Stranded in Time (“Waiting,” Part 1)
“The curtain comes down on the Old Testament with the prophet Malachi declaring that Elijah will be sent to the people, followed by years of silence…Four hundred years of silence. Morning and evening, generation after generation, incensed priests lifted up the people’s prayers to God. In and out of the Holy of Holies, prayers went up as hearts waited. And then one day, as though taking his next breath, God picks up the conversation as his angel Gabriel finds an astonished priest named Zechariah praying before the altar.” (Songs on Assent, 27)
Four hundred years. In the particular span between Malachi and the birth of Jesus, there was a great deal of land conquering and dominating afoot. The vast conquest by Alexander the Great was followed a century or so later by the domination of Julius Caesar. In the east, China began to build its Great Wall. Virgil, Dante’s literary companion in the Divine Comedy lived and died. During these centuries Israel was a prize sought by the Syrians, the Greeks and the Romans. When Zechariah walked into that temple that day, Roman guards were on patrol outside the temple gates.
“Our hope and expectation, oh, Jesus, now appear.” Expectation is a strong word. It denotes a good we long for and are confident will occur. And for the Jews, the coming Messiah was (and, for many, still is) an expectation. Not a wish, or even a strong desire, but an expectation.
Gabriel steps right into the reality of that expectation. The last book in the Old Testament, Malachi, ends with this prophecy: “ Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers…” (Mal 4:5,6)
And Gabriel, telling Zechariah of the redemptive role of the promised son of his old age, finishes Malachi’s sentence, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children…” (Lk 1:16,17)
Four hundred years and a comma. If ever there was a moment to illustrate Michael Card’s description of Christians as those who “belong to eternity, stranded in time,” it would be this moment. “Expectation” which preaches, reads and sings so well in worship was being unleashed from the page. Time-bound Zechariah struggled to catch up. After nine months of silent contemplation, his heart had clearly shifted. The result is found in Luke 1:67-79.
In Advent, when we work backward week by week from the second coming of Jesus in conquering majesty to the incarnation of the infant Jesus in human flesh, I find myself asking this question, “What will I do, when ‘the Son of Man comes in a cloud with great power and glory’? (Lk. 21:27). Will I understand that God is finishing his sentence, and look up in joy as my salvation draws near?
Or like Zechariah, will I be “stranded in time,” struggling to catch up with the reality that has been laying all the while under every word and action resident in the great drama I have been leaning into in worship my whole life? For, in truth, these long years of crying out to God in a groaning world are nothing but a comma in a sentence that WILL, one day, be thoroughly finished.
Marantha, Come, Lord Jesus. And by your Spirit, be pleased to prepare our hearts to receive you with joy—not only as sweet baby, but as Lord of the universe.
Dr. Carla Waterman is a practical theologian who desires to live “near to the altar and close to the ground.” She is a professor at The Robert. E Webber Institute for Worship Studies where, with her colleague, Dr. Reggie Kidd, she co-teaches “The Sacred Actions and Ministries of Worship. ” She is also Affiliate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. Carla is the author of Songs of Assent, and writes a regular blog on her website, www.carlawaterman.com.