By Charles Redfern
Wilt in the desert while strolling through a meadow; feel drought in the lake; bear tedium while riding the wild surf. NASCAR is snail-paced. The ocean is too wet and there’s lint in my mansion and I can’t dig a ditch because gold clogs the ground …
It happens. We sign covenants with disillusionment, blinding ourselves to eventual blessings and mocking them when the blinders fall. We cuddle ourselves into the curse of unanswered prayer and cling to it when our wishes are finally granted. One example: Zechariah, a priest and father of John the Baptist, the sympathetic figure of whom we read every Christmas season in Luke 1:5-25.
The text challenges me: Am I like him? If so, how can I change?
I find odd comfort in verses 5-6: The best fall prey to this ailment. Both Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are “upright” and ever obedient, which must have intensified their dismay: Elizabeth’s barrenness brought cultural shame because God was supposedly punishing her. I can hear her mental barrage: “I’m honorable, I think … I’m decent, probably … I’m honest, or so I try … But did I unknowingly trip over the unforgivable sin?” And the interrogating cerebral committee must have cackled over Zechariah: “Who says your wife is pristine? Does she really do laundry at the river?”
Yet he stuck with her even when the rabbis said he could file for divorce (see the Babylonian Talmud, Ketthuboth 77a). What a guy. Really. He was a lemme-fix-your-muffler-at-my-own-expense guy. Even agnostics would drop in a prayer: “Give him a break, God – or, better yet, a kid.”
The blessings began unfolding in verse 9: He was chosen by lot to burn incense in the Holy Place, the outer half of the temple’s inner sanctuary. This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, a veritable priestly Superbowl, a ceremony few performed. Hint-hint, Zechariah: you are not cursed. Another blessing comes in verse 11: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense,” the first of 23 angelic visitations in Luke’s Gospel. Later verses reveal this is Gabriel, a mammoth whose name means “man of strength” and before whom Daniel cowered (see 8:17).
Goodbye to babies with wings.
Still another comes in the latter half of verse 13. Gabriel proclaims God’s deliverance: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John (meaning, “God’s gracious gift”). Elizabeth stands in the heritage of Sarah, Rebecca, and Hannah – special women bearing special children for special times. Many will rejoice; he will never drink (a promise for which many modern mothers long); he’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth; he’ll bring many to the Lord; he’ll minister in the spirit and power of Elijah as he prepares the path for the Lord. Hunt down the best Cuban cigars, Zechariah, because you and Elizabeth will raise one of the most important babies of all time. No doubt he’ll be a handful, but we’re glad to help as long as we can hand him back when he howls.
But Zechariah couldn’t handle the blessing: there’s drought in the lake and the surf is boring and the NASCARs are slow and the ocean is wet and there’s lint in my mansion and I can’t earn my paycheck in my ditch-digging job with all this gold in the ground! What gives? What’s a salt-of-the-earth kind-a guy to do?
The priest requests a sign (verse 18): “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Gabriel becomes even more non-babyish. Maybe he muttered: “Hel-lo! I’m an angel. And you’re in the Temple, the scene of divine revelation. And I’ve just give you three signs. And now you want a fourth? Fine: You won’t talk for nine months. Not a word.”
Zechariah is silenced.
He is not alone, of course. Many see the drought in the lake and the boring surf and the slow NASCARs and the wet oceans and the lint-filled mansions and the gold-clogged earth hassling our ditch-digging jobs. Our life-long curses become our friends, our warm blankets, our familiar teddy bears; they enwrap us. We don’t know we’ve abandoned our prayers even as we’ve mouthed them. Perhaps Zechariah was accustomed to a neat house with no temperamental rug-rats destined to assail the complacent (“You brood of vipers!”) and shout down kings. He reminds me of one muffled family: a father, who had withheld his affection for years, saw his errors and began kissing his wife and buying her flowers. She was enraged. She viewed herself as the prototypical martyr. She pulled out every trick from her bag of passive resistance to fend off the affection. Needless to say, the kisses and flowers were soon gone and the curse’s warm blanket returned. It was back to normal: Two people merely living in the same house.
Entire communities fall prey, including businesses: If only we were innovative; if only we ran like start-ups … if … but … might … maybe … If truth were told, we run innovators through gauntlets of passive resistance and inertia leading to exit signs – and don’t even mention those pastor-chewing churches soaked in fatalism masquerading as faith – especially the one packed with CEO’s and artists that smoked with potential creativity – except “bad things” plagued its past, and “the past” reared its ugly ghost at every idea. The church languished under the curse’s blanket.
Welcome to the good life
How do we avoid this trap?
I’m sure the answer is complex, but a starting point comes with Luke 1:26-38. Gabriel delivers the shocking news to Mary: She’s pregnant despite her virginity. God’s “blessing” could have prompted Joseph’s accusation and a village-sponsored stoning. She was in a mess – and yet, after a reasonable question, she declared, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Mary said yes to the mess that blessings inevitably bring. Her mess would include the vagaries of raising God incarnate (no tips from us on that one, Mary; good luck to you), the mystery of Christ’s ministry and the crucifixion’s grief. She said yes to the mess – and, because of that, she said yes to the resurrection, yes to the Day of Pentecost, and yes to the world’s largest religion in our time.
Curses can be neat. Blessings can be messy.
And that means we face a choice: Will we allow God to fling off curse’s warm blanket? Will we bear our own shivering as we become accustomed to a lifestyle of blessing?
It takes time. We’ll long to reach for the blanket. But we’ll soon find that our comfortable curses were smothering us. We’ll breathe again. We’ll feel the new energy. We’ll be wide awake again, no longer semi-sleep walking. We’ll love adventure and relish risk-taking. We’ll sing praises like Zechariah eventually did at his son’s birth (it all had a happy ending). We’ll swim in the lake, surf the waves, cheer at NASCAR, soak in the ocean, scoff at the lint, and mine the gold. No more ditch-digging curses for us.
And we’ll wish everyone a merry Christmas.