This week we kick off a new teaching series called, The Characters of Christmas, designed to get us ready to experience the incredible Christmas story as fully as we possibly can. The Christmas story is a real story filled with real people. Just like they all had a place in the story, so do we. Let’s look at what place they had to see what our own might be.
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 births of my own sons, but this one would have come pretty far down that road. The couple had been trying to have kids for so long they’d stopped counting. Then, it finally happened. They finally got there. They finally got to experience the joy and wonder of delivering a healthy, precious baby into this world. They were able to hold in their arms this tiny miracle from God. 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. It had not been an easy journey by any stretch of the imagination, but she had made it. And her husband was standing there with her, silently watching the events unfold just exactly as he had hoped they would.
This scene really couldn’t have happened to a more deserving couple either. 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 deaths—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.” I mean, 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. And so was their son.
Yet, for those of you who have figured out that we are talking about Zachariah 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? Luke, the doctor and traveling companion of Paul, who carefully documented everything about the events surrounding the life of Jesus so that he could leave us with an orderly account, doesn’t give us the actual number, but he does go out of his way to point out their advanced age. Now, maybe some of you 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 the part about the wife, Elizabeth, 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 expectation.
That’s kind of gritty, isn’t it? But it’s real. And the story of Christmas is a real story. So often today we don’t give the Christmas story much thought beyond the Hallmark version in which everybody is smiling and happy and peaceful and in love. We sing treasured songs like “Away in a Manger” that talk about the sleeping baby Jesus being waken up from a nap by cows mooing too loudly and not crying at all. I love that song as much as the next guy, but seriously? Did your kid lie there and coo contentedly when somebody made too much noise and woke him up from a nap? Yeah, Jesus probably didn’t either. The story of Jesus’ birth was anything but like something out of a Hallmark movie. It was earthy and rough and loud and smelly and difficult for everyone involved. It was not a silent night and none of the nights around it were either.
Listen, the Precious Moments Christmas story is important to know, but the real one is where the best hope is found. With this in mind, for the next few weeks, in a new series called, The Characters of Christmas, I want to tell you the real story of Christmas. More specifically, I want to tell you about some of the characters of the story of Christmas. What we’re going to find won’t always be easy. It’ll perhaps bring up some hard memories of some hard experiences for some of you. But, just like there was a place for them in the story all the same, there’s a place for us in this story too. Together, we’re going to see just where that is.
When it comes to the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth, the reason their story matters is because in it, Luke is leading us to ask an important question: How does God see His promises fulfilled? Now, we know the promises of God are always fulfilled. They are either fulfilled where we can see them in the Scriptures, they have been fulfilled in the last 2,000 years of human history, or we are still waiting their fulfillment at the end of time. But, one of the hotly debated questions of Christian history is how. Through the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth,Luke offers us an important answer to the question: God works His promises out through the lives of people who are willing to be faithful to Him.
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 in the boldly miraculous like the parting of the Red Sea. Neither does He simply shoulder the load and get them done all on His own. Rather, He entrusts those who are willing to be faithful to Him—even and especially when they can’t see what the use of their faithfulness will be—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 holds the potential of seeing the great promises of God made manifest. Simply put: A life of faith is a life of promise. If you are willing to trust God in the day to day circumstances of your life, you too can play a part in the unfolding of His promises of blessing for the world.
With a nod,then, to the reality of Luke’s Gospel, let’s turn back to the story of John the Baptist’s incredibly unlikely parents to see just how and why this is the case. The fact is, while what I’ve just said is absolutely the truth, it is not a truth that is always—or ever—easy to swallow; especially when our circumstances don’t seem to support the notion in any meaningful way. All the same, a life of faith is a life of promise. Let’s see how.
We’ll start this journey by going back to that description Luke gives us of the couple. You can find it in the first chapter of Luke,starting in v. 5. This morning I’m going to be reading the story from The Message translation. It’ll sound a bit different than perhaps what you’re used to hearing, but I think Eugene Peterson offers us a pretty good take on the story. Look with me again at what Luke wrote: “During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Arron. Her name was Elizabeth.”
Luke starts hereby describing their lineage. That was pretty standard fare when introducing new characters to the readers for pretty much all of the authors of the various historical books in the Scriptures. It’s not such an uncommon thing around these parts either. Think about it: What are the two questions people around here care about most when meeting someone new? 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, they were both answered by the second question.
Anyway, Luke tells us that Zachariah was a priest in the order of Abijah and that Elizabeth was a descendant of the daughters of Aaron. Let me give you a bit of perspective here. This would be like having a preacher whose last name was Stanley 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. Frankly, this was the kind of couple from whom people then would have expected to come the Messiah Himself,not merely His herald. 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. Ever met anyone like that? They’re unbearable to be around.
Luke actually goes out of his way to emphasize just how great these two people were. He says 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 busy 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.
Well, at this point in the story 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? Their lives are all blessing from start to finish. Come on, you know better than that. In v. 7, Luke drops the bomb on us. “But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.” Now, that bit about being old is no big deal. It’s not a big deal to us and it wasn’t to them. But to be childless then 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—or so they thought. Women were barren because either they, or someone in their past, had offended God and now He was holding them responsible for it. He was judging them. As a general rule, suffering of any kind was caused by sin and this was about as profound a point of suffering for a couple as there was.
