In 2018 Dr. Michael Kinch, a medical doctor and historian, came out with a book titled Between Hope and Fear: A History of Vaccines and Human Immunity. Notice it was published a couple of years before Covid hit. However, his meticulous historical research of this branch of medicine lets us know we are experiencing nothing new. The same tension is palpable in our communities today; we continue to live in times where we find ourselves caught in a tug of war between hope and fear. Hope for a cure to a new disease; fear that the cure on offer might be worse than the disease. Hope that God is sovereign and he is working his good purposes in all of this; fear that the powers of evil are blinding and seducing God’s people to trust in deceptive and ultimately deluded saviors.
No matter where we find ourselves on the above issue, this same theme of living between hope and fear is a dominant one for the season of Advent, the season of reflection and repentance, preparing our hearts for the coming of our Savior at Christmas.
I think that characterized the outlook of the Jewish people living in first century Palestine during the events recorded in chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel. Ruled and taxed by harsh Roman overlords, living as second-class citizens in their own homeland, and for 400 years disappointed time and again by raised hopes in potential messiahs whose subsequent failures now littered the landscape of their history. Fear of the present while clinging to a faint hope that one day the voice of God, silent for four centuries, would yet be heard among them and come to their aid.
So we find people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, who in the midst of despair and perplexity, go through the motions of faith, doing what God had instructed their ancestors to do from Moses onward: gathering to pray and worship at the place God appointed – the temple in Jerusalem. In the face of fear and uncertainty, it’s as if they gathered at the temple that fateful day were saying, “This is how we will practice hope – however faint the feelings of faith may be, we persevere. Like our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, we will trust in God by ‘hoping against hope’ that he will be faithful to his covenant promises. This is how we watch and wait.”
As the people assembled for what was likely the evening sacrifice in the temple, Luke notes they were praying while Zechariah entered the Holy Place of the temple to offer incense, a symbol of intercession before God on behalf of the people. It is at this moment that God speaks to Zechariah. God sends his angelic emissary, Gabriel, who appears at the right side of the altar of incense – the place of God’s favour – to bring Zechariah the good news that his prayers have been answered. And what is his initial response to an encounter with the holy? He is gripped with fear, so much so that the angel has to first tell him ‘do not fear’ before he can announce the good news. Holy ground can be fearful ground, and I think had I been Zechariah I would have reacted the same way. But as Walter Bruggermann points out, when God prefaces a prophetic message with the phrase ‘do not fear’ he is declaring a “saving, world-changing utterance of Good News which will decisively change the course of history.”
And what mind-boggling good news it is. Gabriel tells Zechariah, ‘Your prayer has been heard. You are going to be a daddy, and this son of yours is going to be special, a delight to you, a source of joy to many. Why? Because the prophetic voice of God will be active through him to your people. He will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah and many people in Israel will return to God because of his words. Just as Malachi foretold he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children –and even beyond that – he will turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. This will make people ready for the coming of the Lord.’
But Zechariah is struggling with this. He goes from fear to doubt. It all seems so… well, impossible. As a result, Gabriel gets a little chuffy with him. I can imagine his full response was something like this: “I bring you good news and this what I get? Fear? Doubt? Do you know who it is who is telling you this? Well to help you believe here is what is going to happen. You will be dumb (and likely deaf) until your son is born just so you don’t botch up the news till it actually happens. When you see it and believe it, then you will be in the right condition to actually speak again and tell others what I just told you.”
And so for the next nine months Zechariah can’t talk or hear others. All he can do is wait in silence. What does a disabled, retired priest do for nine months? Now this is strictly hypothetical but I think it is entirely plausible. Zechariah mulls over his angelic encounter, and then he pays daily visits to the local synagogue where he reads the scrolls. He studies and searches the scripture in light of Gabriel’s words and he begins to see them in a way he had never seen them before. Fear and despair begin to turn to hopeful longing.
Bolstered by a surprising visit from Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, he sees God’s redemptive purposes coming together from Genesis to Malachi, and especially the Psalms. He comes to see that liberation is more than getting rid of the Romans; it means dealing with Israel’s own sin and unfaithfulness. Knowledge of true salvation will only come clear with repentance and receiving forgiveness of sin. And all of this will come from the divine power and initiative of a compassionate savior – the tender mercy of God. As Malachi prophesied, the day of the Lord will burn like a furnace and consume the arrogant, the evil doer, but for those who revere the name of the Lord that furnace of judgment will be like the sun of righteousness, rising with healing in his wings. It will be liberating, redemptive and reconciling.
When his son is born, Zechariah, in obedience to Gabriel’s instructions, announces that he will be called John. With his mouth and ears now liberated from their own exile, instead of fearful questioning a prophetic hymn of hopeful praise pours out of him like a pent up flood. Zechariah has undergone a period of preparation. Caught between fear and hope, Zechariah has prepared for Messiah’s coming by being silent and waiting in prayer, meditation and the study of scripture. As a result, he sees the world differently. He now sees God at work where before he saw only enemies and obstacles – and this turns his fears and doubts into hope and joy.
Is this advent season a time for Zechariah? Perhaps we need to practice a time of self-imposed exile by pushing away the cacophony of angry voices that dominate social media, and pull back from the sentimental, noisy distractions calling us to find fulfillment in the temples of consumerism. What if we practiced Advent by being willing to speak little, study more, and meditate much? We too may find our fears turning to hope as we hear God’s voice giving “his people knowledge of salvation, through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven, to shine on those in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the path of peace”… to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Rev. Dr. James Enns,
Humanities Program Coordinator
James Enns is a native ‘Three Hillsean’, born here in 1959. However just eighteen months later he was a resident of West Germany, where he and his three older siblings grew up. James’ parents moved the family to Germany to work for Janz Team Ministries (now TeachBeyond) in evangelistic outreach to German-speaking Europe. As a Third Culture Kid, he graduated from Black Forest Academy in 1977 and went on to earn a B.Ed from the University of Calgary in 1983. That same year he found himself back in Three Hills, teaching in the High School division of Prairie Bible Institute. Here he met his wife Anne, also a high school teacher. In 2000 James earned an M.A in History and moved across campus to begin teaching History in the Bible College. He has taught at Prairie College since then, taking an extended leave from 2005 to 2008 for PhD studies at the University of Cambridge.