Every follower of Jesus faces at least one crisis of faith in their life, but doesn’t know how to confront it with gospel truth. In this message, Jim Shaddix shows us that with God’s plan of salvation comes the call to persevere through every trial, to look for God’s redemptive work in our suffering, and to trust and rejoice in him.
- Don’t expect a pass on suffering for living right.
- Look for God’s redemptive plan in your suffering.
- Don’t expect God’s ways to always make sense.
- Rejoice in God’s mercy more than your blessing.
- Refuse to compromise obedience to God’s words.
- Connect the dots for others by celebrating God’s salvation.
Luke 1 is where I want to ask you to open your Bible to right now. We’ve been there in our daily Bible reading as a faith family this week, so I want us to focus our attention in Luke 1.
You ever been at a place in your life where you were convinced that God was making a mistake in what He was telling you to believe or what He was telling you to do in light of all of His activity? I was intrigued this week in our reading by the number of people who seemed to find themselves at that place. I mean, you think about Moses in Exodus 3 and 4. He gave God about four reasons why it was a bad idea for Him to send him back into Egypt. He said, “They won’t know who you are. Even if they know who you are, they won’t believe that you sent me. I can’t do this.” Moses said, “I don’t talk too good. I don’t speak real good.” So he had that conversation with God through the burning bush, where he was just convinced at that moment that this really wasn’t a good idea.
You come over here to Luke 1, and Mary poses a very logical argument when the angel Gabriel shows up and talks to her about mothering the Messiah. She says, “How can a virgin have a baby?” And then right before that story, you have this story of Zechariah, who’s talking with the same messenger of God, the angel Gabriel, who’s telling him that he and his elderly wife Elizabeth are going to give birth to a baby named John who would grow up to be the Baptist and be the forerunner of the Messiah to come. And you look at Zechariah’s response to that, and it was nothing less than saying, “Right. At our age? When pigs fly, maybe, but that’s not going to happen.” You know? He just couldn’t see it.
Now I don’t know how you’ve read those stories, but every time I read those conversations, there’s a part of me that is thinking, “Hello? Pay attention here, guys, on what’s going on. A fiery bush is talking, Moses. This is the angel Gabriel that’s standing in front of you having this conversation. Don’t you get this? Just believe it.” And I tell myself, if I was there…if I was there in front of the burning bush, or I was having the conversation with the angel Gabriel, I would get it. And there wouldn’t be any talk-back.
But it’s not long, as I’m processing that, that I have to admit that I have a lot of similar conversations with God. Some of my greatest crises of faith are at points when there are similar factors in place. One, I’m going through a personal wilderness. Two, I can’t see clearly God’s big picture of this whole redemption of mankind thing. And number three, what He’s telling me to do—the instructions He’s giving me or what He wants me to believe—just doesn’t seem to make logical sense. I want you to see this in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke 1, beginning with verse 5.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 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.
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
And then you have that magnificent interlude in which Gabriel encounters the virgin Mary. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth picks up again in verse 57.
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
So how do you navigate those times, times when you find yourself in personal wilderness? You really don’t have a clear picture of God’s big picture, His global mission. And the instructions He’s given you—that you’re reading in His Word, that the Spirit is applying to your heart—just don’t seem to add up. They just don’t seem to make a lot of sense.
Well, if you stop and think about it, we studied a very similar story last week when we looked at Joseph. We saw what appeared to be, or what could appear to be, two disconnected, distinct stories that God was weaving together in order to accomplish His greater purpose. One was about God’s agenda of saving a lot of people. The other was about the plight of a young man. So God is working to bring about the provision to save physically a whole bunch of people in that region from famines that were about to come. And then there’s Joseph. Joseph, who was favored by his father, rejected by his brothers, sold into Egypt, falsely accused by a prominent Egyptian cougar, unjustly put in prison—and you could look at those two things and you could see them as these two different stories.
And you’ve got a similar thing that’s really going on here in Luke 1, don’t you? You’ve got a situation in which God is working for a bigger picture, but then you’ve got the story of a couple who was hurting with some real-life stuff. So what we end up with here is these two threads that are woven throughout this passage of Scripture, all headed for the same place, and that is the glory of God in His great salvation. But if we’re not careful, if we’re not careful we have a tendency—not in the Bible story, but in real life—to see these kinds of things separately, as distinct stories, disconnected most of the time. And that’s where we find ourselves in trouble.
