Have you ever felt like you’re sitting on the sidelines when you want nothing more than to be in the game? Sometimes life does that to us. As we continue forward in our Advent series, The World Turned Upside Down, this week we are looking at some characters who spent a lot of time on the sidelines before their moment came. Let’s see together how they handled it and talk about how we should.
I played basketball when I was in school for three years. Fourth through sixth grades. I remember when my folks got me a basketball goal for our driveway at the house where I grew up. We had a friend come over and help pour the cement foundation for it. We even got to put our handprints in it. And I dominated the driveway games for a while. So when I finally reached the age I could play a sport other than baseball (which I was generally pretty awful at), I was as excited as I could be to join the school’s basketball team.
Then I got on the court.
I was terrible. It wasn’t like I was just average and with some practice could get better. I was awful. I couldn’t shoot to save my life. My defense was non-existent. I was way too timid. I scored about six points…a season. I once managed to grab a rebound and throw up a quick put-back bucket. I was really excited about that until I realized it was for the wrong team. But for some reason I stuck with it for three years. What finally put an end to my career was when my team played in a little end-of-the-season tournament and the coach started me on the bench like always…and left me there the whole game. I had been sidelined and it felt awful.
Life does that to us sometimes, doesn’t it? Now, maybe you’re like me and fairly well deserved to be sidelined, but maybe you got treated totally unfairly. But have you ever felt sidelined by God? As we continue this morning in our Advent series, The World Turned Upside Down, the next part of the story in Luke doesn’t directly have anything to do with Jesus. But it does have a lot to do with people who were genuinely seeking to follow Him and the kinds of things they experienced along the way. If you are someone who would profess to be genuinely seeking to follow Jesus, you just may find some encouragement here in your own journey. Even if you wouldn’t make such a profession, though, there’s still something worthwhile here for you too. Let’s dig in together and see what it is.
When we left things last week, Mary was visiting with her cousin Elizabeth somewhere in the remote hill country of Judea. She headed there as soon as she figured out the angel’s pronouncement about God’s visiting her and conceiving a miraculous child in her was true, most likely to be out of town as her situation became increasingly difficult to hide. From the chronology Luke presents us, she was probably there through the birth of Elizabeth’s own miraculous son.
Speaking of that, after waiting through what may have been a rough nine months or so – Luke 1:57 if you have a Bible with you – “Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she had a son.” That may seem like a pretty insignificant statement, but let’s not miss the significance that’s here. Elizabeth had a son. Maybe a year before an angel had appeared to her husband telling him that she would conceive, have a baby, and that baby would be a boy. Here she was delivering a baby boy when she wasn’t able to get pregnant before. When God makes a promise, He keeps it.
Of course, Elizabeth and Zechariah were not without requirements on them from the angel. Most notably, they were to name their son John. Zechariah hadn’t been able to speak for perhaps close to a year now, but we can safely assume he had at least written notes to Elizabeth to relay the full significance of his encounter with the angel along with the name he was to select. This was a good thing, too, because Elizabeth almost got overwhelmed by well-meaning friends and family members who were not leading her in the direction God had told her to go. Verse 59 now: ‘When they came to circumcise the child on the eighth day, they were going to name him Zechariah, after his father. But his mother responded, ‘No. He will be called John.’” Credit Elizabeth for having a backbone here. “Then they said to her, ‘None of your relatives has that name.’” Can you imagine dealing with a strong-willed family member who has decided what’s best for you (and your children) and isn’t really all that inclined to consider your opinion on the matter? And can you imagine doing that when you have just given birth? This was probably one of those moments in the Scripture when the emotions of the situation were running a whole lot higher than a dry reading of a 2,000 year old manuscript can properly convey. These folks, well-meaning perhaps though they were, were trying to sideline Elizabeth in order to do what they believed to be right in spite of her insistence on going in the direction God had commanded her.
In the next verse, now, Luke tells us something really interesting. Look at this in v. 62: “So they motioned to his father to find out what he wanted him to be called.” Now, again, this is really easy to overlook, but don’t miss what’s lying just beneath the surface here. Maybe Zechariah had been left out of the actual birthing process, but this was eight days later. This was the religious ceremony, required by the Law of Moses, to circumcise his son and formally give him his name. And he wasn’t apparently involved. They were having this whole argument disguised as a conversation about what name the boy would be given and he wasn’t involved in it. And, yes, I know he couldn’t speak because of the angel’s discipline, but he could presumably still hear. He could have been there listening intently and waving his hands to convey what he wanted. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t engaged at all. They had to motion to him to get his attention. This would have been strange enough by itself given that he was the father. But he was a priest, and a high ranking one at that. He would have normally led this whole thing, and he wasn’t even involved. If some of the family members there had been trying to sideline Elizabeth, Zechariah had been there for a long time. If you’ve ever felt like you wanted to do something for God, but were stuck on the sidelines for some reason, Zechariah understands how you’re feeling.
