Christmas

Even Me

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This wasn’t what she dreamed about as a little girl. She was supposed to get married and quickly start a family.

It’s how it happened for her sisters. For her friends.

She had a husband—a good, strong, faithful man—but her dream of having a baby hadn’t come true.

By now, she could’ve wished upon a thousand stars. Could’ve dreamed a new dream. Could’ve walked away from the God who was supposed to hear her prayers.

But she stayed. Kept hoping. Kept waiting.

Until it was too late.

All of her siblings and neighbors had children and grandchildren. Their homes were filled to the brim with laughter, their voices spilling across the street to her quiet house.

But her home—and her womb—remained empty.

Months of disappointment turned into years. Years turned into decades. At some point along the way, Elizabeth stopped counting. It hurt too much.

Everyone in town knew, too. When she walked through the market, she could see the other women’s mouths droop in sympathy. She watched them exchange glances with one another, their eyes seeming to say, “Oh, Elizabeth. That poor, barren woman. She couldn’t give her husband a child.”

She never stopped hoping, never stopped praying for God to answer her prayers. But God didn’t answer. Actually, God hadn’t answered anyone in a long time. Four hundred years had passed since He had last given words to His messengers.

Elizabeth and her husband were old now. Even if there wasn’t something wrong with her, she was well past the timeframe where she could become a mother.

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One afternoon, she stood in a crowd of people outside of the temple, praying and waiting for her husband. Zechariah was a priest, and he had been chosen to go into the temple and burn incense. It was a sacred, serious honor. A role not to be taken lightly. Elizabeth was eager to hear about it. She looked in the direction of the temple’s entrance, shading her eyes with a wrinkled hand. What was taking him so long? The crowd was growing restless.

Suddenly, the crowd gasped and Elizabeth craned her neck to see what was happening.

“Zechariah! What is it? What did you see?” a man in the crowd called out.

Elizabeth pushed her way through the mass of people until she reached her husband. When she spoke his name, he turned to face her. Though his eyes were on hers, it was like he wasn’t even seeing her. Like he was mesmerized by something invisible.

Elizabeth reached for his arm, took it in her hands. “What’s wrong?” Her eyes searched his pale, bearded face.

He opened his mouth to reply, then brought a hand to his throat. His eyes widened, taking on a manic sheen. He opened his mouth again, but no words emerged. Instead, he began wildly gesturing behind him, to the entrance where the altar of incense was kept.

“A vision!” Another priest spoke up. “He’s seen a vision in the temple!”

Elizabeth gulped. A vision? Of what? She clutched her husband’s arm tighter to steady herself. Had God actually spoken after all this time? What was going to happen?

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Through gestures and writing, Zechariah explained some of what had happened that day at the temple. An angel appeared to him, telling him God had heard their prayers for a child. They would have a little boy, and they were supposed to name him John. He would grow up to tell people to get ready because the Rescuer was coming. Many people would get to know God because of him.

Zechariah hadn’t believed the angel. After all, he and Elizabeth were old and had never been able to have a baby. Because of Zechariah’s doubt, the angel took his ability to speak but promised it would come back once everything God had promised happened.

It was such a wild story. Elizabeth didn’t blame Zechariah for questioning the plan. And to think, God had broken the centuries-long silence with a message about Elizabeth, an old, barren woman? It was incredible!

Six months had passed since that day at the temple. Half a year of living with a mute husband. Twenty-six weeks of watching a miracle unfold.

It started with headaches and nausea, followed by back pains. And then, gradually, incredibly, miraculously, her abdomen began to grow.

Elizabeth the barren was having a baby!

Now, Elizabeth stood in the doorway, one hand pressed against the small of her aching back, her eyes intently watching the street for signs of her cousin. They had so much to catch up on during their visit.

A young woman rounded the corner, and Elizabeth stepped outside. She raised her hand to catch the girl’s attention.

The girl’s face split into a grin as she began to run. “Elizabeth!” she called.

Suddenly, something flipped within Elizabeth, like her stomach had somersaulted into her rib cage. She stumbled and reached out to steady herself against the doorframe. Laughter bubbled from her mouth as Mary threw herself into Elizabeth’s arms.

“How blessed you are, Mary!” Elizabeth cried, holding her cousin as closely against her as she could. “And how blessed is this baby you’re carrying!” She took the girl by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length. Tears ran down Elizabeth’s weathered face as she said, “Who am I to have the honor of a visit from the mother of my Savior? When I heard you call my name, the baby in my womb jumped for joy! You’re so blessed because you believed God would do everything He said!”

She took Mary’s hand and pressed it against her stomach, where the baby still kicked in excitement. Mary reached for Elizabeth’s hand and pressed it against her own abdomen, still flat beneath her clothes.