The Thread of Salvation…
So I want you to think about these two threads that are woven through this passage of Scripture: a Thread of Salvation and a Thread of Suffering. See if you can identify them. We start with the Thread of Salvation. And let me just tell you straight up, this is why this story is in the Bible. This is what it’s about. It is why Luke begins his—get it now—his Gospel at this point, because this is the story he’s telling about the good news of God’s salvation.
Luke 1:5–25 shows us desperation for salvation
So like a good story, he starts with a time period, and we’re introduced to what we might call the desperation for salvation. Luke puts it in historical context in verse 5 when he says, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” That puts this in a place-holder in the chronology of time. And one of the things that turns us on to this is that this was about 400 years since the last time that God had said anything to His people. He had been silent for 400 years, coming to this point in history.
And on top of this, this guy Herod was not even a rightful heir to the throne of Israel. He wasn’t even a Jew. He was an Edomian, he was a descendent of Esau, not Jacob. And that simply means that Herod’s people didn’t like the Jews. In fact, Genesis 27 says that they hated the Jews. He had been appointed to this role by Octavius and Anthony, and he spent his time erecting temples of idol worship all through the land for the benefit of the many Gentiles that lived in Israel during this period. He panicked—he was insecure and always thought everybody was out to get him because he really shouldn’t have been on the throne of Israel.
So this was a terrible, sinister, dark time in the nation of Israel. He was a tyrant whose reign was really characterized by a blood bath, many of which involved his own family members. It’s not easy to see at this point how desperate God’s people were for God to show up and do something. This was a bad time under Herod’s reign, on top of it having been so long since God had spoken to His people.
Luke 1:5–25 gives us a prayer for salvation
So that desperation for salvation no doubt led to a lot of prayer for salvation. And that’s why the Jewish people… One of the reasons that they were so religious about these hours of prayer that are discussed in the next paragraph in this story… So the priest would go into the Holy Place, which was just outside the Holy of Holies, and they did this twice a day—once before the morning sacrifices, once after the evening sacrifices—and the priest would go in there and burn incense while the people waited out in the court of Israel in prayer. And these two things were brought together to represent and symbolize the people’s prayer coming up as a sweet-smelling aroma to God. They were so desperate, no doubt their prayers included the prayer, the heart-cry, for God’s visitation, praying that He would receive their sacrifices, be pleased with them, and come to their aid.
Little did these people know that their ritual would find its greatest meaning in a prayer for a greater salvation, and that is the deliverance of people from their sin and the re-creation of those people into the image of God. When we see God’s plan of redemption unfolding in the book of Revelation, we see this incense and these prayers coming together in a heart-cry for God to save His people.
Let me show you a couple places. Revelation 5:8, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 8:3–4, “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense—watch this—with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.”
Just as a little side note, now, know that as you and I live in a longing for Jesus to return, as we live desperate for Him to return from heaven to bring about the fullness of His redemption, this is what’s happening as our prayers are lifted up before God. They come as a sweet-smelling aroma to Him, pleasing Him.
Luke 1:5–25 teaches us about the promise of salvation
So these prayers for salvation led to a promise of salvation. And that’s what we see happening, when this angel shows up with Zechariah there at the altar. No doubt a horrifying experience, and one that maybe he wasn’t quite expecting, having been through this ritual as a citizen of Israel, and even as a priest, and seen it played out. But the angel shows up there, meets him at that particular point, and gives him the promise that he and his elderly wife Elizabeth are going to have a baby.
And notice how this baby is described. His name is going to be John, and then in verse 14, notice he says, “Many will rejoice at his birth.” “This is bigger than you, Zechariah. Many will rejoice at his birth, he’s great before the Lord, he’ll be a Nazarite—not impure in any way—filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord, and he’ll go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah and turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, the disobedient of the wisdom to the just, and make ready a people who are prepared.”
It had been 400 years since God had spoken similar words through the prophet Malachi. Last words God spoke, last verses recorded in the Old Testament in the prophetic book of Malachi—I want you to look at them. This is what they say, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” And at that point God went silent for 400 years.
