Please join me in a Litany. That is where I speak and then you speak. Your part is easy: “God is making life out of the barren places”
- God, I look around at the world and it seems like you have abandoned us (refrain)
- God, it’s not the arguing I can’t stand anymore, it’s the silence (refrain)
- Lord, my family is falling apart (refrain)
- My children look at me like I am an idiot (refrain)
- My parents don’t have a clue as to who I really am (refrain)
- It seems like it is just one thing after another (refrain)
- Lord, I pray, but nothing seems to happen. (refrain)
- Lord, aren’t the holidays supposed to bring us together? (refrain)
One of the challenges every Christmas is to try to see the Christmas story with eyes that are not glazed over from familiarity with the story. We hear the story of Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, the Magi and Innkeeper so often that our brain can go into neutral whenever the story begins. We feel we don’t have to listen because we know the story. We love the story but we sometimes no longer HEAR the story. To combat that tendency we try each year to look at the story from a little different angle; not so much to see “new” things, but to see the great truths with a new freshness. The story of the birth of Jesus does not need any “punching up”. Because stories don’t get any better than this one.
This Christmas season the angle we take on the story is to look at it as Good News for the Broken. The people in the Christmas story are so familiar to us that sometimes we don’t understand who they were “before they became famous”. If you look closely, most of these people were broken, discarded, and marginalized. God came into the world through the lives of broken people . . . people, quite frankly, like you and me.
Zechariah and Elizabeth
This morning we look at the story of an older couple. The fact that they were older already means they have been marginalized a little. In Biblical days age was respected much more than it is now but I suspect there was still a bias for that which is new, fresh, and vibrant. Sometimes as we get older, we are seen as “out of date”, out of touch, and as more of a burden than an asset.
However, the real pain in this couple was not their age; it was that they were childless. For the Jew life was all about your legacy. It was about passing on the faith to the next generation. It was about preserving the land that God had given for the next generation. You couldn’t do this without descendants.
Consequently, a woman’s worth was measured by how many children she had. Having children was seen as a sign that God was pleased with you. It you had no children it therefore a sign that God was NOT pleased with you. For some reason, it was believed, God was punishing you.
I suspect no one said anything to the face of Zechariah and Elizabeth about their childlessness. However, they could feel that others were talking about them, judging them, or even feeling sorry for them. Even though Zechariah was a priest I suspect this couple felt pushed aside by the world around them.
I suspect there were many times when Elizabeth saw that “sad” look from other women. Perhaps she heard the whispers. Maybe she felt socially out of the loop. Where other parents were meeting at the school, or attending activities of their children, or even sitting around discussing child-rearing or comparing pregnancy stories, Elizabeth felt invisible.
In spite of the heartache of life, Zechariah still had a job to do. He was a priest. Priests served at the temple on a rotating schedule. When your “team” of priests was serving, where you served was be determined by lot (think of drawing names out of a hat). The top job (that few of the priests were selected for during their lifetime) was to offer the incense at the altar inside the temple. This was followed by a benediction you were privileged to give following your service. If you were fortunate to be chosen for this job you could only be chosen once (your name would no longer be put in the hat).
Zechariah was older and nearing mandatory retirement from the priesthood. He had never been selected and I have to wonder if maybe he had concluded “with the way things were going, he would never be selected”. Perhaps he believed God was mad at him and would therefore keep him on the periphery in his job.
All that changed one day. It was time for Zechariah’s team of priests to serve at the temple. When the assignments were being given out, Zechariah’s name was pulled from the hat. Imagine the joy. Imagine the stunned confusion. This was a paradigm shift.
This is where we pick up our text from Luke 1,
11 While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. 12 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. 13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. 14 You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. 17 He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
19 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news!
23 When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. 24 Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. 25 “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.
God appeared to Zechariah with the news that he and his wife were going to be parents(!) of the forerunner to the Messiah. They would be the parents of John the Baptist. From that moment on their life would change forever.
There would still be whispers but now they would be people whispering about Elizabeth’s pregnancy! The barrenness was replaced with blessing.
Our Own Barrenness
The reason we should find all of this interesting is because every one of us has some kind of barrenness in our lives. We all have some kind of brokenness or pain.
- Divorce or separation
- The loneliness that comes after losing one you love
- A physical problem which makes you the spotlight of hurtful words
- Being bullied
- Public Failure
- Personal feelings of rejection
- Financial instability which makes it impossible to keep up with the “status quo”
- Rumors that destroy
I hope you get the idea. Everyone here has, had, or will have (maybe all three) some kind of barrenness in their life. Is there something we can learn from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth that can help us?
First, You are Not Forgotten. Elizabeth and Zechariah certainly must have felt like God had either forgotten them, or did not care about them. It is tempting in the time of pain to think that we are all alone. We are not.
We must be honest. It is difficult to look around and see people who seem to have been given the very things you want. We wonder why God has overlooked us. We wonder what we have done wrong to be kept from these coveted blessings.
What we learn from this account is that God forgets no one. Just because we feel forgotten does not mean that we are. In fact, every decoration you see in a store or in your home; every Christmas Sale flyer; every carol you sing; every gift you receive or buy, is a reminder that you are not forgotten. Christ has come for the broken.
