Dec 4 Advent Reflection: Expect
December 4, 2015 at 1:01 am Categories: Digging Deeper
For an extended version of this reflection, click here
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing to the right of the altar of incense.Zechariah was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped 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 will give him the name John” (Luke 1:11-13).
They’ve been waiting. They’ve been remembering. They’ve been preparing. And now they are expecting.
But let’s be honest, this wasn’t expected. Even though it was an answer to prayer (cf. Lk. 1:13), it wasn’t one of those prayers you really expect God to answer, like a ‘traveling mercies’ prayer, or that wildly daring one about food being miraculously transformed into “the nourishment of our bodies.” This was a specific prayer. That’s the kind of prayer that leads to trouble, because as soon as you start asking God for things to happen that don’t ordinarily happen you have to start looking God in the face—and that’s where you’ll have to return to ask why it hasn’t happened yet. Specific prayers are fighting prayers
Keeping it generic helps us preserve a professional distance. Nobody’s personal space is violated. Nobody has to expect much from anyone. Praying for God’s will to be done in Elizabeth’s life is one thing, but praying that God would put a baby into Elizabeth’s barren womb is quite another. The answer—yes or no—will be empirically verifiable now. Everyone’s personal space is violated, God’s, Elizabeth’s, and the one standing in the gap between them trying to build a bridge between heaven and earth. Prayer like that has no social boundaries. That’s why most of us don’t pray them. We’d rather just agree to live parallel lives and avoid the discomfort that often comes at the intersection.
I once heard my father in-law say, “When you don’t see the hand of God, just know you can trust the heart of God.” The only people who say things like that are people who actually pray—because it makes no ordinary sense. As humans, there is no other way to determine how to trust someone, because hands are expressions of the heart. But this or that answer to prayer can never communicate the depths of God’s heart. And it may threaten to brings us only to God’s hand. That’s what happened to the Exodus generation. They starting out “groaning” into God’s heart (Exod. 2:23-25) and quickly ended up “grumbling” at God’s hands (Exod. 16). So God reserves only one place where his hands can be called the perfect expression of his heart (Jn. 1:18). It’s the one place he commands everyone to look to see his heart right through the center of his hands. It’s at the intersection, where Christ closed all the gaps. That’s where God prays.
Prayer is like a tuning fork. A tuning fork is tuned to one key, and only one key. It will vibrate if it gets close enough to something else vibrating in the same key. This is called resonance. St. Augustine once said, “You have made me for yourself, O Lord, and my heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” He was talking about resonance. Whether it knows it or not, the heart is trembling in its longing for a gracious God. That trembling feels like fear–and it should, considering–so we don’t expect to find any resonance with God. But it turns out, a gracious God is the only God there is. God has one Word to so say to this world, and he wrapped It in swaddling flesh to say it. In so doing, that enfleshed Word became receptive on our behalf. In Christ, we are tuned to the key of God. But it has always been there, at the center. David heard it. David’s salvation didn’t come by asking God “into his heart.” It came by storming his way into God’s heart. David took up residence there. Where else could he go? The Law condemned him. But God didn’t. That’s why you can hear the Gospel resounding before it even sounded in Psalm 51. Resonance.
God uses prayer to bring us close enough to himself that our hearts get in tune with his, because that’s how he changes our hearts. He shakes the grace into us. In time, it’s the life of prayer itself that proves God is gracious and can therefore be trusted with everything, even and especially with our sin. He’s a God who found a place for sinners right at the center of his heart. We come to know God’s heart when we resolve to bury ourselves inside it. Eventually, no set of circumstances can drown out that piercing sound of infinite grace and the island of peace it creates (Phil. 4:4-7!). Even when the answer is still no, even if I am being marched to the sepulcher, even when the sun forebears to shine—Even so…Amen.
But then, one day, God answers—because God does answer prayer—and the circumstances are changed. Zechariah’s world is changed. Elizabeth is expecting. And frankly, he’d stopped expecting it. Zechariah will have to reframe. But that’s tomorrow’s word.
For now, amen.