Themes: Advent, Aging
Text: Luke 1:5-25;Luke 1:57-80
Let me introduce to you Zechariah and Elizabeth, two somewhat obscure but very important people in the Advent narrative. Zechariah and Elizabeth were the father and mother of John the Baptist. But that’s the end, not the beginning of the story.
Zechariah, which literally means “whom God remembered,” was a Jewish village priest. His wife Elizabeth, which means “God is my oath,” came from a priestly family whose lineage went all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were devout and scrupulous in the observance of the Old Testament Law. They were faithful followers of the Lord.
However, they had a heartbreaking problem. They were now becoming quite elderly, and they had no children. This fact had brought them much pain. They had prayed for a child for years. That child had never come.
The 24 families of the sons of Aaron were responsible in rotation for service in the temple at Jerusalem. Zechariah traveled from his village, not too far from Jerusalem, to take his turn serving as a priest. On this particular occasion, it was his turn to serve in front of the Most Holy Place. Zechariah had the great privilege of entering the sanctuary to burn incense while the congregation remained outside in prayer.
The strangest thing happened. The Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. Zechariah was startled. Fear gripped him. The angel said to him:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13-17).
Zechariah was stunned. He didn’t quite know what to say. Initially, he could not believe this. He asked the angel for a sign. Gabriel gave him a sign — because of Zechariah’s disbelief, the angel declared that Zechariah would be silent and not be able to speak until this prophesy concerning the birth of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be fulfilled.
The people outside couldn’t figure out why Zechariah was spending so much time in the temple. When he finally emerged, he could not speak to them. He tried to communicate with sign language. It didn’t work.
In the meantime, Elizabeth realized the fulfillment of the promise. She began to feel life within her. She gave God the credit. She cried out, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25).
Six months later, Gabriel appeared to a teenager in Nazareth named Mary and told her that, although a virgin, she would conceive a child whose name would be Jesus. Then the angel told Mary about her older cousin Elizabeth being six months pregnant. Mary went to visit Elizabeth and the two women compared notes. Luke records Mary’s great prayer glorifying God, which we have come to know as the Magnificat.The two women understood quickly the respective roles they had to play in what would be the relative positions of their children.
We don’t know exactly how much Elizabeth knew. We have the advantage of hindsight and are able to read into the story the words addressed by the Angel Gabriel to Zechariah in the temple. However, there must have been enough to suggest to Zechariah that the work of a preparatory nature would be the destiny of his future son.
In any case, Elizabeth had no hesitation in joyfully accepting the minor role for her son and so establishing, even before their birth, the position of John the Baptist as the one who would be the “forerunner” and of Jesus who would be the Messiah.
Finally, the little baby was born. On the eighth day, they came to the temple to circumcise the child. They were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but Elizabeth spoke up and said, “No, he is to be called John.” The priest argued with her; none of his relatives had that name. They made signs to Zechariah to find out what he would like to name his child. Zechariah asked for a writing tablet. To everyone’s astonishment, he wrote, “His name is John.”
Immediately, Zechariah’s mouth was opened, and his tongue was loosed. He began to speak, praising God. All the people there were filled with awe. After nine months plus of being mute, Zechariah broke forth in one of the most beautiful statements of praise recorded in all the Bible, declaring in prophetic utterance coming not just of his son John but that of the Messiah Jesus.
So now you’ve been introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Perhaps for you it’s a first-time meeting. You have heard the names before, but you really didn’t know much about them. But let’s not leave this story there. As helpful as it is for us to be aware of stories of these biblical characters, it is just as important for us to discover truths from their lives that fit into our existence today. Let’s reflect and see if there’s anything that can help the quality of our lives as we look at these two first-century people.
First: A word to the elderly: God is not finished with you yet!
Put yourself in the position of Elizabeth and Zechariah. All your life, you had prayed for a child. All your life, you had been faithful in the service of God. All your life, you had read the Old Testament Scriptures. All your life, you had done your best to obey the Old Testament Law. All your life, you had looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Now, the years had turned into decades, and many of them had passed, and it was time for retirement. Many of your friends had settled back, finding their greatest joys came from being surrounded by their children and their grandchildren. Many of them had not been as faithful to God as had you. Look what they had. Look what you were missing.
I don’t know how I would have reacted. I do know this. I would have been tempted to throw in the towel, take it easy and at least cut back on my spiritual involvements. After all, God hadn’t been as good to me as I had been to Him. Why should I take Him so seriously when He had not produced everything I thought I should have?
