Family is not a brood of vipers, but…

Holidays are abundant with family gatherings. Whether its for a meal, a party, a gift exchange, or just a movie night, many occasions occur that bring families close…in proximity…and hopefully  in relationship.

We hope for the best when we’re setting the table for Aunt Gerry to be near Cousin Frank…they have opposing political views. And Sister Margie who indulges in her quiet, single life can’t stand sitting near Brother Bill, the doting father of six curtain crawlers. Mom wants to sit beside Dad, but Dad wants to sit by Uncle Paul and talk football, which Mom discourages because the brotherly competition gets too loud every year…and then Dad gets snippy with Mom, which makes everyone uncomfortable.  And then there’s the question of where to put the wine…in the kitchen or on the sideboard…near or far??

Family. We share genes with them, but sometimes, that’s all we share. Holidays bring out the tension when we know we’re ‘supposed to’ get along with our blood-kin, but it’s just hard to do so. Even among people who all claim to be Jesus-lovers, there is judgment.

I was amused when I reread over the passage in Luke 1 (verses 57-66) that tells of the family gathering after Elizabeth and Zacharias welcomed their baby boy into the world.

‘When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah,  but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.  He asked for a writing tablet, 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.  All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.’

The family was thrilled that Elizabeth had given birth in her old age, shedding the shame of her barrenness. They came to rejoice with her. You can imagine how this went: the veteran mothers gave advice, while the younger moms were whispering that they had some new ideas about baby care. Some relatives wanted to help with housework and others just wanted to hold the baby. The men were probably helping Zacharias fix something outside the estrogen-crowded house, and any little cousins were chasing each other in and out and around the busy home.

Then, came the all-important naming ceremony.  In the reverent Jewish tradition, the priest presented the baby to God and gave him his Hebrew name–Zacha…what?  Imagine Elizabeth shaking her head and saying, ‘No, we’re not naming him after his father. We’re naming him John.’ The questioning looks pop on the faces of the friends present, while the relatives begin mumbling ‘Who is John? I don’t remember him. How far back are they reaching to get a family name? What’s wrong with Abijah, or great-great-great grandfather Hashabiah…or his dad Kemuel? John? Where did she get that one?’ The sun rays of acceptance and rejoicing that previously shone throughout the house were now covered with clouds of doubt and disappointment. ‘Why is she changing the tradition?’

So they turned to ask a second opinion, that of Zacharias, for clarification. Now, Zacharias had been mute since the angel spoke to him in the temple, nine months prior to this happy, though increasingly awkward, situation. When he was questioned by the crowd of family and friends, he concurred with his wife. The baby would be named John. Immediately, Zacharias received his voice back and was able to verbalize his joy over the birth of his child and the message that Gabriel had delivered to him. “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. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-17)

When the gathered crowd heard their friend speak again, after months of silence, and heard his story of the angel’s visit, the promise of the child, the vow the son would take to purity, they knew something was special about this baby. And they began to chatter and rejoice and spread the news. Like people do. ‘Ohhhhhhh, I am so thrilled for them. They’re going to need more cloths to wrap that growing boy in! I know I have some at home!’ ‘Did you hear what he said? That’s the vow that Samson took. I hope he doesn’t make the same mistakes Samson did…’ ‘It’ll be another Delilah debacle all over again.’ ‘I still can’t believe they chose that name, I mean, I know the angel told them, but still…’ ‘I have the perfect lamb casserole recipe that I’ll share with Elizabeth.’

As families will do, they had their opinions. What will become of this boy? His birth was a miracle. His arrival was angel-announced. His future has been forecast. He will bring our nation back to God. What? How? Why?

