In this episode, we decode some of the basic confusion people have about the Bible and provide suggestions and recommendations for diving into the “shallow end” where you won’t drown in discouragement.
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“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”Luke 1:20 (NIV)
“I don’t know what to with never,” Wendy confessed to me one afternoon.
There are some moments in this life journey that are etched indelibly in my brain’s memory bank, and this is one of them. When the two of us were married Wendy inherited two teenaged daughters. Still, we had always desired to have a child together. After multiple surgeries and what seemed like endless months of fruitless attempts to conceive, Wendy’s admission of fear as we stood silently in our despair on the back porch felt like a giant weight on our souls.
The story of John the Baptist’s parents in today’s chapter holds a special place in my heart. There is so much happening in the subtext of Zechariah’s conversation with the angel Gabriel that is completely lost on any reader who has not walked through the long, depressing, desolate path of infertility.
A few of observations:
I find it ironic that Dr. Luke diagnoses Zech and Liz’s infertility as “Elizabeth was unable to conceive.” Perhaps there’s more to this story than is told. Nevertheless, having walked this journey I know that it’s also possible the low sperm count or poor motility were the culprits of their childlessness. Of course, this medical knowledge was not available in their day, but it makes me sad that Elizabeth got the blame.
I’ve been digging into the theme of exile on this chapter-a-day journey over the past months. The truth is that Elizabeth and her husband were in a personal exile of their own. When you are walking the path of infertility you realize that the vast majority of people don’t understand and it’s usually emotionally painful when they try. Furthermore, you’re not sure you want to talk to those who’ve been through it themselves. Those who walked the path and ultimately conceived are just a depressing reminder that it hasn’t worked for you. Those who never conceived are a reminder that “never” is a possibility which you don’t want to face and don’t know what to do with (a la Wendy’s confession). Infertility can be horrifically isolating for the couple going through it.
When the angel tells Zech “Your prayer has been answered.” My husband’s heart shoots back with a cynical “Which one?” If Zech’s heart was like mine, then there’s a section of it calloused over from month-after-month, year-after-year of fervent, unanswered prayers and wiping away his wife’s river of tears.
When Zech asks Gabriel “How can I be sure of this?” he is, once again, being defensive and protective of the hearts of both his wife and his own. Infertility is a vicious cycle of summoning faith, raising hopes, and having them dashed again and again and again and again. The last thing the elderly husband wants to do is put his wife through it one more time.
It’s easy for the casual reader to point the finger at Zech’s lack of faith. I’m sure many Jesus followers will hear messages this Advent season comparing Mary’s simple acceptance of Gabriel’s message to Zech’s rather obvious doubt. My heart goes out to the dude. He’s been made the Steve Bartman of the Christmas story for two thousand years, but I get where he’s coming from.
In the quiet this morning I find myself contemplating the long-term effects that disappointment and unanswered prayer can have on one’s spirit. As for what to do with “never,” Wendy and I worked through it together with God. We discovered, and continue to discover, deep lessons about joy, grief, faith, perseverance, character, maturity, and hope. At the same time, there is a lingering sadness that rears itself unexpectedly at odd times, which in turn pushes me back to the lessons already learned. I plumb their depths once more.
Still, if Gabriel showed up in my office this morning and told me Wendy was going to have a baby, I totally believe that the subtext of my reaction would land somewhere between sarcastic and cynical.
From Peter, an apostle of Jesus the Anointed One, to the chosen ones who have been scattered abroad like “seed” into the nations living as refugees… 1 Peter 1:1 (TPT)
I’ve always had an appreciation for Vincent Van Gogh. The tragic Dutch artist who failed at almost everything in his life, including his desire and failed attempt to become a pastor. The story of his descent into madness is well known, along with his most famous works of a Starry Night, sunflowers, and his haunting self-portraits.
I find that most people are unaware that one of Van Gogh’s favorite themes was that of a sower sowing his seed. He sketched the sower from different perspectives and painted multiple works depicting the lone sower, his arm outstretched and the seed scattered on the field.
This morning I’m jumping from the ancient prophet Zechariah to a letter Peter wrote around 30 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. In recent months, I’ve been blogging through texts that surround the Babylonian exile 400-500 years before Jesus. But that wasn’t the only exile recorded in God’s Message. Peter wrote his letter to followers of Jesus who had fled persecution from both Jews and Romans in Jerusalem. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, exile is a consistent theme in the Great Story.
