Exploring Advent with Luke: Four Questions for Spiritual Growth, Timothy Clayton
Do I dare open myself to God? Zechariah’s Question.
I think it is difficult to handle disappointment. Especially when things don’t turn out how we expect. I don’t think I am alone. I suspect that our contemporary culture has an expectation problem. We get it in our heads that we know how things ought to turn out and when they don’t come out how we expect trouble ensues.
The point is our expectation problem can be resolved when we dare to open ourselves to God.
God doesn’t throw the unexpected curve ball situations at us, but God can use these moments to realign our expectations if we open ourselves to God’s presence.
When a woman is pregnant, we say, she’s expecting. Today, we can collect a remarkable amount of data during this time of gestational expectation. Advanced imaging can show you head, spine, fingers, heart, and all the other parts of the child. And with 3d modeling you can even get a peek at the child’s face. And yet with all of these predictive indicators you never really know how things are going to turn out with our children, the unexpected, surprises and disappointed expectations turn up.
I remember my wife, Julie insisting that I read the book “What to Expect when you are Expecting”. When we were expecting our first child. I am the oldest in my family and I am 12 years older than my youngest sister. And I loved babies and young children and I considered myself to be experienced when it comes to welcoming little people into a family. The book put much of my experience into perspective, and challenged me to consider other potentialities. I lost interest rather quickly because my personal experience of welcoming infants into the world was not nearly as orderly as the book described.
The problem with this book is that it attempts to create a system of expectation that is bound to be disappointed when confronted with the reality of the chaos of a small person.
I finally put that book down when we had our first ultrasound. That was the day I discovered that our child had a deformity, bilateral clubbed foot. There was no chapter in the “What to Expect when Expecting Book” on that. My expectation was disappointed. I remember feeling abandoned by societal expectations of that book and perhaps even God. In that moment in the at the hospital I was far from being open to God’s presence.
Zechariah has one of these moments in this Advent reading today.
We meet this couple from the Luke narrative, called Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are both descendants from a long line of priestly families, and they are good and faithful people. The text says they “lived blamelessly according to all the commandments and righteousness of the LORD. (Lk 1:5-6)
Given this good heritage and right living, the expectation would be a joy filled life.
But that expectation was disappointed. Zechariah and Elizabeth days are not spent in the joy of a life fulfilled:
But they did not have children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in the day of their life. (Luke 1: 7)
Like many of us often do when dealing with expectation disappointed, we throw ourselves at other areas of our life, like work.
Zechariah’s continues his work as a priest. One day an opportunity show up. For what will probably be the only time in his career, the lot falls to him to go into a special, sacred area reserved for the chosen priest to offer the incense for the people. It’s a big day for professionally Zechariah and came with more expectation. This big day would be bigger than that expectation.
There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Seeing him, Zechariah was troubled and fear fell upon him.
The angel said to him: “Do not be afraid. Zechariah, your prayer has been heard”.
And your wife Elizabeth, will bear a son to you, and you will name him John. He will be joy and gladness to you, and many will rejoice at his birth. (Lk 1:13-14)
Zechariah’s mind is blown by Gabriel’s greeting. Perhaps he is too distracted by his professional expectation, to hear that God has heard the Zechariah’s prayer for a child. In any case Zechariah has long ago closed himself off to God on the expectation of children. His response to the angel reveals his closure to God, “How can I know this? I am old, and my wife is advanced in her days” (Lk 1: 18).
Zechariah is confronted by the question “Do I dare open my self to God?” in a special place in the temple.
That place for me, 13 years ago was in a dark ultrasound room. The tech showed us the baby’s head, heart and hands. She then spent an uncomfortable amount of time on the feet and spine.
“Is there a problem”, I asked. She said, “ I don’t want to alarm you, but you baby looks like he might have club foot and I want to rule out spinal bifida” All I heard was I don’t want to alarm you, whist this is basically the same as “Do not be afraid”, I was very afraid. I was not experiencing the peace that passes all understanding.
I was in denial. The tech is reading the ultrasound wrong. They can’t really predict this deformity this early? And a part of me was still hoping that the doctors were wrong right up to Ethan’s birthday.
This was not a problem with Ethan, this was a problem with my expectation. This deformity was a chance to be open to God’s grace. But that day in the ultrasound room I wasn’t ready to dare to open myself to God, in the face of my disappointed expectation. I needed more time.
Zechariah was ready to answer, yes to the question “Do I dare open myself to God?” in the face of his disappointed expectation. He needed more time.
Gabriel is a messenger from God his name literally means God has shown himself strong. Rather than showing the impotence Zechariah fears, Gabriel shows God’s power immediately, as he takes Zechariah’s voice away.
For Zechariah this was a Forced Gestational Silence and became a gift for a realignment of expectations. For a priest to lose one’s voice is to lose the power and ability to lead. This gave Zechariah the opportunity for reflection, renewal and pondering, that he might come to believe and have his expectations realigned.
In the end, Zechariah made good use of his forced gestational silence. Zechariah’s voice returns after his son John is born. And as the Voice that will proclaim the way of the Christ arrives into the world Zechariah is open to God as he joins in the chorus. Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,” Luke 1: 68, 76-78
My own gestational silence came throughout Ethan’s years of surgery and therapy. During this time my expectations were realigned as I observed God at work through the faithfulness of the Shriners, modern medicine, and the family of God. Today, Ethan walks, runs, and dances in the LORD. Through my own gestational silencing I have been opened to God’s presence in my life.
Today we have we welcome two small people into the family of God. We’ve made our promises to help to raise them to become faithful sisters and brothers in Christ. We made these promises with expectations that God will be with us as we grow together. And even as we enter through the waters of baptism into the family of God we have no idea what really to expect in our future together. Will our expectations be aligned with God’s? Will our expectations leave us open to what God is doing in the world, even when it seems impossible?
Advent is the season when we prepare for the Birth of Christ. Where we prepare for God’s presence among us - 2000 years ago, in the future, and even in this very moment. I pray that you would take this gift of time to gestate the birth of Christ in your life, so that your expectations might be realigned, so that you might dare to be open to what God is doing. Amen.