And in those 400 years, the people of Israel hung on those verses, believing that before Messiah came, Elijah was going to reappear. Jesus, later in Matthew 17, would identify this Elijah figure as John the Baptist. This John, who was now being prophesied to come through the womb of Elizabeth, would be that promised Elijah figure that was to come. And he would come announcing the day of salvation to all God’s people. God gave a promise of salvation to His people when He spoke to Zechariah that day and said, “The baby that you’re going to father is going to be the one that Malachi was talking about.”
Luke 1:5–25 provides us assurance of salvation
Well, Zechariah’s faith falters a little bit. Beginning in verse 18, this is where he pushes back with a little bit of doubt. And the angel of the Lord has to give him some gentle discipline, but it is in that gentle discipline that he gives to Zechariah the assurance of salvation for God’s people. That’s what we find in this passage of Scripture, when he says, “I’m coming from God here. I’m His messenger. I brought this news.” And notice what he says when he says, “These words will be fulfilled in their time,” at the end of verse 20. And God essentially just kind of drove a stake in this in Zechariah’s life, to say, “I’m going to do this. This is a sure thing. My salvation is going to happen.”
Luke 1:5–25 shows us the celebration of salvation
And then this Thread of Salvation finds its crescendo in the celebration of this salvation. Over in verses 57 and 58, when this baby comes and Zechariah and Elizabeth give praise to God when they name him John, and Zechariah underscores that. Immediately his tongue is loosed. He gets his voice back. And the Bible says that he blesses God. Most Bible scholars believe that what we have in verses 68 through 79 that we didn’t read a moment ago are the transcript of Zechariah’s celebration of this great salvation.
If you just scan down through there, you see how he talks in verse 68 about God visiting and redeeming His people. This is what they had prayed. Verse 69, raising up a horn of salvation. Verse 71, being saved from their enemies. Verse 72, God showing the mercy that He promised to their fathers and remembering His holy covenant. Verse 74, they would be delivered from the hand of their enemies. Verse 77, God was giving knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins. Verse 78, He was showing His tender mercies to them. Verse 79, giving light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide their feet into the way of peace.
This is the Thread of Salvation that runs all the way through this passage of Scripture, and this is why it’s in the Book. It’s why it’s in the Bible.
And if I could just say at that point a word to anyone who has never embraced that, who has never said yes to it—we want you to know that this is what God is saying to you through His Word. This is what He has said. This is what He has divinely orchestrated to bring about through history so you and I would see this gospel, would see this good news of His great and glorious salvation and how He has worked through history to bring Jesus Christ into this world to live a life that we could not live, to die a death that we should have died, and in doing so incurring the wrath of a holy God against sin in our place—and then rising from dead to give us back the life that God created us to have. And this is the message of salvation for you today. And our prayer is that if you’ve never repented of your sins and placed your faith in Jesus Christ, that today would be the day. Because that is the primary reason this passage of Scripture is in the Bible.
The Thread of Suffering …
Desperation for a son
But there’s another thread. It’s that Thread of Suffering, isn’t it? That thread of a couple who had longed so many years to have a baby, and they couldn’t. And woven through the tapestry of this passage of Scripture is that story. I want you to see how it parallels with the story of salvation. It begins with a desperation for a son. Back there in verse 7, just a stark contrast, Luke writes, “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren.” The Jews considered children to be the heritage of the Lord, and every devout Jewish couple lived with the hope that they would be the ones, that they would be the ones to give birth to the Messiah, the Savior that was to come into the world. Zechariah and Elizabeth had absolutely no hope of having any physical link to the Messiah that would one day come into the world, and it was all compounded because the Bible says both of them were advanced in years. They were beyond the childbearing years. They were desperate for a son and had been a long time.
Prayers for a son
And no doubt their desperation for a son gave way to a lot of prayers for a son as well. That’s where we find Zechariah serving in the temple, having drawn the lot which was the greatest privilege of a priest’s life, to be able to serve in this capacity. And he found himself there inside, burning the incense, and Zechariah was praying inside the Holy Place. The people were praying outside in the Court of Israel. But there was a difference in their prayers. In verse 10, the word used to describe the praying of the people outside during the hour of incense is a word that simply means to ask something, like you’re asking something from God. It’s normally what we think about prayer.
But the word used to describe Zechariah’s prayer, in verse 13 when the angel shows up and says, “Your prayer has been heard; it has been answered,” is a different word. It’s a word that indicates an earnest and an urgent request. There is an emotion, there is a passion, there is an intensity to this word that is used here.
