“What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Langston Hughes, a poet of the 1950’s Harlem Renaissance. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?…Maybe it just sags, like a heavy load.”
Desire is a fragile thing. Our unmet desires can fill us with hopeful expectancy, or they can drive us to utter despair.
Culturally, Christmas is a season of desires, of wish lists, of anticipation. But for many it’s a season of lost loves, empty chairs, and teary eyes. I’ve had friends tell me how strange it is, after their divorce, to send out Christmas cards without the name of their spouse attached.
With enough time, the “heavy load” of our deferred dreams transform into bitterness—toward ourselves, toward one another, and toward God.
A WOMAN’S REPROACH
As we saw last week, the Christmas narrative isn’t simply played out as some God-sized drama. It’s a deeply personal story, with characters of real flesh and blood, feelings and thoughts, and—like many of us—dreams that have gone unsatisfied.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, we learn, were a couple who had been very faithful. Yet their faithfulness only threw their childlessness into sharper contrast:
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. (Luke 1:5-7)
The ancient Jewish community saw children as a blessing from God. Recall that God had promised Abraham that through him, God’s people would experience the blessing of the Promised Land and countless descendants. Thus, children became seen as a sign of God’s providential care. The ancients would likewise speak of having “quivers full” of children (Psalm 127:3-5). To be barren, to be childless—well this was indeed a sign of reproach.
Elizabeth, of course, could recall the stories where God had enabled women like Rebekah (Genesis 25:21) and Leah (Genesis 29:11) to conceive—and this is to say nothing of Sara conceiving in her old age (Genesis 21:2). Still, these were the exceptions—not the rule. What hope remained for her?
So as the years went on, we can imagine Elizabeth’s quiet pain, the subtle ache that came from seeing friends or family bear children. She could share their joy, yes—but only as an observer, never from holding a child of her very own.
That this couple continued to serve faithfully is a testimony to their enduring trust in God, and their satisfaction in him even amidst their anxious grief.
THE REVERSAL OF REPROACH
One thing has always been true regardless of the century: a baby changes everything. When Zechariah is promised that he and his wife would conceive, it turns their world upside down, and it turns Elizabeth’s reproach into joy:
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” (Luke 1:24-25)
We might imagine that Zechariah found a way to communicate to his wife what was happening, what the Lord was doing. The text doesn’t clarify why Elizabeth spent five months in seclusion, though it’s reasonable to expect that this aging woman took some time in her first trimester or so to ensure the health of both her and the child.
It’s not clear that Elizabeth fully understood what was happening in the life of her cousin, Mary—at least not until the Holy Spirit reveals this knowledge to her through supernatural means. Mary makes a journey covering 80-100 miles (3-4 days, in that era) to visit Elizabeth. Why? We’re not told, but presumably she’s reacting to the Lord’s leading. And it’s in that encounter that we find our first tangible expression of the child’s future purpose:
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:39-45)
Elizabeth would later give birth to John, who, later in life, would make a career out of pointing people to Jesus, “the strap of whose sandal [he] is not worthy to untie” (John 1:27). So dedicated, it seems, that John began his ministry in utero.
THE OBJECT OF OUR EVERY DESIRE
Finally, the child came:
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. (Luke 1:57-65)
Many of us have desires that have long gone unmet. There’s a reason that the return lines are so long on December 26. People return their gifts to get what they really want. Or they go on a shopping spree with all their gift cards.
Still others will not get what they want, or perhaps cannot have what they want. And that’s heartbreaking.
But even this should never be seen as an interruption to our holiday; it should remind us why Christmas was necessary in the first place. The desires of our hearts are only shadows and hints of a deeper desire, a desire that can be satisfied only in the Creator of the universe, the author of human destiny, and the Savior of the soul. Our culture’s Christmas emphasis has long been that if you’re good, you get good gifts for Christmas. But the gospel promises that because God is good, he gives you himself, and he is what satisfies the soul long after our sweaters go unraveled. The cross promises forgiveness of sins, just as it invites us into a life of personal transformation.
What happens to a dream deferred? It rests in the hands of Jesus.