“This is really happening!” Mary said, her voice shaking. “We’re having babies!”

It was true, even though Elizabeth was too old to have a baby and was supposedly barren. And then sweet Mary—not only was she too young to be a mother, but she was a virgin.

And yet, life swelled within them. Two miracles in the making.

Three months later, Elizabeth delivered a son. She choked on a sob as the baby was placed on her chest.

The baby drew in a shaky first breath, filling brand-new lungs with air. He opened his mouth and cried out into the night.

As he cried, the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah rang in Elizabeth’s ears: “Listen! It’s the voice of someone crying in the wilderness: ‘Get ready for our God! Make a path through the desert for Him!’”

Beside her, Mary looked as if she’d seen a ghost. She slowly reached out, ran one trembling hand over the baby’s hair and rested the other against her own abdomen.

Elizabeth smiled at Mary—the girl who would give birth to the promised Rescuer in just a few months. He was the One her own son had been announcing since before he was even born.

Eight days later, Elizabeth and Zechariah made their way back to the temple where it all started. But this time, Elizabeth cradled a swaddled newborn baby against her chest. The whole town—all of Elizabeth’s relatives and neighbors—celebrated with them as they approached the place where they would dedicate the baby to God.

“You’re naming him Zechariah, right?” one of the neighbors asked. They weren’t wrong to assume that’s what they would name the baby. Under normal circumstances, they would name a firstborn son after his father. But these circumstances were the opposite of normal.

Elizabeth looked down at the baby, his eyes closed, his breaths deep, his small fist nestled against his face.

“No, he will be called John.” She smiled up at the people around her. Immediately, they turned to Zechariah, who stood at her side.

“Write down his name,” they told him. “The name you want him to be called.”

Someone handed Zechariah a tablet, and he wrote in clear, bold letters: His name is John.

 Then he coughed. Coughed again. And with the voice of a man awakening from deep sleep, quiet at first then increasing in volume, he said: “Praise God! He has come to His people and is bringing us a Rescuer, just like he promised through the prophets long ago. This baby belongs to Him. John will get everyone ready for the One who will forgive their sins and give them a brand-new life!”

He looked over at Elizabeth and smiled, his eyes shining with amazement and tears of joy just waiting for their chance to escape.

Elizabeth hugged the baby closer to her. John, whose name meant God is gracious, was proof that God heard the longing of her heart. God did not forget Elizabeth, and God did not forget His people. In the waiting, God was working. His rescue mission was unfolding.

“Thank you, Father God,” Elizabeth whispered. “I’m not worthy to be a part of this story, but still you chose me. You truly do love your people. Even me.”

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Dear friends,

If this Christmas find you you in a season of waiting, longing, or grieving, I pray you’ll find hope in Elizabeth’s story. I used my imagination to retell it, but you can read the real account in Luke 1.

The Bible tells us that God came to earth for the barren, the lonely, the broken, the outcast. For me. For you. He shows His goodness in the most unexpected ways. He is the joy of every longing heart.

One day, He will come back and make everything brand-new. There will be no more tears, no more pain, no more wondering.

But in the meantime, remember that He has never, ever broken one of His promises. Even when He seems silent, He is still working. He sent a Rescuer for you because He loves you. And He isn’t finished with your story.

In His love,
Anna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas, God Talks

Even Now

This past May, I sent out resumes by the handful as I raced toward seminary graduation. I networked, made calls, and sent emails, but didn’t get any responses. A month before graduation, I had to submit a move-out notice for my apartment, since I lived in campus housing. My on-campus job was going to end the last week of the semester, and at the same time, I would age off of my parents’ health insurance policy. Life was about to get really expensive really quickly, so I made the decision to move in with my parents back home while I continued to send out my resume.

I asked the women in my small group to pray for me – that I would handle this situation in the opposite way I usually do. Rather than stressing out and trying to fix everything on my own, I desperately wanted to trust that God was working behind the scenes.

Though I had zero proof that God was working, I somehow had a peace in my heart that He wouldn’t decide He’d had enough and abandon me.

The week before graduation – my birthday week – my brother-in-law told me about a job opportunity on campus. I mentioned it to a staff member on campus whom I greatly respect. I asked if she thought I’d be a good fit for the position, even though I knew next to nothing about it. The next day, she told me she’d submitted my resume.

I didn’t hear anything else.

Then my sister who works on campus happened to run into the woman in charge of interviews.

In the bathroom, of all places.

My sister called me as I was walking into a doctor’s appointment (I was stacking appointments like crazy before I rolled off that insurance plan), and asked if I’d heard back about the job. I told her no. She told me I should’ve received an email and I needed to reach out as soon as possible.

So I made a phone call right there in the doctor’s office parking lot.

