Advent 2020 – When God Closes a Door, God is Still With Us

Rev. Donnell T. Wyche — November 29, 2020

What is Advent?

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is a part of the liturgical calendar where Christians around the world take the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve to anticipate new hope, peace, joy, and love as we anticipate the coming of the Lord.

For Advent this year, we want to remind ourselves that God is with us in the midst of hard times, cancelled plans, disappointment, grief, and loss.

Have you been in the midst of pain because you didn’t get a promotion, a position, a placement, or an acceptance? Have you found yourself negotiating all of your emotions and disappointment because of rejection of a project, proposal, or that a relationship ended? Has someone you trusted abused your trust? Have you had your dreams crushed and heard yourself asking, where are you God?

Then someone in your life offers you this nugget: “When God closes a door, God opens a Window.” Then you start to look for that newly opened window, so that you might push that person through it. No, no.

Friends, this encouragement is their attempt at offering you hope in the midst of your disappointment. We have Helen Keller to thank for the development of this phrase: Keller said, “When one door closes, another opens.” She went on to say that “We often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” Then it was the writers of The Sound of Music who put these words in the mouth of Maria as she faced down the nuns, ” When God closes a door, God opens a window.”

There you have it. When you don’t get what you want, it’s because God has something better in store for you. But is that true? What if we looked a little closer at what is happening. What might we discover? Well, if God is with us, when God closes a door, God is still with us in the closed room. What if our hope isn’t centered on something ill-defined out there, but in the hope that God is with us in the closed door room.

I want to consider the hope that Zechariah and Elizabeth had in a God who was closed in a room with them.

Waiting with Unanswered Prayers

Usually the Christmas story starts with the visitation by Gabriel with Mary (the Annunciation,) but before we can hear from Mary, we have to sit with Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth in their sorrow and disappointment because a door was closed in their life–Elizabeth was barren.

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years. (Luke 1:5-7)

Zechariah, a priest serving in the temple, married to Elizabeth, the daughter of a priest — both were righteous, obedient, and blameless before the Lord, yet, they were also barren, broken, and waiting in their unanswered prayers. For them, this first Advent wasn’t so full of hope, so full of anticipation, so full of joy. While we know that Zechariah prayed for Elizabeth to conceive, what we don’t know is the intensity and the emotional pain surrounding those requests before God. We also don’t know the questions that Zechariah and Elizabeth had, questions around the faithfulness of God. How could they be barren, they have been faithful to God, so why isn’t God being faithful to them?

Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we are, or we are aware of someone who has been, faithfully serving God yet living with the reality of closed doors (vocationally, relationally, financially, physically, and the list goes on). When we find ourselves in these places, facing the closed door, it’s normal for us to have a range of emotions (fear, insecurity, inadequate, inferior, worthless, insignificant, let down, numb, frustrated). When we are in a period of waiting, it can be a challenge to have faith, let alone hope. Because as we look at the closed door, we are trying to discern or interpret what it means. There are so many ways for us to define the closed door. Did God close this door because of us, God’s plan for us, or God just in the business of disappointing us. Or is this just one of those dreaded life lessons, a lesson of learning to trust the closed door, and just wait on God?

If we believe that God has closed the door, then maybe Keller was right, and we can shift our attention to who is present with us in the closed room, God. When God closes a door, it’s always from the inside, with us. Our hope isn’t just that a great big God out there somewhere will remember us; it’s a God who comes into these tight places of our lives and stays with us.

If we are willing to shift our focus, and sit in this closed door room with God, we create space for God. There is a letting go in God’s presence that is required because God is God and we are not, so we are invited to be vulnerable, open, and patient because we cannot engineer our way to God. We cannot control God. In response to God, we adopt a posture: ready and willing.

Inviting Silence: Making Space for Hope

So it was there in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s willingness to offer themselves to God that they were able to meet God.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:11-17)

Here’s an observation, right there in the disappointment, God isn’t saying, I’ll talk to you when you have find inner peace, when you have calmed yourself, when you have accepted the truths about me and how I work. No, God is able to meet with us right where we are. This can be hard to hear as we wait for God to speak, but let this story encourage you. You have everything to gain to lean into a God who meets you where you are.

