May 15, 2016

I Doubt It

A few weeks ago you had the privilege of hearing from Mike Buckley.  I understand that Mike preached a great message from a fairly obscure passage of Scripture—2 Kings 7.  It tells the story of a time in the history of Israel when the northern kingdom was under siege by the people of Syria.  The siege had gotten bad enough that the people were starving.  Finally, in an act of incredible compassion by God, a group of lepers outside the city decided to turn themselves over to the Syrians because at least being killed by the Syrians would be quicker than starving to death.  Instead, what they found was a camp devoid of soldiers yet still full of their provisions.  God had frightened the entire Syrian army away and all of their food was now made available to the starving people of Israel.  It’s a pretty powerful story, but there’s something on either side of the part of the story Mike told you to which I’d like to draw your attention for a minute this morning.

In 2 Kings 7:1 we read this: “But Elisha said, ‘Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.’  Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God ‘If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?’  But he said, ‘You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.’”

What’s going on here is that Elisha, the successor of Elijah, the great prophet of God, promised the king of Israel that the terrible famine gripping the people because of the Syrians would end the next day.  The king’s captain, however, refused to believe it.  He was so stuck on seeing things a certain way that his doubts in the word of the Lord overwhelmed him.  Perhaps because of the potential for such doubt to spread among the people, further dashing their hopes, Elisha promised judgment on him for his doubt.

Well, God did indeed provide from the windows of heaven for the people and the next day, as it says over in v. 16: “Then the people went out and plundered the camp of the Syrians.  So a seah of fine flour was sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord.”  It all happened just exactly how God had told them through Elisha that it would happen.  As for that army captain?  Keep reading at v. 17: “Now the king had appointed the captain on whose hand he leaned to have charge of the gate.  And the people trampled him in the gate, so that he died, as the man of God had said when the king came down to him.”

Have you ever doubted something to the point that you couldn’t act on it?  Now, maybe you didn’t get trampled to death…as evidenced by the fact that you’re here this morning…but you may have missed out on something because of it.  It may be that God called you to something and your doubts rose up and kept you from experiencing the good God had planned for you.  The fact is, we’ve all experienced doubt like this at some point in our lives.  It may have been this kind of doubt that kept us from embracing the faith for some amount of time in the first place.  Regardless of the reason for it, doubt, if given enough place in our lives, can keep us from the good things God has planned for us.  It can leave us in a place of brokenness rather than receiving the wholeness God has in store for us.  A little bit of healthy doubt can protect us from harm and keep us on the straight and narrow path.  But when doubt becomes crippling, it can choke the life out of us.  Perhaps not physically, as the captain in this story experienced, but spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and in many other ways it most certainly can.

This morning we are in the fourth part of our series, Beauty from Ashes.  If you’ll remember, the big idea for this journey is that we all face times in our lives when we are sitting in life’s ashes because of some choices we’ve made.  But, the God we serve specializes in bringing beauty from ashes.  He can take all the broken places in our lives—whether we broke them or somebody else did—and make beautiful things out of them.  As the song by Ellie Holcomb put it: “Your love will never change/there’s healing in your name/you can take broken things,/and make them beautiful/You took my shame/And you walked out of the grave/So Your love can take broken things/and make them beautiful.”

Over the past three weeks we have seen how this plays out in times when we get off track with God’s plans for us, times when we have broken a relationship with someone else, and times when we have let a critical spirit rise up in us.  In each of these situations when we turn ourselves over to God and commit to living life His way we will experience His incredible beauty-from-ashes-making abilities.  We will experience the good God has for us, the joy of a restored relationship, and the wonder of life brought through our words.

But what if you don’t really believe God can or will do that?  What if the real issue is not one of desire, but of belief?  In some ways, the ashes of crippling doubt in our lives can be even messier than some of the other ash heaps we have talked about.  In the other situations it was a lack of awareness or knowledge that was keeping things from being like they should have been.  But when doubt is the thing standing in the way a simple transmission of information isn’t going to do the trick.  We need a firmer anchor than mere information if we are going to experience the beauty God can bring from the ashes of doubt.  And let’s be clear: doubt can leave us sitting in a pile of ashes.  When we let doubt rise up and overwhelm us we often stop doing other things we need to do.  We start to see the world through a lens of suspicion.  All of a sudden everyone is out to get us…especially God.  We put undue pressure on our relationships because of this suspicion.  We leave everyone around us feeling like they have to constantly prove themselves.  We lash out for reasons we can’t even fully express in the moment.  It sometimes feels like we are drowning.  Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.  And yet, the hope we have in Christ is that God can bring beauty even from these ashes.  I’d like to show you how this morning through the lens a story from Luke about a man who knew the pains of doubt and yet also experienced the confidence of faith.  Through his story we are going to see exactly how he did it.