I didn’t have days to pray about whether or not I was making the right decision. Everything had to happen super quickly. So I prayed in a way I don’t do too often. I told God if I was offered the job, I’d take it as a sign that I was supposed to accept it. And if I wasn’t offered the job, I would know I was supposed to move home.

I didn’t have time to think or process or weigh pros and cons. I was just trying to survive finals and graduation and saying goodbye to the place and people I’d come to love.

Mom texted me one day and asked how I was doing, and in reply, I sent a picture of my bedroom floor, completely covered by about a foot of laundry.

I was running on empty and emotionally maxed-out.

Through a crazy series of events where just the right people were in just the right places at just the right times, I applied for the job. A couple of days later, exactly one week before graduation, I interviewed for the position. Later that same afternoon, I interviewed again.

Then nothing. I didn’t hear anything at all. I was so overwhelmed with everything else going on in my life that I didn’t let myself worry. I poured my focus into studying, taking final exams, and steaming my graduation robe. I collected boxes to pack my stuff, my parents rented a U-Haul, and I invited my friends over to celebrate my birthday and to tell them goodbye.

On May 9, 2018, I walked across the chapel stage and received my Master of Arts in Ministry to Women. Still jobless. Still moving back to my parents’ house the next day.

I left the chapel and met up with my family for pictures. Then a member of faculty and his wife stepped over to congratulate me on my graduation. And to offer me the job.

Right there in the middle of graduation excitement, while I was still riding the did-I-really-just-get-my-Masters?! adrenaline high and clutching my degree in my clammy hands, I was offered the job.

I pulled my mom over and said, “Dr. L, this is my mom. Mom, Dr. L just offered me the job.”

I cried, my mom cried. It was a whole lot of emotion all at once.

When we left campus for lunch, I had about an hour before the housing office closed for the weekend. So I quickly called Housing and asked if I could retract my move out notice. I prayed they hadn’t already filled my spot.

Guess what? They hadn’t. I got to stay. Which, admittedly, was super convenient because I hadn’t even had time to start packing yet. I think my sisters were the most excited about not attending my packing party later that night.

All of that happened on Friday. On Monday, I started training. I’m now seven months into my full-time job.

photo credit: Alexa Mahan

One of the pieces of the Christmas story that strikes me every year is the waiting. Not just the generations of Israelites longing for the promised Rescuer to come. Not just the four hundred years of silence between the prophets of old and the second half of the Bible.

But the time between Gabriel appearing to Mary and the birth of Jesus.

Can you imagine? What was it like for Mary to have the angel’s announcement still ringing in her ears, yet no proof that she was pregnant? Those early weeks before any signs of a new life inside her began. She believed everything had changed, but she couldn’t tell yet. She just had to wait and trust that God was even now knitting Redemption together in her womb.

I get emotional whenever I think about the song of praise Mary sang to God as soon as the angel left. She praised God for all He was going to do, even though she hadn’t seen any of it happen yet. Morning sickness hadn’t set in, little feet hadn’t kicked, and her arms hadn’t cradled a baby. Yet she believed.

And nine months later, she wrapped the Promised One in swaddling clothes and looked into the face of God Himself.

All of those childhood years of hearing a Savior would come. All of those weeks of waiting without any sign. All of those months of carrying this child, now answered in the Word made Flesh resting in her arms.

Even when she couldn’t see God working, He was. His plan was unfolding behind the scenes and, at just the right time, the Light of the World entered the darkness.

Everyone’s story doesn’t happen like mine. Believe me, I don’t take the craziness of it all for granted. And our stories certainly don’t look like Mary’s. But all of us, in one way or another, are aching for something. Many of us are begging God to intervene in our situation. Many of us just want a sign – some hope to cling to.

What is your heart longing for this Christmas? A job? A mended relationship? A husband? A baby? A friend?

I don’t know what God has planned for your life or mine, but I know He is already carrying out those plans. Though we aren’t promised everything we want, we’re promised everything we need: His Presence. And the assurance that everything will ultimately work together for our good and His glory.

Trust Him this Christmas. Trust that He is working behind the scenes, even when you don’t feel Him, hear Him, or see Him.

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“The Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is His name.”
– from Mary’s Song, Luke 1:49

Christmas

This Holy Ground

She bent down to pick up a stalk of grain the reapers had left behind, her fingers brushing the cool ground. She tucked the stalk into the front of her cloak she used to collect the pieces, then pressed her free hand to her tired back, stretching. Wanting the day to end, but needing to gather more grain to take home to her mother-in-law.

Her weary, sad eyes scanned the fields to see how much ground she still had to cover.

She never would’ve imagined ending up here: A widow, far from home, living with a grieving mother-in-law who had also lost her own husband.

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Though this was her mother-in-law Naomi’s hometown, it was unfamiliar to Ruth. She didn’t know the streets or the people…or the God so many of them worshipped.

