Sometimes celebrating the glory of hope means first making a trek unbidden into the wilderness.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear.
400 years of silence. With the closing message of the book of Malachi, the very heavens seemed to close, impenetrable. And God’s people waited. Through war, invasion, occupation, they waited. Through heaving uprising and the sullen quiet of peace, they waited. They withered. The ground of their hearts grew hard, crusted over by the barrenness of generations.
Waiting for the breakthrough of promise. Waiting for the deliverance of Messiah. Waiting for the reminder that eternal covenant had not been forgotten, that fruit could once again be borne in that bleak desert land.
Waiting for the hope of Christmas.
Like Sarah, who laughed mirthless in barrenness because her hardened heart couldn’t receive the joy of declaration.
Like Hannah, who wept despairing in hopelessness because her barrenness seemed to whisper abandonment.
And we, with unbelief underscored by years of disappointment, we also wait. With tears of bitter hopelessness rushing into a cesspool of discouragement, we wait. The barrenness can seem too much, and the hope of redemption, too late.
In angelic shout of triumph, the moment arrives. The planned-from-before-the-beginning-of-time moment breaks forth and God comes down to shatter the silence. It’s that glory moment, and heaven tingles with anticipation.
Once again, it’s the barren place which is chosen to become the fertile incubator of life. God declares over Zechariah that his childless wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son, the very one who will fulfill that final prophecy of Malachi. And in his astonishment, the hidden cache of his heart is exposed. Unbelief.
It’s been too long, Lord. Too much time in this barren wasteland. Too much pain and silence.
Zechariah embodies the spirit of his generation, embracing a spirit of heart-hard, wilderness-wandering unbelief.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
The best parts of the Christmas story, of every story, start with those God-breathed, divine declarations. For the God who declared, “Let there be Light! (Gen 1:3)” is the same God who stoops down to our withered hearts and breathes LIFE.
He’s the faithful, mighty God of declaration. It flows out of His character like a cleansing river of unending hope. Life-transforming, world-impacting declarations.
And He declares to the barren place,
“’Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,’ says the Lord. ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities (Isaiah 54: 1-3).'”
Sing. Cry Aloud. Stretch forth.
Make ready! Redemption is about to overwhelm this parched land like a flood. Lengthen your cords! Strengthen your stakes!
Those ancient nomadic folk would have easily grasped the metaphor. Their tents, patched together with pieces of goats’ skins, were often stretched out to contain the blessing of new life or increased possessions. The cords were then lengthened to hold in place the expanded skins. The stakes, firmly hammered to anchor the enlarged dwelling, were secured.
Cords of hope. The season of hopelessness is over. It’s time to catch hold of hope like a lifeline and stretch out, expand, move forward. It’s time to enlarge our scope and trust in His declarations which are sung over us, convinced that His promises never disappoint.
Stakes of faith. It’s time to believe. To strengthen our faith. It’s time to preach to our souls and to challenge them: “So be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might (Ephesians 6:10)”; “Be strong and very courageous (Joshua 1:9)”.
Those sinewy cords of hope are tied to faith. It is faith which gives hope its resiliency, its tenacity. Without those stalwart stakes, hope is lost and our heart’s home is placed in jeopardy.
Sing, O barren one, and cry aloud!
When, a few months after Zechariah’s angelic visit, Gabriel again comes to declare God’s purposes, heaven waits, breathless.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:30-32a).”
By faith, Mary stands in the gap for her people, believing what she cannot see, what all of her life circumstances have deemed impossible. And she receives the promise for her generation and every generation to come.
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word (Luke 1:38).”
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name (Luke 1:46-49).”
Christmas comes and hope takes hold in the wilderness of our hearts, burgeoning with life.