I’m hoping to offer some Advent thoughts this year. I don’t plan on doing a daily Advent post, but I do want to hit at least one per week. I’m going to touch on the same characters as Scot McKnight is doing in his Advent series, along with whatever thoughts strike me as I consider each week. Not having a liturgical background, my own exploration of Advent has been a little different with the feeling I have some “catch-up” to do as I go along, but no matter. Back in my college days, I did keep Advent candles in my dorm room one year, and have in the past found great depth in the amount of advent observation I had done. But on with it.
The first Sunday of Advent is traditionally associated with expectation, or hope. We’re considering Zechariah and Elizabeth in this context, and find that they offer some excellent insights into this theme.
Michael Card sings,
The Lord God said when time was full
He would shine His light in the darkness
He said a virgin would conceive
And give birth to the Promise
For a thousand years the dreamers dreamt
And hoped to see His love
The Promise showed their wildest dreams
had simply not been wild enough
But the Promise showed their wildest dreams
Had simply not been wild enough.
The Promise was love and the Promise was life
The Promise meant light to the world
Living proof that Yahweh saves
For the name of the Promise was Jesus.
I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be waiting for Messiah for years on end. 1,000 years. Waiting for a promise to be fulfilled, a promise made to your father’s father’s fathers’s father… and his father’s father’s father before him. Problem was, there was no mention of when. “The fullness of time” is not that specific to us, as it turns out. At about year 637, would you not wake up one morning and say, “Now, how did that promise go again? Are you sure you heard that correctly? What did it really mean? Maybe he isn’t coming after all. There’s no hint that this kind of thinking ever took root in Israel, but it must have, for some people. It would be exceedingly difficult to maintain any kind of anticipation or expectation for the imminent fulfillment of this promise… but I suspect that if anyone could do it, it would be the Jewish people.
I remember the anticipation of waiting for Christmas as a youngster… the one day around which the entire calendar revolves, the day to which which every other day of the year relates… it’s either so many days after Christmas, or so many days until Christmas. 243 more days until Christmas… and it would seem quite appropriate to start counting down. For children, it seems the exciting day will never arrive; it taunts relentlessly, and all the more as the time draws nearer. “Twenty-two more ‘sleeps’! That’s forever! Will it never arrive?” And yet, it always does. Even for as long as it takes when counted through the mathematical chronologies of childhood, there’s never a thought of giving up. Though it seems to take forever, it’s such a certainty that hope in the day never dissipates.
Zechariah was waiting. He and his wife Elizabeth were waiting for something as a couple, and they’d given up… by this time in their lives, they had lost hope of ever having a child, thinking they were too old… and perhaps Zechariah felt this way just a little more than did Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest, maybe he should really have known better… and all the more so because his name means “God Remembers.” So there he is, doing his regular priestly duties. Well, “regular” is hardly the word for it, for as things worked out on this rotation, since it was his job to enter the Holy Place in the temple, something that only one person did once each year. Priests used to take turns serving in the temple, handing off duties to the next in rotation as they returned to their home. Given this practice of rotation and the fact that the Holy Place was entered only once a year, having fallen to Zechariah by the casting of lots, this might have been Zechariah’s first time, perhaps even his only time. Even if it was not his first trip into the Holy Place, it’s hardly a regular occurrence. This time, it does not go according to schedule, for the angel Gabriel shows up and makes a promise to Zechariah.
Hundreds of years of waiting, and when Zechariah sees Gabriel and hears the promise, he asks how he knows this is true. Now, on the one hand, we want to criticize him for questioning so clear a message and messenger… but on the other hand, we sympathize. After all, God’s sense of timing just doesn’t seem to jive with ours. In his place, this identification with Zechariah’s expression of a tinge of doubt may have put us on the receiving end of the same outcome as Zechariah experiences… a mini-judgement, if you will. If your mother ever said to you, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” perhaps you’ll understand this one. Gabriel should have seen Zechariah praise God at this news and be filled with joy… but if Zechariah chooses to express doubt instead, well, that’ll be the last we hear from him on the subject until he has something more appropriate to say.
I think Zechariah had nine months of learning what it’s like to be patient but not lose hope. I wonder what he thought about for nine months without being able to properly express it… I wonder how many times during that waiting period did Elizabeth say, “Zach, we never talk anymore…” and “Zach, are you listening to me?” I’m sure he folded his newspaper over so he could see her overtop of it, and nodded wearily. Maybe there were times in Elizabeth’s pregnancy where she said, “Zach, would you say something here!” I have a piece of news for you Zechariah, one with which most men who retained the power of speech during their wives’ pregnancies, will identify and agree. When your wife is pregnant and gone all hormonal and you need to encourage her so you dig deep and find the wisest, most sensitive, most appropriate thing you can possibly think of to comfort her with… forget it, it’s exactly the wrong thing to say. There is no way to win this game, it can’t be done — it’s simply not possible to say the right thing to a hormonal pregnant wife at a time like that, and the real news to you, Zach (can I call you Zach?), is that you got off easy, buster.
So there you have it, Zechariah learns to wait. Elizabeth learns that waiting produces rewards, and you should never give up hope. I wonder if she talked incessantly about what colour to decorate the nursery, looking to Zechariah to offer an opinion that always came as a simple nod or a shrug. Zechariah learns too, that it’s important not to lose hope. Their hope turns to joy, for both of them, as John is born. And this time Zechariah gets it right… he writes that defining, absolute, striking statement: “His name is John.” This is an odd phrase, but odder still that it would be a favorite phrase of mine in the New Testament. I’ve long been inexplicably struck by the simple verse, Luke 1:43. It’s so unwavering, so filled with faith, so certain. This is the fruit of Zechariah’s waiting silently for nine months, and Zechariah’s lips are loosed. He blesses God, and prophesies. How cool is that? He too learns that waiting produces rewards, and that you should never give up hope.
The child for whom Zechariah and Elizabeth hoped for themselves becomes a prophet, a promise fulfilled not just for them but for the nation, and the nations beyond as well. John rejects, in one sense, the way his father practices his religion… he forsakes the temple for the river, and preaches there… as a forerunner of what is to come, this fact already speaks of a coming change in the way religion would be practiced. Everything is about to change. John comes to be called “The Baptist,” and as prophesied, is the one who prepares the way for the Messiah. He tells people that the one who is coming is greater than he. The Messiah who they also await. For 1,000 years they wait. And hope… and now John the Baptist comes, preparing the way, speaking of the light that is coming into the world.
It won’t be long now.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.