As righteous as this couple was, 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 their righteous acts would have been viewed as attempts to atone for whatever it was that put them in this condition. That may have even been an intentional posture on their part. Perhaps you know what that’s like? You’re going through some hard season that appears to have descended for no reason at all, and you respond by going into a kind of righteousness overdrive in hopes that if you’re just good enough, God will back off and ease your burden. And like Job, the more they claimed innocence when friends and family talked to them about it, the more people would have been sure of their secret sinfulness. In light of all this, the fact of their old age (a note which we should understand as meaning 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. Their consciences were clear. They just kept praying and hoping things would change; that His promises would have bearing on their faithful lives.
Surely we don’t think like this anymore, do we? 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 absolutely set 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? Perhaps some of you know what I’m talking about a whole lot better than you wish you did.
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, many people still face hard times. Even now. Especially now. Sometimes God allows His faithful servants to face ongoing hard times whether the situation is of their own making or not. Zachariah 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 may be 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. Have you been there? We could take steps to make what we see to be the promises of God for us real without waiting on Him. Because that’s never blown up in someone’s face before… 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. Of course, then we won’t have anyone around us anymore because people can’t stand a self-declared martyr. We could quietly give up hope and let ourselves die inside, leaving behind an empty shell going through the motions. Maybe you’ve gone through a season like that before. If you’ve taken even one of those paths, how did it go for you?
Allow me to offer you another option: We could try something a bit more productive like,say, the example of Zachariah and Elizabeth. Come back to the text with me at v. 8: “It so happened that as Zachariah 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.” That’s it! This is how to get out of our hard times: We go to the church and get a big group to pray for our situation with us. Well, that’s not a bad idea at all, but it’snot what’s going on here. Remember:Zachariah 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. Zachariah and Elizabeth could have responded in a lot of different ways to the misery of barrenness constantly hanging over their heads. We know they prayed from v. 13, but more than this, they just kept living their faithful lives day-in and day-out, trusting that God would carry them through this valley to the life on the other side regardless of how deep and dark it seemed to get. After all, it is a life of faith that’s a life of promise, not a life of anger or complaining or bitterness or resignation or conniving or anything else. When we face difficult seasons in our lives, it is easy to respond in one of the ways we mentioned just a minute ago. But—and many of you know this from hard experience—none of those will get us anywhere. They will offer us no lasting relief and only more problems to contend with. The way to go is exemplified right here before us. As the country song by Rodney Atkins says: “If you’re going through hell, keep on going, don’t slowdown.” 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 Zachariah 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 on 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 bottle of opioids. We get so accustomed to God parting Red seas and setting bushes on fire without burning them that we forget 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 Zachariah and Elizabeth slogged through the mundane of life faithfully bearing the burden they had been given, they experienced God. Now, sure, it was at the great Temple in Jerusalem in the Holy of Holies, but Zachariah was essentially 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 else.
And 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 it 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. Faith in the desert can become weathered, weary, and cynical. When God does finally call us back to the fertile plains, it is easy to respond first from the desert place.
God’s call to Zachariah to come back to the fertile plain was powerful. It came on the lips of an angel. And the angel had this incredible message for him: “Don’t fear, Zachariah. 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 Zachariah at this point in the story, we expect him to start jumping for joy. This was the news he and Elizabeth had been waiting their whole lives to receive and now they had it. Instead, he looks the angel square in the face and says, “Do you expect me to believe this?” That’s faith talking fresh out of the desert. Why should we trust that God’s really going to come through for us now? He’s left us alone for so long. The challenge before us is the same as it was before Zachariah: 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 Zachariah. If we try and draw from our own well in these times, we are going to come up empty. Like a good soldier, we must keep our faith constantly ready for action. A life of faith is a life of promise, not a life of complacency. The promises of God are for those who commit to the path of faithfulness and keep plodding forward no matter what.
Indeed, when we take the path that Zachariah does here, while God won’t write us out of His plans, there will be consequences for our faithlessness. And, the further along the journey we have traveled, the more He’s going to hold us accountable for what we’ve learned and challenge us when we don’t live out of it. Zachariah learned this the hard way. Look at what Luke writes next about the angel’s response: “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 he was. Not a word until John was born.
But wasn’t this unnecessarily harsh on God’s part? We’re sure inclined to think so. I doubt Zachariah did. After all, he was in the very presence of God (the Holy of Holies in the Temple) and had the audacity to essentially accuse God of lying. He was lucky Gabriel didn’t just strike him down on the spot. Fortunately, he was pretty integral to the promise. Instead, God graciously gave him a chance to prepare for the direction his journey was about to go without any other distractions. And Zachariah received this gift with gratitude. He took the next several months to prepare to get in the game when his time came. And come it did. When the crowd gathered for the birth tried to name the boy Zachariah, after his father, he stood on faith and communicated with his tablet that the boy’s name would be John. He was immediately able to speak again. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zachariah went on to prophesy 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. 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 we look long enough, He will reveal Himself and His plans to us. This is about faith over the long-haul and the impact it has. There will be bumps along the road—after all,no one gains the target of the enemy so much as those who have risen up to serve the kingdom with boldness—but these need not be fatal to our efforts to pursue God to the end. A life of faith is a life of promise. If your life reflects the faithfulness of our God, you will know the promises He has made to His people. This Christmas season, think of ways your faith and your faithfulness are leaving a legacy that will enable not only you, but those who follow you to prepare the way for Christ. This is one of the hallmarks of faith. Such lives of faith are lives of promise.