But that was not the approach of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They remained faithful. The facts were that God, too, had remained faithful. His timing was better than theirs. Don’t you ever forget that.
Have you ever played the “what if ” game? I’m at the point of life that I find myself sometimes playing it. My 66 years of age doesn’t meet the full definition of being elderly, although I’ve qualified for an AARP card for the last sixteen years and take advantage of the “senior citizen” passes to the movies.
The fact is, I am old enough to do a lot of reflecting on the last 66 years. What if our family had not moved from Boston to Chicago when I was fourteen? What if I had decided to go into politics instead of the ministry? What if I had not led that trip around the world in 1963 for Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and met Anne in Taiwan? What if she had gone on and married the man to whom she was engaged? What if I had gone straight on for a Ph.D. instead of taking that call to be Associate Pastor in Tulsa? What if we’d have accepted any one of several opportunities that have come our way in the past 29 years?
Do you raise questions like these? Why do we do this more the older we get? The reason is that life is funneling us down now, isn’t it? The older we get, the fewer choices we have left. We are more determined to make what’s left count.
Sometimes we wonder what it would have been like if we had not limited ourselves or God had limited us to these environmental factors that hem us in. How easy it is for us to forget that, for the Christian, everything up to this very moment in time is prologue. God is not finished with me. He’s in the process this very day of doing precisely what He wants to do in and through you and me. Perhaps it’s not quite as romantic as we dreamed.
I heard about an elderly gentleman who had serious hearing problems for many years. He went to the doctor and received a set of hearing aids that allowed the gentleman to hear 100%. When the elderly gentleman went back in a month the doctor said, “Your hearing is perfect. Your family must be really pleased that you can hear again.” The gentleman replied, “Oh, I haven’t told my family yet. I just sit around and listen to the conversations. I’ve changed my will three times!”
Well, I don’t know how Zechariah and Elizabeth felt, but I do know that they knew the clock was ticking, and they’d lost their chance at having a child. That was their dream. They were getting up there in years. Time had passed them by, and they certainly didn’t figure as prominent people on the world stage. Oh yes, they were faithful to God, but God didn’t seem to have any big plans for them. Then they were surprised, surprised by the fact that God still did have some wonderful plans for them.
I don’t care how old and insignificant you feel, God is not finished with you yet.
I look around this congregation, and I see men and women who thought they had retired. Some of you remember Bob and Hazel Curtis. During my early months here, I barely knew who Bob and Hazel were. The Curtises then went with us on a trip to Greece, Israel and Egypt. We got to know them on that trip.
About that time, a task force was wrestling with the future of St. Andrew’s. Should we be in a growth mode? If so, that would demand a building program. Some of the younger men and women did not have the time, energy or expertise to see such a program through. God took a man who was retired, who had some serious health issues, and opened up a brand-new career for him. Bob Curtis made some of his most significant contributions to the work of Christ’s Kingdom long after some would have considered themselves “hasbeens.” Bob and Hazel now are in heaven together, and even in their will, they have lived on, making substantial provision for the work of Jesus Christ here at St. Andrew’s.
I need to be reminded that the “what if ” game is a dangerous game. God isn’t finished with you or me in terms of our earthly effectiveness until He comes to take us from this earth.
There’s no theology of retirement in the Bible. We are still followers of Jesus Christ, no matter how old we are. You and I are meant to be sent, whether we’re a teenager like Mary or senior citizens like Zechariah and Elizabeth. The example of Elizabeth and Zechariah makes it very clear that God has no has-beens. This story is a word to the elderly. God is not finished with you yet!
Second: A word to the sincere, religious traditionalists — God may just surprise you yet!
Christmas is a time full of surprises.
The late Bruce Thielmann was my successor once removed at the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh. He loved to tell a story about a lady who was preparing her Christmas cookies. There was a knock at the door. She went to the door and found a man standing there. His clothes were poor. He was obviously looking for some Christmas odd jobs. He asked her if there was anything he could do. She asked, “Can you paint?”
“Yes,”he said,”I’m a rather good painter.”
“Well,” she said, “There are two gallons of green paint there and a brush. There is a porch out back that needs to be painted. Please do a good job. I’ll pay you for what the job is worth.”
He said, “Fine. I will be done quickly.” She went back to her cookie making and didn’t think much more about it, until there was a knock at the door. She went, and it was obvious that he had been painting. He had green paint all over his clothes. She said, “Did you finish the job?”
He said, “Yes.”
She said, “Did you do a good job?” He said, “Yes. But lady, there’s one thing I would like to point out to you. That is not a Porsche back there. That is a Mercedes.”
