What questions are you asking? Or is it time to listen?
Monday, November 29
“I’m just doing my duty, God, I know the ritual: take two handfuls of finely ground incense, place it on the burning coals… I’m getting old, God, my knees hurt. Is any of this worth it? Do I keep trusting you?”
Zechariah’s words spring from my imagination, but are they any different than my thoughts when the “duty” of following Christ wearies my soul, when prayers go unanswered, when God’s hand is invisible, when I’m just plain tired?
Three words leap to my attention: he was chosen.. True, Zechariah’s choosing was according to long-established ritual, but it was ritual according to God’s direction. When years have gone by, when physical frailty or dashed expectations cloud what we once believed so earnestly, it’s easy to forget that we too have been chosen. …before the foundation of the world, he chose us to become, in Christ, his holy and blameless children, living within his constant care (Ephesians 1:4, Phillips Translation).
Can you smell the incense? Do you feel Zechariah’s longing and weariness? Sit with him today. Identify with his yearning. Specifically name your own yearning.
Zechariah had no idea what was coming. Maybe that’s you today. You carry the incense of your profession or career or life circumstances with sadness or frustration. Surely God doesn’t intend for life to be like this? Are you brave enough to ask God to use the story of Zechariah to infuse your yearning with hope?
For many years I have published an Advent Meditation booklet for friends and family. This year I’ve decided to try posting it daily on my blog. (If technology cooperates!) For each day you will find verses from the Bible before my text. You will need to find these verses in a Bible for the text to make sense! If you don’t have a Bible, you can Google the verses without a problem. If you are new to the Bible, look up the book (e.g., Luke, Matthew, etc.) in the Table of Contents. I trust this Advent journey will be a blessing.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 28
“Get on with it, Luke! I’m ready for shopping and carols. I’m ready for the BIG story.”
.But Luke–determined to write an orderly account–starts describing an event prophesied four centuries earlier in the bleak days of the prophet Malachi. I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me (Malachi 3:1) Luke doesn’t begin with the Messiah but with a Messenger. He doesn’t highlight the politically powerful but a simple woman and man of priestly heritage who have lived with unanswered prayer well into old age and kept the faith through long years of heresy, treachery, religious deterioration.
Luke seems to know that we are often not ready for the transcendent Messiah story until we’ve trod the lonely desert path of disappointment, disillusionment, and doubt. The birth of Christ will introduce hope into a hopeless world but I’m afraid we’re not very good at authentically facing the hopelessness. We want Luke to quickly move to Bethlehem. We want to turn from front page news of starvation (maybe write a check to a humanitarian agency?), sexual abuse (refuse to face it even in our own churches?), unanswered prayer (mouth pithy assertions like “God always says ‘yes, no, or not now'”).
Luke doesn’t include any reasons for God’s silence in Elizabeth and Zechariah’s lives. He simply states the bold facts of reality: …they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. Just the facts of life.
The facts of life may be dragging you down this first day of Advent. But God calls us–along with Elizabeth and Zechariah–to the long path of unremitting duty, perhaps wondering if an angel will ever come. The big story will be told. Just not yet.