Joy and Gladness in Barren Places {An Advent Reflection}

I love that the story we celebrate at Christmas comes to us in so many voices.

Matthew’s gospel begins with a list—at first glance it looks just like a boring, skip-to-the-end family tree. On closer inspection it is a beautiful string of God’s faithfulness to His people and His promises. From Abraham, to David, to Jesus, God sees through the details of His good news.

Mark zooms in the story and skips the details of the incarnation altogether. He starts his story immediately from the shores of the Jordan River with repentance and forgiveness of sins, and of course the baptism of a Beloved Son on whom our good news will rest.

John zooms out the lens by launching his gospel on the memory of God who long ago hovered over the darkness and now once again enters it with the proclamation, “Let there be Light. Let Light speak and move and dwell among you. He is here; see His glory.

***

 Luke’s gospel is different. It is somehow paradoxically ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. His gospel begins with everyday kind of people doing their everyday kind of things being met with the extraordinary presence of God.

There’s something about the story of Zacharias that powerfully reminds me Advent—this waiting for the coming—is about God coming to me…and you.  I notice this tendency in us to believe that we’re too ordinary for God to care about the details of our lives; we are wallflowers in God’s story, unnoticed and unimportant to God’s big plans.

Here is what we know about Zacharias (Luke 1:5-7):

#1 He lived in the days of Herod—a king who used tyranny to accomplish ‘good’

#2 He was a “certain priest”—not High Priest, just your average, run of the mill Jewish priest doing the best he could with what he had been given

#3 He was of the division of Abijah {this is a whole other post, but Abijah was a son of Samuel (I Samuel 8); he perverted justice in Israel and was part of the impetuous for the people wanting a king and this is important…see #1}

#4 He was married to Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron—yes, that Aaron, the brother of Moses, the one whose feet traversed the Red Sea and whose fire molted the Golden Calf.

#5 He and his wife were “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” Their family story had some scandal, but they were working it out.

#6 “They had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were well advanced in years.” Barren. Empty. Many quiet nights turned into years of deafening disappointment. A family story with nobody to tell it to.

Barren. The word itself sounds sad; its cadence strips away joy and gladness. It thuds. It refuses to dance. It puts a lid on laughter; it smirks with cynicism. It is cruel. Like a random act of violence, it lacks logic…or love’s sentiment.  To be barren is to be lacking; it is to be pervasively aware that something missing.

Luke goes on tell how Zacharias, old in years, but doing what he is supposed to do, “by lot” is selected for the once in a lifetime opportunity of burning the incense at the golden altar in the temple. This incense was commanded by God to be burned twice a day as a symbol of the people’s prayers being offered up as a sweet fragrance.

What is a sweet fragrance to God can very well be a bitter taste for man. I wonder if it crossed Zacharias’ mind how empty his own prayers had been. How many prayers had been said and wept for a child? How much doubt filled his barrenness? Herod had nothing on the tyranny of hopelessness to a long awaiting heart.

While Zacharias is burning the incense, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him.” It strikes me as interesting that Zacharias was so troubled by this appearance. If you’re going to see an angel, next to the altar of hope in the temple seems like as good a place as any. Some might say that Zacharias became afraid because he was looking at an angel—AN ANGEL! I give them that, but I also think it’s more.

I always find it a little troubling when God finds me in my doubting places; when He trolls me out in my going through the motions of sweetness with bitterness and hopelessness engulfing my heart and He says, “Right here is the place of your unbelief.”

I’ve had some Zacharias complex in my preparation for Christmas this year. The tree is lighted, but I can feel the darkness of what feels like hopeless places. Songs sing of glad cheer, but some days I hum a melancholy tune for sad, unfinished stories. I am going through the motions, but peace and goodwill have not yet come to all my barren places.

Yet here is the good news of Zacharias’ story—God fills up our barren places. They are opportunities for Him to meet our secret, hard-to-speak, and tastes-like-bitter places with the sweetness of His remembrance of us individually, personally. We are not forgotten. We are not unnoticed. He hears our prayers. He sees our empty hope. Before God’s big plans of hope and salvation extend out to the nations, the good news of His love comes to a “certain priest”—an ordinary person, just like you…and me.

There’s more to Zacharias’ story—there’s the angel’s promise of a baby, who we will come to know as John the Baptist, the forerunner—the preparer of the way for Jesus. But first his coming makes a way for hope to grow in the hearts of his mother and father…and there’s a promise for joy and gladness (Luke 1:14). Yes joy and gladness will advent in the barren place.

***

What would it look like for us to be braver in hope for our barren places? Naming them truthfully seems like a good starting point. “Ah, that’s okay; I’m okay” just won’t cut it. Let’s be honest and say we are still longing after more of God and participation in His big story. Let’s pray what we name. Let’s not give up. Persist. Burn your incense of prayers, morning and night believing that they are sweet to God. Let’s not give up hoping–no matter how long our years progress or how aged our prayers may seem. The comfort of Christmas is that God speaks a beautiful Word and accomplishes an magnificent Work in the fullness of time.

As I reflect on what this can mean for me this Advent day, my hope is encouraged to renew heartfelt prayers for barren places. I will not allow fear to grip me and stifle out unbelief. I will not fear bravely and truthfully naming barren places; I will not fear hoping that God will fill them. I will treasure the barren places as sweet fragrances of trusting God, of knowing I am seen and loved and heard by Him. I will look to Jesus and see in Him all the best and gladdest tidings of knowing the truth of Elizabeth’s grateful heart, “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach from among the people” (Luke 1:25).

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