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When God Comes Down
An Advent Study for Adults
By James A. Harnish
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
First Week in Advent
Zechariah and Elizabeth: Waiting for the Sunrise
Scripture: Read Isaiah 64:1-3; Luke 1:5-80
"It is not we who choose to awaken ourselves, but God Who chooses to awaken us. ... Our discovery of God is, in a way, God's discovery of us. We cannot go to heaven to find Him.... He comes down from heaven and finds us."
Advent begins with a question that haunts the soul of every person with a sensitive heart. We hear it in one of the lessons for the first Sunday in Advent—Isaiah 64:1-3. The prophet Isaiah shakes his fist at the heavens and shouts:
If only you would tear open
he heavens and come down!
Mountains would quake before you
like fire igniting brushwood
or making water boil.
If you would make your name known
to your enemies,
the nations would tremble in your
Most of us know how Isaiah felt, even if we aren't audacious enough to speak it. There are times when we wish God would come down here with something that looks like real power to shake things up and set things right. Faithful people are often tempted to grasp for economic, political, or military power in the hope that by sheer force they can make things right (or at least make things right for their lives, their culture, and their nation), only to be disappointed when the reality they experience falls short of their expectations.
But this is not the way God comes, and it's not the way God makes things right. God comes down in a baby born in a nondescript cow stall in a nowhere place called Bethlehem among powerless people at the bottom of the social, political, and economic ladder. God slips in the back door through the same human sweat and blood by which every one of us is born. God comes down to save this world, not by what the world calls power but by the subversive and often hidden power of self-giving love. We will miss God's coming if we aren't looking in the right place for the right thing. Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn "Glory Be to God on High":
Glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend;
Now God comes down, He bows the sky,
And shows Himself our friend!
God the invisible appears,
God the blest, the great I AM,
He sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is His name.
A few years ago in a study I wrote called Rejoicing in Hope, I talked about the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth as a couple who "expected the unexpected." In that study, they offered an example of hope in apparently impossible circumstances. Their story also demonstrates much about the way God comes down, to them and to us. The Gospel of Luke tells us three things about them. First, they were both very old. They had lived long enough to experience lives filled with joy and pain, hope and despair, faith and doubt. Second, they were "righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord's commandments" (verse 6). They had developed a maturing relationship with God that was rooted in the long traditions of God's covenant with Abraham. Third, they had no children.
I have been blessed by the witness of folks like Zechariah and Elizabeth in every congregation I've served. Though none of them would claim to be "blameless," they learned to find God's grace in everything they faced so that their disappointments, pains, and failures became the soil in which new life could grow. They valued the long traditions of the faith without allowing those traditions to become blinders that kept them from seeing the new things God was doing. They have encouraged, challenged, inspired, and guided me along the journey.
Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth "had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant" (verse 7). The older translations use the brutal word "barren" to describe Elizabeth's condition. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, there have been couples in every congregation I have served who have struggled with the challenge of infertility. Waiting and watching with young couples who long to become parents but seem to be unable to, I sometimes find myself shouting at God like Isaiah, "Why don't you come down here and do something about this?" All I can do is walk with them through the long journey of disappointment, of waiting and hoping.
There is more in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth than just the biological inability to have children. In the Old Testament, the inability to conceive captures the sense of helpless hopelessness in the face of what often feels like the absence of God. For the Hebrew people, the inability to bear children raised the ominous possibility of extinction for their people and an end to the covenant God had made with Abraham. Zechariah and Elizabeth faced a spiritual and theological problem that was even more profound than the biological one.
This story invites us to feel the spiritual emptiness, the soul-level longing, and the desperate hopelessness of the condition Zechariah and Elizabeth faced. They confronted a situation that was beyond their ability or power to change or control. There would be no new life for them without an intrusion of God's presence into the real, tangible stuff of their lives. God came down to them into the midst of their emptiness.