In a few years (Luke 3), John was doing exactly what the angel had predicted. Calling people to turn from their selfish ways and prepare their hearts for God’s work.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. “

Long story short, families are going to have joys and opinions and quarrels and chasms. There will always be some loving  relative who questions our choices. But we don’t model our lives after them. Our focus should be on what we can do on this earth to draw people to God. I don’t suggest calling out the fam as a ‘brood of vipers’, but see them for what they are…needing God’s love.  We can’t do that with brow-beating, critiquing, arguing, or ignoring. We do it by showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Before all the family came over to see new little baby John, I am certain that Zacharias and Elizabeth spent time in prayer, both being from priestly families. And that’s what we need to do. Wrap each gathering of friends and relatives in prayer, like the precious, temporary gift that it is. And then enjoy it for what it is…an opportunity to share the message of God that was given to us directly.  Love.

 

 

 

Anticipation

Thanksgiving is late in coming this year. Well, it’s the fourth Thursday in November, as usual, but the lateness of the 28th has built the holiday tension. Holiday playlists are tapping their feet as radio stations hold off on playing Christmas carols until after the turkey has been carved. Many businesses have advertised ‘Pre-Black Friday’ sales to ensure that holiday sales are as plump as usual, despite the shortened shopping season. If you listen carefully, you can hear nutcrackers, snowmen and reindeer getting restless in their boxes, cabinets, and attics…maybe even arguing in their cute little holiday voices.

One of my favorite images of preparation occurs at a family-owned garden store in my neighborhood. During the week of Thanksgiving, they put out their stakes, knowing that the Christmas trees soon will be there.

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I love the feeling of expectation shown here. Peter and Gemma, the owners of the greenhouse, don’t toss the stakes down in the grass and sigh, ‘Well, I guess the trees are coming. We’ll put up the posts when we see them.’ This hard-working couple doesn’t leave the stakes in storage and act surprised when the truck arrives with this years pines. ‘Oh, is it THAT time already? Gosh this year flew by!’ They set those stakes in the ground because they KNOW that the trees are on their way. The arrival date may change due to calendar, weather, or transport issues, but the trees will arrive. No doubt.

Seeing the stakes pop up this week made me smile…and feel that holiday sparkle. It’s coming. It’s almost here. A month of joy, lights, fellowship, songs, excessive and delicious quantities of butter and sugar…the whole shebang! It’s almost upon us!

This enthusiasm led me back to the book of Luke. We often overlook the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, in our rush to get to the manger. But as I reread their story, I saw lives of anticipation.  Both Zacharias and Elizabeth were ‘righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.’ (Luke 1: 6, 7 NRSV). They had already chosen to live Godly lives. They came from centuries of Jewish believers who had seen God’s hand actively at work…delivering them from Egypt, parting the Red Sea, defeating enemies, providing for their needs. There was no doubt who God was or whether he deserved their worship.

As Zacharias was a priest, he was serving his term in the temple. Here’s how Luke retells the story in chapter 1, verses 11-15:

Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” 

Did you catch that? Zacharias and Elizabeth had been praying for a child. They knew that their ages made child-bearing unlikely, but they also knew the God they served. Their lives had been dedicated to honoring and worshiping him. So they prayed. With anticipation. They planted their stakes of prayer in the ground of faith and went on with life.

Communing with God means that we have a trusting relationship with him. We lift up our quiet prayers, our feeble hands, our tired eyes…and we look at his loving face with anticipation, trusting that he will deliver what we need. Zacharias and Elizabeth had likely prayed this prayer a long time. Verse 25 says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”  Elizabeth had endured a range of emotions while still raising her prayers to a God whom she knew would answer. She continued to worship and live an honorable life of devoted anticipation. 

When we raise our prayers, our hands, our faces, our hearts, our tears, our cries. and even our shouts to God, he hears us. He knows what we need more than we do. He looks on us with compassion while he works for our good. Romans 5:3-5 reminds, We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ And Romans 8:24 and 25 smack our impatient, childish little thoughts with, ‘Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’

As the decorations of the Christmas season begin to appear, raise your hopes and prayers to God. Whatever they are…and lift your eyes in expectation…and be patient, knowing that sometime, your expected delivery will arrive.

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