Background Scripture: Luke 1:11-20, 63-65
Quotes of the Week:
A hero is someone who, in spite of weakness, doubt or not always knowing the answers, goes ahead and overcomes anyway.
Berkley and I have watched a lot of baseball over the past few years, and there are games when our team, the St Louis Cardinals, play great and seem to control the entire game. There are other games where the play is nip and tuck throughout, and though, we root for the Cards, we are unsure which team will come through in the end. There are other games where, from the first pitch, it seemed that our team was going to lose - those are the games that are not too fun to go to. (Unfortunately, the 2016 season has started out that way… sigh) However, there are other times when it is doubtful that they would come back, but somehow they have mounted tremendous comebacks and won. Back in the 2011 World Series, it seemed that they were sure to lose to the Texas Rangers, but in Game 6, being down to their last out, they mounted a comeback. To be honest, I had given up on them coming back, but Berkley wanted to keep watching and man, what an incredible game (for Cards fans). However, the truth be known, whether the Cards win or lose has very little to do with our lives in general. Certainly, it draws the community together and creates some common things to talk about, but win or lose, most people have to get up the next morning, just like they did before. The only thing that persistent winning might do is cause ticket prices to get higher next year!
Crippling doubt. We all will encounter situations that will cause us to wonder what will happen. To most people, there are plenty of things that are far more important than athletics, and when things don't go as planned or expected, life can become very difficult. We will encounter some situations where we have no control of the outcome and when things don't happen according to our schedule, we may begin to doubt that it ever will. We'd all like some process by which we could ensure that we could control every outcome in life, but if you've lived long enough, you'll find that some things go the way you want, and some things don't. There is a problem if we base how we see God on the outcome. If things work out good for us and we feel blessed, we often will say God is good! However, the key is that whether it works out for good for us or not, God is still good. Somehow, it has to be more than just how things work out. As we watch the coming election in 2016, many people are worried, because they are concerned about what might happen. Regardless of the outcome, God is still on the throne.
In the past week, we saw an interview with a couple (with small children) that were missionaries and through a really bad situation, the man was captured by armed insurgents. When the insurgents saw that his wife was pregnant, they let him go and they took another missionary in his place. That other missionary was found dead some time later. When you hear one side of the story, you hear of how God worked miraculously and had a plan for the missionary and his family, and how He continues to work in their lives. Certainly, you would say that God is good! However, would the friends and family of the other missionary say the same thing? Certainly there was considerable heartache and lives that were altered in a completely different direction for both missionary's family and friends. We see a problem when we base our faith and the goodness of God on the outcome of a situation. At some points, we will be very positive about what God is doing and at other points, we will find ourselves questioning God over specific circumstances. We can only trust that God has a much better, higher plan in place than what we can fathom in this life. Yet we should also remember that we live in a fallen world where death and war are allowed. It's not always appropriate to say to someone who just lost a child, or has received a terminal illness or any other myriad of devastating life events - that God has a 'better and higher' way, which seems to intimate that their pain, their loss and their grief, is minimal and insignificant to God - and that they just need to hold on because it's going to get better (kinda like the Cardinal's game mentioned earlier) that when it seems hopeless and feels like the rug has been pulled out from underneath you, God is going to pull out a 'win'. As a believer we know that our 'win' is eternity in heaven but on this side of heaven, we are not promised a world where things always work out the way we want.
I (Berkley) am living proof of this - I was widowed 9 years ago this May at the age of 40 with a 18 year old son and 12 year old daughter. Our family sustained major traumatic life events following Greg's passing that I still can't believe happened. Then in 2010 life got really bright again as Don and I joined our lives together for better or worse and till death do us part. I can assure you neither of us expected the 'till death do you part' part to come 5 years into our marriage with the diagnosis of a terminal disease that has a life expectancy of 2-5 years from the diagnosis. Where's the big win in this situation??? It doesn't feel like a win for me. Don gets eternity in heaven at the end of his disease and I get to be alone again. I get to sleep in a bed by myself and spend my days and nights alone. There will be no one to kiss goodnight or get my medicine if I'm sick. No one to lay around on a rainy day with. I know God will be with me and that life will not always be bleak. But can we be honest with each other? I don't feel like this is a great plan and I'd really like God to step in and 'save' this game; heal this man and allow us a long and joyful life together. It might happen, but most likely it won't and if my faith in God was based on the outcome of some of the life events I've experienced in the last nine years, and the ones I'm staring down the road at, I'd walk away from Him in a minute. But my faith is based in who God IS not what He does or doesn't do or allow. It's not an easy place to get to, but God is good all the time - all.the.time - period. He is good whether Don is cured or not. He is good whether I'm widowed twice. He's good no matter what. Do you believe that? Can you say your faith is strong enough that no matter what - your God is always good? It's not easy and I'm not patting myself on the back, but I think it's really important that people get this. Too many times we hear people say, "God healed that child, He is so good". But the truth is that healed or not, God is still good and the converse of that statement is that God is bad if the child died. See the paradox? We should think about how we phrase things and come up with new ways to acknowledge God's miracles without attaching them to His goodness.
