“The Gift of Silence”

Below is this morning’s devotion from The Advent Project. Written by Dr. Maria Su Wang, Associate Professor of English at Biola University, it focuses on the visit of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah. After reading it, I really wanted to share it. Here it is:

“The response of Gabriel to Zechariah has always puzzled me—why strike Zechariah mute for his unbelief? Why would an imposed silence be an appropriate response to Zechariah’s understandably startled and hesitant reaction? At first glance, it feels almost punitive. After all, can we blame the priest for being “troubled” and fearful after unexpectedly encountering a divine being? Furthermore, when Zechariah questions, “How can I be sure of this?” in verse 18, this seems to be such a human response—who wouldn’t be reluctant to embrace the promise of an heir after years of praying and receiving no answer?”

“As I reflect on this passage more, however, I wonder if Zechariah being struck mute (and deaf) is less of a rebuke and more of a gift. Verse 6 characterizes both Zechariah and Elizabeth as “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” We also know that they longed fervently for children. Yet Zechariah’s immediate reaction to Gabriel’s prophecy suggests that he may have lost hope and allowed this long-cherished dream to wither. I wonder if Zechariah illustrates for us how it is possible to be walking faithfully with the Lord and yet still have pockets of our inner lives remain impervious to belief and faith. We may believe in God’s working in many areas of our life but there is still that one thing where we live as functional atheists.”

“After all, it is no small feat to persevere in asking and waiting on God. Zechariah might have noted when Elizabeth’s age was nearing the point where it would truly be physically impossible for her to bear children. Maybe his prayers faded then. Perhaps to all others he was serving diligently in his priestly duties but deep within him remained this secret pain, a place where the light of God could not penetrate. Thus when Gabriel finally addresses this wound directly, Zechariah’s response is initially that of trouble and fear, which typifies what it means to allow God into the place of intense disappointment, grief, and pain.”

“By striking him mute, God, through Gabriel, actually offers Zechariah the gift of deep healing. In removing the noise of the external world and his ability to speak, God grants Zechariah silence and stillness to face his pain and disappointment with God. God gives Zechariah nine months to process the past and future in light of this culminating promise. Most importantly, it enables Zechariah to recalibrate his understanding of who God is. The pronouncement of a son bestowed to Zechariah is more than simply a long-cherished desire or prayer fulfilled; it is also a picture of God seeing Zechariah in his place of pain and initiating the process of healing.”

“Are there such places in your heart that you have also buried and allowed to wither? Which disappointments, hurts, or painful experiences do you need to acknowledge and allow the empathic presence of God to heal?”

“Jesus, help us to make space for silence and stillness so that you can speak into the deepest recesses of our heart that need your healing touch. Allow us to truly experience you as Immanuel, “God with us,” even in our pain and disappointments. Amen.

The Benedictus: Zechariah’s Canticle

Below is a portion of Zechariah’s prophecy from Luke’s infancy narrative, which, when used as a canticle in church liturgy, is called The Benedictus. A canticle is non-metrical hymn based on Scripture. Mary’s song or The Magnificat, also found in Luke, is another example. They are all beautiful and theologically rich, and form an important part of the Christmas story in Scripture. Zechariah’s has always been one of my favourites.

Zechariah’s prophecy over his newborn baby boy, John the Baptist:

And you, my child, “Prophet of the Highest,”
will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways,
Present the offer of salvation to his people,
the forgiveness of their sins.
Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.

Luke 1:76-79 (The Message)

Zechariah’s Question

Here’s a portion of this morning’s Lectio365 devotional. I can relate to Zechariah. How about you?

Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.’ The angel said to him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.’ Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
Luke 1:18-22 (NIVUK)

“Zechariah still has a question: ‘How can I be sure?’ How much more proof does he need? God has heard him. I wonder, is it more important to pray faithfully even if I don’t always have what feels like faith? Do I pray for things that I don’t really believe will happen? Or do I pray prayers which are so vague that I would never know if they have been answered?”

Lord, help me to be faithful in prayer. Prompt me to keep praying, and may I have courage to pray bold, outrageous prayers, even when the answers seem impossible. Lord, I do believe. Please help my unbelief. Amen.

“We’re not big, but we’re small.”

“We’re not big, but we’re small.”

That is the slogan of a fictional record store called “The Vinyl Cafe,” created by the late Canadian storyteller, humourist, and broadcaster Stuart MacLean. The Vinyl Cafe was also a weekly radio show on CBC. On it Stuart narrated funny and often poignant stories about Dave (owner of the Vinyl Cafe), his wife Morley, and their family, friends, and neighbours.

