Posted by Danielle DuRant on March 6, 2013Topic: FaithTopic: Human ConditionTopic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: MeaningTopic: New Testament StudiesTopic: Practical TheologyTopic: Trials and SufferingTopic: Worldview
C.S. Lewis writes, “God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because were still looking for the old one.” Perhaps this asking for and receiving of gifts taps into our deepest hopes and fears.
An amusing commercial aired in Atlanta during the Christmas season. Five friends gather around a fireplace to exchange gifts. When one recipient opens her package, she exclaims with a fake beauty contestant smile, “Oh, a kitty book! Now everyone will know I’m still single! Yeah!” Another chimes in enthusiastically about his unwanted gift, “Oh man! This is gonna go straight in the trash!” No one is subtle about their jovial dislike of what they receive, and so the narrator advises, “Give a better gift this year.”
Besides the obvious humor, the advertisement’s appeal highlights our own cognitive dissonance. While we may share similar feelings about certain gifts, few of us would blurt out, “What were you thinking?!” And yet, sometimes we may not hesitate to say such words to God.
In C.S. Lewis’s last book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, he confesses,
I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission not only towards possible future afflictions but also towards possible blessings. I know it sounds fantastic; but think it over. It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean? On every level of our life—in our religious experience, our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic, and our social experience—we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and deprecating all other occasions by comparison. But these other occasions, I now suspect, are often full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because we’re still looking for the old one.1
I am reminded of the story of Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, which Luke records in the first chapter of his Gospel. Elizabeth is barren and they are both well advanced in years. Unlike Abraham and Sarah—and even Simeon—as far as we know, Zechariah and Elizabeth have not been given any promise of a child. They are living in a period of silence, as some Bible scholars call it: it has been over 400 years since God spoke of a coming Redeemer and his forerunner through the prophet Malachi. Nevertheless, Zechariah and Elizabeth hold onto God; as Luke tells us, “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (Luke 1:6).
Year after year faithful Zechariah serves in the temple, and one day the lots fall to him to perform the evening offering—a once in a lifetime privilege. He is alone at the altar of incense when suddenly an angel appears. “When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear,” writes Luke. “But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord’” (Luke 1:11-15a). The angel adds that Zechariah’s son will be a forerunner to the Messiah to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (verse 17).
The name John is significant because none of Zechariah’s relatives share this name and, as it is still today, it was customary to name a firstborn son after his father.2John is a Greek form of the Hebrew phrase Yohanan, meaning “God is gracious.” Hebrew scholar Skip Moen offers this insight about the word gracious:
This single word describes an elaborate picture. It creates an image of two parties; one who has a gift to give and the other who is in desperate need of the gift. However, the imagery does not convey the idea that the giver patronizes the recipient with the needed gift. There is no suggestion of condescension here. Rather, the picture is one of a deep, heartfelt concern on the part of the giver so that the gift is granted not from anything that the recipient may negotiate or earn but out of compelling mercy. When the Old Testament uses this verb of God, it conveys the idea of God’s unmerited but nevertheless unlimited love for His children. God willingly favors us with His love and blessings entirely because He chooses to pour His mercy upon us.
The reason we need mercy is the result of our rebellion toward His unfailing love. From any other perspective, this would be the last reason to grant favor. After all, we have done everything contrary to God’s intentions and wishes. Nevertheless, God loves us even though we have treated Him as an enemy.3
Strangely, the angel’s announcement to Zechariah that God has answered his prayer is met with distrust: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (verse 18). Zechariah rejects the very gift he has longed for because he is completely focused on wanting tangible proof of this promise. As Lewis describes, God shows him a new facet of his glory, and he refuses to look at it because he’s still looking for the old one. Perhaps this is because he and his wife have lived for decades with disappointment and heartache—barrenness in their culture symbolized shame, scorn, and God’s supposed disapproval. Whatever his reason, he is struck dumb until Elizabeth gives birth and they bring the child to the temple where Zechariah encountered God’s messenger. There Zechariah acknowledges God’s gracious gift and “to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God” (verses 63-64).
Zechariah’s struggle and namely, the asking for and receiving of gifts, often taps into our deepest hopes and fears. Maybe you can sympathize with his initial refusal to receive the good that God offers him. You have known disappointment and loss. You may be grateful for untold blessings but still wonder why God doesn’t answer a particular prayer. Or, you may be hesitant or even resistant to trust a God who is unpredictable.
In such places, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth—or of Abraham, Hannah, and Joseph—can speak intimately into our lives. Then there are those around us, like quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, who regards her wheelchair and recent cancer as a gift, for they have “pushed her deeper into [God’s] embrace… convincing her that she’d rather be in her chair knowing Him, than on her feet without Him.”4 Those are sobering words, and a gift few of us would want to receive. And yet, as Lewis suggests, perhaps our circumstances are “full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it.” Indeed, as we consider the wonder of God’s mercy, we might find gifts shining with the brightness and magnitude of a God who, as Zechariah discovers, has come to his people and redeemed them …
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of [his] tender mercy…
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.5
Danielle DuRant is director of research and writing at RZIM.
1C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Mariner Books, 2012), 26.
2See Luke 1:59-61.
4See Joni Eareckson Tada speaking about her life at http://www.joniandfriends.org/television/id-rather-be-wheelchair-knowing-him/. Regarding her cancer, see Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013).