Read: Luke 1:1-22, 56-66 (click on passages to read)
I love surprises. To my poor husband's chagrin, I have refused for years to participate in the shabby tradition of telling him what to get me for Christmas. I know it's a practical way to exchange gifts, and one that lots of people prefer, but to me, Christmas without surprises is like a cupcake without the frosting. I still eat it, but feel like I've somehow missed out on the best part.
I know I'm in good company here, because when you read the stories of Christ's birth, it is easy to see that God loves surprises too. Take the first narrative Luke unfolds for us, where an unknown priest shows up for his annual ministry at the Temple and gets waylaid by an angel as he burns incense on the altar. When Gabriel announces Zachariah's role in the grand Gospel story, Scripture says he became paralyzed with fear. Terror soon gave way to cynicism, however, as the angel promised him the surprise of his life--a chance to father a son in his very old age.
The thing about God's surprises is that so often they come when hope is gone and dreams have died. Not only had Zechariah given up on having a son, but he was one of millions of Israelites who had heard nothing from God for over 400 years. Think of it. For ten generations there had been no angel visitations, no angry prophets, no clouds by day or fires by night, no temples filling with smoke or Mount Sinai's quaking with the glory of the Lord. It would be safe to say that most of God's children were living with little anticipation of the promised Messiah showing up to free them from the tyranny of Rome.
But the blessed truth about God's surprises is that so often, just when we feel as if time has run out, God breaks in and we realize He had a plan all along. In His sovereign wisdom, our heavenly Father has been carefully lining things up, preparing the way for break-through, even though we are oblivious to His ways and at times have given up completely. Yet as we look back, we see how every detail of of God's plan was perfectly chosen with our best interests at heart.
In this story, for example, Zachariah had left the hills of Judea to come to the busy metropolis of Jerusalem. He was not ministering at the temple alone in the early morning or late at night, but at mid-day, when the crowds came to offer prayers and hundreds would see him come out and know that something supernatural had occurred. And though Zachariah came as a priest to perform his temple duties once a year, this was the only time in his life when the lot fell for him to enter into the holy of holies. Surely this was no coincidence. What better place to be ambushed by God?
All in all, when you consider what would soon unfold, God had a pretty novel idea to kick the whole thing off. Not only did an old man get a wish that he'd long ago given up on, but his miracle baby would prepare the way for the fulfillment of the greatest promise ever given, the coming of the Messiah.
So as we enter the final stretch before Christmas, let us ponder deeply the story of a faithful priest and the people of God who endured 400 years of Sovereign silence. May we hold onto hope and take delight in the reality that we have a heavenly Father who, when least expected, loves to come crashing into our world with glorious surprises.
Are there areas of your life where you have given up hope of God breaking in? Do you long for some fulfillment of a promise, some sign that God is here for you? If so, reflect on this story and offer these things to the Lord, asking Him to give you fresh hope in Him. Be as honest as you can with the Lord, but end with an affirmation that He will accomplish His purposes in His time, just as he did with Zechariah. Write your thoughts to the Lord in a journal.
Zechariah burst out in praise as soon as God loosened his lips. Read his words below aloud, personalizing them as your own prayer of praise to God.
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 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 in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
Plan a way to surprise someone who might least expect it today. As you experience the joy of doing so, reflect on how God takes pleasure in bestowing surprises upon you, his child.
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Tricia McCary Rhodes
Passionate about spiritual formation, slightly obsessed with technology and the soul, author of 8 books, affiliate professor at Fuller Seminary, wife of one, mom of two, grandma of four.