THE CHARACTERS OF CHRISTMAS: Zachariah & Elizabeth-Facing Dead Hopes
Pastor Terry Inman
Today we begin a new Advent series. Advent means “coming”. Advent is a season of anticipation and celebration of the Birth of Jesus. That’s why we like to celebrate this season the whole month of December.
Speaking of Advent you can go on our web site Harborlight.com and find some information for your own personal or family celebration of advent. This year’s theme is, “The Characters of Christmas”. We will be visiting the stories of those nearest the nativity.
Today we feature a very surprised middle aged couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. As it turns out they were relatives of Mary and Joseph. For years they had anticipated having a child. Unfortunately their hopes of a family had passed with age. This unique story provides a backdrop for today’s message, “Facing Dead Hopes”.
Let’s meet our main character Zachariah. (dramatic sketch)
Many people struggle this time of year. It’s a season of incredible hope, incredible joy, and wonderful promises. Unfortunately it can also be mixed with, grief, loss and personal pain. Christmas is both joyful and painful.
For some of us the season is a stark reminder of who’s missing, or what’s not moving forward in our lives. Some grieve the loss of someone dear. Miles separate some of us at a time when we want to be close. Some us face family tensions, financial struggles, illness, or issues at work.
We may struggle with what it means to hope in God when we are facing personal difficulties and disappointments? “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Prov. 13.12 (NIV)
This may explain Zechariah’s skeptical response to an incredible promise. This childless couple never imagined they would be granted their hearts desire especially when they were way past their prime.
Every Jewish girl grew up with a dream of mothering the Messiah. My granddaughters are all going to be princesses. For some reason Elizabeth was not able to conceive. To be barren in her culture was a double disgrace. Great leaders like Moses and Sarah had overcome infertility but Zach and Liz were just ordinary folks living out their hopes and fears.
Zechariah was no celebrity. Being from a rural village in the hill country, he was probably not well educated and influential like the urban Priests of Jerusalem. Luke who records this story mentions they were devoted and righteous people. He says they were “blameless” yet they were barren. That distinction just made this disappointment worse. Obvious they were not paying for any sins. Of all people they should be blessed with a child.
When bad things happen to good people, it’s normal to question. It’s easy to become disillusioned. But in this story there is a supernatural reversal of misfortune; human disappointment turns into a divine appointment.
Most of his life Zechariah waited for the greatest honor of his profession; fifteen minutes of glory. He won the lottery. He was drawn out of his division of priests to perform the daily religious rituals in the Temple.
There was always a gathering of praying supporters outside the Temple celebrating this Holy event. For Priests it was the super bowl. It was a time when God’s manifest presence was expected in this very Holy place.
Like all the priests before him, Zachariah would have prepared himself for this auspicious occasion. There were special robes and rituals all symbolizing the need for perfection in the presence of a Holy God. The slightest misstep could mean death for the priest and the failure of his mediating mission to seek atonement for the sins of the people.
In anticipation of God’s favor Zachariah reverently approached the altar to burn incense. Suddenly he was startled to find himself in the presence of an angelic messenger who spoke from the right side of the Holy platform.
Only a heavenly being had the right to be in this sacred space. Zechariah was paralyzed with fear but the message was promising. "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John." Luke 1.13 (NIV)
Wow what a God encounter. Only a heavenly being would know Zechariah’s deepest desires. This once-in-a-life-time opportunity had now become a moment of divine destiny. The God of heaven broke his silence over this human dilemma. There is a clue here as to why God intervened for this destitute couple.
God responds to prayer but this answer was more than they asked for. This was an unusual birth announcement. The messenger revealed the gender. He even named the baby. John means, "God's favor” or “God is gracious"! Zachariah’s prayers were being answered for reasons way beyond his understanding. Our requests get God’s reply especially when they fulfill his purposes!
God was gracious to give this childless couple hope but he was also extending his grace to all humanity. God broke into a Jewish ritual to announce his redemptive plan for all of us. This child prodigy would fulfill God’s purposes. He would be the prophetic forerunner for the Messiah.
