Emptiness, Silence, Waiting

Christmas is coming soon, but Dec. 1 was the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent basically means “Get ready, something is coming!”  It’s our opportunity to enter back into our spiritual ancestors’ experience of emptiness, silence, and waiting for generations for God’s Messiah, God’s “chosen king,” to bring a final peace and stability to the land.  

Speaking of “the land,” this year, we are having "Christmas on Location” in the holy land.  So, we’re going do some good ol’ fashioned learning as we also contemplate the meaning of Advent and Christmas.  We are going on a journey together to discover that what has become holiday sentiment for many of us, happened at a real time, to real people, in real places.
Luke's account of the story (Luke 1:5-25) begins with "the time of Herod king of Judea.”  It was a politically divided, tense, and violent time and place.  Not exactly the way many of our Christmas stories are told.   But then the story takes a sharp turn!  In this corrupt and volatile place, “There was a priest” and his wife, both descendants of priests, and both seen as righteous in God’s sight.  These two are in stark contrast to King Herod.  But despite their righteousness, they were sadly unable to have children (see Elizabeth's description of her experience in v. 25).

The temple was an enormous complex!  The outer courts are where people would have been gathered to pray while Zechariah was inside the "holy place," the temple itself (through the double doors in the middle).  

The Incense Offering was given in the nave, which was adjacent to the holiest place,  believed to house the real presence of God on earth.  So, this was the closest Zechariah would ever get to God's presence...or so he thought.  
Priests function as mediators between God and people.  But nevertheless, Zechariah is surprised when he has an divine encounter with the angel called Gabriel!  The angel assures Zechariah that his prayer has been heard.  We don't know what prayer this means, but given God's response to the prayer (v.13) I'm convinced it refers to Zechariah's and Elizabeth's prayers to conceive a child.  
Perhaps understandably, Zechariah has his doubts and asks for a sign.  He is given one, though not one he might want -- the inability to speak until the child was born.  

And so, the beginning of the Christmas story, according to Luke, begins with emphasis on emptiness, silence, and waiting.
Emptiness: Earlier this week I asked the church staff to think of a time when emptiness is a good thing, and perhaps other times when it’s a bad thing.  (It’s good conversation starter over coffee, too).  For example, an empty stomach might be thought a bad thing -- unless it’s the moment before you dig into a delicious Thanksgiving meal.  Then the emptiness makes the meal taste even better!   Surely it was painful for Z and E to have a home that was empty of children.  And I know that this part of their story resonates with the pain some of you have felt as you’ve longed for children, too.  But without minimizing their pain, this story is clearly telling us that their emptiness set the stage for the Christmas story, the arrival of the Messiah.  They became like their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah -- miraculous parents whose child changed history.  They couldn’t have known that before today’s story.  But it would still happen.  It compels us all to consider how we might be experiencing emptiness this Christmas season.  
Silence:  Remember that as a priest, Zechariah’s job was to mediate God to the people.  Now, the people rightly concluded that he had a divine encounter.  But with the benefit of hindsight, I think there was much more to his silence than that.  This was the very beginning of God ushering in a new era, when God’s real, earthly presence would no longer need a human mediator.  In the language of the Message, an era when God, in Christ, would “move into the neighborhood.”  God’s presence would go from being mediated to being IM-mediate.  And what better way to demonstrate that immediacy than to silence this priest?  We can only try to imagine how frustrating it would have been for Zechariah to be unable to speak, especially as they prepared for their firstborn.  Like emptiness, silence can be undesirable, even scary.  But it is usually what we need to be more aware of God.    
Waiting: We know that waiting was very familiar to these people.  Their ancestors waited to be saved from exile.  And they had been waiting ever since then for God to restore Israel.  They were agrarian and waited for their crops to grow and animals to mature.  The entire pace of life was slower than most of us can imagine as we have everything from air travel to Amazon.  But...we still have to wait for some things.  Just last night, my mom, dad, wife and I were talking about how quickly time goes by.  But I remember one season that didn’t go by very quickly -- about eight months of waiting for our daughter to be born.  Time has flown by ever since!  But those months were one of the most acute seasons of waiting I’ve ever had (I can only try to imagine what the waiting was like for my wife!)  I was excited and scared, and time just stretched on and on. It seemed like our daughter would never arrive!  But thank God for the waiting, because it allowed us to get ready (even though when she was born we didn’t feel ready!)  Like Zechariah and Elizabeth’s experiences of emptiness and silence, this story compels us to ask about our own waiting this season.  700 years before today’s story, the prophet Isaiah gave God’s word to his people in exile: “They that wait on the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly with wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.”  

For Reflection:
- Emptiness: In what ways is emptiness painful for you this season?  Acknowledge to God that your pain is real and needn’t be glossed over.  But at the same time, this story is a reminder that even our emptiness can set the stage for God to work, even in life-changing ways.
- Silence: As the Christmas season begins, how do you feel about your experience of silence?  Does silence make you uneasy, or more calm?  Are your days already silent enough, and you’re excited to fill your ears with music, family, and friends?  Or are you in need of more silence, like Zechariah was, to become more aware of God in your midst?
- Waiting: In what ways are you being forced to wait?  What are you waiting for? What are you going to do as you wait?  How will you spend that time?  Does your waiting feel exciting, or burdensome? Or both?  What might the Holy Spirit be trying to tell you, or mature in you, during this season of waiting?  

Blessings this Advent,

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