“Long suffering”—one of the fruits of the spirit—is a phrase that strikes the modern ear as more than a little odd. Today in North America, “to suffer” calls for immediate intervention: a financial stimulus, a pill, a new job, a new relationship. Anything to relieve our pain (however great or small). In fact, most of us wonder how suffering could ever be good, especially over a long period of time. It sounds more like a cruel form of punishment—perhaps something akin to water-boarding—than a spiritual fruit.
Yet in Scripture, things happen on a different timetable, and terms take on new meanings. With God, a rapid response might take decades (or centuries), and concepts like suffering, while still trying to the ancients, were not always seen not as something to be avoided, but as lessons that could benefit those who were schooled by them.
In today’s reading, we learn that Elizabeth, a woman “well along in years” (Luke 1:7), has never had a child. She’s barren, which in first century Palestine was a point of shame that would’ve called into question Elizabeth’s value as a woman. And she must’ve wondered about her place in the cosmos. How could she not? For though Scripture records Elizabeth as observing all the Lord’s commandments blamelessly, she was still human and therefore prone to doubt. She must’ve despaired at times. Even in moments of levity, there had to have been a strange mix of joy and sadness that Elizabeth felt while holding someone else’s baby, putting her lips and nose to the child’s skin. No book on “why bad things happen to good people” could’ve answered all of her questions in moments like those.
So now imagine living with this burden for 60, 70, 80 years, feeling that God has passed you by, when seemingly out of nowhere, in the waning years of your life, God sends an angel to let you know, that, no, He hasn’t forgotten you. And of course, that’s exactly what happened in our reading today. Gabriel appears to Zechariah to inform him that his wife will give birth to a child. Not even Zechariah believed it—”I am an old man and my wife is well along in years”(Luke 1:18)—but God kept his promise, prompting Elizabeth to say in her fifth month of pregnancy, “The Lord has done this for me…in these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25).
This story is strangely similar to how all of God’s people must’ve felt in first century Palestine, as they were under foreign rule and a heavy tax burden. The glory days of King David must’ve seemed more like myth than history. The wait for the Messiah—one who would free Israel from its chains—was eagerly anticipated, but at the same time, understandably doubted by many. People felt forgotten. And we understand this in 2008.
Today we see violence in Mumbai, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan; we see turmoil in Zimbabwe, tensions in the Middle East, and we long for the Prince of Peace. We mourn our own inner-turmoil, our own wars and failures, and long for God to take on flesh. Like Elizabeth, we wonder if God has forgotten us. But it’s often when hope seems all but lost, when it seems as we’ve been passed over, that Christ comes. In this, the final week of Advent, let us remember that it is not much longer now. Let us, with courage, suffer a little longer and learn why “hope is a sister to sorrow,” as a friend of mine has said. Let us take heart from Elizabeth’s story, remembering that God has not forgotten us; that He has heard the cries of His people. Let us remember the Messiah is coming. It’s just a little longer now.
Lord God, you have always taught your people through adversity. Let us not despair this season as we wait for your Son to bring healing to our sick world and our sinful hearts. Help us to suffer a little longer that we might know the joy of the gift that you have promised. We will always wait a little longer. We will always trust in You. Amen.
Scripture Reading: Luke 1:5-25
Editor’s note: This article was originally published December 2008. It is the second of four articles devoted to the Advent season. Don’t miss Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Use these articles as a guide to prepare your heart for the celebration of Christ’s birth.