“We tend to sanitize the birth story of Jesus, fashioning it into a pristine, shimmering nativity scene adorned with gold accents and residing comfortably on a hallway table or atop a fireplace mantle… We do this with our spiritual journeys too, wanting them to be comfortable and clean, desiring something attractive that we can easily accessorize our lives with–but that isn’t reality, is it? Life comes with the collateral damage of living, with failed plans and relational collapse, with internal struggle and existential crises, and we carry these things into this season. The good news is we don’t need to discard our messiness to step into this season and we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. Welcome the mess.” (Low: An Honest Advent Devotional, John Pavlovitz)
I read the words above in one of my Advent devotionals early Sunday morning–the first day of Advent this year–and I thought of them again hours later, as I listened to the message at church. It can be easy to fall into the trappings of a shiny, sparkly Christmas. It can be tempting to recall the familiar story–whatever version has embedded itself in our consciousness–and stop short of engaging our hearts in the messy and the real of the season.
The real story of Christmas is full of twists and turns. So much of the how, the when, the why just doesn’t make sense. If we look closely, we’ll likely find more questions than answers. Four-hundred years of silence interrupted by an angel visitation? A virgin conception? A dirty, manger birth? Shepherds witnessing the announcement? Wise men from the east? None of this looked the way those awaiting their Messiah expected it to look. We’re familiar with these unusual happenings. They’re part of the story we celebrate each year.
Fascinating as these parts may be, we are not looking at these parts of the story this year. In this year’s Christmas series, Pastor John is walking us through another unusual part of the story, a part often overlooked. We are looking at an unusual couple: Zechariah and Elizabeth, who would become the parents of John, the forerunner of Jesus. Their story, like most of the Christmas narrative, doesn’t really make sense. As we take a closer look at them, perhaps we’ll find some hope for when our own seasons don’t make sense.
Pastor John identified four things that made these two an unusual couple. They were:
Unusually Priestly. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were from priestly lines. Luke sets this up in contrast to the political oppression of their day.
Unusually Righteous. They were identified by the way they were rightly related to God, set apart as upright and blameless during political upheaval.
Unusually Barren. Both of them were “well advanced” in years, and without a child of their own–a major blemish in their culture at that time.
Unusually Named. In a time when many women were named “Mary” or “Martha”, both of which mean “rebellion”, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s names reflected something else. Zechariah means, “The Lord remembers”, and Elizabeth means, “God is my oath.”
Zechariah and Elizabeth were an upstanding couple. A couple who could trace their heritage all the way back to the beginning of the priesthood. A couple whose very names were reminders of God’s withness and his faithfulness, who were rightly related to God in every possible way.
And yet, they were barren.
Barrenness was a blemish they couldn’t escape in their day. Those on the outside looking in likely whispered among themselves, wondering what these two had done to be so cursed by God. They were likely rejected by some, and isolated from their community because they had been refused the blessing of a child. Can you imagine their questions, their wrestling? In a culture that equated children with blessing and identity, as the way to outlive your own life, how must this couple have felt? I imagine they wondered why. I imagine they asked why. They may have spent hours and days on their faces, begging God to bless them with the one thing they didn’t have–a child of their own.
I imagine their pain was deep, their lack of understanding a cloud that wouldn’t leave. And still, they remained rightly related to God, faithful to him.
We’ll dig into the story and see how God showed up for them–when all hope seemed long gone–in the weeks to come. For now, let’s wrestle with the tension this unusual couple likely experienced. Maybe observing theirs can help us identify our own.
What is your blemish? Where is the tension in your life right now? What are the things that make you feel unusual… perhaps even un-chooseable? What part of you makes you feel disqualified?
We have a God who chooses the unusual things, “the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT) “Unusual” is not a disqualification. God still chooses the unlikely ones–and that includes all of us, with all of our many reasons why he shouldn’t. He chooses us because of all that we think stands in the way–not in spite of those things.