Promise of a son
And when the angel shows up in the midst of Zechariah’s earnest and urgent prayer, he shows up and he gives him a promise of a son. But in the midst of that he calls attention to this distinction between how Zechariah was praying and how the people were praying. The people were outside praying to be delivered. Zechariah was inside praying to be a dad.
Imagine that. Priest of God—of all people we would think would have on his mind first and foremost the things of God, the bigger picture, the agenda of the Almighty. But yet he is so overwhelmed by his own personal burden that he couldn’t think about anything else. Have you ever been in a place, ever been in a place where your own personal hurt was so deep that you really didn’t care about the mission of God?
Assurance of a son
Zechariah gets the promise of a son, but as we noted a moment ago he needs some assurance, and so God gives him that assurance of a son that he pushes back against in verse 18. Looking at his age, looking at his wife’s age, he can’t seem to fathom that. And again in God’s gentle and fatherly discipline through this angel, He speaks to Zechariah and says, “Don’t forget where this message is coming from. I can handle this. I’m going to give you a son. All of these words will be fulfilled in their time.”
Celebration of a son
And this assurance of a son gave way then to the celebration of a son. And we find in verses 57 and 58, when Elizabeth gives birth to this boy and her neighbors and relatives hear what the Lord has done, and they rejoice with her. They celebrate with her.
This Thread of Suffering runs all the way through this passage of Scripture—a couple who had been hurting for a long, long time and were up against some impossible circumstances. If we’re not careful, we find ourselves, don’t we, in similar intersections in our life, separating these two Threads out. A Thread of the lofty story of the great salvation of God, and then the Thread of the earthy story of a couple who had been living with pain for a long time and just wanted to have a baby and they couldn’t.
Isn’t it true, isn’t it true that one of those stories is almost invisible? It’s almost mystical, it seems way out there, and we need an inspired Bible writer to connect the dots for us, to show us what God is doing behind the scenes so we can see that. The other one we’re all too familiar with, aren’t we? Because we see it every day, and things like it. Whether it is barrenness of a womb or rebellious children or financial ruin or the loss of a job or mental illness or—on and on we could go with the stuff of life.
And I think it’s at the intersection of those two things that we try to separate out so often, that we find ourselves at the greatest crises of faith that we ever face. And in the midst of those crises of faith, we find the opportunity to either redeem our suffering for the glory of God by understanding how it is woven in with God’s larger picture, or to keep the two separate and allow our suffering to plunge ourselves into the depths of fear and self-pity and depression.
Living in the fabric of faith …
So what I want to do is I want to make six applications for us at those points of crisis of faith, six applications to living in this fabric of faith that would help us I believe from Zechariah and Elizabeth’s journey to do the former—to redeem our times of suffering for the glory of God and for the advancement of His Kingdom. So here they are.
Don’t expect a pass on suffering for living right.
One, don’t expect a pass on suffering for living right. Did you notice when this story opens, that we find two pretty good people in Zechariah and Elizabeth? I mean, think about this, okay? Every male child born into the tribe, the family, of Aaron is automatically a priest, okay? And every priest was commanded to marry only a Hebrew woman. But Zechariah one-ups that. He doesn’t just marry a Hebrew woman. He marries a daughter of a priest. He’s a priest; he marries a daughter of a priest. I identify with this guy, because I’m a preacher and I married the daughter of a preacher—like that, except for the fact that she swore growing up she would never marry a preacher. Didn’t want any part of that deal. I hope that’s changed. We’ll leave that for another day, okay?
But this is Zechariah. I mean, he’s married to the daughter of a priest, and besides that, both he and Elizabeth have good biblical names. They’ve got good spiritual names. I mean, Zechariah means “Jehovah remembers,” and Elizabeth means, “the oath of God.” I’m always intimidated when having conversations with people who’ve named all their kids with good biblical names. You know, “What are your kids’ names?” Well, Elijah, and Moses. And what are your kids’ names?” Clint, Shane, Dallas—it’s like we were watching a Western movie marathon when they were all…you know.
