Happy New Year! I know I’m way behind on posting my sermons! Here’s my sermon on Zechariah and Elizabeth, from the first Sunday in Advent. One important theme of this sermon is that sometimes God’s blessings hurt. When they do, how do we respond?
Sermon Text: Luke 1:5-25
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I’m always intrigued by the way angels are depicted in Hollywood. Think, for example, of Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. Think of Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven. Think of Roma Downey and Della Reese from Touched by an Angel. All these depictions of angels have one thing in common: the angels are completely nice, friendly, and non-threatening. They would never do anything for which they would need to say, “Fear not”—because no one who encountered them would ever afraid of them! And what’s the deal with those cherubs—those baby angels—that you see in paintings and on Hallmark cards this time of year?
Needless to say, Gabriel, the angel who shows up to talk to Zechariah in the sanctuary of the Temple—he’s no cherub; he’s not a Michael Landon/Roma Downey kind of angel. He’s a “fear not” kind of angel. He’s the kind of angel that inspires fear. I’m going to say more about the way in which he punishes Zechariah in verses 18 to 20 next week. For now, I want to talk more about the verses leading up to that…
Zechariah was a priest. He and the other priests in his division served in the Temple for one full week twice a year. So this is his week to serve. Zechariah has a wife named Elizabeth. Notice what we’re told about the couple in verse 6: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”
First of all, this doesn’t mean that they were without sin. “For all have sinned,” the Bible says, “and fall short of the glory of God.” To be righteous before God and blameless under the law, in this context, meant that no one could accuse them of living a sinful lifestyle; it meant that they were sincere in loving God and striving to please him. It meant that they had an abiding faith in God. It meant that when they sinned, they repented and performed the required sacrifices in order to be reconciled with God.
But Luke’s point in emphasizing their righteousness is to say that they didn’t do anything to deserve what he describes in verse 7: “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”
Do you see the connection between verse 6 and verse 7? “They were righteous before God, but…” “They sincerely believed in God, but…” “They were committed to living their lives to please God and glorify God, but…” In other words, in the eyes of the world, something is wrong here: If Zechariah and Elizabeth were truly righteous, if they sincerely believed in God, if they were committed to pleasing and glorifying him, then surely they wouldn’t be suffering in this way! This is why, in verse 25, Elizabeth’s relief is almost palpable when she finds out that she’s going to have a child. She says, “The Lord has taken away my reproach among people”—taken away my disgrace, as most other translations put it. The point is, it was disgraceful not to be able to have children because everyone would assume that God had been punishing you for some specific sins that you had committed.
We see this same dynamic at work in John chapter 9, when Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind. The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said, “It’s not because of his sins or his parents’ sins. This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.”
And the same was true for Elizabeth and Zechariah. God wanted them to be childless for a lengthy period of time so that the power of God could be seen in them—after all, the two of them, by all outward appearances, were now too old to have a child, and even when they were young, they were unable to conceive and have children. So God was not only going to work a miracle for them personally—for which they and their friends and family were going to praise God—even more, God was going to use them as part of his plan to work an even larger miracle—to save the world from sin through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus. This child they were going to give birth to was going to be the prophet that the Old Testament foretold—a prophet like Elijah who would prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
Nearly everything the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah in verses 13 to 17, about his future son, John the Baptist, comes from Old Testament prophecy. God’s power was going to be seen in Elizabeth and Zechariah. And the evidence of this power is demonstrated by the fact every year during the season of Advent and Christmas millions of Christians celebrate what God did through this couple!
All that to say, far from punishing Zechariah and Elizabeth through all their years—decades—of anxious waiting and praying for a child, and bearing the reproach of others—far from punishing them, God was actually blessing them! So that all the waiting, all the suffering, all the tears—they were all part of God’s plan for them—and not just for them, but for the world! So that the power of God could be seen in them.
Is there a message here for us? I believe there’s an important one: sometimes God’s blessings hurt. Sometimes God’s blessings even feel like punishment—at least in the short run. Are we O.K. with that?