The nation of Israel had waited 400 years for the promised Messiah. It would have been easy to conclude that God had forgotten His people. But He had not. The birth of John the Baptist was the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise of the One who would come to save the world. And that includes you and me.
The Christmas story declares to broken people that God has come into the world to rescue people just like them. He has come to make us new and to fulfill His purpose in our lives. We may not see the big picture right now but we should be encouraged by the Christmas story.
Second, God’s plan for our lives often requires a training ground that is painful. In our study of Hebrews we saw that Jesus “learned obedience through what He suffered. Moses wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. David was chased around the land for many years by King Saul. Abraham waited 25 years for the child that had been promised to him. The apostles endured hardships of various kinds. All of these things were part of God’s training ground.
Our challenge in the times of barrenness is to hold open the possibility that God is doing something in us now that is preparing us for the work He is going to do in us later. Think of it like the classes we must take and endure when we were in school. Those classes which we called “boring” were necessary for us to function well in the present. Sometimes they are actually essential for our job.
The trials of life deepen our root system. They teach us how to trust. God often has to deepen our faith before He can use us as He desires. There is a piece by an anonymous author that reflects on the wonder of the way God works in His people. This is part of that piece.
When God Wants a Man
When God wants to drill a man and thrill a man and skill a man…
When God wants to mold a man to play the noblest part;
When He yearns with all His heart to create so great and bold a man that all the world shall praise…
Watch His methods;
Watch His ways!
How He ruthlessly perfects whom He royally elects…
How He hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows converts him
Into frail shapes of clay that only God understands.
How his tortured heart is crying and he lifts beseeching hands…
How he bends but never breaks when His good he undertakes.
How He uses whom He chooses…with every purpose fuses him;
By every art induces him to try His splendor out…
God knows what He’s about!
The first time I heard this poem I hated it. The idea of God allowing and using pain for His purpose was distasteful. But I’ve lived some now. I have seen God’s ways and have a little bit of an idea of what he is doing. Like a hammer to a nail, He pounds us so we will go deep and hold firm. The nail does not understand what seems like violence taking place. But what is happening is actually helping it to do what it was created to do. Likewise the trials of life help us to develop roots that enable us to stand in the storms.
Third, God’s timing, though not understood by us, is perfect. As we look at this story we wonder why God did not bless Elizabeth and Zechariah earlier. Or, if that timing wasn’t right, why didn’t He give this couple the child they wanted and when the time was right He could have found a young couple (like He did with Mary and Joseph) and made them the parents of John the Baptist . . . you know, someone with more energy for the job.
Jim Cymbala reflected on this very thing with these words
But what does God do? He casts his eye all across the land of Israel and finds a woman who can’t have a baby! While all her friends in the little desert town seem to have gotten pregnant, she has remained childless. Then God waits and waits until she is past childbearing years, so that even if she could have conceived a child, it is now too late. She is doubly disqualified as a special mother for this special child.
And the God of heaven says, “That’s the one! As the boy grows up, from the time he is nursed to the time he grows into manhood, his mother will be able to tell him over and over the story of his birth, the miracle of his aged parents-all of it reinforcing in his tender mind that ‘nothing is impossible with God’ (Luke 1:37)
Many times in life, God wait while a situation goes from bad to worse. He appears to let it slip over the edge, so that you and I say, “There’s no way now for this ever to work out.” But that is the point when the omnipotent God intervenes in our hopelessness and says, “Oh, really? Watch this…!”
More than worry about John the Baptist’s schooling or music lessons or anything else, God wanted him to grow up in a godly atmosphere of praise and worship. At least once a day that old, devoted couple must have looked at that little boy and said, or at least thought, “Our God is an awesome God! Blessed be his name!” (Jim Cymbala, Fresh Faith p. 99-100)
What we are tempted to call a mistake, God sees as perfect timing.
Do you feel like the timing is off in your life right now? Don’t bet on it, and don’t try to force it. When we try to “help God” bad things happen. When Judas tried to force God’s hand he ended up betraying the Lord leading to his crucifixion. When David played God he ended up committing adultery and ended up having a man murdered.
We act with wisdom when we wait on the timing of the Lord. It may not seem like it, but we know He is at work. When the timing is right (and it may not be till Heaven), we will see what He was doing.
What I hope you have seen this morning is that God is making life in the barren places. That is what the Christmas story is about. God comes in person to reach out to the broken people . . . people like you and me.
I like this quote: “God is making life in the barren places. Sending water from the rock and we can chose to grab an umbrella or throw out arms out and be drenched by it.” (Skitguys materials)
Isn’t that a great picture? We can moan and withdraw this Christmas. But isn’t it better to celebrate the good news that God has come into the world to pay for our sin and to heal our brokenness? He came as a baby. He came to experience our pain and overcome it. The world may not have understood what was happening back then . . . but if you can catch a glimpse of it . . . you too will find yourself singing with gusto: “O Come let us adore him!
[To watch a preview of the video shown at the end of the message check out this link to theskitguys.com