Good names. Because their mamas and daddies understood that God had promised this Redeemer to come, and they named their children as a testimony to that promise that God would bring. And then you’ve got this commentary in verse six, “They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” I mean, these folks were squeaky clean. But then verse seven begins with “but.” “But they had no child.” Elizabeth was barren, and they were both beyond physical ability to even have children.
Living right didn’t give Elizabeth and didn’t give Zechariah a “Get-out-of-jail-free” card when it came to suffering. And we don’t get that card either. It’s important for us in the midst of our suffering to understand this; that suffering doesn’t all the time come to really bad people. In fact, oftentimes it comes by the sovereign grace of God in order to be woven into the tapestry of His larger agenda for His glory and the accomplishment of His purposes. And we need to remember that reality.
Look for God’s redemptive plan in your suffering.
Two, look for God’s redemptive plan in your suffering. Now, the operative word here is “look.” We’ve already alluded to the fact that sometimes in the midst of our suffering, when we’re in those personal wildernesses, the easiest thing to lose sight of is the larger picture. Sometimes we don’t even want to hear about it. We don’t want to come to this place and hear a preacher talk about the global mission, or read it in the worship guide, and when we think if one more time in our small group we hear about being “on mission for God locally and globally,” that we’re just going to have to run out of the room. We know that some of the hardest places to see clearly the larger agenda of God is when we’re in these personal wildernesses.
So Zechariah’s been praying for years, as his wife Elizabeth has. Apparently still praying, but maybe praying with a little less faith and maybe praying out of routine because it’s just been on their prayer list for a long time now. So they just keep praying it, but maybe not really believing that it’s going to happen. And all of a sudden this angel shows up and says it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. God may not give you a visit from an angel, but I believe with all my heart that He gives us glimpses at the very least if we’ll look for them.
If we’ll look for ways consciously, proactively, intentionally in the midst of our suffering, being a people by faith, even if we don’t feel it, we don’t feel it in the midst of our suffering, but because we read this Bible and we know how the dots are connected and we see God’s larger plan—if by faith that we ask Him to show it to us—we process our suffering, just looking to see how maybe our little world and the suffering that’s going on in it is actually connected to the larger plan of God. Sometimes God will show you that clearly, sometimes He may not. But I think if we are purposeful about looking for it, at the very least we have the reminder that our story is His story, and His story is our story. Look for it intentionally. Pray for it. Look to see how God’s larger plan of redemption might be connected to your journey.
Don’t expect God’s ways to always make sense.
Three, don’t expect God’s ways to always make sense. Probably the place we’re most susceptible to a train wreck of faith in the midst of our suffering—and especially when God is trying to speak to us in the midst of our suffering through His Word and taking it and applying it to our lives, or maybe through godly counsel that He’s giving to us through other believers—the place we’re most susceptible sometimes is trying to rationalize His words, trying to rationalize what He’s saying through the lens of the way that we operate in this world. Zechariah pushed back against this, didn’t he? He’s looking and saying to the angel, “Gabriel, you’ve seen how old I am. You see this body. My wife is the same way.”
By the way, guys, there’s some great wisdom there in verse 18 when he’s conversing with the angel and says, “I’m an old man—my wife is advanced in years.” Just a side note, I won’t charge you anything extra for that, but remember, that is a great way to describe your age and your wife’s age, all right? You’re old, she’s just advanced in years. All right?
So he pushes back. He pushes back a little bit, and he pushes back because he’s trying to see, trying to filter this promise of a son and a promise of salvation, through the lens of the natural laws that he’s living with. And you know what? One of the worst things that we can do as a people of faith—we know this—is try to rationalize what God is doing through the laws of our universe. Sometimes God chooses to break those laws physically with miraculous things and miraculous healings and opening up a womb and bringing deliverance that could come from nowhere else but heaven.
But sometimes He chooses to work in the midst of our suffering in what appears to be a twisted economy that He always works with, and that is showing His strength through our weakness. Isn’t that what God always does? It’s why He chose David to be a king—the smallest, youngest of the sons of Jesse. It’s why He told Samuel, “Don’t look at his stature, because I’ve refused him, for the Lord doesn’t look and see as man sees. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” It’s what He said about the Proverbs 31 woman: “charm is deceitful, beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. She has the favor of God.”