So, back to the point of telling someone that God's got some 'better plan' - it can be downright mean and hurtful. We don't know what God has in plan and to suggest to someone in any of those situations that God has 'done this to them' because he has a better plan can be the most painful thing we say to an individual who is already reeling from some type of trauma. What we can say with assurance is that God is with them and loves them and can give them a peace that will never be explained. But we should be extremely cautious about giving a mandate of what God was or wasn't doing and /or is or will be doing in that person's life. (end of my soap box)
Many people like to make long range plans. When they are young, many like to think about what they will be when they grow up, where they will go to school, where they will live, how marriage will be and how many children they will have. As time goes on, some of those plans may change, as circumstances often drive different outcomes. I never became a professional basketball player or any of the other careers I imagined I might have liked to be, sigh. Sometimes, snags appear or we may not be able to accomplish plans and goals, or our objectives may change or simply be forgotten. Even when life doesn't go the way we may have desired, we have to learn how to adapt and move forward. When we hold onto what could have been, we often create more difficulties for our future. There are some who are still waiting, for the right person, or for the ability to have children, or for the perfect job to come, or to grow ten more inches (for the professional basketball gig) or for ….. In some of these situations, people may feel that God was leading them in a direction and it may not have panned out. In some, perhaps God will still work. We know that God can do all things, but we cannot direct Him to do anything.
Above all, we need to consider God's long range plan, as that is the only thing that will not change. God's plan has always been to deal with our sin and bring us into a relationship with God. We spend much of our lives going from one thing to the next, with our own set of goals and desires. On many more times than not, we will see how God has been with us, and has blessed us in many ways. In the other times, when our lives seem to fall apart, we need to realize that God is still God and He is still on the throne. We may have doubts about our circumstances, but we can rest confidently in God and His plan to redeem His people.
Zechariah was in the Holy Place, in the Tabernacle. This was not the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant and the presence of God was, but it was just outside the curtain. Have you ever been alone in a church? We call the church the house of God, and I remember as a kid thinking that when I was alone in a hallway, He might just step out of one of the classrooms and tell me to 'quit running and keep it down'. Although I know God doesn't physically reside there now, churches do have an aura about them. While we cannot really comprehend what is what like for Zechariah, imagine yourself someplace that you may find somewhat uncomfortable and alone. You are not expecting to see anyone at all. This was Zechariah's situation. In verse 11, we read that an angel of the Lord appeared to him standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
Zechariah saw the angel and immediately, he was startled and was gripped with fear. This seemed to be a common response to seeing an angel in the Bible. Zechariah was at a place where it may seem more likely to see an angel (in the Holy place), but he was certainly not expecting this. The angel said "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard". As we thought about the things that we have prayed about for many years, we realize that it might take an angel for us to believe that it has been heard, because things haven't gone as we had hoped. The angel continued to say that Zechariah's wife Elizabeth would bear him a son and the son was to be called John. The child would bring great joy to his parents and many others. John would be sent with a purpose, and would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born.
I had read that passage many times and it never really struck me just how powerful that was. Jesus was born to Mary, as part man and part God. He lived a fairly normal childhood, outside of the star and the shepherds and the wise men and so forth. It wasn't until Jesus became 30 and was baptized before he was filled with the Holy Spirit. I'm not really sure what all that means, but it would appear that John had more insight into what God was doing before Jesus began His ministry. That's probably another good topic to spend a little time thinking about, but that would be another lesson for another time.
