Today we celebrate the 4th Sunday of Advent, and we hear one last time before Christmas of the promises that God has made to the world. I would guess that most if not all of us at one time or another in our lives have perhaps been a little skeptical that God would fulfill his promises to the human race. There is after all so much darkness and suffering and pain in the world. And this year certainly has been exceptionally difficult not just for a few, but for just about everyone. Perhaps we have wondered why God wasn’t answering our prayers or have felt as though God was no longer paying attention to us. Why does it seem that sometimes He doesn’t answer our prayers? If we have prayed for something and then what we prayed for happens, we feel that our prayers have “worked”. But what about those times when we pray and pray for something and didn’t get what we prayed for? Does that mean our prayers did not “work”? Did we not say the right kind of prayers, or enough of them? Does that mean that God doesn’t pay attention to our prayers?
This is something that the Jewish people struggled with for many centuries. They remembered the promises that God had made to them through the prophets, but they did not see the fulfillment of these promises. In fact, it seemed to them that just the opposite had happened: that God had cursed them. In our first reading today, we hear promises that God makes to King David through the prophet Nathan. Here are some of the promises: “I will give you [the Jewish people] rest from all your enemies.” “The Lord … will establish a house for you.” “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.”
Yet within a couple generations of making these promises, the greatness that the kingdom of Israel knew under King David and his son Solomon suddenly vanished. Solomon’s sons divided up his kingdom. War followed upon war; eventually the northern part of the kingdom was overrun by an enemy nation, and later the southern part of the kingdom. A thousand years passed between the time of those promises the Lord had made to David and the birth of Christ, and in those centuries of darkness, the Jewish people experienced much suffering. They wondered where God was. Had he abandoned them? There are many psalms in Scripture in which the Jews lament what has happened to their nation, and beg the Lord for his help. And yet century followed upon century, and the greatness of Israel was not restored. And at the time that Jesus was born into the world, Israel was suffering under yet another foreign occupier, this time the Romans, who had set up one of the Herods as king of the territory of Israel. Life under Herod was not easy; he did not hesitate to put to death anyone he perceived to be a threat to him. Where, the Jews wondered, was God? What about the promises he had made long ago to King David?
But God always keeps his promises. After these long centuries since the glory of King David’s reign, in the midst of the darkness of the Roman occupation, the Lord sent the Angel Gabriel to a young Jewish maiden who lived in an insignificant town in Israel called Nazareth. And what Gabriel announced to Mary was that finally God’s promises would be fulfilled; that she would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son, the one who would become the long-promised heir to David’s throne, who would establish a kingdom over which he would reign forever.
There are a couple important things to learn from this. First, God always hears our prayers. He heard the cries of Israel throughout the centuries of darkness and suffering. He hears our prayers, even when it seems that no one is listening. And second, God always keeps His promises. How could it be otherwise? However, we do not always see our prayers answered immediately, nor are they always answered in the way that we would like or the way we expect. Very quickly we jump to the conclusion that God isn’t listening. Sometimes, we do have to wait to see the fruits of our prayers. Think of the Israelites; generation would come and generation would go, and still they did not see the fruits of their prayers. So it is with us. But we ought never to doubt that God hears our prayers, and that He will answer them in his time and in his way.
What we can learn from this is that prayer is not like a magic charm: if we say a certain number of a certain kind of prayer for example, we will get x result from God. And if our prayers are not answered the way we would like, that does not mean that God has abandoned us or that we failed to pray in just the right way that God wanted. Prayer does not work that way. But that does not mean that prayer does not work, nor does that mean that God does not keep his promises. Our response instead should be to persevere in our prayer, and to renew our trust in God, that He will act, that He will provide, that He will answer our prayers in a way that we might not be able to imagine. Through the trial of waiting, we will grow in perseverance and in trust. These are both virtues, and when we grow in virtue, we become more like God, which is ultimately what God desires for us.
That leads us to another point: God’s promises, and God’s answers to our prayers, are ultimately oriented not towards this life, which will come to an end, but to eternal life, the life that will never end. So, for example, God promised David to raise up for him an heir whose kingdom would have no end. For the Jewish people, this meant a Messiah who would restore Israel to its former greatness. What a shock and a disappointment when the Messiah would die the death of a common criminal on the Cross! How the faith of Jesus’s followers must have been shaken! But, if we remind ourselves that God’s promises are not oriented to this world but rather to the next, the death of Jesus on the Cross becomes a source of hope and not despair: the kingdom without end that the Messiah would establish is not an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly one.
So when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced to her that she would be the mother of the “Son of the Most High”, this was only the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises made long ago to David. And Mary had no idea what all of this meant. She did not fully grasp or comprehend everything that God was asking of her. But despite this, she still said yes: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
We too are called to say yes to the Lord, to respond to His call to us with faith. None of us knows exactly what God wants of us, nor do we know exactly where he will lead us. We do not know all the ramifications of saying yes to the Lord. And we may not even see the full results of what saying yes to Him means in this life. That is because God is leading us to a destination that is not found in this life but rather in the next. We await the fulfillment of his promises in trust and in hope.