Saturday, December 8, 2012

Quiet Time

Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. (Luke 1.20)

The Silent One

So much conversation happens in the Christmas narrative! Angels talk Mary and Joseph through the monumental task that befalls them. Mary makes a special trip to discuss the situation with her cousin, Elizabeth. The aged Elizabeth is also pregnant with a son who will grow up to be John the Baptist—a first-rate talker in his own right and the last in a long line of prophets who talk at length of a coming Savior. The Magi deliberate the meaning of the Star and stop by Herod’s palace on their way to Bethlehem for a quick chat with him. After they leave, the king calls a meeting with his top advisors to tell them what he’s heard. In the countryside, a celestial concert ends with an angel informing a few shepherds of Jesus’s birth, which sparks a conversation about leaving the sheep and going into town to check things out. Everybody in this story talks a lot, except for one man—Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. He’s the silent one.

It’s not that Zechariah has nothing to talk about—or he’s unsure what to say. Strangely, he’s the first to hear that Israel’s long-awaited Redeemer is soon to come when an angel reveals that he, his wife, Elizabeth, and their late-in-life son will play essential roles in this divinely ordained drama. Zechariah’s problem is that he can’t believe what he hears. He and Elizabeth have tried to get pregnant for years and they’ve pretty much accepted theirs will be a childless marriage. In many ways, their resignation reflects how the Jews feel. They’ve done everything in their power to bring forth a Messiah. Yet their union with God has remained barren for centuries. For many, the love between Israel and God is its own reward, just as it is between Zechariah and Elizabeth. The idea that God might bend time and revive their moribund dreams—enabling their participation in God’s redemptive plan—is beyond belief for them. Zechariah responds to the angel’s declaration much like the vast majority of his neighbors do when Jesus declares the Good News of God’s kingdom. “How will I know that this is so?” he asks. (Luke 1.18) Before Zechariah can talk himself out of the amazing task God has given him, the angel shuts his mouth. “Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (v20)

The irony here is rich and rather cruel. Zechariah probably has the best handle on what’s taking place in his extended family; he alone knows how Elizabeth and Mary’s stories are intertwined and the import of the babes growing in their wombs. He can explain everything in detail. But God fixes it so that he can’t breathe a word until his son is born because Zechariah’s faith hasn’t reached a level that will allow him to express it. And his frustration teaches us a powerful lesson: when we sense God at work in our lives, it’s best to keep silent. There will be plenty to say when the work is done. Meanwhile, we should regard seasons of change and growth as quiet times.

No Talking Please

Time and again in Scripture God reveals divine knowledge to individuals and immediately demands their silence until the thing God is doing comes about. Such behavior is completely contrary to human impulse. At the earliest sign our prayers will be answered—at our faintest sense that God is intervening on our behalf—our first inclination is to tell people all about it. Some of us, ascribing to a “name it and claim it” theology, even believe that if we talk about what we want God to do, God will do it (as if God were a super-genie compelled to grant our every wish). Yet, as we see in Zechariah, times when God’s presence is manifested in our lives are when we should remain still. Transformation is taking place. The full extent of what God is saying and doing is far from clear. What’s required is total trust. And trusting time is quiet time.

As the Christmas story so brilliantly proves, never in a million years can we predict or understand God’s ways. Once we start talking, we start wrestling with impossibilities and mysteries we’re not equipped to explain. We start to sound foolish; that makes us afraid and, without realizing it, fear overtakes our faith. We’re no longer fit vessels for God’s purpose. When God’s presence and movement is made known in our lives, we are wise to heed the prophet’s call for quiet: “The LORD is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him!” (Habakkuk 2.20) In Psalm 46, we’re invited to “behold the works of the LORD” (v8) and then told in verse 10: “Be still and know that I am God!” No talking please—God is at work!

Plenty of Time

It takes tremendous faith and self-control to wait on God in silence. We forget that God always finishes what God starts, provided we remain attentive to God’s purpose and calling. Once God’s work is complete, there will be plenty of time to talk. In fact, when God’s will is fully revealed, we won’t stop talking. This is how it goes for Zechariah. The birth of his son frees his tongue. Praise and prophecy flow out of him with ravishing conviction. What he’s experienced in silence has thoroughly transformed him. Not only is he able to witness God’s goodness in his life. What he’s learned opens his eyes to God’s vision for humanity. His soliloquy, recorded in Luke 1.68-79 ends with a promise we all must claim: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (v78-79)

If we can only learn to be still, to wait on God in silence, the dawn will break. Light will overpower our darkness. Fear and death will be overcome. We will walk in peace. That’s the story we’ll be able to tell.

