On The Living Edge

The Scriptural readings for this Advent Season are so well known that you probably could almost recite them by heart. In fact, growing up, the chances are you heard these stories year in and year out, and might have even been in your Christmas play at Church on a regular basis and played one of the parts of the key characters.

When we talk about “The Greatest Story Ever Told” it sometimes becomes what Leonard Sweet calls “The Greatest Story Never Told” because we are so familiar with the stories we gloss over the little details that have huge significance in terms of revelation to your personal life and application of that revelation.

You’ve heard me say before that “reductionism” is an occupational hazard for Bible reading, Bible-believing Christians. We tend to think we’ve heard it all so when we are listening to the text or the preacher, we unconsciously tune out based on the false notion that we have indeed heard it all.

Randy Peterman, defines “reductionism” in this fashion: Reductionism is the concept of taking a biblical doctrine and reducing, summarizing or ‘boiling the doctrine down’ to one finite statement that could very well be an oversimplification. 

Take a good look at all the arguments between those who are “Calvinists” and those who are “Arminianists” and you have an example of “reductionism”. We miss the forest for the trees, and we oversimplify and tune out.

It is impossible, and I mean impossible for the Word of God, written by the Eternal Spirit, from the heart of the Eternal Christ to ever be exhausted in terms of comprehension. It is a living document. While the canon was completed in the fourth century and while theologians will claim that everything that can be revealed has been revealed, the flip side is that while it may all have been revealed in Scripture, it surely hasn’t all been illumined to us yet! When you walk into a dark room your first inclination is to flip the light switch. Let me suggest that the Holy Spirit is the light switch and if you do not know how to allow Him to shed light and illumine the passages of Scripture you are reading, you will be in the dark, and your only reference point for that Scripture will be what you heard about it or read in the past. It is all too easy to oversimplify the text and miss the entire banquet spread before you that the Holy Spirit has prepared.

In “light” of all that I just said, and given that this is the Advent Season, and that the readings for this period are all connected to Zaharias and Elizabeth and the birth of John. What might you have yet to hear that is bound up in this verse from “The Greatest Story Never Told”?

Luke 1:59-66  And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. 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?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.

The back-story to what happened in this moment, which leads to the ultimate question, “What then will this child turn out to be?” is significant.

Zacharias and Elizabeth are well past the age of child-bearing. She is barren and considered cursed by her community, and Zacharias’ prayer for God to remove her barrenness as He did for Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, and Hannah, had gone unanswered, a long time ago.

There comes a season in his journey as a Levitical priest, where he gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because he was chosen “by lot”, to come to Jerusalem and offer incense at the altar of incense in the Temple, in the Holy Place, and get as close to the Ark of the Covenant, which was behind the veil, immediately behind that Altar of Incense, where the Shekinah Glory abided.

He goes into the Holy Place to discharge his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which was considered a great honor, and gets to see for himself, the furnishings of the Holy Place: The Table of Shewbread, The Lampstand (Menorah), and the Altar of Incense. All of these were ancient pieces of the artisan work of Oholiab and Bezaleel, who under Moses’ careful guidance, crafted from acacia wood and gold, each of these pieces of sacred furniture.

If you have ever visited a cathedral in Europe or even one in America with significant history such as The Cathedral Of St. John The Divine in New York City, you walk off the pavement of a 21st century street and into history that dates back a millennia. Imagine what is was like for a contemporary priest in the days of Herod to walk into a room that Moses had constructed and to have first hand experience with what he had only heard about from the stories he was told.

Clearly there was a sense of awe and wonder. I have stood in some of the greatest cathedrals in Europe and been transported back to the 9th and 10th centuries, as I walked past the furnishings and even the caskets of kings and bishops. It is a whole lot to take in and a whole lot to process.

Standing in Charlemagne’s Cathedral in Aachen, Germany in 1974 was quite the experience for this sophomore in undergrad school, traveling with the college choir and touring Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Taking it all in, standing in something that dated back to 936 AD, was quite the experience. I can’t imagine what it was like for Zacharias to stand in the presence of furniture that dated back to the Exodus event from Egypt and the journey his people made through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.

What Zacharias didn’t know that day was that his journey involved his own exodus event from barrenness into birth and from hope deferred to desire realized. That’s a part of this story that is often overlooked.

When Zacharias stepped into the Holy Place from the outer precincts of the Temple, his steps were coordinated with someone who also stepped into the Holy Place from the inner-precincts of the “NAOS”, the Holy Of Holies, beyond the veil. Imagine as Zacharias steps into the Holy Place, moving the veil that separated it from the outer court of the Temple with his free hand, as the incense was in one of his hands, only to see a hand move the curtain from the Holy of Holies and from the immediate presence of the Shekinah, Gabriel crosses the threshold from the Presence of the Alpha and Omega and steps into the world of time and space. Here in the Holy Place, God arranges for a dream deferred to become a desire realized.

So overwhelming and too good to be true for Zacharias, he can’t process it all, and can’t even talk about it for 9 months. His attitudes and structures of thought had gotten “old” and lost their usefulness and Gabriel needed to act to break their influence over him. So Zacharias was awe-struck and dumb-struck, and couldn’t speak until it was time to name the child as he came out of his mother’s womb.

Everyone wanted him to be named based on the past. Zacharias knows all too well that when God does something new, we try to use “reductionism” to oversimplify it so we can relate it to our past. Well that won’t fly in the Kingdom. New things demand new names.

What’s the baby’s name? How about “Amazing”?

Oh I am stretching it a bit, but, I also remember standing in The Parish Church Of St. Peter and St. Paul in Olney, England, within minutes of finding out my father had passed away while I was speaking on the subject, “Grief Is The Doorway To Newness”, to a company of leaders from around the globe at a conference (not knowing I was being prepared to embrace my father’s home-going, which I didn’t know about until my cell rang precisely at the end of my message to those leaders). There in Olney, the past and the present came together in a single moment as I stood at the gravesite of Jonathan Newton, a former curate of the chapel at Olney, whose immortal words are on his crypt: “Amazing Grace How Sweet The Sound, That Saved A Wretch Like Me”. At that moment, the eternal and time came together in an epiphany for me as I mourned the loss of my father and the end of an era in my life, and crossed the threshold of a doorway into a new era. It was a holy moment. Grace was there, and when you recognize it, is is always amazing.

The baby’s name…? The reason I said, “How about AMAZING”?  Is because his name was “JOHN” which means “GRACE”.

What if the Advent Story is about your willingness to be amazed by His grace once again at this season of your life? Please don’t reduce the story to what you have known, if you do, you will miss what you have never known!


Dr. Mark J. Chironna

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