Each Christmas the story of Jesus’ birth is told in homes and preached about in churches everywhere. People take this time to consider the events that led up to the arrival of the Son of God on earth as a baby in a manger. With annual citations it can be easy to stop paying such close attention. It can be easy to stop listening and really caring.
So the Christian must fight during this time of year to not let the Incarnation seem mundane or routine because it is a familiar story. It is anything but mundane. Yes, God used the ordinary and unexciting (a mom and a manger) for His Son, but the Incarnation is spectacular.
Comparably, the events leading up to Jesus’ birth can be overlooked and oversimplified, too. Think of how quickly you read through the account of John the Baptist’s birth in order to get to Jesus’.
This year, though, when reading the pronouncement of John the Baptist’s birth, something about his father, Zechariah, stood out to me. When Zechariah came face to face with the angel Gabriel, it becomes clear that while Zechariah had once prayed for a child, which God was decisively answering, he had stopped praying because of his age.
In a way, it makes sense for Zechariah to have stopped praying for a child because of the limitations of his age. It’s practical thinking, even. There were deeper issues with his unbelief, though, but Zechariah’s story has been so touching to me this year. There are so many times that I, like Zechariah, stop praying because God has not answered and it seems that the breadth of the prayer is no longer practical or relevant. Practicality compels me to stop praying about that issue and move on to something else. I know that God hears my prayers, but I incorrectly assume his silence as an answer. God’s silence does not mean no. It might. It might also mean not yet, or maybe one day, or yes and it will far exceed my hopes and expectations. It is not an answer. It is God working in silence for my good.
This has been more personal to me lately because grad. school, which has driven my life for the past two-and-a-half years, will be over in a matter of days. With the conclusion of this season, I find myself excited, questioning everything, anxious, and so, so, so unsure about what’s next. What do I do now? Where do I go? What do I want to do? What am I supposed to want? What desires are wrong? What are founded on unbelief? What will or won’t honor God? I try to pray faithfully and diligently about the impending “rest of my life” but there have been no quick or plainspoken answers. In the absence of answers, practicality and unbelief say I should stop praying in such disorderly ways, choose one thing and stick to it. Conversely, faith says I should pray harder despite the disorder. The Lord will make my paths straight, and those paths include how to pray.
I came across a gem this morning when I was reading Daniel 9. Daniel realizes the length of the Babylonian captivity from what Jeremiah had prophesied. Daniel responds to this information in prayer with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. His immediate response was to pray. He turned his face to the Lord God. His prayer wasn’t pretty either; he prayed with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. This was anguish and grief and desperation, not pomp and ceremony. This response and prayer was an honest reflection of his heart’s confession. Compare that to Zechariah who stopped praying, as reasonably practical as that might have felt.
I found another treasure in Daniel 9. The angel Gabriel met Daniel, just as he did Zechariah so many years later. He came to tell Daniel that as soon as his pleas for mercy began, Gabriel was sent out with a word for him. How wonderful that God was answering Daniel so quickly! How very different from Zechariah. Then Gabriel adds that he has come to deliver the word to Daniel (and this is my favorite part) for he is greatly loved.
The Advent season is about the arrival of Christ in the world. Just as the Lord was with Daniel and Zechariah during years and years of waiting, so he is with us. That is who he is: Immanuel, God with us. Daniel’s sackcloth and fasting, Zechariah’s prayers uttered years before, the anguish of hearts, and the indecision and complexities of humanity are all answered in God’s perfect time. Christmas is a time to remember that and reflect on that. We can pour out our hearts before God for we are so greatly loved. How did we ever think of that as commonplace or ordinary?