The slogan of Dave’s store–We’re not big, but we’re small–has always stuck with me.

Because it is saying that being small is a good thing, perhaps even an advantage. Other words come to mind when I think of it. Homey. Local. Available. Friendly. Accessible. Particular. Personal. Familial.

Know what I mean?

Now, the reason I share this is because I am the pastor of a small church. And for a long time I felt like being a small church was a disadvantage to overcome. As a pastor in this situation, you can–I’ll be honest–feel like a failure. You can feel less than. Insignificant. You find yourself asking, “What am I doing wrong?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to grow. I’m certainly not saying we should be content to remain as we are. No, no. Christ calls us to live out the great commission, to reach into our communities in love and truth with his good news. That’s non-negotiable. So if a church is small because they are ignoring the calling they have from Jesus, then that’s a serious problem.

No, what I’m talking about is when churches have an inferiority complex. When as a small church we feel like we have less to contribute to God’s kingdom. When, because we think the main point is to continue increasing numerically, we feel perpetually discouraged if that doesn’t happen.

In the book of Numbers, the Israelites scout out the land of Canaan, and they give a report to Moses upon their return. Remember, this is the land God had promised to them, that he was calling them to occupy. He said he would bring them into the land. Here’s their report:

So they gave a negative report to the Israelites about the land they had scouted: “The land we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size. We even saw the Nephilim there-the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim! To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them.”

Numbers 13:32-33

With the exception of Caleb, they didn’t want to go into the land. The Israelites were looking at their circumstances and not at God.

Pastor Karl Vaters, in his book The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Thinking that Divides Us, reflects on this story from Numbers and writes: “There is no ideal church size. Every size meets the needs of the people who seek them out.”

And this: “Loving God and loving others is not a church growth strategy. It’s not a means to an end. It is the means and the end.”

And also this: “What makes a family healthy and loving has nothing to do with numbers. It should be the same in the family of God.”

Here’s the truth: small churches worship and serve a big God—infinitely big, as it happens.

In an article at The Gospel Coalition by Erik Raymond called “Don’t Despise the Day of Small Things,” he writes that “small things add up. Small things are ordained by a very big God.” The title of his article comes from Zechariah 4:10: For who despises the day of small things?

There are people who will never go to a large church. Maybe they’re really close to the people in their small church and they deeply value those relationships. Maybe they are apprehensive in big crowds. Maybe they even feel a sense of calling to participate in God’s work right where they are. Heck, some might simply want to go to church where everyone knows one another’s names.

God wants to use small churches. God can use small churches. God does use small churches.

Even large churches know the value of small. That’s why in addition to their big gatherings, most large churches also promote small groups.

Every church—large or small—has to answer one question: Why are we here? What is our purpose? The way in which God seeks to use your church will not be how he plans to use the larger church down the road or in the next town over.

So don’t worry about what God is doing with that other church. Instead, don’t underestimate what God can do in yours.

Don’t despise the day of small things.

And then trust that God—who is more than big enough to work in and through churches of any size—can also work through yours.

Consider what Paul says:

Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

This applies to all churches. So remember small church, you’re not big, but you’re small.

Making Every Effort When There’s Nothing You Can Do: More Thoughts on Spiritual Formation

The process of Christ being formed in us, the process of maturation every believer is called to undergo, is called spiritual formation. In other words, the process of transformation, of growing in Christ, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord told his people, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:14). And God fulfilled this promise in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 2:1—4). And while there is an indicative sense in which this is true, that the believer lives by the power of the indwelling Spirit, such truth can also be expressed as an exhortation. As Paul says, “Live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). What this exhortation tells us is that there are two related aspects of the work of the Spirit in the process of spiritual transformation. On the one hand, we cannot grow as followers of Jesus without the power of the Spirit; on the other hand, we are also called to cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives in order to see transformation take place.

For something to happen, there needs to be power; for someone to be formed into the image of Jesus, they need “the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:13). In fact, in the New Testament there are several instances where the words “power” and “Spirit” are used interchangeably or in conjunction with one another. The point is simply that the person of the Spirit is the one who enables a follower of Jesus to grow as a follower of Jesus. Peter points us to this reality when he says, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Everything needed. Commenting on these words from 2 Peter, author Mark Buchanan, in his book Hidden in Plain Sight, writes: “Everything you need for life and godliness you have already. In full. You actually don’t need any more. Not one thing—not a cotter pin or flat washer, not a doohickey or a thingamajig; nothing’s been withheld. Everything required for zoë—abundant and flourishing life—and eusebeia—a deep and real commitment to what matters most—is intact.”