Jesus steps on the scene and He seems to rewrite the rulebook, and says, “If you want to be a leader you’ve got to be a servant, right? If you want to live, you’ve got to die. If you want to gain your life you’ve got to lose it. If you want to be first, you’ve got to be last.” It’s why the Apostle Paul would talk about the cross like he did, and why God chose a foolish means of a cross to be the means of salvation. It’s why he said we have this gospel, this treasure, in earthen vessels. He said, so that the excellency might be in God and not in us.
This is why, when he prayed for his thorn in the flesh, his suffering to go away at the end of 2 Corinthians, three times he prayed that it might be removed. But Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you. You know why, Paul? Because My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” So the Apostle says, “Whoa. Most gladly—bring it on—most gladly will I rejoice in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The Apostle Paul said, “If that’s God’s economy, if He shows Himself strong through my weakness, then bring my weakness on.”
And when you and I are always trying to rationalize what God is doing, what He is saying, how He’s directing us and we’re trying to filter that through the rules by which everybody else in this world plays, by the laws of this universe—they don’t add up sometimes. And it’s important for us in the heat of the moment to rest in the fact that we don’t have to expect them to, because He’s God and we’re not, right?
Rejoice in God’s mercy more than your blessing.
Four, rejoice in God’s mercy more than in your blessing. We take our cue from Elizabeth here. Did you notice in verse 24 that it says after she got pregnant “for five months she kept herself hidden.” Ladies, what’s the first thing you do when you find out you’re pregnant? I mean, you blow up Twitter with way more than 140 characters on every tweet, telling everybody you can. You change your profile photo on Facebook to a black and white of your sonogram. You tell everybody, right? I mean, you want everybody to know! Not Elizabeth. Why? Well, you know, we’re tempted at that point to say, “Well. I mean, after all, the picture of an 80-year-old woman in maternity clothes is not a pretty picture.” But that couldn’t be it, because this is the season—these first five months—when she wouldn’t be showing very much. Why?
Well, I think how this verse connects with the next verse holds the answer. Do you see it? She kept herself hidden, saying—in other words, here’s the reason—“Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” You see, childlessness was considered to be a curse from God among the Jews. Their rabbis actually had a list of seven people who were excluded from God, and the list started this way: a Jew who does not have a wife, or a Jew that has a wife and has no children. A barren womb was grounds for divorce among the Jews.
Elizabeth had been a reproach to all the people that knew her, her entire marriage. No doubt ridiculed and criticized by many, maybe to her face, certainly in the off-line conversations with the girls. And now, now all of a sudden, all of that stops. All of that goes away, because she gets the baby that she had prayed for, that she had longed for. And yet for five months she doesn’t tell anybody. But she retreats into the solitude of personal worship with her God who is the One who gave her this great blessing. And for five months she just loves on Him.
It may seem like a small thing, but come in here real close. I suggest to you it’s not. God doesn’t always answer our prayer to be relieved from suffering. Sometimes a childless couple doesn’t get a baby. Sometimes people lose their lives for the sake of the gospel. But sometimes God answers our prayer, doesn’t He? And when He does answer our prayer, it would serve us well in finding the joy of giving our first attention to the mercy of the Blesser instead of the miracle of our blessing. It seems like a small thing, but something that draws us to the Father and brings us into communion with Him—in the context of which we are more than likely to have a clearer picture of how our suffering is connected to His larger plan.
Refuse to compromise obedience to God’s words.
Five, refuse to compromise obedience to God’s Word. Now, Zechariah didn’t do this at first, did he? That in and of itself is an encouragement to me, when we see biblical characters in their humanity, their faults. He pushed back, rationalizing it, and trying to figure out how this could be, and he couldn’t see it in the natural laws of the universe. And God in His grace and His mercy gave him gently this discipline to confirm to him the assurance that these words were true. And then Zechariah learns from the discipline of his Father and he shines.
When this baby shows up, Elizabeth and he both manifested a refusal to compromise one iota when the baby was born. No doubt Zechariah had communicated by written form to Elizabeth what the baby’s name was going to be. She takes the stand in verse 60, when her relatives and friends are pushing back, “No, he shall be called John.” And the Zechariah does the same things. When they ask him, “What do you want him to be called?” and he writes it on a tablet. He refuses to budge one inch. In the language of the New Testament, the word “John,” the name “John,” is at the front of the sentence in the emphatic form. He wrote on the tablet, “John is his name.”