Christmas is a time of surprises and things that take your breath away. In fact, all of life can be. Don’t you think it’s a good thing? Most of us measure our lives by the breaths we take. Perhaps it would be better for us to measure our lives by the breaths we miss. It’s those times of amazement and astonishment, when suddenly our attention is carried away, that God catches us by surprise. He takes our breath away.
The only problem is that some of us have too carefully ensconced ourselves in religious tradition to be surprised by anything. That had just about happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were good people. The Bible says, “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Now that’s the profile of a very religious person. They went through all the right motions. They obeyed the Law. They were faithful in worship. They prayed fervently to God.
It is possible to settle into such a religious routine that God has one tough time getting our attention. What would happen on a Sunday morning if Jesus literally walked down the center aisle of this sanctuary, sat on the top step of the platform and looked around. I wonder if we would recognize Him. Most likely, He would have been caught by a flying wedge of ushers before He made it down the center aisle. I have to admit that the ushers would only be doing what we’ve asked them to do. The last thing we want is to have a visitor disrupting our order of worship.
Now, I realize that it is quite unlikely that Jesus is going to physically walk into this room in the course of this worship service. The fact is, though, that Jesus Christ is in this room right now in the presence of His Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ, the very God of the universe, is an active observer of all that is going on in this room. He knows your every thought. He knows mine. He observes our yawns. He knows our fears. He is concerned about the health problems, financial needs and deep, aching loneliness that marks the existence of some. You name it, He is aware of it. And He wants to meet you at your point of need. He wants to surprise you with His joy.
What have you been praying about recently? Have your prayers been bold?
Imagine how many times Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a child. Then, look how stunned they were when their prayer was answered, not in their timing but God’s.
I’m going to make a confession. I tend to live life too defensively. Perhaps I’ve been around too many people who have dreamt dreams quite a bit larger than life only to have those dreams disappear in the harsh light of reality. There was a time when I thought I would write a book titled The Power of Negative Thinking — Or a Way to Never Have Dreams Crushed Is to Never Have Dreams.
There has to be a creative middle ground between the naive optimism of a health-and-wealth gospel at one extreme and the negativism of a lifeless traditionalism that doesn’t expect anything fresh and vital from God.
Over my 29 years here as your pastor, we have had prayer teams and individual elders who have prayed for scores of people by name. We have endeavored not to raise false hopes by declaring that God answers prayer in His time and in His way. I think that that is responsible teaching. We dare not use that as a defensive mechanism, however, to put limits on what God can do and then find ourselves surprised when God actually grants a specific request, which we made in prayer.
Let’s not be so stunned when God answers our prayers. I can look back and document time after time when God has been faithful. I can also describe to you many occasions on which God simply has not answered my prayer in the way I wanted it answered. It doesn’t mean He’s not heard the prayer. I need to be increasingly alert to understand the ways that God goes beyond my ways. He, at times, has closed and actually locked doors that I have done everything in my power to force open. Now I can look back and see His ways are better than my ways. That is why we need to take the time to be still and know that He is God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth teach us that our God is a God of surprises.
Third: A word to leaders — God expects us to be men and women of maturing faith!
Zechariah was a clergy person. He was a paid religious professional. He was faithful in carrying out the functions that were assigned to him in the temple worship. Apparently, he wasn’t accustomed to hearing the Word of God as it applied itself in a highly personal way to himself. How tragic it is when we see a person who should be noted for their faith in the Lord, stumble in disobedience. We observed some classic cases of that in our culture during the last few years, haven’t we?
When God, through the Angel Gabriel, spoke specifically to Zechariah, Zechariah became confused. He doubted. He spoke back these words, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Luke 1:18). Gabriel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (Luke 1:19-20).
Sometimes God has to use severe methods to get our attention, especially those who lead. If we don’t shut up for a while and listen, God may have to shut us up. There need to be times of renewal. There need to be times of reflection and contemplation.
I envy that segment of the Roman Catholic Holy Orders which are referred to as the “contemplatives.” These monks, such as Thomas Merton, take vows of silence. Some of us would benefit from at least periods of silence, times in which we stop our talking, our ceaseless babbling, so as to drink from those deep, cool, refreshing springs of spiritual water, which the Lord yearns to provide. Do you take a Sabbath? Do you plan vacation time that ministers to the soul? Do you stop your pursuits long enough to “be still and know that Thou art God”?
Remember this. No matter how old or young you are, you are meant to be sent. Be willing to be surprised by God. Open yourself to a maturing faith that enables you to be continually used by God!
John A. Huffman is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, and a Contributor Editor of Preaching.