Now, this story is one that most of us are perhaps more accustomed to hearing during the Christmas season.  And yet the power of any of the Scriptures is never limited to a single season so let’s take a look at this together.  If you want to follow along in your own Bibles you can find your way to Luke 1.  The story begins as so many stories of God getting involved in the lives of His people do: with someone going through the regular routines of life.  In this case, a man named Zechariah was faithfully serving the Lord as a priest.  The time came for his unit to go on active duty in the Temple and it just so happened that when the Day of Atonement came around—the one day of the year when a priest went into the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple where the very presence of God was believed to dwell, in order to offer incense—and lots were drawn to see who would do the honors they fell to Zechariah.  Now, it’s important to know here that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were barren.  They had never had children.  We talked just a couple of weeks ago about how devastating a thing this would have been for them.  What made it worse is that they were a righteous couple.  Everyone who knew them loved them and could see clearly how godly they were both individually and as a couple.  In a day when people naturally thought of barrenness as a consequence of sin, nobody could see any reason why these two would be so cursed.  As with Sarah, the pain of this situation would have weighed heavily on their shoulders all the time.

But, things were about to change.  From Luke 1:8: “Now while [Zechariah] was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.  And while the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense [this was a national ceremony when Jews from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem at the Temple].  And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  [Keep in mind, this was behind the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple so no one could see what was happening.]  And Zechariah was troubled [read: terrified] when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.  But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.  And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, and to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’”

Now, as far as good news goes, this was about as good as it gets.  This would be like God coming to an old football player who had been struggling for a long time with his wife to have a child and telling him that they were not only going to have a son, but that their son was going to be the next Tom Brady.  It would be like Him coming to an old baseball player and his wife and letting them know that their child—born post-menopause—was going to be the next Cy Young.  It would be God telling you that your child was going to be the next Lebron James or next President or the next Bill Gates—or the next Steve Jobs if you’re more of an Apple person—or the next Warren Buffet, or whoever the most famous, powerful, attractive, everybody-wants-to-be them person you can think of is.  Zechariah essentially found out that he and his wife were going to be blessed by God to beat all the odds and win the lottery.

How would you react?  Would you be jumping for joy?  Clapping your hands?  Dancing around on the ceiling?  Would you have run out of the Holy of Holies and shouted your good news from the rooftops (news that no one would have believed, by the way)?  I don’t think you would have.  And to understand why, put yourself in Zechariah’s shoes for a minute.  The angel said that God had heard his prayers.  For what?  For a son.  Now, on the one hand, this would have been awesome to hear.  But on the other hand, have you ever prayed for something for a long time and didn’t get it?  Have you ever wished for something with all your might and never saw it materialize?  We’ve all done something like that even if it was just for something small.  When we’re in a place like that, eventually we stop hoping for whatever it is.  We gradually become convinced that we’re not really going to get it.  God may love us, but this just isn’t happening.  In other words, doubt starts to creep into our hearts.

I think this is what happened to Zechariah over time.  He may have been blameless in every other area of his life, but on this one point, he had given himself over to doubt.  And can you blame him?  When he first got married there was no hope so fond in his heart as the hope of one day getting to hold his newborn son; of getting to raise him up in the Lord; of getting to see him enter the priesthood himself; of getting to serve the Lord alongside him.  Oh did he long for those days.  He prayed, “Lord, let those days come quickly so I can enjoy them with you.”

But then a year went by and Elizabeth wasn’t pregnant.  His prayer changed some.  “Lord, let the days when you have appointed for us to bear a son together come quickly.  I freely confess any sins I have committed that might be standing in the way of your giving us this blessing.”  And then came and went another year.  And another.  And another.  And his prayer changed yet again.  “Lord, I don’t understand: why won’t you give us a son?  Have we done something to offend you?  Please take away our sin and let us have a child.”  But he still believed that God had a great plan for them that involved a son.  Then the years began to go by faster.  And they got older.  And Zechariah didn’t believe anymore.  His belief was replaced with doubt.  On the outside everything looked the same.  He still believed in God.  He still worshiped God.  He still went through the rituals of being a part of the people of God—serving in the Temple, keeping the law, using the right language, and so on—but his heart wasn’t into it like it was before.  Eventually this doubt grew to the point that he understood everything else in His life through it.  He doubted people and he doubted God, and again, even though this probably didn’t show through on the outside, on the inside he was a stormy sea.

So again, when the angel appeared in the Temple and gave him all this good news, he didn’t jump for joy, he responded from out of his doubt.  He couldn’t do otherwise.  He said there in v. 18: “How shall I know this?  For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”  And I know we generally read this like it’s a totally understandable expression of skepticism, and after all why would this bother the angel when Mary’s similar expression of incredulity over in v. 34 didn’t merit her any kind of a punishment for a lack of faith, but we’ve got to make sure we’re hearing it in the same spirit that he said it.  When you set in place the lens of doubt and probably bitterness that had built up over the years on this issue for Zechariah, this suddenly sounds a lot less reasonable.  I mean, here God was giving him the best news of his entire life—news that given his position as a priest and knowing the Scriptures as he did he should have been primed to receive with gladness— and all he could say was essentially, “Yeah, right.  That’ll never happen.  God can’t do that.”   Perhaps the reason Mary’s expression of doubt in the face of something she knew to be physically impossible wasn’t met with more of a response was because hers came from a place of hopeful optimism while Zechariah’s here came from a place of doubtful pessimism.  In any event, Zechariah’s doubt had crippled him.  He could not receive willingly the good things God wanted to do in and through him.  He could only express his bitter doubts of God’s goodness and power.

