God with us.
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel […] For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 7:14, 9:6).
These two verses from Isaiah respectively open the direct line to the story of the Advent: the arrival of Christ. I grew up in a church that hinged on the practice of bringing speakers from other churches to teach. Upside: new and exciting people; Downside: everyone wanted to preach about these verses and say the SAME thing, and so for years I pretty much tuned the story out – I know it and that seemed good enough. But I heard a message delivered by Andy Stanley last Sunday that made me not only want to revisit the discussion, but actually realize how much I had been missing in not being involved in the first place.
The story of Christ’s coming is the story of waiting, but also that of confidence and God’s fidelity in His promises, that even when things appear to be at an end they may be closer to their intended beginning. This has come at a unique point in my life as I find myself very much at a cross road in the way of choices and many are time sensitive. I have come to the point of being much closer to giving up, but the call that tugs at my mind is to be brave… But this story, this truth, this confidence: this changes everything.
God offered king Ahaz the opportunity to ask for a sign of the surety of the salvation of Judah that could be “has high as heaven or as deep as hell”, which Ahaz refuses because (he’s an idiot, I mean) he is concerned with testing God’s patience and – in some frustration – God sets a sign Himself through the words of Isaiah that a virgin will bear a son (7:9-14). Immanuel comes from the Hebrew roots: Immanu “with us” and El “God”, or “God with us”. The unique aspect of this event as a sign is that it is indefinite in the nature of time. Ahaz needed assurance for a problem that was at his door, but pregnancy takes nine months, which would have been too late in that circumstance. The salvation Israel needed was not from this political crisis. This was near the year 735.
Fast forward almost 800 years.
Luke opens with the scene of Zacharias, a priest in Israel and a righteous man, offering the incense offering while the multitude prayed outside; this was a customary offering that took place in the morning and the evening (Ex. 30:7-8) within the Holy Place; Zacharias was performing a sacred task outside of the eyes of masses when an angel comes to him. When you stop to think about it, it is worth a chuckle at least – this was a hugely important task in a time of silence and angels customary greeting of do not be afraid isn’t because they are super pleasant to be around – or at least have them popping up on you.
“Do not be afraid Zacharias, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will give him the name John. […] for he will be great in the sight of the Lord […] and he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” – Luke 1:13-16
Zacharias first response is uncertainty, probably for several reasons, because he is old and his wife Elizabeth is “advanced in years”. This means that they are far beyond the time of bearing children and have been praying for this for many years and it has not come about. This story alone brings out several interesting points in the story because this little family is itself a metaphor of the history of Israel over the past 800 years as everything Gabriel mentions that John the Baptist will address were everything God had problems with in this people, but primarily that is hope beyond the work of man: being a miracle, a sign to THE SIGN.
“I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news. And behold you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in the proper time” – Luke 1:19-20
When we say the name Immanuel it sorta just rolls off the tongue. It’s written into Christmas songs, it is said in passing, but it is something amazing when we start to think of it. Israel was given the promise “God with us” and after the ministry of Malachi, nothing is recorded from God to Israel and for over 300 years He is silent. Gabriel shows us after all these years and says: “Your prayers have been heard” and “appointed time”, which means not only did Zacharias and Elizabeth’s prayers always come before God, but he had this date circled on His calendar when He first spoke to Ahaz – even though it seemed to Israel that the fun and games were over and everything was met with the silence of God.
God’s silence doesn’t mean He isn’t listening, and His silence doesn’t mean He doesn’t care. The promise “God with us” still marks us with His seal of approval even when our prayers are answered by the silence of God, but there is still some threshold, some piece of information, we don’t yet have. We wait for the days circled on HIS calendar, not ours. Those He has appointed for our lives. Patience is not the means to an end, but rather the end itself. Our results and God’s results look different; although sometimes I think it would be enough just to hear the message: “Lyle, your prayers are heard” – but I suppose I already know the answer.
I understand that waiting on God can be complicated. It’s difficult to go through troubling waters and feel a loss of control of circumstances, or just raw pain. I have had five friends tell me about things in the past week that they are struggling with but can’t control. I don’t have the answers, but since this message fell into my lap I can give that hope to them. I typically don’t mind waiting if I know what I’m waiting for, but it becomes a burden when I start to wonder if I could be wrong, like showing up to a concert that is already over, but really in the uncertainty I grow into this fact: God will defend me, I will wait on my King.
To those burdened, hurting, or waiting, I want to leave you with this – write it down… no, seriously, do it.
“Sooner than you think, but later than you wish; only be content with your Lord’s timing” – The Interpreter, Pilgrim’s Progress.
it is yet for the appointed time; It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; for it will certainly come, it will not delay. – Habakkuk 2:3