Scripture: Luke 1: 5-25
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… 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!
We’ll come back to him in a moment… 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. But not only that: notice verse 8: Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” “Entering the temple” means entering the outer part of the sanctuary known as the “Holy Place.” Inside the Holy Place there’s an altar called the altar of incense. It sits right next to the thick linen curtain that separates the this outer room of the sanctuary from the inner room—otherwise known as the “Most Holy Place,” or the “Holy of Holies.” Only the high priest could enter that room, and only once a year.
Originally, the ark of the covenant was in the Holy of Holies. But at this point in Israel’s history the ark of the covenant had long gone missing. It will later be recovered by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just kidding. But the Bible says that on the other side of that curtain separating the Holy Place, where Zechariah was standing, from the Holy of Holies, the Spirit of God dwelt in a special way… Which means Zechariah was as close to God as anyone back then could ever get on this earth—with the exception of the high priest! Remember: These events take place long before Pentecost, when God poured out his Holy Spirit into the hearts of us who believe in his Son.
So being chosen to burn incense in the Holy Place would have been the highlight of Zechariah’s career as a priest. In fact, once you performed this ritual, you weren’t eligible to do it again… It was literally a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
Anyway, Zechariah took a censer—a special receptacle for holding the burning coals—went inside the Holy Place and dumped the coals on the altar of incense. Then he took finely ground aromatic spices and frankincense and threw it on top of the coals. For a moment, the room was blanketed in smoke and perfume. Moments later, the smoke cleared and what did Zechariah see? The angel Gabriel standing on the right side of the altar!
As I said earlier, the angel had to say, “Fear not”… because it’s easy to imagine Zechariah’s shock and surprise! Terrifying!
But notice what the angel says next, in verse 13: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard…” What prayer? The prayer that “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” The couple is childless… and now they’re beyond childbearing years. Up to this point we didn’t know that Zechariah had been praying about that… but of course this connects back to what Luke told us earlier in verse 7: “they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”
Notice that Gabriel says, “your prayer has been answered”—prayer singular, not prayers plural.1 But here’s the thing: Zechariah, we’ve already been told earlier is “righteous and blameless under the law.” He prayed every day—and for many things. In fact, even burning this incense was a symbolic way of lifting up prayers to God. And he was praying as part of this liturgy for burning this incense.
Zechariah was a man of prayer—a man of many prayers—yet when Gabriel refers to one prayer in particular, he’s referring to Zechariah’s deepest prayer… He’s referring to Zechariah’s his deepest hurt… his deepest pain… his deepest disappointment in life… the most tender place in his heart… which was… his and his beloved wife’s childlessness. We know this was painful to them because of Elizabeth’s words in verse 25: “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” They felt the “reproach”—or disapproval—of others because, like Job’s friends, people who knew them would have perceived—wrongly—that their infertility was punishment from God because of Elizabeth’s sins… or both their sins.
So here was Zechariah, during what should have been the most satisfying moment of his ministry—and one of the happiest days of his life—doing something that priests like him dreamed of doing—but he couldn’t even perform this task wholeheartedly without, at the same time, thinking of Elizabeth back home… thinking of that unanswered prayer… and feeling heartbroken.
Are we so different from Elizabeth and Zechariah? I know I’m talking to many people right now who, at this moment, are enduring a pain that other people may not even know about. I’m talking to people who have a tender place in their heart because of some unanswered prayer. I’m talking to people who are carrying around invisible wounds and scars. I’m talking to people who are heartbroken. I’m talking to people who are hurting…
And to make matters worse, it’s Christmastime! These painful feelings are especially unwelcome during this “most wonderful time of the year”… [singing]“with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you, ‘Be of good cheer.’” If you’re not “of good cheer,” we don’t want you throwing a wet blanket on our Christmas celebration. You don’t want to be a Grinch, after all, spoiling the Christmas party!
One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Remember the line, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”? In the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, where the song originated, Judy Garland doesn’t sing that line. Instead she sings, “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
It turns out that when Frank Sinatra was recording his album of Christmas hymns and standards in 1957, he told Hugh Martin, the songwriter, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” And so Martin changed the line… He “jollied it up.” No mention of “muddling through.”
But I prefer the honesty of “muddling through somehow.” But there is something I don’t like about the song—well, two things. I don’t like the reference to “the Fates”: “if the Fates allow.” Hugh Martin, the songwriter, was a Christian. Originally he said, “if the Lord allows,” but the producers made him change it because they didn’t want it to be too religious.
But here’s the other thing I don’t like… Listen to these words that pass for hope in the song. In one verse: “Next year/ All your troubles will be out of sight.” Or later… “Next year/ All our troubles will be miles away.”
Do you hear what’s going on? The narrator is pinning his hopes on a future in which pain and heartache and sadness won’t exist. I mean, sure, right now we’re all “muddling through somehow,” but next year… next year…some time in the near future… we won’t be!