At that point in time, thousands upon thousands of people had become followers of Jesus and were creating social upheaval by the way they were living out their faith. They were caring for people who were marginalized, sick, and needy. When followers of Jesus gathered in homes to worship and share a meal, everyone was welcome as equals. Men and women, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves and their masters were treated the same at Christ’s table. This was a radical shift that threatened established social mores in both Roman and Jewish culture. So, the establishment came after them with a vengeance.
Peter begins his letter to the Christian exiles by immediately claiming for them a purpose in their exile. He gives the word picture of being the “seed” of Christ scattered by the Great Sower to various nations. They were to take root where they landed, dig deep, and bear the fruit of the Spirit so that the people around them might come to faith in Christ. God’s instructions through the prophet Jeremiah to the Babylonian exiles could just as easily apply to them:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Jeremiah 29:4-7 (NIV)
And, in the quiet this morning I realize that it can also apply to me wherever my journey leads me. There is a purpose for me wherever that may be. I am the seed of Christ. I am to dig deep, create roots, draw living water from the depths, grow, mature, and bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, perseverance, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
I can’t help but think of Van Gogh, the failed minister who found himself in several exilic circumstances that inspired his paintings. I’ve read his letters, and I find that scholars tend to diminish or ignore the role of faith in Vincent’s life and work, despite his many struggles. Then I think of that sower who shows up again and again in his work. I can’t help but wonder if when he repeatedly sketched and painted the sower, if he thought about his works being the seed of God’s creativity he was scattering in order to reflect the light which he saw so differently than everyone else, and so beautifully portrayed. I find it tragic that he never lived to see the fruit of his those artistic seeds. Yet, I recognize that for those living in exile, that is sometimes the reality of the journey.
“Awake, sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the Lord Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.” Zechariah 13:7 (NIV)
For anyone who is not a regular, a quick explanation. For the past several months, I’ve been blogging my way through the texts that concern a specific period in Jewish history when the people were forced into exile by their enemies and then returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple there. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is in the middle of a year-long contemplation of exile as an overarching theme of the Great Story.
As I excavate the meaning of exile, I can’t help but escape the fact that suffering is part of the exilic process. I don’t find this a surprise. Followers of Jesus are told to expect suffering time and time again. Jesus was very direct:
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.”
Matthew 10:16-17 (NIV)
“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
John 16:32-33 (NIV)
As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.
Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”
Matthew 8:19-20 (MSG)
Of course, this line of thinking runs against the current of popular culture which tries to avoid suffering at all costs. As I mentioned in a post last week, God’s kingdom as Jesus presented it is typically opposite the kingdoms of this world.
In today’s chapter, Zechariah is once again envisioning events in the future, when a “fountain” is opened to cleanse the people of sin and impurity. Zech returns to the theme of the Messiah as Shepherd. The Shepherd is struck and His sheep are scattered. This is the very verse that Matthew points to in his biography of Jesus when Jesus is arrested and the disciples all run for their lives into hiding.
The remainder of Zech’s prophetic poem concerns a period of suffering, and it is fodder for scholarly debate. It could relate to any number of great persecutions that God’s people experienced. Many scholars believe that it dovetails with the prophecies of the book of Revelation. I find both to be reasonable conclusions, and I am reminded in the quiet this morning that prophetic text can be layered with meaning, so I’m comfortable with the answer that it is “both, and.”
In the quiet of this morning, I find my heart wrestling with the reality of suffering in this life journey. It’s not a question of “if” but of “when.” We heard an excellent message about this exilic theme of suffering yesterday. I received a text from a friend who said that the key question for him was this: “Who is God in my suffering?”
Scholars have chronicled a distinct shift in Hebrew prophetic writing during the 70-year Babylonian exile. The theme of their message shifts from God being the righteous judge to God being redeemer, sustainer, and the promised savior amidst their suffering. “Who is God in my suffering?” Some see God as the punisher. Some see God as an ambivalent spectator. Some choose not to see God at all. I can’t help but notice that Zech’s vision is of a suffering Shepherd, just as Isaiah did:
There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look. He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
Isaiah 53:2-3 (MSG)
At the end of today’s chapter, the suffering Shepherd and suffering exiles own one another. “This is my people,” God says. “This is the Lord our God,” the people say. Both walk the path of suffering and find one another along the way.