Rev. Dr. Daryl Ellis is a pastor in southern California where he preaches, teaches, cares for his two sons, and cheers for UCLA. He’s also married to me and he kinda hates being referred to as the “Rev. Dr.” which, of course, makes those of us who love him do it all the more. That’s right, today’s devotional comes to you from none other than my brilliant, hilarious, thoughtful husband. I might be biased, but I think he’s pretty freaking great.
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by Daryl Ellis
We live in an age in which speech is everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. It’s everywhere in the countless avenues available to us to “speak our mind.” Twitter feeds, Facebook statuses, Instagram snapshots, iMessage pings, and Snapchat snaps all promise us a utopia of “sharing” anything, with anyone, at any time.
And yet this promised utopia hides a shameful secret that bubbles up in the anxiety that often accompanies our deciding “send” or “post” or “share” something: we’re not sure anyone is listening.
Recently I saw all of this lived out on the face of an 8-year-old boy in my neighborhood. As they often are, my sons were out front of our home, playing with the other neighborhood kids in our cul-de-sac. In the middle of several of us throwing a ball, one of the kids just looked up and sighed, “I’m so sad.”
“Why?” I asked. Answer: “Cause no one has liked my post.”
There were real, flesh-and-blood friends standing right in front of him and yet he was simultaneously being consumed by a creeping loneliness…
As much my heart broke upon hearing his answer, on a deeper level I empathized with him. I know that internet-fueled anxiety, distraction, and loneliness all too well.
To speak and not be heard is perhaps the loneliest act one can imagine. To put oneself out there and simply be left out there. Hence our anxious checking for likes, shares, and comments.
Speech nowhere at all.
This same drama of speaking and being heard stands at the center of the Advent journey.
Take the story of Zechariah the priest in Luke 1. After a long season of praying that God would give he and his wife, Elizabeth, a child the unthinkable happens: an ANGEL literally appears to him and confirms that his prayer has indeed been heard by an ever-listening and ever-compassionate God:
Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 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.
How many times have you hoped and dreamed of such a decisive response to your prayers? I know I’ve wished many times that God would send Gabriel my way.
And, yet, I am challenged by the stark reality of Zechariah’s unbelieving response: “How can I be sure of this?”
Part of me thinks I would’ve have responded differently… but would I really have had more faith than Zechariah did? Perhaps my demand for an immediate (and miraculous) response from God is only a smokescreen for my unbelief that might endure no matter what God does in response.
This lack of faith even in the face of God speaking loud and clear is in fact the quintessential biblical pattern of our sin:
Adam and Eve following God’s one request in the garden: “Did God really say…?” Moses in face of the burning bush: “What if they do not listen to me?” The Israelites in the wake of the Exodus: “If only we had died in Egypt!” The crowd in response to Jesus’ claims about himself: “Crucify him!”
Zechariah of course hears what God is saying in the same of these people, but like them he does not truly listen. God, like so many of us in our little ways, has always been seeking “followers” who are genuinely listening.
The crucial difference—indeed the difference that defines grace—is that God does not shrink back in anxiety, self-isolation, and loneliness in response to our failure to listen.
Instead, the invitation—or the severe grace as Zechariah experiences it—is to simply be silent and watch as he is faithful to what he promises even in the face of our unbelief.
As the angel continues,
[Y]ou will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.
At the very place we shrink back in loneliness and anger, God responds with his decisive word of grace: “Nevertheless… what I have promised will come true anyways.”
And so let us hope in the season of Advent. Hope in a God whose faithfulness does not depend on the fickleness of our on-again, off-again habits of listening to him.
For, unlike our words, God’s Word is never simply “left out there.” It is everywhere always true.
It never returns to him empty, but will accomplish everything God promises, including the grace of us hearing him anew and, like Zechariah after his promised son arrives, praising him for his faithfulness.
What is God saying to you this Advent?
Daryl Ellis is a pastor in southern California where he is learning that God loves to show up in the ordinary things of life just as often as anywhere else. He and his wife Courtney are raising their two boys with an abundance of books, lots of bike rides,and way too many tortilla chips.