During his final hours with his disciples, Jesus used more organic imagery to say essentially the same thing: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Particularly if we conceive the fruit Jesus mentions as the fruit of the Spirit, Jesus puts a more relational spin on the same idea, but the point is the very similar. To become more like Jesus, we need to be in relationship with Jesus. The power of that relationship is the Spirit. Apart from me you can do nothing. Our nothing is more than sufficiently met by Jesus’ everything.

Despite this, our role in spiritual transformation is not passive. Even Jesus says, “Abide in me,” which, if it means remaining in intimate communion with him, is hardly an effortless endeavour. Like any other relationship, ours with Jesus requires nurture, cultivation, support, and, yes, even effort. Speaking of effort, therefore, in the same passage where Peter speaks of God as giving us “everything needed” for becoming mature in Christ, he then goes to tell his readers to “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5—8). The effort he encourages his brothers and sisters to expend is effort in adding to their faith a number of virtues that are quite similar to Paul’s list of spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22—23).

So clearly, there is a biblical expectation that those seeking to become mature in Jesus will, to paraphrase the subtitle of Barton’s book, Sacred Rhythms, “arrange their lives for spiritual transformation.” And this biblical expectation is not low, either; Peter does say, “Make every effort.” God calls believers to do everything they can do to become more like Jesus. The Christian life is active and intentional. Just as God does not force his saving love upon anyone, neither does he force our progress towards spiritual maturity. He has his role, we have ours. When we “make every effort,” we are, in effect, living by the Spirit.

It is interesting to reflect on the process of spiritual formation in the context of some of our more prominent, i.e., newsworthy, political stories. For instance, the unfolding train wreck that is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford throws into sharp relief the importance of considering character (especially but not exclusively in political, public life). The dissonance of a leader behaving in the way that Ford has yet who also insists on the quality of his leadership—itself debated by many—serves as a reminder that what we do and who we are intimately related. It’s in this respect we see a connection between the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. In a word, character counts; and character is a crucial aspect of having Christ being formed in us.

Biblically, Christian character takes shape through specific virtues. Paul provides a list of virtues he calls spiritual fruit. Found in Galatians 5:22—23, they are as follows: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Peter does something similar with his list in 2 Peter 1:5—8: “You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” These lists of virtues give shape to the kind of people we are called to be as followers of Christ.

Together the fruit of the Spirit give us a picture of the character of Jesus. And so for a believer to grow the fruit in his or her life is, de facto, to grow in Christlikeness, to become more like Jesus. But the obvious problem is that we cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, as one author says, “through sheer willpower and personal discipline.” Therefore, we have a quandary. We are told by Scripture to “make every effort” to do something we cannot do by our own efforts. Apart from me you can do nothing. Apart from abiding in Jesus, attempts to be like Jesus will prove useless.

Our own inability to produce spiritual fruit is itself our starting point and the key to understanding the kind of effort we are called to exert in the process of having Christ formed in us. Thinking we can do it, that we can accomplish our own spiritual transformation, guarantees either frustration over failure or pride in our good works. In other words, the first step in making every effort toward maturity in Jesus is realizing our own utter helplessness in his presence, a helplessness defined by our limitations and our sinfulness. We must make every effort to understand what it is we cannot do.

The link between our own powerlessness and God’s infinite capacity to transform us according to the imago Dei is the person of the Spirit. “Indispensable to the life of virtue,” Buchanan says, “is the presence of the Spirit. If the Spirit does not stir, fill, and direct both our life of faith and our quest for virtue, all our virtues will grow stunted and bitter, like fruit from hardscrabble ground. Such virtue is usually no more than a repertoire of self-serving gestures.” Beginning the journey toward spiritual formation means acknowledging before God that we stand in complete need of his aid, that nothing we are called to be is something we can accomplish. Practicing spiritual disciplines means placing ourselves in the position where God is free to be about his work of forming us after the image of Jesus.

If, for example, someone struggles with impatience as I do, becoming more patient is not going to happen through my own attempts to act more patiently in relation to those around me. But placing myself more thoroughly at God’s disposal can indirectly produce the quality of patience in my life. “When we come to terms with the inability to change ourselves,” Buchanan reminds us, “then we allow the Lord to be our source.” Apart from me you can do nothing. Think of the prophet’s words: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). Such words lie at the heart of spiritual formation.