Transformation requires trust, and trusting times are by necessity quiet times.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Test

He had to become like His brothers and sisters in every respect, so that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest. (Hebrews 2.17)

In Miracles, C.S. Lewis repeatedly returns to the Incarnation as the standard by which all other divine manifestations are measured. “Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness,” he writes. As one ponders his statement, the “almost” becomes inescapable. The greatness of love borne in Mary’s womb cannot be exaggerated. Yet its arrival in the tiny frame of a vulnerable, speechless, Infant is dumbfounding. Surely there must be a bigger test that captures the scale of God’s power. We want something larger than life to prove the enormity of God’s grace and faithfulness—something so utterly overwhelming and definitive that we can’t possibly mistake it for anything else.

But the Incarnation epitomizes God’s baffling ability to display unequaled mercy and might as “the great enters the little.” If we are ever to know—as the angel tells Mary—that nothing shall be impossible with God, we have to recalibrate our expectations of how God works and moves and reasons. God does great and wondrous works in little, ordinary ways. What looks like a newborn is God’s offer of new life. The little Child who seems so reliant on us at first will redeem us and reconcile us to our Creator. The powerless Babe with no home will establish God’s kingdom on earth.

Almost—we almost get it. But we can never fully comprehend the simplicity of God’s great plan. We’re wonderstruck that God would choose so tiny a vessel from which to pour out unconditional love and unfathomable forgiveness. The test for us is whether or not we truly believe what we’re seeing.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1.38)

The longer I sat with Denise Levertov’s poem, “Annunciation”, the more I kept thinking, “It even looks like Advent.” Seen through a bird’s-eye, it reflects all the unruliness of novice experience. It’s ragged and roaming in all the right ways, starting and stopping and backing up on itself, as if repeatedly having another go at trying to figure things out.

The entire poem is worth sitting with. (I’ve attached it at the end of the post.) Yet very early, it levels two sobering blows—one an observation, the other a question.

            But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.
                                    The engendering Spirit
            did not enter her without consent.
                                                            God waited.

            She was free
            to accept or to refuse, choice
            integral to humanness.

            Aren’t there annunciations
            of one sort or another
            in most lives?


We can look at Mary with awe—and her story is unlike any in history. But its uniqueness begins with recognizing the sameness of her experience with our own. God offers all of us opportunities to accomplish great things and play unexpected roles in God’s plan. There are annunciations in our lives—callings that only we can fulfill. They aren’t burdens foisted upon us. They are announcements of what’s possible if we accept God’s calling, believe God’s promises, and consent to God’s will.

While we wait on God, God waits on us.

Post-Script: “Annunciation”

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
    when roads of light and storm
    open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
      only asked a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power – 
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then to bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other, milk and love – 

but who was God.

This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,

She did not cry, “I cannot, I am not worthy,”
nor “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
    and the iridescent wings.

    courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Denise Levertove

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In Vitro

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a Son; they will name Him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”). (Matthew 1.23; The Message)

It’s rather odd that our ancestors settled on late autumn-early winter as the time to enter Advent’s contemplation and celebrate Jesus’s birth. With Advent’s emphasis on expectancy and Christmas’s joyful delivery of the Christ Child, late spring and early summer would seem more appropriate. (Christians who live in the Southern Hemisphere are fortunate to experience this seasonal alignment. And the only clue we’re given in Scripture about the Nativity’s time of year suggests a late spring-early summer arrival. Luke’s mention of shepherds pasturing their flocks indicates green fields; if it were early winter, the sheep would be housed in stables and fed hay.)

Advent is, above all else, a gestation period. It invites us to identify with Mary, who realizes the most amazing event humanity will ever experience is taking shape inside her. We believe the same. Something incredible is taking shape inside us. While our impatience to see what it is—to touch it and hold it in our arms—is nearly unbearable, we know we must give it time. The spring-like Promise will mature and be born into radiant Life. We will call the Living Christ we carry in vitro through Advent’s pregnancy “Immanuel”—“God is with us.”

In The Tentmaker, Michelle Blake writes:

One of the essential paradoxes of Advent: that while we wait for God, we are with God all along, that while we need to be reassured of God’s arrival, or the arrival of our homecoming, we are already at home.

God’s promise to be with us is daily fulfilled by God’s presence within us. The thing we most hope for is already coming to fruition. Like expectant parents, we take time to watch it grow, to sense its movement, to prepare ourselves to welcome it into the home we make for it in our souls. The weather outside may be dark and cold and forbidding. But in our hearts, it is spring. The summer Son will soon dawn. And we will echo the prophet’s song: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” (Isaiah 60.1)