As a Priest, Zachariah would have interceded often for the restoration of the Jewish nation. He would have prayed earnestly for the coming of the Messiah. But God in his mercy also answered the cry of a father’s heart. He promised a very special son. It was hard for him to believe. Ironically Zachariah’s name means, “God remembers”.
Whatever you have lost, whatever you are facing, “God Remembers”! My son Sam did this sculpture several years ago of a large forearm and hand with a face carved in its palm. It’s now displayed on his coffee table.
Through the prophet Isaiah God made a comforting promise to his people. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.” Is. 49.15-16 (NIV) God Remembers!
As Zachariah attempts to regain his composure, the angel lays out John’s destiny. This child would turn despair to delight. He said, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth” (v.14).
All babies bring joy, but this one was unique. He would be great. Like the prophet Elijah He would be powerful in the Spirit. He would fulfill the 450-year-old prophecies of Malachi. He would be the Messiah’s forerunner.
The angel said, He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke 1.17 (NIV)
Zachariah may have been a priest but he was still human. He had seen to many unfulfilled dreams pass him and others by. He had his own pain but as a priest he also had a front seat to many other heartaches.
His uncertain faith was expressed in a question. “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (v.18) It had been too long coming. He had given up. His understandable response was something like, Really? Why now and how is that going to happen?
His reaction was much different than a young girl named Mary who had lived much less of life. When the angel announced her pregnancy she said, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” No wonder her older cousin Elizabeth blessed her for believing what the Lord said would happen. Mary was blessed for believing the God of the impossible.
Zachariah got the guarantee he needed but it wasn’t pretty. He came out of the Temple speechless for nine months until the baby was born. A lot of expecting mothers would love that. He was supposed to come out and pray a blessing over the crowds. But he didn’t even know sign language!
The messenger qualified his authority to make this promise. He said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” Luke 1.19-20 (NIV)
Zachariah also received an object lesson to silence his doubts. “Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Apparently ole Zach faced his dead hopes. Especially when Elizabeth showed a bump. The word about joy was certainly real. When Mary came to live with them during her pregnancy the baby leaped for joy in the womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and shouted out blessings over Mary. Mary also broke out in a prophetic song of praise.
Eight days after the birth, baby John was circumcised. The neighbors and relatives expected him to be named Zachery Jr. But Zachariah now a true believer wrote down “John” the name given by the angel. Immediately he got his voice back. The bible says his “tongue was loosed” and he began to prophecy about the coming Messiah and his own little boy’s destiny.
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us - to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Luke 1.68-79 (NIV)
I think we can all identify in one way or another with this story. Disappointments challenge our faith. It’s human to shield our self from further pain by lowering our expectations.
We are like the father who asked Jesus to heal his son’s seizures. Jesus asked how long the condition had existed. The man reported, since childbirth. He begged Jesus, “if you can do anything have pity and heal him”. Jesus repeated his uncertain request, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes. The man was honestly humble, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Mark 9.23 (NIV)
One of the ways we can face our dead hopes is to ask the right questions. Typically we ask things like why did this happen or like Zachariah, how is this going to happen?
The answers we get are determined by the questions we ask. If we ask bad questions, we will get bad answers. If we ask better questions we will get better answers. Thanks to Michael Hyatt, a best-selling author on leadership, for his list of seven better questions to ask when facing crisis.
1. What if this isn’t the end but a new beginning?
2. What if the answer to my prayer is just over the next hill?
3. What if this is necessary in order for me to be prepared for the next important chapter in my life?
4. What if God knows exactly what I need at this particular time?
5. What if God is speaking to me through a means I would not have chosen, for a blessing I cannot see?
6. What does this experience make possible?
7. What will I be telling my grandchildren that I learned was so valuable in this season of my life?
What do you think you be asking right NOW in your situation? Do you have hopes and dreams that seem to have died? God Remembers!
Christmas is all about expectant hope! The Apostle Paul who understood suffering well said, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Rom. 5.3-5 (NIV)
Prayer for childless couples. Prayer for the bereaved. Prayer for people experience pain and loneliness this season.