Sunday, November 30, 2008

Out of barren places

Luke 1:5-22 "5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. 8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 13 But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 "You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 "For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb. 16 "And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17 "It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." 18 Zacharias said to the angel, "How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years." 19 The angel answered and said to him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 "And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time." 21 The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 But 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.

When God is involved, very simple, ordinary things take on new meaning. A donkey becomes a messenger of God. A staff becomes a snake and a symbol of God's power able to divide seas. At Christmas the trappings of the holiday can become more as well. The candles become symbols of the Holy Spirit's presence. Ceramic figurines remind us of the power of the incarnation. The evergreen tree reminds us that the wood of the cradle rubs up against the timbers of the cross. The sparkly lights can remind us of the angelic host telling the shepherds of the Good News of Jesus' birth.
God partnered with a very ordinary Mary and Joseph to accomplish extraordinary things. Indeed, Christmas is about ordinary people in regular life circumstances, in simple surroundings that are transformed by God's loving work in the world. Today we are going to look at unlikely characters having an unlikely experience.

We meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, a married couple with good lineage and also a good track record of faith and obedience to God. Elizabeth, however, is barren. In ancient times, people believed that the inability to conceive was directly related to sin; the punishment was a barrenness. Jesus later challenges this notion of sin and barrenness in His ministry. Today we do not believe sin to be the cause of infertility, but it is important to remember the context of Luke’s narrative—ancient people believed this connection existed. Luke wants people to know that Elizabeth and Zechariah were good people, obedient to God, who did not warrant this kind of punishment (v. 5 "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord."). They were older in age, had lived their lives in service, and had probably prayed for several decades for a baby. What have you prayed for decades about? What dream of yours have you sent heavenward over the years? Have you heard an answer yet?

Here is the twist in their story: a barren woman beyond the age of childbearing is pregnant by the power of God. This isn’t the first time in Scripture that a barren woman had conceived. Look up the stories of Hannah and Sarah. God has done this for many women who participate in His plan for the world: a baby, who will do great things and fulfill God’s promises, needs to be born. Barren wombs that are opened are always opened for extraordinary purposes! Why does God choose barrenness as the birthplace for key people? One reason is it shows the proof of His power and His person. Remember also the temptations of Jesus and John the Baptist’s ministry – in the desert. Paul spent 3 years in the desert after his conversion.
It also gives a sense of His timing - He doesn't always choose a ready made man or woman that can jump into the ministry tomorrow. He starts with a baby and all of the world has to wait another 30 years while that baby grows. Remember in Egypt, and the children of Israel are crying out to God in their slavery? He calls Moses. The people had already been crying to God for hundreds of years, and they have to wait another 80 years until their deliverer comes. In Israel before the birth of Jesus they had been crying for another Deliverer who would get the Roman yoke off their shoulders. God's timing is not ours, and so after years of praying for a baby, and probably given up for Elizabeth was past the age of having children.

And one night, an angel comes to Zechariah (verses 11-20). Zechariah and the angel’s conversation is interesting. Gabriel goes into detail about who this child will be, how he is to be raised, what he will do, and the joy he will bring his parents—all wonderful, helpful, crucial things. And yet, Zechariah doesn’t buy it. His response is one of doubt and sheer disbelief that this could happen. He fails to be amazed at Gabriel’s message.
What is it that makes Zechariah question this heavenly messenger? Perhaps it is because the message seems impossible due to past disappointments and years of unanswered prayer. Questions are natural, doubts will come, but God still invites us to be a part of His grand plan. And there is nothing we can do, to thwart God's plan. We see there are consequences to Zechariah’s questioning. Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until the baby’s birth. Was this a punishment or a blessing? Zechariah would have a lot of time to listen to God while he sat silently for the coming months. It wouldn’t be Zechariah’s voice that would be heard, it would be the work of God seen by all. God works in extraordinary ways—even the blessing of silence!

We live in a world of broken promises. How many times do we get let down in a month, a year, a lifetime? Too many! How many disappointments do we face, heartaches do we feel, losses do we suffer? Too many! We ask God why things are happening to us. We beg God to give us what we want. We cry out and feel as if our voice is not heard. All this can lead people to a very jaded view of life and God. Even when we are given the greatest news in the world, like Zechariah, we don’t buy it or believe it. How could we? We have been disappointed one too many times. We have prayed one too many prayers. Years have gone by, no answer has come, and the pain grows greater. We may even begin to believe God doesn’t hear us. Some people say, “There is good news? So what, it is probably too good to be true.” Others continue to pray, talk with others, and make a lot of noise hoping someone, anyone, will hear. But we often wonder if anyone is really listening. When God does answer, like He did for Zechariah, we might not hear it, understand it, or believe it because of the noise in our hearts. The voice of disappointment can be louder than the voice of God’s promise.

I want to leave 3 thoughts with you. The first is to be faithful in prayer. God hears. Sometimes this is the hard work of our faith - to put our heads down and keep on praying, even when it looks like everything is against us. God is faithful. In His time He will provide what you need. Just understand that life is bigger than you. Life is more than your little universe, and God is weaving a tapestry of history that reveals His grace and love. Don't give up. Be patient. Whether it be needs in your life, in this church, in your friends, or as big as your country - God hears.

The second thing is to cling to Jesus in times of barrenness. Keep the hope of trust in Jesus. Understand that those dry, lonely places are where God loves to work. There is a relationship with God you can develop that those with plenty don't understand. God will meet you there as He has met countless others. Cling to Jesus, He will not dissappoint.

Finally, be ready for God to answer. You don't know what wonderful surprise God is working on. The Israelites prayed for a Messiah and He came, and in the midst of their barrenness and crying they weren't ready to accept Him and what He stood for. He came and brought a New Covevnant, one filled with love and grace, but they said no, for they loved their law. Are you prepared to accept what God brings?

Advent is the time we celebrate the fulfillment of the promised Messiah. For centuries the people longed for a Messiah. They prayed time and again; they waited year after year for the Messiah. Despite the long wait, God didn’t disappoint. The Messiah did come; Jesus Christ was born. God is always faithful, God is always at work, and God always keeps His promises. Even if we don’t believe Him, God is still faithful. God is patient with us just like He was with Zechariah. Despite Zechariah’s disbelief, John was born; God answered the prayer. God has given each of us the gift of Jesus Christ: the promise of new life, hope, and forgiveness. We may not have every prayer answered in the way we hope or expect, but the best answer has been given: Jesus. If we will just listen, we will be able to see how God is at work in our lives, our world, and our churches.
Let’s quiet our hearts before God. Zechariah was an ordinary person whom God used for extraordinary things, that can be true of you also. Hear what God wants to say to you today: “I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

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