When my kids were little, one of our Christmastime traditions were the chocolate treat filled Advent calendars. We had one for each boy. We generally kept the calendars somewhere fairly visible. Because it was chocolate – things had to be monitored. And believe me, I could no more be trusted with chocolate in the house than my young boys! Anyway, with each passing day my boys would open the window to get their treat which in turn adjusted the number of “Days left until Christmas” on the calendar. Depending on which family member you asked and depending on the proximity to Christmas morning, the countdown could lead to either pure joy or sheer panic.
All in all, these “countdown” calendars serve to remind me of our presnt-day impatience and of the fact that we will go to great lengths to avoid waiting. This isn’t only true at Christmas of course, it is true in much of life — we dislike waiting for phone calls, waiting for lab results, we loathe the idea of being the fourth or fifth person in line for the cashier at the grocery store – or even the second or third! In this instantaneous world that we all live in where life seems to happen at ever increasing speeds, the idea of waiting is often met with outrageous indignation. On the rare occasion that Jeff and I drive to the Claremont Village for dinner I become so agitated if I have to wait for a parking spot. And heaven forbid if I have to enter the parking structure! I’m a resident! I shouldn’t have to wait! There simply is no getting around the fact that no matter how much we dislike it and no matter how much our modern world suggests otherwise, waiting remains a regular part of life.
When you think about the broader story that results in Jesus’ birth, the idea of waiting permeates almost every aspect of the account. From a broad standpoint, the Israelite people held onto the great hope of a promised and coming Messiah. Their hope turned into centuries of waiting. This reality was also true in terms of some of the more particular parts of the story such as our text for today regarding the equally miraculous birth of Jesus’ relative and contemporary John the Baptist. Like Jesus, John’s birth was an amazing event and it was unique in its own right. While Jesus would be born to parents who were very young, John was the child of parents who were getting old. While Jesus was born to parents who were not even expecting a child at the time, John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth had long hoped for a child in vain and had already reached a point where they sensed that parenthood was going to pass them by.
Zechariah served as a priest at the temple of Jerusalem. According to the Gospel of Luke responsibilities at the temple were chosen by lot and on the day that Zechariah was performing his role at the altar of incense, an angel of the Lord appears and announces to him that his prayers have been answered, “your wife Elizabeth is pregnant!” Now, let me just say, that if the Archangel Gabriel (well known as the angel of revelation!) ever appears before me and says, “Dawna, the very thing you have been longing and praying for will be realized!” I suspect I pass out cold or at least fall to my knee’s and break into a sobbing puddle of gratitude and joy. But that is not Zechariah’s reaction. He comes back at Gabriel and questions how this good news is even possible. I find that fascinating! Does it mean Zechariah has been praying continually until this time for a child? That would be a very persistent prayer—like a peach farmer praying for a harvest in the dead of winter! Maybe the angel is referring to prayers that Zechariah offered to God long ago, before Zechariah’s face was lined with wrinkles and Elizabeth was past the age of childbearing. I would think that at some point Zechariah and Elizabeth looked up after offering yet another “Please send us a child” prayer and said to each other, “It’s never going to happen!” We don’t know. But regardless, Zechariah made space for the faithfulness of God by remaining faithful to his practice of prayer. Whether he expected his prayers to be answered or not he made space for hope.
Hope seems like such a simple concept – when you have it. But, ask anyone who has lost hope and you’ll get a very different answer. At its worst, hope can feel flimsy, like a fleeting emotion that has more in common with a party balloon than any measure of strength or trusted barometer for real outcome. Like Zechariah, we have a complicated relationship with hope. Unrealized hope has broken each one of us wide open – the job we didn’t get, the relationship that fell apart, the loved one we couldn’t save. We don’t fully give ourselves over to hope because we might be disappointed and we don’t want to be hurt. Jan Richardson writes that, “hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable”. Hope is not lost. It is just bigger than our imaginations. Bigger than the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning and purpose of life.
