by Lindsey Funtik, Coordinator of Volunteer Ministries, Ashland First United Methodist Church, Ashland, Ohio.
Somehow, Christmas is next week. After a 2020 full of chaos and disappointment and a lot of vitriol, we find ourselves confronted with a season that is supposed to be marked by happiness and memory. Personally, I feel as though it is a bit jarring. The fact that it is nearing the end of December sort of snuck up on me and I am now working on getting in the holiday spirit. Once I eat a couple dozen Christmas cookies, I'm sure I will be just fine.
Though next week will certainly be as jolly and memorable as we can make it, we would be remiss if we did not also reflect that Christmas is a season of promise. Throughout the last four weeks, the Christian community worldwide has been celebrating Advent, which orients our hearts toward anticipation of the promise that would be fulfilled in the manger of Jesus Christ. As I have sought to reflect through guided prayer and devotions, one passage of Scripture kept cropping up:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!' (Luke 1:39-45, NIV, emphasis mine)
This is one of my favorite Scriptural scenes first and foremost because I feel a kinship with John the Baptist. The child inside of Mary's cousin Elizabeth (who would grow up into a holy desert Tarzan figure) leaped for joy when he heard the voice of Mary. John’s whole life would be dedicated to heralding the coming of Christ and His Kingdom, so the fact that he got pumped just having Jesus in the belly next to his has always made me so happy.
This season, however, the last verse has haunted me. Elizabeth calls Mary blessed because Mary believed God. She took the Lord at His word, trusted that He was good for what He promised, and moved forward in faith. Simply by virtue of believing what God promised, Mary is blessed.
This is incredibly convicting for me. I can spout the Lord’s promises from memory all day long, but when it comes down to it, would someone be able to say of me what was said of Mary? Is "Blessed is Lindsey because she believed God would fulfill His promises to her?" a valid statement? I am not entirely sure that it always does ring true, but I am working on it. Or rather, the Spirit is working on it in me.
In light of Advent, Christmas, and this verse hitting me in the face, I thought it would be good to highlight some of the promises that God has made to His people. These are just three of many. May we not only read them, but believe them and allow them to affect and transform our lives.
1. God is with us.
The Lord promises His presence on numerous occasions throughout the entirety of Scripture, but the most prominent in this moment is the name given to Jesus: Immanuel, God With Ws. The Lord Almighty has taken on flesh and walked a human experience, so He always gets what we are going through. When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, the Spirit was sent to us to continue that Divine presence. In short, God has not and will not leave our side. I think that this is especially important as we remember that believers are not untouchable, just not alone. Faith will not always fully protect you from COVID-19, poverty, difficult jobs, hunger, or other hardships, but we don't walk through any of it alone. This is a sweet, sweet promise: God has come and has not left. God gets it. God is beside you. Lean into the divine shoulder and know that the promise of holy presence is more of an abundance than we can imagine.
2. God brings freedom.
Later in the book of Luke, after Jesus has been born and grown up a little bit, He reads a portion of Isaiah in the synagogue and causes a ruckus when He claims it is about Him. It reads, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…" (Luke 4:16 NIV) Herein lies the good news of the Gospel: Jesus came to restore and release us, body, mind, and soul. He not only promises that His children will be with Him eternally, He also promises an end to suffering and bondage and pain. Because of God, we are no longer subject to darkness and we can believe Him when He says that freedom has come and will come fully in due time. Whatever has you in chains can and will be broken. (Note: this is also a call to us. This side of Christ’s return, we are the hands and feet of His Body and we, too, should work to bring about these realities in Jesus' name.) We can rest on the promise that salvation is not only about the afterlife, but a reality here and now, breaking in and bringing God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.
3. God loves us.
This last promise is one which threads itself through everything that God has ever done, is doing, and will ever do: God loves us. In fact, all of His actions stem from this truth, this promise that His love will not fail us, will not abandon us, and will carry us through. No matter what you do, He loves you. No matter what you don’t do, He loves you. This promise of eternal and unshakable love is one of the hardest for so many to grasp and fully internalize. Because we are human, we have all experienced conditional and imperfect love to a certain extent. We have had our hearts broken and we have probably broken a few hearts. But we have the promise that, though God understands the fickle finitude of our experiences with love (His friends did abandon Him to the cross, after all) His affections and devotion are wholly other. He is working for our good. He will stick around. No matter what, you are loved. We all are loved. You can count on it.
The more I walk the road of discipleship, the more I realize the power of simply believing God. So much of my time and energy is spent putting up unnecessary fights because I cannot fathom the depths of His promises. But during this season, I look to Mary, who was blessed because she believed God would fulfill His promises. She believed what He said, she thought Him trustworthy, and, in her simple acceptance, was lifted high and used in the narrative of God.
Mary was not a superhuman. She was a young teenage girl who was probably scared out of her mind. But she went forward. She believed God. So can you. As we cry with the man in Mark, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mk. 9:24) we can rest easy, knowing He will come, knowing that His coming makes all the difference.
Cross-Posted at "Reflections on Faith, Words, and The Holiness of Today"