December 6, 2009

A Life of Faith

I wish I could have been there at the birth. It would have been incredible. Now, I’ll tell you straight up that nothing could even come close to comparing with the birth of my own son, but this one would have come pretty far down that road. The couple had been trying to have kids for so long and had finally gotten there. The shouts of joy in the room would have nearly drowned out the healthily screaming baby. The mother was crying with wonder and relief as she looked into the face of her infant son. And the father was standing there with her, silently watching the events unfold exactly as he had hoped they would.

This scene really couldn’t have happened to a more deserving couple. Listen to this description of them: “During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah….His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron….Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God.” Now, I’ll grant that sounds like something you might hear at a funeral—and indeed it was written long after their death—but how many people are really deserving of such a description…particularly in the Bible where we can be sure it’s not just fluff to make the relatives feel better? In fact, they were so fitting of this description that God actually sent an angel to tell them they were going to have a baby. Listen to what the angel had to say: “Your prayer has been heard….[Y]our wife, will bear a son by you….You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.” What more could you ask for as newly expectant, expectant parents? God sends an angel to assure you that you are going to have a son and goes on to assure you that he will “achieve great stature with God.” That’s like the ultimate assurance every parent dreams of having and this couple actually got it. They were set for life.

Yet for those of you who have figured out that we are talking about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, you know that’s not the case. Did I forget to mention how old this couple was? The Bible goes out of its way to point out their advanced age. Now, around these parts we might refer to them as young, but as far as having children goes, they were pretty far up there; particularly around the turn of the first millennium. Oh, and I also skipped over a minute ago the part about the wife being barren. Hmm…this is starting to sound less and less like they were really set. In fact, it sounds like this couple should not have gotten pregnant when they did by any reasonable measure of chance. As it turns out, this was the case. It was so shocking to their friends and neighbors when she started sharing the news of her pregnancy that they didn’t believe her. I mean, can you imagine how you would react if a woman who had badly wanted to have kids her whole life but had already gone through menopause suddenly started claiming she was pregnant (and in a day long before pregnancy tests were around)? Not only did the neighbors not believe her, they started talking about her behind her back. Eventually somebody confronted her during that first month as she went around excitedly sharing the news. It got so bad that she basically went into hiding. “She went off by herself for five months, relishing her pregnancy,” the text says. Let’s fill in her thoughts a bit: “If they’re not going to be happy for me, I’ll just go enjoy this by myself until they can’t deny it anymore.”

Now all this makes for a good story, but Luke wasn’t writing his Gospel about the life and ministry of John the Baptist. He was writing his story about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ: the Promised One of God. The question Luke is leading us to ask through the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, however, is this: how does God see His promises fulfilled? We know the promises of God are always fulfilled. They are either fulfilled where we can see them in Scripture, or we still await their fulfillment at the end of time. One of the greatly debated questions of Christian history though is how. We just looked at several angles of this on Wednesday night. Well, in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke gives us his answer: God’s promises are worked out in the lives of His faithful followers. The promises of God are great and glorious and they will come to pass. Yet the way God sees them through to completion most often is not the boldly miraculous, but by entrusting those faithful to Him with responsibility for bits and pieces such that when the people of God are all working in harmony, the splendor of the kingdom of God comes together with the elegant beauty of a symphony. Each life of faith, then, holds the promise of seeing the great promises of God made manifest. Simply put: a life of faith is a life of promise. Well, with a nod to the reality of Luke’s Gospel, let us turn back to the story of John’s unlikely parents to see just how and why this is the case. Indeed, though this simple statement is the truth, it is not always (or ever) an easy truth to swallow. Let us see together that even when the realities of life set in, a life of faith is a life of promise.

We’ll start this journey by going back to the description Luke gives of this couple. You can find it in the first chapter of Luke starting in v. 5. And this morning I’m going to be reading the story from the Message translation. It’ll sound a bit different than you’re used to, but I think Eugene Peterson has a pretty good take on this story. Let’s go back first to the description of the couple again. Luke describes first their lineage. That shouldn’t be too unexpected around these parts. The two questions people around here care about most when meeting someone new are: Where are you from? and Who is your daddy? Those were the two big questions back then too, and given the tribal nature of the culture were both answered by the second question. Anyway, Luke tells us that Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abijah and that Elizabeth was a descendant of the daughters of Aaron. Let me give you some perspective on this lineage. This would be like having a preacher whose last name was Warren and whose wife’s maiden name was Graham. In other words, God really couldn’t have chosen a better family to bear the herald of His Messiah in terms of pedigree. This couple was a priestly family par excellence. Furthermore, they weren’t like some of those folks who rely pretty heavily on family name but aren’t really very good people. Using a nice little inclusio to draw his readers’ attention to this fact Luke states that “together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God.” These folks were so righteous and kind and good that it probably made their neighbors sick went they weren’t looking up to them. I mean, think of the best Christian you’ve ever known and double it. They were spiritual leaders of the people of Israel and they fit the part better than anyone could have asked for. They were the kind of people who seem to lend a lot of credence to the idea that a life of faith is a life of promise.