In July, just weeks before he was scheduled to return to school in Maine, my son Ethan announced he had a new education plan for himself, one that did not include remaining at his University in Maine; words that create anxiety for parents of college aged children. But, Jeff and I have learned long ago that Ethan has both the ability to be open to trying new things and the skill to create a plan of action. When he left for college in 2016 he did so to pursue a career in Conservation Law Enforcement – during the first week of orientation – before school even started he changed his major to “undeclared”. Having been exposed to the Maine way of life Ethan had become interested in hunting. When he came home for Christmas he researched, enrolled, and completed a gun safety course that would allow him to apply for a hunting license upon his return to Maine. When he came home for the summer, he had settled on a new major – Sustainable Agriculture, and he was vegan. Ethan lives his life on his own terms, he always has and I could not be more proud of him! However, when he laid out his new education plan to stay local, enroll in fire technology classes at Mt. Sac with the goal of being accepted into their very competitive Fire Academy program, I’d like to say I embraced it easily with great hope for his future. I got there quickly because I trust Ethan. But, in truth my first reaction was panic. What happened? Why doesn’t he want to go back to Maine? This wasn’t the plan! I like being an empty nester! Because I had only made space for this one scenario – that Jeff and I had successfully launched our children into adulthood and were now reaping the rewards for all our hard work – in a quiet, clean house with a full refrigerator, I was missing the fact that Ethan was demonstrating great maturity and bravely launching his own plan – pursuing his vision of adulthood! Ethan was making space for hope.
By the very next morning Jeff and I were on board. We even presented Ethan with our plan for how we would all live together again as roommates. And I must say! So, far so good! In fact, having Ethan home created new possibilities for Jeff and I to get away since he would be home to take care of our small domestic animal farm! Bonus!! We cashed in our tickets we had pre-paid to go visit him in Maine, applied them toward a visit to North Manchester, Indiana where our older son goes to school – AND there were still funds remaining in our travel account which created space for us to dream about another trip. The timing of all these events corresponded with Jeff’s 50th birthday so I suggested that we use the remaining travel funds for a birthday get-away. I determined three locations we could travel to that would be within our budget and gave Jeff the opportunity to choose between three different themes for the get-away:
- Spiritual Retreat.
He chose Spiritual Retreat. Maybe Jeff is incredibly enlightened or maybe he knows that music and birds would happen wherever we go! Either way, he chose retreat so I got busy planning a birthday retreat in Sedona, AZ. Keeping both the location and details of the trip a secret from him, I researched where to hike, where to eat, where to stay and what to see and I splurged on a 2-hour guided, sacred walk to kick it all off. Our guide took us into the red rocks where we were the only people for miles and extolled the power and sacred nature of the land we were walking on. We stopped at two perfectly beautiful spots along the way. At the first location our guide laid out a blanket and led us through a meditation that focused on relaxation and grounding. At our next location he led us through a practice of stripping away all the identities and roles we play that keep us from being vitally connected to our source/God. He explained that all we ever get is what we practice. If we practice working hard and trying to please people, what we get is working hard and trying to please people. He said what you make space for is what you get and asked us what it would look like to practice what we wanted rather than what we didn’t want. Over the last year I have faced a lot of change – in my personal life, professionally, in my church, and in the nation. I had no idea just how much time I was spending worrying about outcomes until I got quiet and focused only on the job of breathing and connecting to God. I had been making space for worry and it was wearing me out. In that moment I recalled being asked in a workshop I attended 3-4 years ago to identify three values that I consider most important in order to thrive. Those values were, and still are, creativity, vitality, and joy. When I remembered this, tears started rolling down my cheeks. Tears are a barometer of truth for me so I knew I had to pay attention. It wasn’t until I read this scripture and began to prepare for this sermon that I realized my prayers had been answered. I have been given the awesome opportunity to serve you in a new role as the Pastor of Spiritual Formation. A role that requires creativity in order to stimulate vitality and the choice is mine whether I decide to go about that in a fog of worry or with a spirit of joy. This was my, ‘Do not be afraid’ moment. I will make space for hope and chose joy.
Hope is not lost, it exists and is thriving in the small, quiet corners of our lives, and that is precisely how we lose track of it. Hope isn’t intimidated by the loud, soul crushing expectations, obligations, fears and worries that we carry around with us. Hope can hold its own but it doesn’t compete with the noise in our heads and in our world. Jan Richardson writes: “Hope does not wait until we are ready for it, until we have prepared ourselves for its arrival. It doesn’t hold itself apart from us until we have worked through the worst of our sorrow, our anger, our fear. This is precisely where hope seeks us out, standing with us in the midst of what most weighs us down. Hope has work for us to do. It asks us to resist going numb when the world within us or beyond us is falling apart. In the height of despair, in the deepest darkness, hope calls us to open our hearts, our eyes, our hands, that we might engage the world when it breaks our hearts. Hope goes with us, step by step, providing the sustenance we most need.”
This is Advent, the season of light. It is a time of hope, of expectations for what is to come again. It is a season of waiting, not a passive and inert waiting, but an active hopeful waiting lived in joy. What will you risk hoping for? Amen