[Zacharias and Elizabeth] were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. –Luke 1:7
Barrenness is of course a fertility problem. Biologically it refers to a womb that cannot support embryonic life. Agriculturally it refers to a land that cannot support plant life. Metaphorically it proves to be a rather portable word with any number of applications. It was evidently a favorite of the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who spoke of barren efforts and barren shores and barren crags and barren lives and ultimately of a barren Death:
Wiser there than you, that crowning barren Death as lord of all,
Deem this over-tragic drama’s closing curtain is the pall.
Lord Tennyson is right. Barrenness finds its way into every nook and cranny of this world and our experience of it. And that is because theologically barrenness is the state of creation this side of exile, the world East of Eden. God’s good world of Genesis 1 & 2 had already gone to seed under the stewardship of his image-bearers in Genesis 3 (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). And now we live, it seems, in two worlds, God’s world and our world, a world of good and evil.
The world is thus duplicitous in its barrenness and beauty, its grandeur and terror, its tranquility and violence, its capacity to provide for the unseen sparrow and its capacity to turn to ice. We can neither escape echoes of heaven nor the shadows of hell. Creation is groaning in both labor and suffocation, new births and burials by the minute, a sign (that is more than a sign) that Mother Nature is ever losing her battle with Father Time. Every birth certificate already shares its name with a death certificate. We live in a world and in bodies and in communities that simply cannot adequately support life.
Every home, so rich with memory, will slowly grow empty and eventually the nest will be left all alone. No more children giggling their way into the master bedroom on Saturday morning. No frenzy of life in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day frantically filling every dish and basket and platter with an attempt to keep the past alive. No one to say “Mom” or “Dad” or “You’re grounded!” or “Pass the jam”–-just the occasional “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when the phone rings. Then calls come only for “Mrs.”, with condolences. Then the phone just stops ringing. Life inside the walls gives way to a damningly exact proportion of grief. But soon no one is even left to cry. What was once home to a family will eventually house only an empty memory, maybe a few moths. The world is our womb, and it is barren, every life a miscarriage.
But there is something hopeful in all this, because we were not created to live in such a duplicitous world and to be such duplicitous creatures. The world was made to be good and we were made to be like God (Gen. 1). Would we really want God to preserve everything as it is, when the world is full of evil and we are full of godlessness, when nature is amuck with “natural” disasters and we will all die of “natural” causes, unless something “unnatural” kills us first? Would we not rather God burn the evil away and flood the void with light? Perhaps the sign of the times, then, is not that death is the conclusion to all human life but, more precisely, that death is the conclusion to all human evil. Indeed, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 7).
But our sin and death has not deterred God from finishing what he has started. He is still committed to making the world to be good and making us to be like God. We just have to be emptied of life, such as it is, before we can be filled with life as it will be. Nobody plants flowers in a bed of weeds or a thicket of thorns. Before there can be new life, there must be death. In this way, barrenness is about new beginnings.
Barrenness is not only the state of things after everything dies. It is the state of things before everything lives. Indeed, a womb must be empty before it can be filled, just as creation was formless and void before it was filled with light. But God not only filled the void, he created it (Gen. 1:2). He did not just hurl the world into a space sufficient to sustain it. He created it as a barren womb, a space he would himself have to fill in order for it to be filled with Life. Apart from him this world would only inevitably return back to its original, all-consuming barrenness, but this world is not apart from him—because Christmas. Because God was born into this world, this world can be born again. Our barrenness is not a post-apocalyptic wasteland but the womb of new creation. Emmanuel—east of Eden.
I used to think, wherever you find Jesus, there you will find no misery. But I’ve learned over the years it’s just the opposite: Wherever you find misery, there you will find Jesus. He says as much in some rather harrowing words about the sheep in his fold and goats in high places (Mt. 25). Emmanuel means God has come to us in all the barrenness of our exile, not that we have gone to him in all the grandeur of his celestial paradise. We will never find God in heaven because God has found us on earth, and it is here that heaven is coming (Rev. 21-22): here, in barren places; here, with broken people; here, where God is.
And it has always been so: God comes where the efforts are barren and the ground is chapped. Slaves in Egypt became a nation in the desert. God had come. Out of barren wombs the child of promise is born to Sarah, the child of prophecy to Elizabeth, the “Voice crying out in the Wilderness” born to a father who could not speak. God had come. Out of nowhere the substitute came to Abraham for his son on Mount Moriah. Out of the Virgin the Substitute came to Israel for all sons on Mount Calvary. God has come.
And God is coming again. Isaiah says we’ll know it is God because the cracked desert floor will begin blooming like a daisy field in springtime; the groaning ground of the curse will suddenly burst into song (Isa. 35). Scorched war fields will become spring-fed gardens (Isa. 58); swords and spears will be beaten into the shape of life and kept in the barn (Isa. 2). He said that lions and tigers and bears would go vegan and siesta with lambs and yearlings (Isa. 11). There will be life where there could otherwise be no life, peace in a world of unrest, a symphony filling canyon winds. Paul says we’ll know it is God because when he comes he will lay death down to sleep, pray the Lord its hell to keep. We’ll wake up one day without aching joints and pressing deadlines. We’ll see mirrors we’re not ashamed of (1 Cor. 15).
John says we’ll know it is God because of what happens to the brokenhearted. The little boy whose dad was sent home in the form of a flag, the young mother of that boy looking helpless at his searching eyes; the little girl who never wore white. We’ll know it is God not because the brokenhearted will suddenly stop crying but because their tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). They will be touched by a real Hand and there will be a resurrection of real hands. Those searching eyes will find what they never stopped looking for. It will be like a world ruled by the real religion that James talked about (Ja. 1:27).
John also says we’ll know it is God because it will be like a Bridegroom and a Father and a Son and like a world full of siblings (Rev. 21-22), like wedding reception and a family reunion all at once (Rev. 19:6). It will just be a mess of an overflow. Loneliness won’t even fit in a crack on the floor. There will be no storm shelters or panic rooms, no sirens or seatbelts, no temples or mosques, no shut doors or closed countries, no walls, no gun control, no guns, no abortions, no greed, no partisanship, no voting booths, no border patrol, no arrogance, no bumper stickers, no child soldiers, no fatherless children, no websites, no spam, no shrapnel, no midnight calls, no divorce, no mistrust, no shame, no shadows, no small caskets, no more goodbyes: only God, only Light, only peace, only joy, infinite joy drowning the void beneath the weight of the “glory of the Lord that fills the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14), and us—with a Table there at the center to keep the past alive for good (Rev. 21:21-23).
When Christ comes, he comes to dethrone the one called “barren Death” crowned “lord of all.” The crimson of his crown will touch every tomb and burst forth in a bloom of roses. For He is the “firstborn of creation” (Col. 1:15) and therefore the “firstborn of the dead” (Col. 1:18). And he will again descend into this barren womb of creation, this time to bring forth life in an unbound abundance. When “the Lord descends from heaven…the dead in Christ shall rise” (1 Thess. 4:16). And on that day, the world will be discovered as an ultrasound devoid of any dark, as we all are born again into the womb of eternal life, together with the eternally Begotten Son of God. No more miscarriages.
When he comes…