The thing about being on the sidelines, though, is that at some point you might get called into action. They motioned to Zechariah “to find out what he wanted him to be called.” In other words, they were looking to get his approval for their efforts to override Elizabeth’s insisting the boy’s name would be John. Fortunately, Zechariah had not wasted his time on the sidelines. He had been preparing for just this moment. “He asked for a writing tablet and wrote: ‘His name is John.’ And they were all amazed.” They couldn’t believe it. He was as crazy as his wife. Her incredible pregnancy and his season of silence had broken both of them. There may have even been some folks there wondering if they needed to take this baby from them for his own good.
But if Zechariah’s insistence on joining in his wife’s craziness shocked them, what happened next absolutely blew their minds to pieces. “Immediately [Zechariah’s] mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.” When Zechariah demonstrated he was ready to go with God’s plans even though he didn’t understand them all, God brought him off the sidelines and right back into the game. God is in the business of restoring broken servants to full service. He is in the business of pulling people who are sidelined back into the game.
“Fear came on all those who lived around them, and all these things were being talked about throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard about him took it to heart, saying, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the Lord’s hand was with him.”
The next thing Luke records for us is the words of praise and prophecy that came out of Zechariah’s mouth when he started talking again. It is a truly remarkable expression of praise to God along with a prophetic celebration of the ministry his son, John, would one day be involved in as he was used by God for great things. I would encourage you to go home and read it for yourself. Come back to me with questions if you have them. It ends with this powerful look to the future: “And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I’m not sure what Zechariah had spent the last 10-12 months doing while he couldn’t communicate very easily with anyone. Whatever it happened to be, I think we can safely say from at least what we see here that he wasn’t wasting his time. He may have felt sidelined by God, but rather than licking his wounds, complaining about it, and feeling sorry for himself, he took the opportunity to hone his skills. He sought the Lord with even greater intentionality, focus, and fervency than he had before. He prayed. He studied the Scriptures. He spent time in silence just listening for the Lord’s voice. And when the moment arrived to be called back into the game, he was ready.
This whole part of the story, then, ends with an interesting little note. Look at this last verse in Luke 1 with me: “The child grew up and became spiritually strong [would that the same could be said for all of our kids…], and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” Do you know what’s in the wilderness? Nothing. Do you know who’s in the wilderness? No one. So here was this incredible, “spiritually strong” child of prophecy whom God was going to use to accomplish amazing things…and he was sitting in the wilderness “until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” Do you know when that was? We don’t know with absolute certainty, but it was probably sometime in his 20s. That is, John sat in the wilderness for maybe 10-15 years before getting started on the work God had planned for him to do. That is, he sat on the sidelines for a good, long time before God used him in any externally obvious way.
Have you ever felt like you are on the sidelines? You may be on the sidelines now. It could be that you’ve done something to sideline yourself, but it may also simply be that God has you there in reserve because the work He has planned for you to do hasn’t started yet. Jesus Himself entered the game and then sat in total obscurity for 30 years. But there was work God had for Him to do and it was important work. There is work God has for you to do and it is important work. You may be on the sidelines now, but the game’s not over. It wasn’t over for Elizabeth. It wasn’t over for Zechariah. It wasn’t over for John. A huge part of the story of Jesus’ birth involves critical players sitting and doing nothing for what would have seemed to us to be inordinately long periods of time. They were sitting on the sidelines doing apparently nothing. But the game wasn’t over yet. Their time would come and when it did, because they were ready, they played powerfully important roles.
In a similar way, you may be on the sidelines now. You may not be getting the recognition and attention and action you feel like you deserve. But the game’s not over. God’s still writing the story. He’s still directing the play. The final curtain call hasn’t arrived. If you’re not taking the opportunity you have to be ready, then when the moment comes to get in the game, you won’t be. You may be on the sidelines now, but the game’s not over. Make sure you are staying ready by pursuing the character of Christ in every way you can with His help so that when the moment comes, you won’t miss a beat. You may be on the sidelines now, but the game’s not over.