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Slow Learners in Advent

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Marcia Lebhar with FatherMy whimsical dad was known for his tongue-in-cheek pithy sayings. Growing up, I would have said he repeated them ad nauseum. Now I’d give just about anything to hear him repeat one, just one more time.

Upon learning something new: “Why, if you’re not careful, you learn something new every day!”

Upon being told by a grandchild that she was 6: “Why, (name) I’m ashamed of you! When I was your age I was 7!” (Obviously there were endless variations to this one.)

Upon explaining some conundrum: (with relish) “It’s a simple, physical principle!”

While meditating on all the Advent readings from Isaiah last week, I pictured my dad’s affectionate glance, and my heart heard another of his oft-repeated remarks, “You’re just a slow learner!” This would be said, for example, if I expressed surprise that I had accomplished something difficult, like a new figure skating jump, or the solution to a difficult math problem. Enjoying the irony, he was saying, I have more faith in you than you do! Even when it was mockingly derogatory, it was always teasing...kind.

Along with the disciples on the Emmaus Road, aren’t we all slow learners? Jesus even says almost exactly this as he explains to the astonished disciples how many explicit predictions he had perfectly fulfilled, and which they had missed: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25)

They were a bunch of slow learners. But in this scene, as in many others which I hear differently recently, I wonder if Jesus spoke with amused affection rather than an exasperated eye roll. Jesus had said he longed to celebrate the Passover with his disciples, as he had done just days before. (Luke 22:15) I have wondered if it was because he longed for them to finally put the pieces together… to see that the whole story of Israel had been about him all along. The Exodus which the Passover meal calls to mind foreshadowed the way his own blood would spare us from death and herald our liberation.

I wonder, too, as I recall my dad’s voice, if it doesn’t unlock something more of that Emmaus Road encounter than I had heard before. Seeing the future as he did, was Jesus perhaps smiling because he knew that these slow learners were about to really get the whole story, slowly, eventually, and that they would tell it...and change the world? Was there delight and anticipation mixed with reproof? Our redemption depended upon their faithfulness to testify to what they’d seen. Could we say Jesus had more faith in them than they could have imagined?

Where am I a slow learner in Advent?

If anything became clear as we considered the narrative story of the Scriptures in this past year, it is that God resolutely and reliably gives away the end of stories, and of the whole story, over and over. But are we slow learners, reluctant to believe what often seems too good to be true? If we had in our mind’s eye the number of times God spelled out what was to come, and then precisely fulfilled it, would we hear the prophecies of Jesus’ return, the new Jerusalem, and God’s Kingdom to come, with more thrill and deeper anticipation? 

Consider: God revealed to Abraham the coming enslavement and then liberation of his future family, including its 400-year duration. (Genesis 15, fulfilled in the Egyptian sojourn and Exodus)

God revealed through Jeremiah the exile and the return of the people of Israel, including its 70-year duration and who their captors would be. (Jeremiah 25) 

As we hear the prophets declare that a descendant of David will be born in Bethlehem of a virgin, and that Galilee will thus be filled with glory...when we hear of the precise manner and purpose of his rejection and death, close to 700 years before it occurred...does it fill us with confidence that the promises we’re reading and hearing which are yet to be fulfilled are likewise sure? (Micah 5:2; Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 9:1; Isaiah 11, Isaiah 53)

When we hear the words of prophecy in this season, of the full redemption that the incarnation portends, of the promised Kingdom being prepared for us where there will be no more sorrow, of the return of Messiah Jesus, will we ‘look up’ as Jesus instructs? (Luke 21:28) Will we believe it to be real? Can we picture affection in his face, and say Maranatha! (Come Lord Jesus?), and mean it? And do we love Jesus and his world enough, like his first disciples, to tell whomever will listen?