At this point we are expecting something pretty big from this couple. These were the kind of people we expect God to use to do big things. Folks like this don’t face hard times, right? We’ve already answered that. In v. 7 Luke drops “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on us: “But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.” The bit about being old; no big deal. It’s not a big deal to us and it wasn’t to them. But to be childless was to be cursed by God. The culture of the day viewed barrenness as the ultimate curse for a woman. Yes there were stories about faithful women like Sarah and Hannah and Manoah’s wife, but barrenness didn’t just happen randomly to women. Women were barren because either they, or someone in their past had offended God and now He was holding them responsible. As righteous as they were, in the eyes of the people around them, this was a scarlet letter that was not coming off. It would have colored everything else they did. All the righteous acts would have been viewed as attempts to atone for whatever it was that put them in this condition. And like Job, the more they claimed innocence, the more people would have sure of their sinfulness. In the light of all this, the fact of their old age (read: beyond childbearing years) only further cemented the fact that God was punishing them for something and wasn’t going to let up. Yet all the while they knew they had done nothing wrong. All the while they kept praying and hoping that things would change; that His promises would have bearing on their faithful life.

Surely we don’t think like this anymore? When someone loses a job or is buried under a mountain of debt or seems afflicted by constant poverty or has a chronic condition or struggles with past addiction or is in trouble with the law or has children who seem hell-bent on rebelling against everything right they were taught or you name it we just assume they are innocent victims, don’t we? What about when these people are churchgoers who claim the mantle of believer? The Christmas season is supposed to be a season of hope. It’s supposed to be a time when miracles happen and wrongs are made right. But the fact is that many people still face hard times. Sometimes God allows His faithful servants to face ongoing hard times whether the situation is of their own making or not. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been barren their entire marriage and now were too old to have children. How do we handle this? A life of faith is a life of promise, but what about when those promises seem too hazy to be real?

Well, there are always the usual suspects. We could get really angry at God and try to get others on board with us. We could take steps to make what we see to be the promises of God for us real without waiting on Him. We could let everyone around us know how miserable we are and what a noble thing it is for us to suffer for the kingdom. We could quietly give up hope and let ourselves die inside leaving behind a shell going through the motions. Or if we want to try something a bit more productive, the example Zechariah and Elizabeth leave for us isn’t a bad one to follow. Continuing in v. 8: “It so happened that as Z[e]chariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering.” Okay, I get it: we go to the church and get a big group to pray for our situation with us. Well, not a bad idea, but that’s not what’s going on here. Remember: Zechariah was a priest. Normally, he was out in the field, serving his local congregation in their synagogue. Two weeks a year, however, he was called to active duty service in the Temple with the rest of his regiment—this is where we find him here. What Luke gives us is a picture of life going on normally. Zechariah and Elizabeth could have responded in a lot of ways to the misery of barrenness constantly hanging over their heads. We know they prayed from verse 13, but more than this, they kept living their faithful lives day-in and day-out trusting that God would carry them through this valley to life on the other side regardless of how deep and dark it seemed. After all, it is a life of faith that is a life of promise, not a life of anger or complaining or bitterness or conniving or anything else. When we face difficult situations in our lives, it’s easy to respond in one of the ways we mentioned just a minute ago. But these will get us nowhere. They will offer us no lasting relief and only more problems to contend with. The way is exemplified right here before us. As the popular country song by Rodney Atkins says: “If you’re going through hell, keep on going, don’t slow down.” We keep on the path of faithfulness and trust that God is going to carry us out of the valley no matter how dark it seems. Even when it seems like God caused us to walk through the valley, we can still sing with the writer of the great spiritual: “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.”

