Advent Reflections: Unanswered Prayers, Part 1

The season of Advent began last Sunday, and it could not have come at a better time. I love Advent because I’m always ready for it. I’m rarely ready for confession at Ash Wednesday. Of for the repentance of Lent. And sometimes the joy of Easter may feel a little forced. But I’m always ready for Advent because it means “the coming” — and so it’s a season of waiting and anticipation. My life seems to be defined more by waiting and anticipating than by receiving, or at least it’s easy to see life that way. So Advent finds me ready each year to embrace it with a little dread but also relief — Finally! I can acknowledge that life is full of darkness, mysteries and unfulfilled longings, and I also want to believe that there will be an end to this longing and anticipating when faith becomes sight. Advent is “my” season.

Some churches make the mistake of equating Advent and Christmas, but they are not the same in the Christian calendar. Advent is a mournful time, a time of waiting and a time to be quiet before the mystery of it all. In the biblical witness, it’s a time of fear, of unexpected interruptions, and of the inbreaking of Spirit into the creation. “O Come, Emmanuel” is the song of Advent because it cries out with yearning for something to relieve the pain, to give us a new way of looking at our lives, and to take away the fear.

In the Gospel of Luke, the “Advent” texts of Luke 1-2 present us with three people: a priest, a young peasant woman, and some lowly shepherds who find themselves confronted with an angelic visitor. In each case, the angel shows up in the most ordinary and unexpected times to announce that the current anxiety in their lives is not something they should dread or fear but to welcome as the work of God. To each the angel declares: Do not be afraid.”

Zechariah was an old priest who had no children. It did not matter that he had a prestigious job, or that he and his wife Elizabeth came from prestigious families. It didn’t even matter that they lived righteous lives. There was something missing. Elizabeth suffered disgrace at the hands of her own people who called her “barren.” To be disgraced is to be removed from the means of God’s grace, which is exactly how ancient society understood a couple without children. The people thought that Zechariah and Elizabeth must surely have done something wrong to merit such an unfavored status with God. If they were without a child, they must have been removed from God’s grace. That is a terrible place to be if you are a priest and the wife of one.

It is a pretty safe bet that Zechariah and Elizabeth started praying to God as a young couple when they first discovered that they were having a difficult time getting pregnant. As the years began to pile up, so did the prayers that God would be gracious and grant them a child. Like the incense that Zechariah the priest offered on the altar, he watched his prayers rise to the skies, out of sight and evidently out of God’s mind. But every time he prayed to God, this longing for a child bubbled to the surface and he remembered that something was missing. Everything else had gone so well in life. Why was there one request that God would not grant? As the priest of the people, he longed for a Messiah. As a man without a posterity, he longed for a child. So day after day, week after week, year after year, he told his longing to God. But the answer never came.

One day Zechariah was called to enter the sanctuary to pray and offer incense while the whole assembly prayed outside the temple. This was so routine. Been there and done that. He had learned to accept a religion that was good for the soul but which offered little in the way of expectation. Zechariah’s religious practice remembered what God had done in the past but certainly did not expect God to do anything in the present. But this time while he was praying and offering incense, suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah inside the temple and said, “Don’t be afraid Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. You will have a son named John.” Zechariah said, “How will I know that this is true?” (Luke 1:18)

I’m struck by this scene. Zechariah has prayed for years for this blessing from God, and on this very day he was praying for God’s gracious intervention inside the temple. An angel of God appears and says, “Ok, you’ve got it. Your prayer has been heard.” And he’s shocked out of his – well, tunic. We expect him to fall to the ground praising God. Or to laugh like Sarah did. Or to go outside and announce to the people that his prayer has been heard. Instead, Zechariah can only ask, “How can this really be?”

We spend so much time praying the deepest desires of our hearts. At first, we are afraid that God would not give us what we want most. But eventually we become afraid that he will. That is because over the years we make friends with the longing. We trust it. In fact, we come to trust the longing more than God. We are not certain of God, but we are certain that our longing won’t go away. For God to answer our prayers and take away our longing would terrify us because we wouldn’t even know where we are without that old desire.