From Barrenness to Hope

Zechariah had a God-encounter when he wasn’t seeking it. This isn’t a formula, this is an observation. Zechariah was doing his priestly duties, focusing on the needs of those he was serving, and attending to the temple.

“When Zechariah saw him [the Angel of the Lord], he was startled.” (Luke 1:11)

Enter into the text with me, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for this, but Zechariah was startled. Pay attention to where Zechariah is… he’s spending a few moments in the most sacred of places in the Temple, where God is supposed to dwell, yet’s he’s startled that God is actually there and meets him. Consider how you are expecting God to answer, to show up. Many of us are just going through the motions, following the constant drumbeat of the empire that demands we do more, we be more, want more, and some of us are just sick and tired of the world heading in the wrong direction with seemingly no end in sight. Here’s a thought: When we pray for the wrong direction of the world, do we pray with hope or with despair? Do we expect God to answer at all? And do we expect God’s answer to a doom-filled world to have anything to do with us? I offer this thought because often we are distracted from the reality that we actually serve a God who hears, who listens, and who acts. And that’s what we discover in this passage, the listening God becomes the answering God. God hears the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God acts, and reverses their barrenness to bring hope alive within them. This hope that God creates from their barrenness is more than just an heir for them, it’s hope for a nation. Hope for a people. Ultimately, hope for the world.

Listening for God is difficult business. When read these stories, I think we fall into a trap that goes something like this, if I had been in their place, I would believe, I would have faith, I would be hopeful. I think these stories are here to remind us that faith doesn’t come from angelic visitations. Faith and hope arise from our lived life experiences where we develop our ability to say “yes” to God. Learning to believe and experience that God’s world is in God’s hands, hope says, echoing what Jesus says to us in John 10:29:

My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. (John 10:29)

Think about it this way, when we trust God with the most frightening, disappointing, and  vulnerable parts of ourselves, we begin to turn those moments into our most profound witness. This builds our faith. Trusting God doesn’t make all of our challenges and all of the unjust and painful things that have happened to us suddenly “good.” Trusting God helps us become open and vulnerable.

In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, there are spiritual practices to help us here like practicing the presence, or gratitude, or by doing the examen. Any one of these spiritual exercises can and will help us center ourselves in God’s presence, opening us to see that not only is God present, but God is present with us in the closed room. (I’ll share a few of these spiritual practices in the sermon handout for you try.)

Let’s return to the story because the angel of the Lord says what we all need to hear and what we hope is true.

12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. (Luke 1:12-13)

The angel of the Lord reminds Zechariah of the truth, that God is the listening God. This invites us to believe, to have faith, which allows us to be hopeful.

The more we activate hope, the more we come to appreciate the life we have now and the more confidence we build for the future. Every time we choose hope, we take a step towards a transformed life. Hope is not a denial of the present reality, it’s not a placebo to make us feel better. Hope is real.

Let me close by saying that there are some of us today who are waiting on God’s voice, there are some of us who are suffering and need an infusion of hope. Some of us are angry, we are struggling with injustice. Some of us are at the end of our ropes. Hear the Psalms as they declare:

Quiet your heart in his presence and pray; keep hope alive as you long for God to come through for you. And don’t think for a moment that the wicked in their prosperity are better off than you. (Psalms 37:7 TPT)

For Advent we are trying a collective prayer practice called, Breath Prayer. A Breath Prayer is a refreshing way of soul training in which you practice “abiding” by slowly repeating the Bible verse. You might experiment with breathing the words in and out as indicated to help you engage with the words. When your mind wanders just gently bring it back to the prayer. In the way of the ancient devotional masters, you’re seeking to descend with your mind into your heart, relying on the word of God to form your will to be more submitted to God and the new life he brings.

“Believe the good news… Be silent” (Luke 1:19-20).

Try it this way: Breathe in to trust in God’s good news… Breathe out deceptions.