“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.
These words begin the familiar advent text in Isaiah 40. They are words that remind us that God is aware of our need for comfort. We live in a world that provides its share of challenges and occasions for grief. This world often leaves us restless and unsettled. The advent scriptures and the stories of Christmas speak into our restlessness and inspire hope, peace, joy and love. And they bring comfort too! They are stories of ordinary people who are called from their comfort zones to be used by God in extra ordinary and amazing ways. And in a strange and unexpected way these stories of discomfort comfort us!
A fascinating snippet from the life of John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, inspires hope, brings joy, instills peace and displays amazing love.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are “getting on in years” as the Gospel writer Luke tells the story (Luke 1:5-17). They had longed for and prayed for children in the first half of their married life but no children had come; Elizabeth remained barren. As the years had passed this hope for children had faded and died.
Zechariah is a priest and he is on a week of Temple duty in Jerusalem. One day while offering incense before the Lord an angel of the Lord comes and stands in the sanctuary with him. He is shocked and terrified; “fear overwhelmed him.” The angel of the Lord, after giving Zechariah a moment to calm his breathing, shares this wonderful message of comfort.
“Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”
The next line however throws Zechariah for an unexpected loop and results in some unsettling discomfort.
“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”
The angel pauses for a split second but Zechariah’s mind and emotions are racing and his stomach is churning. That dream and desire for a child had been set aside long ago, that prayer hadn’t been spoken for years!
But here is the good news of comfort! God does not forget our prayers. God does not forsake our deepest longings. God remembers us! God knows what we need! And when the time is right God answers! Not always when, and in the way we expected, but always in the way we need.
One of my favourite Christmas scriptures is from Galatians 4:4-5.
4 But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. 5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.
God’s timing always ends up being better than ours! Although in the moment of longing we often wonder if that is true.
But back to the story. The angel continues…
14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth… even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him…, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
As the angel concludes Zechariah realizes that God has not only heard their prayer of long ago for a child, God has also heard the continuing cry and prayer of the whole people of God. Their prayer for a Messiah, a deliver, a saviour! God’s people had been praying this prayer for a saviour for a long time. They had a hope that went way back to promises made 100’s of years before. God’s people were waiting and longing for a ruler who would save them from oppression and restore their nation. Although they continued to pray and hope they had days and years where that hope was fading and turning to hopelessness. And now in this surprise visitation from the angel Zechariah comes to realize that his renewed hope for a child in his life is tied directly to a renewed hope for the whole people of God.
John, God’s answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer for a child, will become the messenger God uses to prepare the way for the Lord; for the Messiah the nation was longing for. John becomes a messenger God uses to bring a message of comfort to God’s people.
Walter Wangerin writes: “It is in the fullness of time that God answers [Zechariah and Elizabeth]. God answers them in the rich moment, when to answer at all does the most good for the most people!”
A way to hope, peace, joy, love and comfort is born in the reminder that God has heard the prayer of an ordinary couple and God has heard the prayer of a nation and people God so passionately loves. And God has heard our prayer as a congregation together and God has heard your more personal prayer too!
What is your deepest longing right now? What is that prayer you have been praying for months, maybe years? What is that prayer you have stopped praying? May the stories of Christmas and this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth inspire hope, bring comfort and give you peace.
“Do not be afraid ________________, for your prayer has been heard! ….”