The very first chapter of the Gospel of Luke is full of all sorts of fascinating details. It tells the birth stories of both Jesus and his cousin, John the Baptist. The archangel Gabriel makes two earthly appearances, the first to Zechariah, announcing that he and his barren wife Elizabeth will bear a child. Zechariah cannot comprehend this news and responds, How will I know that this is so? For I am old, and my wife is getting on in years. Gabriel tells him that they will bear a son named John who will be great in the sight of the God and prepare the people of Israel to receive their Messiah.
Gabriel then appears to a young girl named Mary who is engaged to a man named Joseph. Gabriel tells her that God favors her, and that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and mysteriously impregnate her womb. Obviously, this complicates Mary’ s life, seeing as she is a virgin. Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her to bear his Son, Jesus, and that he will be great, the Son of the Most High, and his kingdom will reign forever. Gabriel’ s final words to Mary describe–but do not explain–the mysterious condition she and Elizabeth share: Nothing is impossible with God.
There is, though, a very interesting detail later on in the chapter that captures my attention. A few days after John’ s birth, Elizabeth and Zechariah look down at their baby and still ask, What then will this child become? (1:66). How many of us have looked into the faces of our own babies and asked this same question, What will this child become? Once he’d grown up, their son, John the Baptist, was certainly eccentric. A homeless man who wore animal skins and ate bugs. A cave man. A wild man. Driven by voices in his head to preach fire, brimstone, sin, repentance and baptism. When the Pharisees ask who he is, he replies, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. If his parents, when they asked, “What then will this child become?” had foreseen that their baby would wind up imprisoned and beheaded, they would have died of broken hearts.
Such an unusual man. And yet John prepared the way for one even more unusual than himself.
A beautiful baby boy venerated far and wide at his birth. A boy who grew up longing to worship and study in the Temple; a young man performing miracles and healing for Yahweh’ s people, a man who preached love and forgiveness of one’ s neighbors, a man who respected and coddled the outcasts the sinners, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the imprisoned, the lepers, the beggars. A man who implored people to have grace in their hearts for others. A man who loved his Father’ s people, even as they failed to live by His word, and indeed chose to die for them in an act of sacrificial and perfect love. This man, Jesus, was persecuted as a religious fraud, a liar, and was sentenced to die the most heinous of deaths as his mother, Mary, looked on. If Mary had looked into her baby’s face back in the manger and seen all that would befall him, she, too, might have died of a broken heart.
What then will this child become? Every parent looks into the face of their infant and asks this question. I surely believe that God, who formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, also looks into the face of every infant and asks, “What then will this child become?”
What have we–each one of us–turned out to be. This last Sunday of Advent is a good time to ask that question, and some others as well: How closely do we resemble what God had in mind for us? How responsive have we been to the power of God’ s love at work in our lives and in the world around us? Are we reflections, reminders, icons of God’ s love?
And what about those we love, particularly our children? How are we helping them become what God wants them to become? Are we helping them? We are human, after all. We are bound to disappoint God, disappoint ourselves, disappoint our loved ones, from time to time. Perhaps more often than not. Perhaps we assume that for better or worse, we have become what we have become–whether or not what we have become is what God wants for us–and that it is too late to make changes.
Is it too late for us? Is it too late to change, too late to shed the negative, too late to embrace the positive, too late to forgive, too late to reconcile, too late to become the people God created us to be?
Read my lips: NO.
It is never too late. We are works in progress.
Just the other night, I had a conversation with a friend who confessed that he had never really forgiven anyone. He said that he believes in forgiveness in his own life the way he believes in peace in the Middle East–as an aesthetic, a beautiful notion surely worth striving toward, but not a realistic goal. Not in this life, and not on this earth. I am an optimist, so this bewildered me. What made him think he could not change? What made him think he could not conquer the cancer of bitterness eating away at his soul? He said he readily ignores the smaller infractions. But he holds onto the ones that profoundly hurt him as a child or as a young teen in love. He claims his grudges have a half-life of 25 years. He regrets his grudges. He wishes to be free of them. He calls them a self-inflicted wound. And yet he claims that his grudges form the very contours of his personality–that even as they blacken his soul, they make his problems interesting. He claims that in some perverse way they nourish him, and that he’d be lost without them.
More important, he said that he is a creature of this age, a postmodern creature. He sees himself as a psychological being– as someone whose character was almost entirely formed at a very early age by his parents and by his DNA. He believes that personal change, if there is such a thing, is a matter of tweaking, but not fundamentally changing, what was determined long ago. He thinks that Paul on the road to Damascus is a nice story. But he does not believe that a person such as himself is capable of Biblical repentance–of literally “turning around” and taking possession of a whole new outlook, a whole new character. At best, he says, several years and several thousand dollars’ worth of therapy might equip a person such as himself with some “effective coping mechanisms.”
What do I make of my friend’s view of himself and his character? What do I make of his tweaking?
Read my lips: I’m not buying it. I wouldn’t presume to preach from this pulpit if I did. Here is what I believe: I believe that we can be turned upside down. I believe in the promise of Advent–of being made new.
I know that we can do more than tweak ourselves. We can turn around in heart, body and mind. This is another definition of God’s grace. It is the opportunity for transformation. It is given freely, but we have to be willing to accept it and make the substantive, difficult changes in our lives that require hard work, courage and tenacity. The journey from a false or old, broken self to a new, authentic and restored self is not one we travel alone. Mary was not alone. God sent her to Elizabeth in the early, critical stage of her pregnancy so Elizabeth could support her, allay her fears, love her without judgment. Keep in mind what Gabriel said to Mary during her visitation: “The Lord is with you.” We have God’s assurance that no matter how irrational, no matter how long it takes or how painful our transformation might be, God is with us–Emmanuel.
How can we begin to resemble what God had in mind for us at birth? First, let’s think of Advent as the season to cut compromise out of our lives, and out of our Christianity. To stop being halfhearted about our relationship with Christ, halfhearted about our physical and emotional health, halfhearted about our morality and love. We are to face up to the frightening words spoken by the Lord God in the book of Revelation when he said to the proud and wealthy bishop of the city of Laodicea: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spew you out of my mouth” ( 3:15-16).
As Christmas Day approaches, are you ready to hear the answer to the question Zechariah and Elizabeth asked? What will this child turn out to be? If your answer is “yes,” then you are prepared for your crookedness to be made straight and your rough ways to be made smooth. You are ready to receive the reality of God reborn within you. You will be the bearer of the Christ for your body is the only place where he may live on this earth. When you let Christ dwell within you, and when you share Christ with others, God will be with you always–Emmanuel. Advent announces wonderful and dramatic changes for us. And when you cannot believe, when you will not believe that Christ will be reborn within you, remember the words of Gabriel: Nothing is impossible with God.