And do you know what Zechariah experienced as he slogged through the mundane of following God faithfully every day even when it didn’t make any sense? When it comes to stories of people hearing from God, people’s minds naturally go to the dramatic. Moses went up to the mountain of Sinai to experience God. Elijah was on Mount Carmel. Joseph was in prison. Daniel was in a den of lions. We hear stories all the time of people experiencing God in a bottle of alcohol or a syringe of heroin. We get so accustomed to God parting Red Seas and setting bushes on fire without burning them that we forget that He still works in out of the way stables, on quiet hillsides at midnight, and in worship services not so different in purpose from this one. As Zechariah and Elizabeth slogged through the mundane of life faithfully bearing the burden they had been given they experienced God. Yes, it was the great Temple in Jerusalem. Yes, it was during a once in a lifetime chance to offer incense in the presence of God. But Zechariah was at work. Mary was going about her daily business. Where were you? We get so used to hearing dramatic stories of God interacting with His people that we forget to look for Him in the “mundane” places of life. Whether out in the world, at work, or at worship, God is not limited to the grand in His attempts to reach out and speak His promises to us. A life of faith is a life of promise. There’s nothing there about flashy faith, just a simple faith that trusts God above all others.

Yet this life of faith is still no guarantee that things are going to go smoothly. The reality is that we are still human. We still have a sinful nature and even when we walk with our Lord that still comes out from time to time. In our lives when we go through a desert place for a long time our faith is challenged. Zechariah and Elizabeth clearly had a strong faith, but God still had a lesson to teach them: they were not sufficient sources for faithfulness. Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. Neither are we. Faith in the desert can become weathered, wary, and cynical. When God does finally call us back to the fertile plains it’s easy to respond first from the desert place. I interacted with a man some time ago who had lost his wife to cancer years ago. Before that time he was active in their church, faithfully serving in a number of ways. Then for reasons I won’t even try to guess at God let him walk through a desert. In the desert his faith became dry and weathered. It has cracked and broken in many places and today people mostly encounter those rough edges. This leaves the impression that he is gruff and hard. But the reality is that he is hurting and needs a word from the Lord to call him back on the path of faithfulness. His will not be an easy journey back to joyfulness, though. Neither was Zechariah’s.

The angel had this incredible message for him: “Don’t fear, Z[e]chariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God. He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.” And from everything we know about Zechariah at this point in the story we expect him to start jumping for joy. Instead he looks the angel square in the face and says: “Do you expect me to believe this?” This is faith talking fresh out of the desert. Why should we trust that God’s really going to come through for us now? He left us alone (or so it seemed) so long. The challenge before us is the same as it was before Zechariah: Do we have the depth of faith to throw off the dust when God calls us to action after we’ve felt alone for so long? Let me give you the answer to that question: Not on our own we don’t. Neither did Zechariah. Like a good soldier, we must keep our faith constantly ready for action. One of the best pictures of this I’ve seen comes from the move Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Near the end of the movie when they finally reach the room housing the Holy Grail they find a soldier there guarding the grail. Presumably he’d been guarding the grail for several hundred years. Yet instead of growing bored or complacent or embittered at such a lonely duty, he stayed steadfast in prayer and kept all his tools polished and ready for action at a moment’s notice. A life of faith is a life of promise, not a life of complacency.

Well, surely God has compassion on such faith lapses. I mean, He can’t possibly expect us to be perfectly ready all the time. Even major league relievers get a few minutes to warm up before seeing any real action. Well, God does have compassion on us, but that doesn’t mean He exempts us from consequences of faithlessness. As Gabriel responds to Zechariah: “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.” And indeed he was. But wasn’t this unnecessarily harsh on God’s part? Zechariah certainly wouldn’t have thought so. He was in the very presence of God (the Holy Place of the Temple) and had the audacity to essentially accuse God of lying. He was lucky he wasn’t struck down on the spot. Instead, God graciously gave him a chance to prepare without any other distractions, notably the ability to hear anything or speak to anyone. Incidentally, to folks who say they would believe the call of God if it came from a more powerful source, like say an angel, here is an example of a person of faith doubting the word of an angel. A heart inclined to unbelief and impenitent doubt is not going to believe no matter how strong the evidence. Thankfully, this was not the place of Zechariah. He took his gift of silence from God and spent the next several months preparing to get in the game when his time came. And get in the game he did. When the crowd gathered for the birth tried to name the boy Zechariah, after his father, he stood on faith and communicated that the boy’s name would be John. This opportunity for faithfulness is what God had given him time to prepare for and he was able to speak and hear instantly. Filled with the Holy Spirit Zechariah prophesied not only about the ministry of his son, but also about the ministry of the one for whom he would prepare the way: the Messiah.

You see, the way for Christ was not prepared solely by John, but by the faithfulness of his forebears. We all leave a legacy for those who come after us. What kind of legacy we will leave is the question. A life of faith is a life of promise, and such lives do not come by accident. The challenge is that life often gets in the way. We don’t like where God has us and so we get angry with Him and withdraw thinking we’re going to get Him. But this is like getting mad at a friend and then punching ourselves in the face. We must continue keeping our eyes on the Father trusting that if