One day when Zechariah was serving in the Temple, the angel Gabriel showed up, standing beside the altar. It frightened the living daylights out of Zechariah, just the way angels always do whenever they show up in the Gospels. And just the way angels always do, the first thing this one said was "Don't be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard" (verse 13). Then Gabriel announced the most utterly unexpected and nearly unbelievable promise Zechariah had ever heard: "Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John.... He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (verses 13, 17). The angel's announcement left him unable to speak, but when the baby was born, Zechariah got his voice back and sang like a character in a Broadway musical. The song begins by celebrating what God has done:
Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help
and has delivered his people. (verse 68)
He has raised up a mighty savior for us.... (verse 69)
He has brought salvation.... (verse 71)
He has shown the mercy promised
to our ancestors,
and remembered his holy covenant. (verse 72)
The song is all about something God has done that Zechariah and Elizabeth never could have done for themselves. That's the point of a baby being born in the geriatric ward. It's also the point of the interwoven story of the unexpected pregnancy of a young girl named Mary who came to visit her relative Elizabeth. We'll miss the point of these pregnancy stories if we get hung up on the biological technicalities in them. Luke's purpose is more theological than it is biological. These stories are more about salvation than they are about obstetrics. God has intersected human history to accomplish God's saving, redeeming purpose for this world in ways that go beyond human power to contain or control. These are not the stories of our journey towards God. They are the shocking stories of God coming down to us to do for us and through us that which we could never do for ourselves.
Advent begins with the awareness that we cannot save ourselves. None of us can give birth to the life, love, joy, and peace that God intends for this creation by our own human power. Our only hope is the radical intrusion of God into this world by God's own power. Zechariah paints a beautiful visual image of this in the final lines of his song:
Because of our God's deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven
will break upon us,
to give light to those
who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace (verses 78-79).
We can no more cause God to come down to be among us than we can make the sun rise in the morning. But like the supernovae-searching pastor we met in the introduction to this study, we can train our eyes to see the light when it comes. Our task during Advent is to practice the spiritual disciplines that will prepare us to experience the presence of this God who, in deep compassion, comes down to give light to people who live in darkness, to reveal the dawn in the face of death, and to guide us along the pathway of peace.
So what can Zechariah and Elizabeth teach us about being prepared for God to come down to us? For one thing, they teach us the importance of faith that is steeped in the time-tested traditions of Scripture, worship, and prayer. I often remind my congregation that we can be religious without the Bible and we can be spiritual without the Bible, but we cannot be growing disciples of Jesus Christ without consistent, thoughtful, and prayerful engagement with Scripture. We cannot be prepared to experience God's presence in the present unless we are rooted in what God has done in the past. We recognize God coming into our lives today because we have lived with the story of the way God came into the lives of those who went before us.
Zechariah and Elizabeth also shared a lifelong discipline of worship. In fact, that is what Zechariah was doing when the angel appeared to him. I'm sure there were days when Zechariah wondered what he was doing there, times when he simply seemed to be going through the ritual the way generations before him had done it. But then the day came when an angel appeared and everything was changed.
Advent, which marks the beginning of the liturgical year, is the opportunity to re-energize our commitment to the disciplines of Bible study, personal prayer, and corporate worship. It can also be a time to experience some of the ancient Advent traditions by which saints before us have waited for the coming of Christ.
Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani at the beginning of Advent. He said that he could not imagine a better time to become a monk. "You begin a new life, you enter into a new world at the beginning of a new liturgical year. And everything that the Church gives you to sing, every prayer that you say in and with Christ in His Mystical Body is a cry of ardent desire for grace, for help, for the coming of the Messiah, the Redeemer." He discovered the way the discipline of worship "draws you within ... where you find God."
Something happened in the Temple that day—something so life-altering that it left old Zechariah speechless. It could be a reminder to us of the importance of silence as one of the ways we prepare for God to enter into our experience. The challenge is that our world hardly knows what to do with silence. And yet, we instinctively know how profoundly we need it.
A lead editorial on "The Joy of Quiet" in The New York Times described people who pay $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in California "for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms." The writer described "the urgency of slowing down—to find the time and space to think," suggesting an "Internet Sabbath" by turning off online connections from Friday evening to Monday morning as a way "of sensing not what's new, but what's essential."
