Friday, December 8, 2017

He Ruins Everything for Good - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

"And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
-Luke 1:11-17

One of the greatest lies Christians will tell you is that God won't completely ruin your life.

This text is part of the birth narrative of John the Baptist. Here he is, the herald of the coming king. Here is Elijah come to return the fathers to their children, as Malachi promised. Here is the promise of a child to infertile Elizabeth. Here is the moment of greatest joy for her and Zechariah her husband – and also the moment of greatest grief.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had been asking God for a child more years than they could count. They were still asking, even though the lines on their face had deepened to crevasses and the silver overtaken their hair. And the good news comes - “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” The asked-for miracle had arrived!

Except that the angel kept on talking, and I have to wonder what Zechariah thought. After all, what dreams do such a couple have for a son? Someone to carry on the family name? To take up his father's mitre and ephod in the temple ministry? To find a nice Levite girl and create little grandbabies and host the holidays at their place?

How does it sit with Zechariah, then, when it is not a normal child he is promised? That this child will be filled with the Holy Spirit? That he will go before the coming of the Lord to prepare him a way and rebuke the unrighteous?

Perhaps the couple was content at first. The youthful laughter filling their house must have helped. Besides, all parents have some sense that their children are destined for Great Things. How did they take it, though, when no girlfriends came home for the holidays? When their son started wandering the deserts, wearing animal skins and eating bugs? When he called out the powerful for the snakes they were? When he ended up in prison, his head destined for a (literal) platter?

This was surely not what they had dreamed of. Their hopes in that moment must have seemed a shambles.

Of course, we recognize there were greater things afoot. This is John the Baptist, after all. The one of whom Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater.” (Matthew 11:11a) He had the ministry of Elijah and the legacy of a martyr and a saint.

The problem is that we rarely dream dreams of sainthood. That path is hard. Costly. We much prefer that we and our children live in peaceful obscurity. But God is not in the habit of honoring such small dreams.

If you follow Him, God will completely ruin your life. He will come into it like a whirlwind and tear it into its constituent parts. The mansion you built yourself will be jumbled boards and wires and broken picture frames.

He does not, however, leave us in the ruins. The problem with your life is just that – it is yours. God will take that self-centered, self-serving way of living and turn it instead towards Himself and towards the world. This is not easy. It is not what we would make for ourselves. But in His hands an impossible child can become a prophet to prepare the way for the Lord, and sinners like us can become His servants in the world.

THE last and greatest Herald of Heaven's King,
Girt with rough skins, hies to the deserts wild,
Among that savage brood the woods forth bring,
Which he than man more harmless found and mild.
His food was locusts, and what young doth spring
With honey that from virgin hives distill'd;
Parch'd body, hollow eyes, some uncouth thing
Made him appear, long since from earth exiled.
There burst he forth: 'All ye, whose hopes rely
On God, with me amidst these deserts mourn;
Repent, repent, and from old errors turn!'
—Who listen'd to his voice, obey'd his cry?
        Only the echoes, which he made relent,
        Rung from their marble caves 'Repent! Repent!'

-William Drummond, Saint John Baptist

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