In other words, the song’s version of happiness depends on a trouble-free future; it depends on the absence of adversity.
But guess what? You’ve probably noticed that on this side of eternity… so long as we’re living in this world of sin, sickness, suffering, and death, the “absence of adversity” is a pipe dream!
And yes, despite what some prosperity preachers say, it’s even a pipe dream for us believers in Christ.
Perhaps even more so for us… God’s Word says that we Christians “do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” So we don’t just have “bad luck,” or “bad breaks” here and there… we have a spiritual enemy—we have active spiritual forces arrayed against us—trying to harm us, trying to destroy us, trying to destroy people we love! The Bible says that when we are born again through faith in Christ, we are—whether we like it or not—enlisted in a spiritual war!
All that to say, it’s no wonder our life can so often be a struggle! It’s supposed to be… if we’re doing it right!
The Christmas story, for instance, is filled with adversity! Think of Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus! Just like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Joseph is called a righteous man, but oh brother… did he have to deal with a lot of adversity during the first Christmas season! Think about it: after Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her what God is going to do in her life, she has to have a very difficult conversation with her fiancé. “Joseph, I’m pregnant… but let me explain!” The conversation doesn’t go well. He doesn’t believe her. He believes that Mary has cheated on him.
And Matthew tells us that after some time passes, Joseph makes up his mind. He’s going to break off the engagement. And that’s when an angel comes to him and reveals God’s plans to him. So he changes his mind. He decides to become the adoptive father of the Son of God.
And maybe you think, “Well, at least Joseph got an angel to come and tell him what to do! When I’m in the midst of trouble, and I don’t know what to do, God has never sent me an angel!”
But hold on… First, God allows Joseph endure some period of time—days, weeks?… before the angel comes to him. And during those days and weeks he was experiencing the heartbreak of thinking that his fiancée had cheated on him… What was he going to do now! How will he face his family and friends!
But not only that… While it’s true that an angel finally does visit him… when the angel does come to him, he comes to him in a dream! Let’s think about that for a moment…
I’ve told you before about some of my dreams… more like nightmares! I have them, no exaggeration, once a week. In one of them, I get a call—out of the blue—from the principal of my high school. This makes no sense: Dr. Burns died years ago—and besides, my high school is now a middle school.
But in my dream it’s still a high school… and my former principal is alive and well—and still the principal!
He informs me that there was a mistake in the record-keeping back in 1988 when I graduated, and as it happens, I’m going to have to go back to high school in order to receive all the necessary credits I need to earn my high school diploma. And… If I don’t go back to high school, he’s going to call Georgia Tech and Emory University and tell them to take away the three degrees that I’ve earned between those two schools!
I’m pretty sure my old high school would never have the authority to do that, but in my dream it does!
This is hardly a terrifying nightmare, but when I wake up and regain my senses, I am greatly relieved that this was only a dream! Then I don’t give it another thought… until it happens again the next week!
So do you see the challenge Joseph faced… He had to discern whether he was having some crazy dream—like all other crazy dreams—or whether this dream represented the very word of God speaking to him. See what I mean? And then… even after Jesus is born Joseph has to uproot his family and move to Egypt to escape the murderous clutches of the evil King Herod!
My point is, we are often under the mistaken impression that if only we’ll be faithful to God, then God will protect us from difficult trials. That’s what Elizabeth and Zechariah likely thought—certainly it’s what the people who were judging the couple for their infertility thought! Look at verses 6 and 7:
And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Do you see what Luke is saying… They were righteous and blameless under the law… but… contrary to expectation…despite what everyone thought would happen, this bad thing happened to them instead!
They were faithful to God, yet they still had to endure years of disappointment and heartache because of their childlessness. It just doesn’t seem right!
So if we’re Christians, how do we respond to this challenge?
Let me ask you a question: Raise your hand if you agree with me that It’s a Wonderful Life is the greatest Christmas movie of all time. Let me guess: You think Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie of all time… No, the correct answer is It’s a Wonderful Life.
To refresh your memory, George Bailey was an ambitious young man who wanted to see the world. But “seeing the world” was one of many dreams that George sacrificed when his father died, and he inherited his father’s Savings and Loan. He also sacrificed his dream of going to college, of becoming an architect, of “building things.” Instead, he watched his classmates and his brother achieve the fame, the wealth, the glory that he thought should have been his.
And then, to add insult to injury, when his absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces a deposit that today would amount to over $80,000, George fears that he’s lost what little that he does have—and he even faces possible prison time… because he’s going to take the fall for Billy’s mistake. The police will think George embezzled the money.
So George decides he’s worth more dead than alive… that at least if he kills himself, his family can collect his life insurance. But before he can follow through on that plan, that angel I mentioned at the top of the sermon, Clarence, intervenes and saves his life. And in the most famous part of the movie, Clarence allows George to see what his wife, what his fellow townspeople, what his friends—and not to mention the town itself—would be like if he had never been born. And remember what it’s like? It’s awful! The people’s lives are much worse! The town is so much worse… I mean, the town is worse than Lavonia! So by seeing this, George comes to appreciate how many lives he’s touched and changed for the better…
He lacked the perspective to see to see all the good he was accomplishing… when he was angry, disappointed, full of self-pity and resentment… feeling as if he were wasting his life, throwing away his potential.