Have you noticed that we human beings prefer longings to fulfillment? We look forward to our vacation in a place we have never been. For months, we dream of that place and long to be there. Then when we arrive, we say, “I can’t believe I am here.” Somehow the longing to be there was more engaging than the actual experience of being there. One of the hardest things to accept in our lives is when our longings actually come true, when God finally answers the prayers you’ve prayed for years. The answer to your prayer is even more difficult to believe when it isn’t the answer you expected.

Like Zechariah, and like Israel, we get so used to our longing for a gracious salvation that we do not recognize the Messiah when He comes. We have grown more accustomed to asking than to receiving, and more accustomed to disgrace than to mercy. The disgrace with which most of us live is not that we are publicly branded, but that we are cast into a world that knows no grace. Believing that God will not intervene, or cannot intervene, in our lives we learn to shave down our great dreams and settle for a little happiness along the way.

As long as life doesn’t become too tragic, we know we can tolerate the fact that it always will be a bit dissatisfying. A middle aged manager doesn’t like his job, but thinks he is too old to start again. So he gives up his dreams for making a difference in the world and settles for making money. A single man or woman longs for a relationship that will provide them a partner for life, but having given up long ago, they just settle for a busy life and an occasional one night stand. A couple hoped for a great marriage but now they are just hoping they can find a way to tolerate each other and avoid divorce. All we really want is a little happiness that will put a shine on the dullness of our lives — that’s all we can really expect. So we just keep praying and accept the way that it is.

“Then there appeared to him an angel of The Lord . . . .” The angels never appear to those who have learned to pry a little happiness out of the world’s hands. The people who are good at settling for what they can suck out of life, like Herod, Caesar, and the innkeeper, never get a visit from an angel. Angels only come to those who keep the deepest longing of the soul alive.

The reason we have settled for a little happiness that we can earn or create is because we do not expect God to answer our prayers. While it is no fun for sure, we have learned how to cope with unanswered prayers. We distract ourselves with lesser things. But we are confronted with a different question at Advent. The question of Christmas is not whether you can cope with unanswered prayers but with answered prayers. Do you still believe God can bring salvation into the tired longings of your heart?

Zechariah gets nine months to think about this. During this time he cannot speak. What would a priest who does not believe that God answers prayer have to say? According to the Jewish Mishnah, we know that it was the custom for the priest after being in the Sanctuary of The Lord to walk out to the people and give the Aaronic blessing. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”

But because Zechariah did not believe that his prayers were heard, perhaps he could not bless the people. I find it even more remarkable that it was a priest who did not believe that God still acts in the world to answer our prayers. Those of us who have been around the church most of our lives often have the most callous faith. We do not know the reason why Zechariah was stopped from speaking exactly. But in a Gospel in which Luke over and over again illustrates for us the blessing of prayer in the life of Jesus, my guess is that Luke is making a point. There is no blessing in giving up your belief in a God who desires to answer your prayers.

Thankfully the grace of God is not limited by our unbelief. When the child was born, Zechariah saw the grace of God and his tongue was released after he wrote down the words, “The child’s name is John,” which means “God is gracious.” As Zechariah and Elizabeth discovered, usually grace shows up late, much later than we were expecting it. It arrives late enough to make it clear that God’s blessings do not come because we ask for them. They come because God is merciful. It arrives late enough to make it clear that the real blessing was talking to God while you waited. All along, you are talking to The Father who will never leave or abandon you.

The deepest longings of our hearts are not for the things we keep asking God to give us. The deepest longing is for God. And if that is true, then even unanswered prayer is a grace because the asking draws us closer to The Savior.

Luke begins his gospel by telling us about Zechariah who was unable to raise his hands and bless the people (Luke 1:22). Luke ends his gospel with these words about the departure of Jesus, “Then He led them out as far as Bethany and lifting up His hands, He blessed them.” (Luke 24:50-51) Luke seems to be saying that Jesus does what we cannot do. He believes what we cannot imagine. He is always the divine response to every prayer. What you will receive is not necessarily what you asked for. It’s better. It’s your Savior.

“Do not be afraid,” said Gabriel. “Your prayers have been heard.” Whatever it is in your life that is missing, whatever it is that you feel has disgraced you, you no longer have to live in shame and fear. Your prayer has been heard. Do you believe this is true?

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