Have you ever had a vivid encounter with God? What happened a day or two later? A week? Years?
Quite often Christians have reported an overwhelming spiritual high followed by a deep spiritual low.
God’s presence can be so vivid that it seems like what he says is bound to happen in the next 15 minutes, but it never does.
A cherished promise never seems as far off and distant as it does after vividness of the divine presence fades.
Does that mean perhaps that we had no genuine spiritual experience? Did we get carried away by feelings? Was it all a lie?
It follows a biblical pattern. This post will explore it in Mary’s life, but first, consider:
- God showed childless Abraham the stars in the night sky and promised that his posterity would be more numerous. Then Abraham waited 25 years until Isaac was born.
- God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and after much reluctance, Moses agreed to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. God initially led them in the opposite direction of Canaan. Moses never got to set foot on the Promised Land. That is, not until he met with Jesus and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration.
- Speaking of Elijah, after his great victory over the priests of Baal, he immediately went into a profound depression.
- David was just a boy when Samuel anointed him King of Israel. He spent much of his early adulthood running for his life, and his throne was not secure until seven years after the death of Saul.
- The author of Hebrews concludes his great Faith Hall of Fame saying, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).
The season of Epiphany presents a great opportunity to consider this pattern. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, a young teenager in an unimpressive village, and greeted her as one highly favored. He then essentially asked her permission to be the virgin mother of the Son of the Most High.
She agreed to the plan. Only later did it dawn on her that her promise meant she would become pregnant before marriage and cause a scandal.
At Jesus’ baptism, an old man named Simeon prophesied the greatness of the baby and told Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Living in Bethlehem must have seemed like a great opportunity to get away from all the gossips in Nazareth, but the Magi took a detour to speak to Herod before they presented their royal gifts to the holy toddler. The family had to flee to Egypt, and then had to return to the gossips in Nazareth, because Bethlehem was still not safe.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood until he was on the verge of adulthood. At that time, Scripture records that Mary and Joseph went off without him when they took him to Jerusalem. They returned with great anxiety.
His familiar habit of going to the wilderness to pray probably started at about the same time. By then, Gabriel’s appearance was a distant memory, which possibly caused Mary emotional pain whenever something reminded her.
One of my Christmas records has a remarkable solo cantata by Henry Purcell, with a text by Nahum Tate that perfectly captures Mary’s distress.
The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation –
When Our Saviour at Twelve Years of Age Had Withdrawn Himself
(Nahum Tate, ca. 1693)
Tell me, some pitying angel, quickly say,
Where does my soul’s sweet darling stay,
In tiger’s, or more cruel Herod’s way?
O! rather let his tender footsteps press
Unregarded through the wilderness,
Where milder savages resort:
The desert’s safer than a tyrant’s court.
Why, fairest object of my love,
Why dost thou from my longing eyes remove?
Was it a waking dream that did foretell
Thy wondrous birth? no vision from above?
Where’s Gabriel now that visted my cell?
I call; he comes not; flatt’ring hopes, farewell.
Me Judah’s daughters once caress’d,
Call’d me of mothers the most bless’d;
Now (fatal change!) of mothers most distress’d.
How shall my soul its motions guide,
How shall I stem the various tide,
Whilst faith and doubt my lab’ring thoughts divide?
For whilst of thy dear sight I am beguil’d,
I trust the God, but oh! I fear the child.
Even afterward, the sword Simeon prophesied had not finished its work in Mary’s heart. On one occasion, she and her younger sons tried to persuade Jesus to come home and rest. They feared that he was becoming emotionally unstable. Then she had to stand at the foot of the cross and watch him suffer.
Finally, though, she was present with 120 other believers after the Ascension. She finally got it.
In fact, what are we still doing here? Why hasn’t Jesus long since returned in triumph?
As we live out our lives with its spiritual highs and lows, we have some resources to help us see a larger picture than our own immediate circumstances:
- We have the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels, with their record of God’s dealings with people, both great and small, who eventually testified that not one of God’s promises had failed.
- We have the Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament that explain very explicitly what the greatest saints of the Old Testament understood only vaguely: God has an overall plan to rescue us humans from the sinful condition that we brought upon ourselves. Our suffering gives us the chance to turn away from our own plans and draw nearer to God And then, only then, Jesus will give us a peace that no one can ever imagine apart from him.
- We have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as soon as we confess Jesus as Lord and Savior and the promise that he will guide us into all truth.
- We have Jesus’ word that the work of God is to believe in the one he sent (John 6:29). Nowadays, too many people treat the phrase “believe in God” as meaning “believe God exists.” Jesus meant that the work of God is to believe that Jesus came from God and spoke God’s truth. That requires believing what he said, which, when we grasp it, explains why we fall short. The unbelief that naturally comes from disappointment blocks the intimacy with God that alone can meet our deepest needs.
- We have two millennia of church history that shows its still-rapid growth, which has mostly happened not only without coercion but in spite of severe persecution. Only a few places remain where no one has proclaimed God’s word. (And we can learn from the same history that the sorry outcome of following the ways of the world is not limited to Old Testament times.)
- We have two millennia of the testimony of post-Biblical believers from Polycarp, a close associate of the apostle John, to our own acquaintances, not to mention easily available written, broadcast, and recorded testimony.
God sent Jesus Christ into the world as a human being, and then sent the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Christ). Our work is to believe him. To believe, in spite of all the apparent “evidence” to the contrary, that all of God’s promises are Yes and Amen.
From Abraham, through Mary, up to people we know personally, we have role models to follow in doing our work. No matter how long since the last time we encountered a holy visitor, no matter how long we have waited to understand a word from the Lord.