Monday, December 17, 2012

God Is No Gentleman: An Advent Reflection

When the angel Gabriel visited our world, he went first to the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. There he met Zechariah, an old man who worked as a priest for the people.

Well, not for the people, exactly. Zechariah would walk behind the curtain separating the holy from the unholy, and then he would walk behind the curtain separating the holy from the holy of holies. Whatever he did back there, it was for the people only in the most formal, most clinical sense. Mainly he was what you might call a maintenance engineer—he did what needed to be done to perpetuate the temple system. He was rewarded for that work with prestige, prominence and power.

That's all well and good, but all the prestige, prominence and power in the world can't absorb the shame and hurt that a person feels when their secret dreams have gone unfulfilled decade after decade. Zechariah and his wife wanted children and didn't have any. So imagine the mix of feelings Zechariah felt when the angel Gabriel came to the Temple of the Lord and promised him a son.

One of those feelings is surely incredulity. In the face of this powerful promise the old man, on whom the faith of a nation was currently resting, griped to Gabriel, "How can this be?" Power, it seems, had come to mean very little to this priest of the Living God.

"Shut up," replied the angel Gabriel. Or words to that effect. And Zechariah did shut up, for roughly nine months, until his son was born and the Lord allowed him to speak once again.

Fast forward a little bit. The angel Gabriel had made his way from the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem to the little town of Nazareth, where he came upon a young girl of little account, named Mary. Gabriel greeted her with a very similar promise to the one he had offered Zechariah: "You will have a son."

"How can this be?" Mary responded, undoubtedly with the inflection of a range of emotions—one of which was surely anxiety, since as an unmarried young girl she would not be celebrated (as Zechariah likely would) but rather publicly shamed, perhaps even worse.

Whatever the angel Gabriel said to her, it surely wasn't "Shut up." Mary became pregnant, filled with the gestating life of the Son of God; but, as the angel Gabriel promised, she was also filled with the Holy Spirit and immersed in the power of the Most High. She would face challenges, most definitely, but God would be with her.

I've heard it said that God is a gentleman; he will not act upon someone without their consent. That doesn't seem to be the case with Zechariah, whose miracle child was imposed upon him. I think perhaps that God is less like a gentleman and more like a parent, who does us good sometimes against our protestations, but who asks sacrifices of us only alongside the promise of support and accompaniment.

The challenge for us is to recognize the good God gives us when we see it; and to recognize the promises God makes as he asks hard things of us. This is how we live well in the world, and, as Mary demonstrates each Christmas, how we bring God's good into the world.

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