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Advent – Learning to Prep for the Promise – Part 1

1 Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I, too, decided, as one having a grasp of everything from the start, to write a well-ordered account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may have a firm grasp of the words in which you have been instructed.

– Luke 1:-1-4

I have always loved how Luke ends his greeting to Theophilus with the challenge to fully grasp (or know the truth/ a certainty about your belief) the words we have been instructed on through scripture.  

Sometimes, I feel like I have a firm grasp of God’s Word, especially familiar passages. However, my familiarity can also create biases when reading His Word.

And the Spirit of God must help us remember that His Word is God Breathed – Living – Moving – Continually Instructing to have a firm hold on me. (John 1:1-5; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; John 16:12) 

As we began the Advent season, I was asked to share at some longtime friends’ church in urban Los Angeles. And I wanted to approach the familiar birth narratives of Jesus differently (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2). I wanted, as Luke encouraged us, to have a firm grasp of the truth of what was being shared. And to realize it is more than just a Christmas story. To let the passages take a new hold on me. And I didn’t want to miss any parts of the story.

Now, I grew up mainly in a non-faith-practicing home, and the only way I heard the Christmas story was through Christmas carols and cards, which can leave you a little confused about who is in the story and what they look like! 

For instance, is Santa just Jesus all dressed up in a red suit, and where is the Little Drummer Boy in the Gospels? 

Markus Spiske (photo)

So, when I first read about the birth of Jesus in Luke, I was blown away by all the people in the story. Where did they come from? They never made it onto my Christmas Card or Christmas special. They were actual, real, live, non-animated, breathing people who lived life as we did and were suddenly invaded by a God they only knew of in promises from a long silent past but now would know in person. 

And we must remember, as we live in a culture continually removing the significance of Jesus, that those in the story were not living their life to be a model for a hallmark card (or movie) or catchy lyric for a yuletide carol. They were real people with real stories, needing a real God with a message and promise to sustain them!  

And in many ways, these are the exact stories and messages we need today.

And that message and promise was how God radically, unashamedly, loves people so much He would invade earth to let them know it. The promise that has arrived with Christ is not just a Christmas story but the inauguration of His Kingdom, a never-ending story.  

But before that story begins, Luke introduces us to a few other characters.

I love what N.T. Wright says about introducing these people in the Gospel of Luke:  

…the name ‘Jesus’ doesn’t occur for the first 30 verses, and Jesus himself is not born until well into the story. Luke is going to tell us about Mary’s extraordinary pregnancy and Jesus’ extraordinary birth, but he knows we will need to prepare our minds and hearts for this story. So he begins with the story of Zechariah and Elisabeth, a devout couple going about their everyday life.[1]

And we have to ask ourselves why.

In Israel, the people had not heard from God through a prophet for 400 years. God had spoken through Moses, Abraham, David, and all the prophets up to Malachi. Then there was silence—400 years of silence from God. Can you imagine? Yes, there was activity, but no prophetic utterance from God in 400 years.

Some continued to remember God’s promises to those who came before them. They even celebrated the best they could by attending religious functions and festivals, and some even prescribed religious restrictions on their lives to show their respect for the past and show themselves as holy and pious in the present. All with the seeming silence of God. 

And for many, 400 years was too long a wait, and the promises had lost a sense of relevance, power, and meaning. 

How many of you know that living on someone else’s promises or borrowing promises from the distant past can only sustain you for a while? 

We live in a culture where 400 years is not our problem, but maybe 400 minutes or seconds is too long a wait—400 years of silence. Talk about patience.

 I love how Henri Nouwen describes patience. 

“Without patience, our expectations degenerate into wishful thinking. Patience comes from the Latin word “patior,” which means to suffer. The first thing Jesus promises is suffering…but Jesus also calls these birth pains. And so, what seems like a hindrance becomes a way; what seems like an obstacle becomes a door; what seems like a misfit becomes a cornerstone. To wait patiently, therefore, means to allow our weeping and wailing to become purifying preparation by which we are made ready to receive the joy which is promised.” – Henri Nouwen

Have you ever been there? When the wait between the promise given and the promise fulfilled is too long, you begin to echo the words of the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord? How long?”

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. 

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Psalms 13:1-6 (NIV)

I separated the passage to emphasize that we sometimes have a lot of “How Long” in that space, yet we are still called to a place of trust. How about you?  Can you relate to the “How Long Space”?

Back to Luke. Luke is setting us up to understand an interesting principle that we often neglect in our microwave-ready, consuming-fast, fix-it-quick, not-wanting-to-suffer, or wait-for culture. After 400 years of silence, a promise would be spoken and brought to life. 

And Luke is setting us up to see and learn from the people who can steward that type of in-breaking! 

What kind of people have the tenacity, capacity, endurance, and patience to steward God’s promises while waiting? 

Then the question becomes, am I the type of person who cannot only wait for the promise but prepare for what God is about to do?

Luke responds to the silence and our questions with two unusual characters.

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah (The Lord Remembers), who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah (God is my father). His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron (Exalted), and her name was Elizabeth (My God is an oath). 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

– Luke 1:5-7 

So we must now ask, “Why does Luke start Zechariah and Elizabeth?”

(See ‘Advent – Learning to Prep for the Promise – Part 2’ )

[1] Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 6.

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