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.
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.