Zechariah had to take all of this in. We don't know if he had still prayed for a child, or if over time, he reluctantly accepted his lot in life and served faithfully. Or, it could be that Zechariah had given up praying for his son, but had been praying for the Messiah to come. Regardless of what he had been praying or whether or not he thought it possible to become a father, he was told that this will happen and they were to name the child John. It became evident that this child was entrusted to them for a time, but was truly set apart to be used for God. In many ways, this is how we are to see our own children. Eventually, they become the ones that make their choices and our hope and prayer is that God would use them in some way. We all pray for our kids and that they would be well medically and financially and spiritually and socially and so forth. But, just as we begin to see that our lives are about seeking God, our biggest prayer for their lives should be less about where they work or live, but that their hearts would be turned to God.
The angel continued to say that John would bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He would carry forth before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make the people ready and prepared for the Lord. The child would not follow in his father's footsteps and become a priest as was Zechariah. God was going to use this child to reach people and turn them back to the Lord.
In at least a couple of ways, Zechariah had to be questioning. The obvious question had to do with the validity of these words, since Zechariah only knew what he could see - and that was that both he and Elizabeth were old and well along in years. I'm sure he questioned this, at this time in his life. He likely had prayed this prayer over and over for years before, when the time was 'right' for them to be parents. Even today, it would seem that God gifts parents of young children to be able to deal with things during that time that they would have a hard time doing at some other point in their lives. But, it was clear that they were being told that they would have a baby boy. One other thing that may have been in Zechariah's mind was how John would be able to draw people to the Lord, when that would seem to be what the priest should be doing. It became apparent that things were going to be different, and if you've ever been involved in doing something a certain way for a long time, it can be hard to imagine that it would ever be different. The system with the tabernacle had been set in place way back in the day of Moses, and if you read that Scripture, it was very clear that was the way that God prescribed, or else. There may have been multiple areas of disbelief in his mind, but Zechariah only voiced about the birth of the son.
Certainly, on their own, Zechariah and Elizabeth could not possibly have a child. But, the angel said that it would happen. God can take a barren womb that has no hope and fix it. What situations do we look at today and believe that they are too far gone? Perhaps it is in the area of relationships, addictions, our own bitterness or any of several different possibilities. We know miracles 'can' happen, but we also know reality.
Zechariah wanted a sign. We would like a sign too, wouldn't we? I think back to when God called Gideon to become a leader of warriors. Gideon, the man who was hiding inside of a building, threshing wheat, which would normally be done outside. Gideon seemed like the least likely warrior. Gideon asked that the fleece outside of the door be wet in the morning, but the ground would be dry. It happened, but then he asked for ANOTHER sign - that the fleece would be dry, but everything else would be wet. It happened. I'm surprised he didn't ask for another one. Well, Zechariah got a sign, but it was one more of a consequence of unbelief. He was not able to speak. Now, I don't know how much Zechariah spoke, but if anyone had a story to tell, it would be him, right? He could say that he was doing his priestly duty and then an angel showed up. Even with that information, it would be enough to start a lengthy conversation, right? But, Zechariah couldn't speak.
If you've been reading these lessons for the past few months, you know that I (Don) was diagnosed with ALS in April of 2015. The primary symptoms involve my speech and mobility. I can still talk, but it is slow and at times, I believe unintelligible. It appears that the more I talk, the better it gets (but never to where I feel 'comfortable' with it), as the muscles get used to being used, but even at the best, it is frustrating. I sit in meetings at work, and unless I have something earth shattering to say, I stay quiet. By the time I get something out, the point is past already. At least I have some voice left, and I also have a device that can speak for me, speaking whatever I type. Zechariah had no device and no voice. He had a story to tell, but he couldn't share it with anyone. He wanted a sign. He got a sign. I guess a side point here would be, be careful what you ask for.
At once, his mouth was opened and his tongue was set free. Zechariah began to speak and praise God. Surely, people knew of his predicament and likely they had stories of why he couldn't speak after being in the temple. So, when he spoke, it was a testimony to many people and he spent his words praising God. God had come through, even when Zechariah had surely doubted the outcome.
I do believe that there is something about taking a look at the ways that we limit God. As believers, we want to say that we are following Him and doing what He would want us to do, but we often find ourselves doing the good, even godly things to the best of our own ability. We act as if the results of what we do are dependent upon us entirely. I believe that God comes through for us in big and small ways each and every day, and we are so often focused on the wrong things that we miss it.