When was the last time you experienced silence? Real silence. The living silence of the earth or sea. With that question, my mind flies across the miles and time that separate me from my first photographic safari to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. We stood on a cliff looking out across the Great Rift Valley that stretches down through the spine of the African continent. When the vehicles stopped and the engines were shut down, we felt the power of immense silence that was fully alive with the greatness of the earth and utterly devoid of the noise of our hyperactive, mechanized world.
I have experienced the same kind of silence in the Great Smoky Mountains, in a hillside monastery in Kentucky, and along a quiet river in rural Florida. And sometimes, though not often enough, I know that same silence when I am alone in prayer. It's a silence that is pregnant with the presence of God, who gives birth to new life in barren places, new light in the darkness, and new hope in the midst of despair.
We would like God to come down with some display of power that would shake the earth and instantly reorder our lives. But instead, God comes down on a "silent night, holy night" when Christ is born to people who have trained their eyes to see his coming and prepared their hearts to receive him.
A Methodist pastor in South Africa who waited, watched, and worked for 40 years to see freedom come to his land told me about times when things seemed hopeless. During those times, he would cling to the words of a hymn by Henry Burton, "There's a Light upon the Mountains":
There's a light upon the mountains,
And the day is at the spring,
When our eyes shall see the beauty
And the glory of the King:
Weary was our heart with waiting,
And the night watch seemed so long,
But His triumph day is breaking
And we hail it with a song.
The promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth was, of course, fulfilled. The child was born. Zechariah got his voice back and burst into song. In the same way, Christmas will come. Even the Grinch learned that there was no way to stop it. The dawn will come. But the invitation of Advent is to prepare our ears to hear, our eyes to see, and our hearts to experience the way God comes down.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. How have you experienced the longing expressed in Isaiah 64:1-3?
2. What is your impression of Zechariah and Elizabeth? How do you picture them? In what ways does their story speak to your life?
3. How have you seen or experienced spiritual barrenness? What was it like? As you reflect on this experience, how do you think God was present for you?
4. Read Luke 1:67-79. What images or phrases in Zechariah's song speak most deeply to you? What do they say to you about the presence of God?
5. The study lists three essential disciplines that prepare the way for God to come to us—Scripture, worship, and silence. How have you experienced these disciplines? Which one needs your attention during this Advent season? How will you practice it?
Read or sing Phillips Brooks's carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem." How can Brooks's prayer become a reality for you?
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Focus for the Week
Advent is the time when we prepare ourselves to experience the coming of Christ. During the coming week, practice one spiritual discipline such as prayer, silence, or Scripture reading that will help you open your eyes, your ears, your heart, and your mind to God's presence.CHAPTER 2
Second Week in Advent
Joseph: Faithful Obedience to the Undressed God
Scripture: Read Matthew 1:18-25
"Jesus is God simplified. God approachable, God understandable, God loveable. ... Jesus is the last word that can be said about God.... The Christian faith is not a set of propositions to be accepted—it is a Person to be followed."
E. Stanley Jones
The provocative title of this week's study comes from a 17th century Anglican priest and poet named George Herbert who wrote:
Hast thou not heard, that my Lord Jesus di'd?
Then let me tell thee a strange storie.
The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glorie,
Reserv'd to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.
It's a strange story, all right. The gospel is the shocking story of the way the Almighty God stripped off "his majestic robes of glory" and came down to be Immanuel, God with us, "undressing all the way." Charles Wesley expressed the same idea in the hymn "Glory Be to God On High":
Him by the angels all adored,
Their maker and their king;
Lo, tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring;
Emptied of His majesty,
Of His dazzling glories shorn,
Our being's Source begins to be,
And God Himself is born!
See the eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of Man,
Now dwelling in an earthly clod
Whom Heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, look at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies
Low humbled to the dust He is,
And in a manger lies!
We'll never feel the impact of what happened in Bethlehem until we are shocked by it. The Almighty God came down to be born from Mary's womb --wet, screaming, helpless, and naked in the same way every one of us was born. William Sloane Coffin called Jesus "a window to divinity, a window revealing as much of God as is given mortal eyes to see." Paul affirmed this shocking claim when he pasted a hymn from the life of the early church into his letter to the Philippians:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal
with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself
in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming
obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross (2:6-8).
Excerpted from When God Comes Down by James A. Harnish. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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