And although the movie doesn’t make this point, what we believers understand is that George lacked the God-like perspective to see how God was using George’s life—to see all the good that God was working through George!
So what Clarence taught George to do was to reinterpret all these disappointments, these setbacks, these failures, these troubles, this pain, this suffering.
For years, George thought—as the old song says—that he was doing nothing more than “muddling through somehow.” But not even close! From a Christian point of view, God was using all of George’s experiences—even the hard ones—for God’s glory, for his good purposes, and for George’s good.
And God is doing the same in the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah, too: Skip down and look at Luke chapter 1, verse 36. As a sign that God is going to keep the promises he makes to Mary, look at what Gabriel tells her: “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
So the very fact that Elizabeth—this cousin of Mary’s who had been unable to have a child—the fact that she was pregnant was a sign to Mary that God’s message about the Messiah was true, and it was a source of reassurance and encouragement to Mary; it bolstered her faith. Elizabeth’s pregnancy demonstrated, in a very personal way, that “nothing will be impossible with God”—including conceiving in Mary’s womb the very Son of God!
Besides, the fact that we’re reading the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah two-thousand years after the fact goes to show that this story continues to reassure, to encourage, and to strengthen the faith of believers today.
In fact, God planned it that way… Yet another reason God wanted this couple to experience childlessness.
But here’s the thing: We have the benefit of “looking ahead” in the story and seeing what God was up to. Neither Elizabeth nor Zechariah had that benefit. They couldn’t imagine what God was up to for those many years—even decades—when they were trying so hard to get pregnant and have a child but were unable to.
In his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, pastorTim Keller talks about some surprising events that led to the planting of his church—Redeemer Presbyterian—in New York City. When Keller was a young man in seminary, he was not a member of that particular denomination. He knew he was called by God into pastoral ministry, but he didn’t know in which denomination God was calling him to serve. So he talked and prayed it over with a trusted professor, a distinguished scholar from England, who encouraged him to join this particular Presbyterian denomination. And so Keller did just that. And that denomination gave him the support and encouragement he needed, 20 years later, to start Redeemer Church. And the rest is history.
But this professor who proved so influential in Keller’s life almost didn’t make it to America in time to teach at Keller’s seminary—and meet Keller, and talk to him about his ministry plans. It turns out that there was an enormous backlog of visa applications at the time. But a fellow student at the seminary wanted this professor to come so he called his father in Washington to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and grant this professor a visa. This student’s father, by the way, was President Gerald Ford.
Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur. I understand it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door. ¶ What if the security guard had not noticed the door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction? In that case—nothing else in the long string of “coincidences” would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city.
Do you think that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not happen by accident, nothing happens by accident. I like to tell people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.2
This is the way the Bible promises that God works in the lives of each of us believers. It seems like a lot of coincidences but it’s not! Not if Romans 8:28 is true! “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”3
So with all this in mind, let’s go back to verses 6 and 7:
And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
I don’t like that word at the beginning of verse 7: B-U-T.
Chances are, each one of us has a big B-U-T, which interrupted or disrupted our life—which led to disappointment, heartache, pain… maybe resentment… maybe bitterness… I do! Chances are, each of us could 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…”
“Things were going so well, BUT… then this bad thing happened.”
But don’t you see? Our problem is the same as Elizabeth and Zechariah’s problem… which is the same as George Bailey’s problem… We can’t “skip ahead” in the story to see how it all turns out… And unfortunately, no angel is going to show us how much worse things would have been if our original dreams had come true—or our original plans had come to pass.
Like it or not—and this is the hard part—we have to rely on faith. We have to trust in God… that he knows how to run the universe without seeking our advice. And we have to do what even poor Zechariah had trouble doing… We have to trust in God’s Word!
We have to trust that, if we’re in Christ, we don’t have a big B-U-T. Not really…Remember verses 6 and 7: “Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous and blameless but this bad thing happened.” That B-U-T is in the wrong place! That B-U-T should be an A-N-D. What I mean is this: “So, Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous, and, yes, this bad thing happened… but then God did this with it, and God did that with it, and God did this other thing with it, and then here’s what happened as a result… and now I can see in retrospect how all of it—even the bad stuff—was all for my ultimate good!
When we’rein Christ, God is always, always, always transforming our “B-U-Ts” into “A-N-Ds.” The B-U-T doesn’t have the last word… There’s always more… God has more!
See, if we’re Christians, and we’re experiencing a B-U-T right now, it only means we’re somewhere in the middle of the story. Let’s not give up yet! Because God hasn’t finished writing our story yet! There’s more to come! Amen?