Christmas and the Disappointed Faithful

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David…
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.[1]
 
So prophesied the aged priest, Zachariah, his cup overflowing. For decades, Zachariah’s life, together with that of his wife, had been a story of disappointed faithfulness. Having lived blameless lives, true to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord, both were “righteous before God.” And yet, things had not gone as promised or expected. There was no greater disappointment for a Jewish couple than to be without child. Given the Psalm’s promise to those “who walk in His ways” that “your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” [2] to be without child was for Zachariah and Elizabeth to be among those forsaken by God, abandoned not only to profound personal disappointment but to public disgrace. Their very names seemed a mockery. Zachariah means “Yahweh has remembered.” Elizabeth means “God has sworn.” Yet, God seemed to have forgotten and foresworn. They were among the disappointed faithful. But then, as a preliminary to Christmas, “there appeared to him [Zachariah] an angel of the Lord” declaring beyond all hope, the unfathomable words:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.[3]

The world has two kinds of people, the disappointed faithless and the disappointed faithful. Since the time of Adam and Eve, the world has disappointed,  and, when left to itself, the world will always disappoint. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. And, this is why we need something so completely unexpected, so completely gratuitous, as Christmas. Christmas is the story of God decisively breaking into history on behalf of the disappointed faithful. We must not demand, and we cannot control the coming of our personal Christmases, any more than the nation of Israel could demand or control the first Christmas. But we can remain faithful knowing that He has come, knowing that He is here, knowing that He is coming. Such is the invitation, the promise and the joy of Christmas.

May yours be a blessed and merry Christmas, particularly if you are among the disappointed faithful.


[1] Luke 1: 68-69, 76-79 (NRSV)
[2] Psalm 128 (NRSV)
[3] Luke 1:13-17 (NRSV)