Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Story

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion (Luke 1:24).

“Daddy, did you see Gabriel today?”

How many times had Zechariah come home from the temple to be greeted with this question from his little boy? It had become a kind of game that the priest shared with his son. Young John wasn’t seeking information. He wasn’t asking a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question of his father. The question was an invitation to tell a story. And Zechariah was never too tired to tell it.

“Daddy, did you see Gabriel today?”

The invitation extended, Zechariah would sit down and John would sit close, or sometimes crawl up into his father’s lap. The old priest would place his arms around the blessing whose arrival he had anticipated in long silence, and he would tell the story.

With every telling the moment was as real and stunning as the day it happened. The once in a lifetime chance to offer incense on behalf of the people . . . the appearance of an angel next to the altar . . . the announcement that Elizabeth would bear a child . . . the reluctance to believe that such a thing was possible . . . the absence of sound from his throat and lips . . . nine months of quiet watching.

John relished every detail. Zechariah was the story teller, but John always glanced toward his mother when it came to the part about how she had never been able to have a child. There was something about the way his mother smiled at that part. Her face was very old, but her delight in that piece of the drama made her seem almost girlish again. John eventually outgrew Zechariah’s lap but he never outgrew the tale. With every passing year, with every telling of the story, John learned something about his parents.

But most importantly, John learned something about God. The story of his birth taught John that God shows up barren places, that lifelessness is the hiding place of the Holy, that wilderness places are the stage for divine drama.

Maybe that’s why, when John was old enough, he went to the desert. His daddy had taught him that God is at work in barren, desolate places.


There is a barren place in every life. For Elizabeth it was her womb. That will not be true of all of us, but what we share in common with Elizabeth is this: our barren places are often a source of shame for us. Elizabeth called it her “disgrace.” If not disgrace, then at least deep regret.

We spend a fair amount of energy compensating for those barren places. We learn to move on and focus on more positive aspects of our lives. Our prayers from time to time will wander back to that hardscrabble place, but the fervency has leaked out of those prayers. They’ve become occasional reminders to God, nothing more. We learn to accept a certain amount of desolation: desolate career, desolate relationships, desolate dreams, desolate health. We are afraid to think that slightest sprig of life will ever emerge from those places.

But Zechariah’s story teaches us exactly what it taught John. God is at work in barren, wilderness places. What we need is courage to go to the desert. What desolate place in your life have you learned to ignore or tolerate? Advent is an invitation to go there and wait, for God has a way of showing up in the places we’ve given up on.

Once again, O Lord, I bring the barren places of my life before you. Give me courage to wait on you there knowing that you delight to show up in surprising ways in the places I’ve given up on. Meet me in those places during this Advent season, I pray. Amen.

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