Ruth was a Moabite, and from the whispers she’d heard, the God of the Israelites had declared none of His people were to live in Moab or intermarry with Moabites. They called her a pagan. Her family worshipped carved gods, rather than the invisible God her mother-in-law believed in.

But then a famine hit Ruth’s husband’s homeland, and they relocated. There he met Ruth and took her as his wife. He, his brother, and his father never made it out of Moab.

The tragedies were not far behind her, but Ruth knew she needed to begin a new life here in Bethlehem with Naomi. She’d promised to stay with her, learn her customs, get to know her family, and believe in her God.

Only, on days like today, when the sun beat hot and her back ached from the work, she wondered if this new God she chose to follow would really care for her.

As she bent again, she heard footsteps. Sandals appeared in front of her, and she slowly looked up, shielding the sun from her eyes with her hand.

“I’m sorry,” she said, quickly standing and shoving the grain into her cloak. “I was just about to leave.”

“No, don’t. Stay here. Stay close to the other women. Get some of our water when you need a drink. No one will bother you. And if you need anything, let me know. I’m Boaz.” The man smiled at her.

Ruth tentatively smiled back, then dipped her head. “Thank you, sir. You’re very kind.”

She didn’t know it in that moment, but she had just met Naomi’s relative, a man who would be the one who would redeem her tragedies by marrying her, providing a home, giving her children, and continuing Naomi’s family line. Her kinsman redeemer.

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The barley harvest and the kind landowner’s generation was long gone. The fields were no longer used for crops, but for sheep. In place of reapers, shepherds worked on the land. Poor and rugged and not easily accepted into society.

They’d worked long hours already that day and were settling into the night watch. Tired and aching from another day of work to earn just enough to survive, but fully aware of the dangers the darkness brought for their flocks.

The sun set, the air cooled, and everything went still and quiet.

Until light. Brilliant, blazing light. And sounds. Shouts. A declaration of “Do not be afraid!”

How could they not be afraid? Thousands and thousands of glowing figures filled the sky, exclaiming, “Gloria in excelsis Deo! Glory to God in the highest!”

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The shepherds shook in fear. Staffs fell to the ground, hands covered faces, knees quaked and buckled.

The figures in the sky told them a baby had been born just up the hill in the town of Bethlehem. He was wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.

The shepherds turned to each other. “Let’s go see what’s happening!”

As they ran up the hill and ducked their heads to enter the cave, they found the baby just like the angels had said. And as they reverently bowed in front of the swaddled newborn, they met their Kinsman Redeemer.

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A year ago, I sat in a cold, damp cave over six thousand miles away from home. Fellow travelers surrounded me, and I fought the claustrophobia threatening to interrupt the moment.

Around me, voices filled the cave. Rich bass and smooth tenor and soft soprano soaked into the stone walls, burst through the cave’s entrance, and filled the skies.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come, and behold Him, born the King of angels!

O come, let us adore Him;
O come, let us adore Him;
O come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!

As our voices mingled in praise to the one born King of angels, tears filled my eyes. I looked up to clear my vision, and noticed a light shone from a star carved out of the cave’s ceiling.  A reminder of that night long ago, when a star led the way to the manger nearby.

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Exactly one week before this awe-filled moment, I sat by the Christmas tree with my family, wearing pajamas and unwrapping gifts. And now, on a rainy day just outside of Bethlehem, I sat in a cave once used by shepherds for shelter while they kept watch over their flocks by night.

Sing, choirs of angels; sing in exultation;
sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest!

We left the cave, stepping over mosaic tiles spelling out Gloria in excelis Deo – Glory to
God in the highest. I looked out over this ancient land, the rocks and hills and shrubs and grass. Just over two thousand years ago, in that very same field where I now stood, a group of poor, rugged, weary sheep herders heard the news about the birth of the ultimate, once-and-for-all Redeemer. The One who came to bring humanity into the family of God. Who came to redeem us with the price of His own life.

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And now, on a rainy day on the outskirts of Bethlehem generations later, I stood. A small-town girl from America, standing on this holy ground. Grass and dirt and rocks like anywhere else set the stage for the announcement that changed the world.

Here, Boaz redeemed Ruth and Naomi’s family and continued the line that led to the birth of King David, then eventually to the birth of Jesus Christ. The landowner redeeming a mourning widow, changing her world for the better. A foreshadowing of Jesus Christ redeeming the world for all eternity.

And just up the hill from where I stood in my rain coat and jeans, a baby was born to a teenage girl. Jesus. God in the flesh. The One who gave His life for my redemption, His Spirit now living in me.

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory giv’n!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!

O come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!

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(The stories referenced here can be found in Scripture in the book of Ruth and Luke 2)