When we arrived for Christmas at my grandparents’ farmhouse each year, it was always clear that they were joyfully anticipating our coming. But they didn’t just anticipate our arrival, they also intentionally prepared for it. The house was cleaned and decorated, the beds were arranged (including the famous ‘feather bed’ that all of us kids fought over), and the cupboards were stocked with holiday sweets.
Anticipation without preparation is hollow.
‘Preparation must precede God’s presence! God’s instruction for preparation is specific: repentance! This involves a complete change of mind, heart, will and behavior toward Him. He is Lord, and your life must be prepared to receive Him as your Lord. Anything less is inadequate.’ (Henry Blackaby Experiencing God)
The process of preparation is hard and often painful; it involves a lot of soul-work, surrendering to the conviction of the Spirit—letting Him clean up and clear out my heart, making room for more of God.
Back to the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
I may be giving away the ending, but God had a beautiful advent planned for them—not only would they bear a son, but they would also experience a pouring out and filling of the Holy Spirit. But before this advent could happen in fullness, God had to deep clean and prepare the hidden rooms of their hearts.
This process began immediately after the angel revealed to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth were going to conceive a child who would prepare the way of the Lord. Much was revealed about Zechariah’s heart condition by the way he quickly responded to this promise, but ‘how can I be sure of this? I am on old man and my wife is well along in years’ (Luke 1: 18). Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and Zechariah’s sharp response fully exposed a heart that lacked faith and trust in God’s providence in his life.
Oh, how my Zechariah heart resonates with this trust-struggle.
The angel responded, ‘And now you will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at the proper time’ (Luke 1:20). Though seasons of preparation are not always this dramatic, God knew exactly what was required to make His way to the hidden places of Zechariah’s heart to prepare room for His coming advent. What it took was nine months of absolute silence—no opportunity for Zechariah to talk back to God and question His providence. Though little is written in scripture about what exactly God did in Zechariah’s heart in that silent season, I would imagine a great deal of soul-work was accomplished. Sometimes I think I could use a nine-month prescription of silence in my life too.
In the same way, God was also preparing Elizabeth’s heart for her Holy Spirit advent! Luke 1:24 records that when she conceived the child that the angel promised them, she spent five months in seclusion. Five months! Alone—with a silent husband and a whispering God. Unlike Zechariah, scripture does reveal some of what God was doing in the hidden places of Elizabeth’s heart during her season of preparation. She declares, ‘The Lord has done this for me…In these days [of seclusion] He has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people’ (Luke 1:25). Living most of her life as a barren woman, I can only imagine the pain and the shame that had permeated the deep corners of Elizabeth’s heart. But how gracious of God to allow a season of isolation—a desert experience—knowing exactly what her soul needed. In her isolation, He was able to reach to the hidden places, to heal her and clear out her shame so that there would be room for His presence to soon come in. What a mercy of God.
‘Let every heart prepare Him room’
It is not human nature to welcome the deep-cleaning hand of God. But in order for us to be fully prepared for a fresh advent of His presence, it is necessary. Had Zechariah and Elizabeth not submitted to their God-ordained preparation seasons, the depth of the advent that was about to arrive would be missed.
This has been a hard truth for me lately. I often and earnestly ask the Lord to reveal Himself to me in deeper ways, but as soon as that revelation involves any kind of deep cleaning in my heart, I am reluctant. ‘You can go anywhere in my heart, God, just not there…those spaces are best left untouched. Unprepared.’ But He is a jealous God, and He wants all of me! All of my Zechariah lack of faith. All of my Elizabeth shame. And though we don’t know what is to come, He does—so who is better to prepare us for the mystery of what’s ahead than Him?