We’ll see as we continue this series just how God came to Zechariah and Elizabeth–in the middle of their very real, very hard circumstances. And we will see how Jesus is still coming for us today–if we look for him. Ann Voskamp, in her gorgeous Advent devotional, The Greatest Gift, writes,
“This, this, is the love story that’s been coming for you since the beginning. It is possible for you to miss it. To brush past it, to rush through it, to not see how it comes for you up over the edges of everything, quiet and unassuming and miraculous–how every page of the Word has been writing it, reaching for you, coming for you. And you could wake on Christmas only to grasp that you never took the whole of the Gift, the wide expanse of grace. So now we pause. Still. Ponder. Hush. Wait. Each day of Advent, He gives you the gift of time, so you have time to be still and wait. Wait for the coming of God in the manger who makes Himself bread for us near starved… Mark Advent with a counting, a way of staying awake and not missing… And the heart that makes time and space for Him to come will be a glorious place. A place of sheer, radiant defiance in the face of a world careening mad and stressed. Because each day of Advent, we will actively wait. We will wait knowing that the remaking of everything has already begun.”
Jesus came, and he comes still. May we stay awake to the wonder in this season. May we look at the unusual with fresh eyes–both the unusual parts of the familiar stories, and the unusual parts of our own…
Each advent season, I ask God to show me something new–I ask for fresh revelation in the Christmas story. Each year, God reveals something new. I don’t know what this year’s revelation will be, so I will seek, ask, knock and wait in anticipation until it comes. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now. Why? Because I don’t want to lose the wonder, I don’t want to lose the mystery, I don’t want to settle into the familiar story as if I already know it. I don’t want Christmas as usual. God always has new things to show us, new depths to explore, fresh revelation to wrestle with or be awestruck by. Nothing has to be “usual”.
Laura encouraged us to look at the unusual with fresh eyes–the unusual of the familiar stories, and the unusual of our own stories. Where do you find yourself this year? How has your 2019 been? What frame of mind are you in as the advent season begins?
What frame of mind were Zechariah and Elizabeth in? We only looked at a few introductory verses on Sunday, yet they were enough to show us that God’s plan was going to be fulfilled through an unusual set of circumstances.
“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (Luke 1:5-7)
Laura highlighted the main points that Pastor John made regarding these verses: Zechariah and Elizabeth were unusually priestly, unusually righteous, unusually barren, and unusually named, and I am going to add that they were unusually beyond child-bearing age. Luke states it pretty bluntly “they were both very old.” I don’t know how old very old is, but here they were–faithfully serving the Lord, no children to carry on their legacy, and they were old. And God saw them. And God knew them. And God chose to use them. And through them and their son, John (the Baptist), the four hundred year silence of God was broken. We will dig into their story and John’s birth in the next few weeks; however, for today, I want to emphasize that God loves to use the unlikely and the unseen.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. They were quietly living out their lives in the days of Roman rule, under Roman oppression as part of a minority people group. They were not trying drawing attention to themselves as they practiced their Jewish faith, consistently serving God in the synagogue, and living blamelessly and righteously according to the law of Moses. I imagine they believed that’s how they would spend the rest of their days. I truly love the fact that even though they were old, they were still actively pursuing and serving God.
Years ago, my family met a man named Buddy Wood. He was old. He was also vivacious, full of life, and children-mine included-flocked to him in droves. Buddy faithfully served the Lord and spent a good bit of his time being invited to speak to groups of senior citizens. He once said something to me in a conversation that will stick me forever. He said that although his body was aging, the Holy Spirit within him would never grow old. He lived with a fresh perspective, a holy “what’s next?” and encouraged others to seek God and choose to love and serve God faithfully as long as they were alive on this planet. Age doesn’t exclude any of us from being used by God.
I get the feeling that Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that. We don’t get the feeling that they were disgruntled. We don’t get the feeling that they were judgmental and full of themselves. We are told that they walked blamelessly with God, and served faithfully day in and day out. I don’t even get the feeling from these verses that they were waiting for the spectacular. They appear to be content to walk with God, despite life’s hardships, and they loved Him.
I don’t know where you find yourself this season, but I want to encourage you to keep leaning into God. The life of the Holy Spirit is within you. The Spirit does not grow old or weary. God sees you. God knows you, and God loves the things that make you unusual. He is faithful; he wants to use your story in his story. Allow yourself to push beyond Christmas as usual into the wonder of whatever God wants you to see and experience as you walk faithfully with Him.