An Unexpected Mercy

By Jasmine Timm

When dark nights stretch across the earth for longer periods of time each year, I find myself returning to the well-loved pages of my Chronicles of Narnia books. In these stories, I am often comforted by the words of a great lion, Aslan, who reflects the character of Christ. In this series, Aslan appears to the children in unexpected ways. He often comes quietly, only recognized by those who have been trained to hear his voice. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the children, Lucy, finds herself sailing on an ocean in the dark of the night. In a moment of desperation, she cries out to the great lion she cannot see: 

“Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” 

We then read:

The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little – a very, very little – better. 

Within moments, Lucy begins to see something in the water, and then she hears a whisper: 

Courage, dear heart.” And the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s. 

In the darkness of the night, when all hope seems lost, Aslan shows up. But it was not at all how Lucy may have expected. 

Dark times call for desperate measures. Like Lucy, the people of Israel certainly experienced desperate times. At their worst, they wandered about in the dark of the wilderness due to their disobedience. They were often found desperate but refused to look to God. However, He showed unexpected mercy to them in their darkness. Over the centuries, the people of Israel had come to expect great and awesome things from God. Even as they wandered in the darkness of the wilderness for 40 years, they were accustomed to seeing God’s glory swoop in to deliver them from great enemies. The people had heard of the great God of glory, who appeared in power to Moses on Mount Sinai with flames of fire and great signs and wonders (Exodus 4). Later on in this wilderness journey, Moses actually sees God’s glory for himself. God gives him instructions to hide behind the cleft of a rock because His glory is too great to see in full (Exodus 33). God appears in a great cloud and proclaims wondrous things about His character to Moses. God meets Moses in the wilderness with peals of thunderous glory. In the first Sinai encounter, God says to Moses:

“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”

Exodus 3:7-8

He describes Himself as the God who watches over His people, delivering them from a great enemy in Egypt with the intention of bringing them to a good land abounding with milk and honey. He is the God who watches over people dwelling in a land of darkness, who time and time again sheds His own light on their suffering. God comes triumphantly to rescue His people from the land of darkness and slavery and brings them into a land flowing with goodness. But the manner in which He comes is unexpected.

Years later in Israel’s history, we are introduced to the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 19, we read of an encounter between God and Elijah after Israel had won a great battle. In the narrative, God meets a cowering Elijah. The prophet had just experienced a great victory over an evil nation, and the queen of this nation was out for blood. Elijah feared for his life and ran to the wilderness. In his despair, Elijah laid down and prayed to God, asking for his life to be ended. But God, being rich in mercy, met Elijah in his suffering, providing him with food and encouragement. Elijah rose and wandered in the wilderness for 40 days until he came to a mount called Horeb. We might recognize this mountain as Mount Sinai, the same mountain where God met Moses in glory. As Elijah ascended this famously glorious mountain, he must have expected great things: flames of fire and signs of wonder. As the ESV Study Bible notes, “Will Elijah, like Moses, see God, and if so, will it make any difference to his current attitude?” Elijah had to wait to see as the journey to the top of the mountain was roughly 250 miles long. Like Israel in the wilderness, he had to wait to see what God would do. 

When he arrives, God asks Elijah what he is doing there. Elijah responds in effect, “I am the only faithful one left” (1 Kings 19:10). He recounts the hopeless state of Israel, forgetting to remember all of God’s provisions. Then, God speaks:

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.

1 Kings 19:11-12

This description is intended to draw the mind of the reader back to the scene in Exodus 34, where Moses sees God’s glory on Mount Sinai, and this is likely where Elijah’s mind went. Elijah seems to expect God to appear as He did to Moses. But something unusual happens. God did not show up as Elijah had expected. This was not a repeat experience of Moses seeing God’s glory on Mount Sinai. Elijah stood in the same place, but this time God’s presence came as a whisper. The God of the heavens was not in the great wind, nor the earthshaking quake, nor the fire. He was in the whisper. In his moment of dark despair, God did not come at all as Elijah had expected.

This was not the last time God would come as a whisper. Thousands of years later, He arrives in the quiet stillness of a little town called Bethlehem. God’s Messiah does not break through the clouds nor shake the earth when He arrives. Rather, He arrives with a small, quiet cry in the dark of the night as a baby. The only sound to be heard is the whisper of a young mother conversing with foreign travelers. With the exception of a few unremarkable people, the world hardly knows of His arrival. 

The irony of the incarnation is that the great God of glory, the Messiah whom Israel expected, does come, but He comes as a newborn babe. He is indeed all of the great things we read about in Isaiah 9:6: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Yet He comes in the humblest of forms. He enters into the world as a whisper, with no great signs or wonders, no cloud of glory and no flames of fire. Yet this small, humble baby is truly glorious, and though He comes humbly, He ushers in a great and powerful kingdom. This kingdom comes as a whisper, but it will soon grow to full shouts of glory. 

The Messiah is not what humanity expected. He comes much more quietly than we would have hoped. He is surely not what Israel expected, but He is much more glorious than they could have ever imagined, even greater than the flames of fire and the cloud of glory that appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai. He comes more humbly than we expected, but His glory grows into the most wondrous thing we could have ever imagined. He has come quietly to bring His people into a bright land, a land flowing with milk and honey. He has heard the cries of His people and has answered them in a whisper.

As we wait in darkness for the fullness of the kingdom to break through, we pray with Lucy:

“Father, Father, if You ever loved us at all, send us help now.”

And we know that He has indeed loved us, so much so that He sent His one and only Son to be born into the world in order to transfer us from a kingdom of darkness into a kingdom of light (John 3:16, Colossians 1:13). He has heard us, and He has sent help. Like Israel, He has seen our suffering and has responded mightily. And like Aslan whispers to Lucy, God has whispered to us good news of great joy. His Messiah has come. God’s great and glorious presence has arrived on earth in a cradle. Don’t be fooled by its size. 

Shane and Shane have a fitting song Winter Snow for today’s post.