Before you answer, remember that we follow a Savior, after all, who says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We recall Paul’s words in Philippians. He compares himself to an Olympic runner when he says that he “forgets what lies behind” and “strains forward” to what lies ahead. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” If the prize is worth it, what short-term pain and suffering wouldn’t a world-class athlete endure in order to win it?
Think of all the pain and suffering that the Georgia Bulldogs endured this season and previous seasons in order to win the prize of the SEC Championship last night. Nick Chubb suffered a season-ending knee injury a couple of years ago. Was it worth it for him—to be able to win the prize that he won last night, along with the prize that he may yet win next month?
Just last week an article in the New York Times said that playing pro football—and I’m sure this is true of college football, too—but playing pro football was physically the equivalent of getting in a serious car wreck every weekend—just physically, in terms of what it does to the human body. Why do football players endure that? Because the prize is worth it to them! The money is worth it. The rings are worth it. But mostly the glory is worth it—the glory of making a stadium full of people immensely happy—the glory of being celebrated by millions of fans.
We human beings are not made for that kind of glory—although we usually live as if we are. We are made to live for God’s glory alone. So I kind of admire athletes who, when they score a touchdown or make a big play, point to heaven or kneel in prayer—because at least they’re showing in a modest way the One to whom all glory belongs!
By contrast, the prize for which we Christians are running the race—the prize whose value is infinitely greater than any prize we could win in this world—is eternal life with God forever. What pain and suffering wouldn’t we be willing to endure for that?
Zechariah and Elizabeth, after anxious years of waiting and praying and suffering, caught a glimpse the prize that waited for them—and all of us in the future who would place our faith in Christ—they caught a glimpse of this prize and this righteous couple was able to say, “What a blessing! What a blessing! It’s been incredibly difficult, but it was completely worth it… for this!”
I want to live a life so radically oriented toward God and his kingdom, toward God’s Son Jesus and his gospel, that I can say, “No matter what the cost, no matter what the pain, no matter what the indignity, no matter what the obstacles, no matter what the suffering, it was completely worth it!” Don’t you want to be able to say that?
Because if only we can learn to do that, suddenly life’s setbacks, disappointments, regrets, failures, fears, humiliations, and everything else we suffer would start to look drastically different. It would no longer be: “Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous people, but… this heartbreaking thing happened to them.” [Name a couple of people in the congregation…] It would be more like, “Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous people, and this heartbreaking thing happened to them, but look what God did with it! Look how he used it for his glory! Look how he used it for his kingdom! Look how he used it for his purposes! Look how he used it to help spread the gospel of his Son Jesus. Look how he used it to save other people for eternity.”
I know you’re going to laugh when I say this, but do you have a “but” in your life? What is it? Or, if you have more than one, what are they?
In Christ, God will always transform our “buts” into “ands.” Because the “but” isn’t the end of the story. The failure, the setback, the pain, the disappointment, the heartbreak isn’t the end of the story… If you’re experiencing those things, that just means you’re somewhere in the middle of the story. Don’t give up yet! Because God isn’t finished with you yet! Amen?
But let’s notice something else: this kind of transformation—of heartbreak into blessing—doesn’t just happen on its own. It happens through prayer.
We see this in today’s scripture. Verse 13: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” Zachariah had been praying that he and his wife would have a child. And I’m sure Elizabeth had been praying, too. But why is God answering their prayer now… in this way? I think it has to do with what’s going on in verse 10: Luke tells us that while Zechariah is in the Holy Place burning the incense on the altar, the “whole multitude of the people were [outside] praying.” Were these people outside praying for the same thing that Zechariah was praying for? No… they didn’t know about Zechariah’s prayer for a child. They were praying instead for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel—and for all the prophecy about the Messiah to be fulfilled. But God answered Zechariah’s prayer—a personal prayer that he and his wife would have a child—because by doing so, he would also answer the prayers of the people outside—which was a prayer for the salvation of Israel and ultimately the world.
In other words, God didn’t answer Zechariah’s prayer simply because he wanted Zechariah and Elizabeth to have a child—as nice as that would be. He answered Zechariah’s prayer because doing so would play a necessary role in saving the world from their sins! God answered Zechariah’s prayer because it served God’s purposes—the most important of which is to save the world through his Son Jesus. This is why, in John’s gospel, all the miracles that Jesus performs are called “signs”—because Jesus doesn’t perform miracles for their own sake, or even for the sake of the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the demon-possessed. He performs miracles because doing so is a sign that communicates something about who Jesus is, what his gospel means, and how people can be saved.