As a result, we have v. 19: “And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’  And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple.  And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple.  And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.  And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”

Sometimes we’ll read a passage like this in the Scriptures and come away thinking, “Well that was awfully harsh of God!  Why would a little response like that generate such a big response from God?”  There are two things to keep in mind, though.  First, we can understand perhaps why Zechariah’s doubt generated such a response from God a little better now that we have looked at the context and the emotions in place on Zechariah’s side of the equation.  Given a number of different factors he should have responded with more faith than he did.  Second, this punishment of muteness—which, if you think about it, fit the offense pretty well—wasn’t God’s final statement on the matter.  God had plans for Zechariah and Elizabeth and He wasn’t about to let Zechariah’s personally crippling doubt get in His way.  The couple did indeed conceive and it was a boy.  During the next several months, Zechariah’s silence allowed him time to reflect on his faith in God and the word he had received from Him.  As He reflected on the Scriptures and this new word God had spoken—the first in 400 years—His doubts were gradually wiped away and replaced with trust.  God had never failed to keep His word in the past.  Even now He was finally beginning the fulfillment of His word to bring His Messiah to the world—and through His own family no less!  As he did this, he felt the constriction of his doubts begin to loosen and for the first time in perhaps a long time he felt the freedom to move with God wherever He led.

The result of all of this was restoration and something beautiful rising from the ashes of his doubt.  Look at this starting in v. 57: “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord has shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.  And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child.  And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, ‘No; he shall be called John.’  And they said to her, ‘None of your relatives is called by this name.’  And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called.  And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’  And they all wondered.  And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loose, and he spoke, blessing God.”

When Zechariah turned from his doubting and embraced trust in God, he experienced a restoration of beauty to his life that could have only come from God.  The natural question we need to ask at this point is what was the trigger.  What allowed him to make such a break from the crippling doubt that had held such sway over his life for so long and embrace this robust hope that had him proclaiming the words of God with boldness to everyone who could hear?  I’ve already told you.  What was the one thing he had to keep him company when he was locked inside the world of his mind?  When he had no words of his own any longer, what words did he still have when no one else was around?  It was the word of God!  It was the word of God that wiped away his doubts.  It was the word of God on which he had plenty of time to reflect and see the ways that it was trustworthy and true that drew him out of his black box of suspicion and into the spacious reality of grace once again.  He discovered that the word of God can be fully trusted and it led him back to the freedom of faith.  The same thing is true in our own lives.  When we are sitting under a cloud of mistrust and doubt; when we need more than mere information to shore up our flagging sails as we drift on the sea of suspicion; when we need something truly solid and unwavering in its firmness to buoy up our souls, we can turn to the word of God and find all that we need.  The word of God can be fully trusted.

That’s it?  Beauty comes from the ashes of crippling doubt simply by trusting in the word of God?  It seems like there should be more than that, doesn’t it?  And if we’re honest, we want there to be something more than that.  Like Namaan, the Syrian army officer who Elisha healed of leprosy in 2 Kings 5, just before where we started a few minutes ago, we want there to be some grand quest at the end of which we will come out with our hope restored.  But that’s not how God works.  It never has been.  And it’s a good thing too.  If we restored our own hope, then we would boast in ourselves and not our God.  What God calls us to in order to bring beauty from the ashes of incredible doubt is something much simpler: trust in His word.  And why not?  The word of God can be fully trusted.

But how does this work?  How can we have such confidence in a collection of ancient documents, the earliest of which was composed almost 2,000 years ago?  Well, I could point you to all the evidence in favor of trusting it.  I could point you to the growing mountain of archaeological evidence all backing up the historical claims it makes.  I could point to the huge collection of manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts—a collection several orders of magnitude larger than we have for any other ancient document—the sum total of which give us a great deal of confidence in the accuracy and faithful preservation of what we read in our own Bibles.  But while all of this would certainly be helpful, it seems more appropriate here and now to just let the Word speak for itself.  I’ll let it speak from 2 Timothy 3:16 where Paul writes that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  I’ll let it speak from Isaiah 41:10 where God said through the prophet, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”   I’ll let Jesus speak from John 15:7 with the assurance that “if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  I’ll let God speak from Psalm 50:15 when He called us through Asaph to “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”  I’ll let you see the reminder from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 that he “delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”  I’ll let you hear from Jeremiah when from out of a broken and doubting heart in Lamentations 3:17 that “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.’ . . . But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  And how do you think he called this to mind?  Because he had learned it in the Scriptures!

Friends, the word of God can be fully trusted and if we will turn ourselves to its wisdom, power, and hope when we are in the grip of a crippling doubt—or even a mildly irritating doubt—we will find the hope we need to keep moving in His direction even when the path doesn’t seem clear.  If we will plant His word deeply in our hearts we will not turn from Him, but will walk on in faith out of our doubts to find the prize of life.  We’ll do this because the word of God can be fully trusted.  If you are in a place of doubt this morning, your way out is through His word.  The word of God can be fully trusted.