Advent IV: Hope in the Hill Country

country4Advent may be the story of hope, but not everyone shares that hopefulness. There’s something about this season that has a tendency to excavate long-buried hurts, ignored or untended wounds, and unresolved disputes and tensions. Though this season is saturated with hope, hope is still hard to detect. Hope has to be stirred, pondered, recognized, and enjoyed. Hope needs a place that gives it time to be nurtured, serenely and undisturbed.

Mary got herself to such a place after learning her relative Elizabeth was pregnant. Knowing her own unique situation, to which only Elizabeth could relate, Mary “went to the hill country” to visit, support, and rejoice with her relative, as they had both been recipients of God’s salvation hope.

As Mary arrived, something extraordinary happened. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s Spirit-filled greeting, her baby leapt inside her and she was filled with the Holy Spirit, fulfilling Gabriel’s promise. When God’s salvation saturates our awareness, it becomes the lenses through which we see all of life. Elizabeth saw this salvation-saturated reality in Mary and joyfully described it as “blessed”, saying to her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

The word “blessed” is frequently associated with material possessions, opportunities, or positive people in our lives; it is often used as a generalized expression for how good we have it. Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled exclamation restores “blessed” to the context which substantiates it—reality, impregnated and alive, with God’s salvation.

Mary’s response is likewise ecstatic with the holy hope growing in her mind and body: “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.”

She continues to make much of the mighty God, reflecting upon the mighty deeds He did in days of old, implying how Israel’s salvation past is spilling over to bless Israel’s present. Salvation is not abstract. It doesn’t consist of the concepts we ritualize every Sunday morning, nor of our material possessions or relational bonds; it’s the blessed reality of God’s redemptive work infusing every aspect of who we are and where we are at, bringing us into the salvation story God has been telling all along. His story set in us, it reshapes our reality and opens our hearts, minds, and tongues to rejoice. If we can’t rejoice in God’s salvation reality, perhaps we’re afraid to embrace its hope. Such was Zacharias’ situation.

Rendered mute for doubting God’s promise, Zacharias silently waited at his home in the hill country for Elizabeth to give birth. When that day finally came, her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her, celebrating God’s great mercy upon her. Later at the child’s circumcision, they were going to name the child after his father. When Elizabeth objected, they asked Zacharias his decision; he wrote “His name is John.” Zacharias’ reality was finally in consensus with what God was doing. Finally allowed to speak, his first words in nine months sang the praises of God. Like Elizabeth and Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias saw and declared the blessed reality of God’s salvation hope: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant.”

Holding his son, and seeing him through God’s hope-infusing eyes, Zacharias prophesies “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the LORD to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation.”

As he reflects on his son’s role in God’s salvation story, which would return hope to Israel’s midst, rumors of hope begin to publicly circulate: “Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, ‘What then will this child turn out to be?’”

The hill country is isolated, quiet, slow, natural, yet unpredictable and wild.  The hill country casts us into chaos that quickly reminds us we are not in charge. It’s a place that removes our claws from the illusion of control and forces us to acknowledge we are a small part of something bigger.  That’s when the hill country fosters contemplation. Igniting the imagination, it becomes a place where hope can be planted, take root, and grow with anticipation into something wondrously alive with all of God’s worth. Zacharias’ ninth months of silence at home in the hill country gave him both the time and place to nurture his imagination with the wonder of God, as anticipation of His salvation hope refashioned his once hopeless heart—hope that now makes the hill country inhabitants wonder what is going on.

There are many these days wondering what is going on, what the world is coming to, what is worth doing. Advent implores us to pause, and rest our minds and bodies upon God’s peace.  If an actual hill country or getaway is undoable, it would greatly benefit us to turn off the TV and the noise, the tech-toys—slow down—surround ourselves with silence, and ponder the wondrous salvation God has brought into our world.  If we take time to let our imaginations slowly and savoringly stroll through Scripture, we will begin to recognize that life looks different, that reality is alive with something fulfilling. In this season of hope, let us literally, actually take time to receive God’s salvation, perceive it for the blessed reality it is, and find rejuvenation in its joyfulness.

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