I said earlier that our lives should be centered on God and his glory. Needless to say, our prayers should be as well! Jesus makes this clear in the prayer he gave us as a model prayer—the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a thoroughly God-centered prayer. First, we pray for God to be known, loved, and glorified throughout the world: “hallowed be thy name.” We pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven—which means we also want God’s will to be done in our lives, and not our own will. We pray for God to give us our “daily bread,” along with everything else we need to survive. But we don’t pray this for our own sake. Whether we live or die is beside the point. Remember Philippians chapter 1: The reason Paul said that he preferred to go on living rather than to die and immediately be with the Lord was so that he could continue his ministry to reach the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As disciples of Jesus Christ, whom God has called to “go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded,” our lives in this world should be focused on that as well! For as long as God gives us life in this world, we are to use our life first to fulfill this Great Commission!
And you say, “Yes, but I’ve got a job! So much of my time is focused on working, not fulfilling the Great Commission.” O.K., but why are you working? Are you working earn money so you can live the same mediocre, materialistic, American middle-class existence that all of your unsaved neighbors are also living—are you working so you can have all the same boring, trivial stuff that they have, all of which will be burned away when Christ returns, and we stand in judgment before our Maker, and what will you have to show for ourselves? “Look at all this great stuff I bought, Lord! Look at my car! Look at my gym membership. Look at my iPhone X.”
Or are you investing your money for an eternal purpose—to fulfill the Great Commission, to help save people from their sins? [Say a word about Stewardship.]
And you might say, “I’d like to fulfill the Great Commission, Pastor Brent, but mostly I’m just trying to feed my family—to pay the bills, to keep a roof over our heads.” To which I say, “Yes, but why are you doing that? If you’re a parent, God has already called you to be a pastor and missionary! Because your first and most important mission field is the lives of your own children—or grandchildren—do they know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord? Are you showing them what that means? Are you living it out? You say, “God’s Word is so important.” Are you reading and studying it and obeying it—do they see you doing that? You say, “Prayer is so important.” Are you praying with your children? When you’re facing a challenge in your life, are they seeing you meet that challenge with prayer? You say, “Worshiping God is so important.” Are they seeing you wake up on Sunday morning and make worship your top priority each and every week—or are they seeing you sleep in about half the time? Because guess what? Your children are watching you—they’re learning far more about what you believe about Jesus from your actions than your words.
And consider this: whether or not your children will be saved for eternity depends more on you than on any pastor or Sunday school teacher or youth minister at any church. Parents, grandparents… Are you shirking your responsibility? Did some pastor along the way forget to tell you that nothing less than heaven and hell hangs in the balance? If so, I apologize on their behalf, but I’m telling you the truth: heaven and hell for your children and grandchildren hangs in the balance of what you do right now with your life—with your time, with your talents, with your possessions.
And even after your children are saved, your mission doesn’t end: your next most important responsibility is equipping them to glorify God and to fulfill the Great Commission and dedicate their lives to reaching others with the gospel.
So even the money you earn to feed and clothe your family and keep them safe and warm is also ultimately for the sake of glorifying God and fulfilling the Great Commission.
But after you’ve done all that, you still have money left over. It’s not yours to do with as you please. It’s God’s money.
I made this point last Thursday in an email blast I sent you. At the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he thanks them for their financial support of Paul and his ministry. Then he says, “Not that I need anything from you. What I need is for God to give you the kind of spiritual blessing that comes from your being generous with your money.” That’s a paraphrase, but that’s what Paul means.
One theme of my preaching recently is that we need, as a church, to fall in love with Jesus again—to treasure Jesus above any and all earthly treasures. Brothers and sisters, we simply can’t do that unless or until we become faithful in our financial giving. That’s what this Sunday—Stewardship Commitment Sunday—is about.
[Invite to turn in Estimate of Giving cards.]