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 be afraid of them!
Needless to say, Gabriel, the angel who shows up to talk to Zechariah in the sanctuary of the Temple—he’s not a Michael Landon/Roma Downey kind of angel. He’s a “fear not” kind of angel. I’ll get to him in a little while. But first, who is Zechariah, and what’s going on in today’s scripture?
We’re told that Zechariah was a priest serving in the temple. Priests were responsible for leading worship services, burning incense, accepting sacrifices and offerings, teaching the people God’s Word, and, more than anything, butchering animals for sacrifice. There were about 24 divisions of priests, each comprising about a thousand priests. Luke tells us that Zechariah served in the “Abijah” division. He and the other priests in his division served in the Temple for one full week twice a year—and also during the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Day of Atonement. In today’s scripture, Zechariah is serving during one of his two regular weeks.
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, when the Bible describes someone as “righteous” and “blameless,” this doesn’t mean that they weren’t sinners who were in need of a Savior. They were sinners—along with the rest of humanity: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Indeed, this very righteous man, Zechariah, would fall into sin the moment that Gabriel put his faith to the test. No, to be “righteous” and “blameless under the law,” in the context of today’s scripture, 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 confessed their sin, repented, and performed the required sacrifices in order to be reconciled with God. It does not mean that they were sinlessly perfect.
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 him, but…” In other words, in the eyes of the world—if not in the eyes of Zechariah and Elizabeth themselves—something was wrong here: If they were truly righteous, after all—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! If they were faithful to God, then surely God wouldn’t have disappointed them like this, by preventing them from having a child! But here they are.
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. “This happened so that the power of God could be seen in them.” As difficult as it was for the couple, 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; 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, John the Baptist, 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, comes from Old Testament prophecy. God’s power was going to be in full display in Elizabeth and Zechariah.
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!
Is there a message here for us?
One message is this: 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? I’m not sure I am most of the time, but I believe it’s true! Lisa, as most of you know, fell and broke her leg a few weeks ago. She had a three and a half hour surgery. She’s laid up for the next several weeks, months of recovery. Is there a “blessing” in that?
Yes! There have been many so far, for example, as we’ve watched this church respond to my family with love, compassion, and great care. And who knows the myriad ways God will use this episode for the good of our family? Which isn’t to say that when the accident happened, any of us were “feeling the blessing,” if you know what I mean. But will we trust that God knows how to run the universe or not?
There’s a profoundly good song by singer-songwriter Laura Story about this very topic. It’s called “Blessings,” which she wrote when her husband was battling a life-threatening illness. It includes these poignant words:
We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
‘Cause what if your blessings come through rain drops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?
Did you hear those words: “What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?” I haven’t known a thousand sleepless nights, but I’ve known more than a few in my life. I bet you have, too. Is it possible that that situation or person or event in your life which is causing those sleepless nights—which hardly seems like any kind of blessing while you’re going through it—is precisely what you need to “know that God is near” and draw closer to him, and trust in him more, and depend on him more? And if the end result of that trial you’re going through is that you finally learn this lesson—and your faith in Jesus is strengthened—wouldn’t it all have been worth it?
See, if this song is true—and if the experience of Elizabeth and Zechariah is true—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.” 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. And, yes, look how he used it to bless Elizabeth and Zechariah in a very personal way—by giving them the child they always wanted and prayed for!”
If God did that for them, why don’t we think he’ll do that for us? We’re no less favored by God than they are! Only more so because we are God’s children through faith! We have the Holy Spirit living within us!
Look at the screen: Chances are, you have a few big disappointments in your life. You’re not so different from Zechariah and Elizabeth, and if you’ll forgive me for the play on words: you have a “big but.” You have a big but! I have a big but. Each of us could probably say something like this: “My life was going along just fine—really well, so much potential—but then this bad thing happened… or that good thing didn’t happen. And here I am, bitter, sad, disappointed, angry, depressed, filled with regret…”
It’s as if your life is stuck in the first sentence. “Things were going so well, but… then this thing happened.”
But don’t you see? God wants us to understand that life in Christ is like the second sentence. In other words, in Christ, God will always transform our “buts” into “ands.” Because the “but”—this thing which we fear has ruined our lives—isn’t the end of the story. In other words, the failure, the setback, the pain, the disappointment, the heartbreak we experienced isn’t the end of the story… If you’re a Christian, and you’re experiencing those things right now, it only means you’re somewhere in the middle of the story. Don’t give up yet! Because God isn’t finished with you yet! Amen?
Earlier, I talked about the accident that Lisa had. And I wondered aloud what blessings God might be wanting to bring out of it. “What’s it all for?” “How is God using this painful and difficult episode in our lives to bless us?” And some of you may object—I’ve heard this objection a lot from Methodists—“Yes, Pastor Brent, but it’s not like God caused this accident.”
And that’s true! I don’t think God caused it. But for all eternity, God foreknew it was going to happen. Also, God certainly had the power to prevent it if he wanted to. I mean, my family and I were praying for Lisa before the accident—praying that God would keep her safe and healthy. God answered that prayer with a “no,” right? Which means he must have a good reason for letting her go through with it. For whatever reason, this accident was part of God’s plan for Lisa’s life, and his plan for our family.
What a relief to know that! That’s great news, isn’t it? To know that even a seemingly bad thing that happens is part of our Father’s good plan for our lives? That he’s using it for our good?
Similarly, Elizabeth and Zechariah could have been unable to have a child for perfectly natural, medical reasons—not because God caused it—but that doesn’t mean that their childlessness wasn’t part of God’s good plan for their life.
Regardless, even if God didn’t cause Lisa’s accident; even if he didn’t cause Elizabeth and Zechariah’s childlessness; you know what he did cause? He caused Zechariah to lose his ability to speak for the next nine months while his wife Elizabeth got pregnant and had a baby. Or at least the angel Gabriel caused him to lose his ability to speak—angels are powerful. But angels are messengers from God who only do God’s bidding. So it’s safe to say that God caused this to happen. And by the way, it’s clear from later in the chapter that he also lost the ability to hear. He was deaf and mute.
Now, I wish God didn’t do that to poor Zechariah! That seems kind of mean, doesn’t it? At least from my human perspective. But who am I kidding? Mostly, I just hope that God wouldn’t punish me so severely for my lack of faith!
But on the other hand… what kind of question is this in verse 18? “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” “How shall you know this, Zechariah? I’ll give you a hint: you shall know this because you have a Bible! You shall know this because you’ve read about Abraham and Sarah, who were also unable to have a child. And so were Isaac and Rebekah… and Jacob and Rachel… and the parents of Samson… and how about Hannah, the mother of Samuel? A couple’s inability to have children is a recurring theme in scripture—and in all those cases God worked miraculously to get them pregnant. Here you are, a priest serving in the Temple, and teaching the Bible to people, yet you act like you don’t believe the Bible! I need you to believe God’s Word, Zechariah!”
Well… on the other side of his nine months of being deaf and mute, don’t you think Zechariah had much more faith in God’s Word? Of course he did. So even this punishment was good for him! It’s good for us clergy sometimes to shut up and listen to God, instead of talking all the time. And so it was good for Zechariah to do that, too.
The author of Hebrews, in chapter 12, wrote the following:
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?
[Skip to verse 11:] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
And finally, I’ll leave you with this, from C.S. Lewis:
I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.
Classic English understatement! It’s actually quite good. Because God is using it for our good!
1. Psalm 130:3 ESV
2. Romans 3:10-11 ESV
3. Romans 3:23
4. John 9:3 NLT
5. Hebrews 12:5-7 ESV
6. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble,” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.