I have been reading a book by John Ortberg, called "When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box". The premise is that we are playing this game of life and we get focused on so many of the wrong things. They may not be the wrong things based on what they are, but we may put the wrong priorities on things. We know that there are many things in life that we have to do to survive and maintain, and it is very easy to make those the focus, all the while missing the intent of the game. I believe each day should be a new adventure and we should look to see what God is planning on doing in our lives. When we find ourselves relying on Him more and more, we start to see how He is at work in big and small things each day. One of the things that Ortberg pointed out was that the response of most people whom God asked to do something in Scripture was similar to Zechariah's - fear. God doesn't ask us to take out the trash, but to do something that would seem beyond our ability. For some, it may be just to talk to someone and share their faith. For others, it may be to befriend a neighbor. If you find yourself too comfortable and not a bit on edge, you need to ask yourself if you are really living as God intended. I believe if we had that uneasiness each day, we would learn more and more to rely upon God.
One last point that occurred to me, thinking about how Zechariah was told about his son, John, it became apparent that Zechariah had to entrust his son to the Lord. While it was necessary to provide a foundation for John, there would come a point where his parents would have to let him go and experience life as God intended. You may remember that John became John the Baptist and lived in the wilderness. This was not preparation that Zechariah or Elizabeth could really help with too much. Too often, parents today want to not only provide the foundation for their kids, but it is as if they want to hover over their every move. They want to ensure they walk the way they want them to walk, and to keep them from any situations that may be uncomfortable. While it is good to offer counsel when asked, if parents continue to monitor and seek to control how their kids respond to everything in life, they are doing a huge disservice to them. We need to trust that God will work in their lives and not be the parents that hover over our kids, attempting to fix everything for them along the way. If Zechariah had done this, John would never have accomplished his purpose, as God intended. As a parent, are you letting your kids make their own decisions as adults, or are you still acting as if you are their guardian?
Bottom line, we know that God works. Seek the things of God and put your faith in them, as opposed to putting your hopes and wishes on God as priority. We need to do what we need to do in this life, but our confidence and security comes in knowing that God has a greater purpose which will be fulfilled. We do not know what that purpose is necessarily, but we know that He is capable of all things. Put your faith in Him!
PS - It occurred to me (Berkley) that as you read this it might seem like a contradiction to speak about Zechariah and his doubting God to do a great work and encouraging you to have faith that sees beyond the circumstances - and yet speak about Don's disease as we do. There could be pages written about how we've struggled with this paradox ourselves. But the one thing we know is that God sent an angel to speak to Zacheriah and to tell him he would have a son. We have not heard a word from God that has told us to believe in a cure. We are praying for one but we have learned to accept what is most likely to occur as a way to be prepared for our future and to find the joy in each day that we can. In other words, it's teaching us to live in the moment, with an eye on the future. It would be easy, on some level, to claim that God was going to heal Don. Then we could just keep living as if that would happen and ignore all the things that are taking place and decisions and modifications that we need to make. But we feel, in our situation, that that would be foolish and is not what we have been called to do.
We certainly covet your prayers for healing and a cure and a halt in Don's progressions - but at the same time we would ask that you pray for us to live each day with purpose and to show us ways to use this for Gods glory. It may seem odd but our big prayer right now is that God would do something out of the ordinary as it pertains to the cost of installation of a platform lift in our home and the securing of a low mileage, reasonably priced wheelchair modified accessible van. These are not things insurance covers and are they are extremely expensive out of pocket costs for us. We are asking God to show up in these tangible and practical ways, and to be honest, His doing so would be just as momentous as some of the other things we pray for. See, sometimes we skip asking for the 'normal' things because they seem irrelevant, or we become so fixated on the 'big' unlikely miracle, we forget that God tells us he will take care of our small needs, not just our big ones. And I think when we forget to pray for the seemingly smaller more 'do able' things, we might miss the chance to see God work a miracle because we never bothered to ask Him to intervene in that situation. Wouldn't it be awesome to see a miracle in a place you never expected? In a way you hadn't thought of? God is incredibly creative and sometimes I think I don't get an answer because I never asked the question. We are called to ask, to ponder and to inquire. He is a majestic and mighty God, yet He cares for the slightest need we have - His desire is to be glorified and if we can glorify him by sharing how he meet a very real and tangible need - it is our desire to do so.