“God is gracious,” is what that word “John” means. Connected back to the graciousness of God was giving and removing this stigma that this couple had. It looked forward to the very reason that this baby was going to be born, and that was to announce the coming of the One who Himself was the very gracious gift from God. And Zechariah said, “There’s no negotiation here. No discussion.” And at that point, his tongue was loosed and he was able to praise God.
I look at that and I know in my own life, I’m sure it’s the same with yours, I find myself—I find myself in the midst of the heat, the suffering, when I’ve taken these two Threads and I’ve pulled them apart, looking at them separately and distinctly—I find obedience to be the greatest challenge when the heat is on. I mean, you think about what was tempting Elizabeth and Zechariah to name this baby something else. There was family pride, there was peer pressure, there was tradition, there were cultural influences—all of those things and more—sentimentality.
And I look at all of those things, and those are the things that cause me many times to rationalize obedience to God in the midst of suffering. His Word is clear. What He’s saying—what His Spirit is prompting my spirit to do—is in black and white. I know what’s right in my head, but it doesn’t make sense and I don’t feel it, and so I look at all of these things. I look at tradition and I look at culture and I look at sentimentality and I look at family influences, and so many more things, and find myself so often saying, “Well, you know what? God didn’t see this coming. My situation and circumstance is different. I need to fix this on my own and do it the way I think it needs to be done.”
I got an email from a friend this week, a friend—don’t know him, call him a friend, not a member of our church I discovered—but was pointing out a sin in another professing Christian who he thought was a member of our congregation, and came to realize he wasn’t. Just totally disconnected from our faith family. But in his email he was calling attention to this friend’s sin so we might do something about it.
So I wrote back and I said, “Thank you for being concerned. We’re concerned about things like this. Here’s what the Bible says we need to do.” And I outlined the process of restoration which began with him going to this individual and calling him to repentance, and then if he didn’t adhere, taking another individual to him and exercising gentle restoration through that. And then, I said, “If that doesn’t work, then we’ll come into the picture and help with that process.”
I got a response back delineating all the reasons why this situation would not allow him to do that, that he could not be obedient to that because of these circumstances of the situation. And as I read that email, I had two thoughts. One was, as I looked at all of his reasons, they weren’t any different than any other Christian has ever given me for not wanting to be a part of the restoration process. But the second thought I had is, “That’s me. That’s the way I do it with God.” I find every reason to have a better idea than what His Word says.
And beloved, here’s what I want you to see. Obedience is always right and obedience is one of the things that helps us to see in the midst of our suffering—uncompromising, unwavering obedience to God’s words to us with regard to what He wants us to believe, and what He wants us to do—obedience to that without wavering is always one of the things that helps us see the connection between the thread of salvation and the thread of our suffering woven together.
Refuse to compromise what God’s telling you as you read His Word right now—those of you that are in the midst of wildernesses right now and hear God’s Word being spoken to you, and reading God’s Word and seeing clear direction on how certain things are supposed to be done and how we’re supposed to act—refuse to compromise, and say yes to the One who knows best. Because in the midst of our obedience we find the most potent ground for seeing how these things come together.
Connect the dots for others by celebrating God’s salvation.
Six, connect the dots for others by celebrating God’s salvation. While you’re in this season, while you’re in this journey—before, during and after, if there’s an after, that God delivers you from it—connect the dots for people so they can see God’s great salvation. Elizabeth and Zechariah did this, didn’t they? Elizabeth apparently with her solitude of worship of God for five months inspired—notice in verse 58—neighbors and relatives, because when they heard that the Lord had done this and showed her great mercy, they rejoiced. They rejoiced over God’s mercy as well. We see them both—their friends and family—seeing them in unwavering obedience with regard to naming this child, and when they do, then Zechariah’s tongue is loosed and he worships God.
And at the end of verse 63 it says, “They all wondered.” They sat up and they were curious—what’s behind this? They didn’t see it all clearly, but Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faithfulness was causing them to say, “There’s something here that I need to pay attention to.” And then after he blesses God, look at verse 65, “And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’” We’re going to track with this child, because something’s going on here.
What would it look like for our friends and family members and neighbors and co-workers and fellow students—what would the conversations be like if they observed us in the midst of suffering and in the midst of God’s activity in our suffering, if they observed us not arguing with God, they observed us not compromising obedience to His will, and they observed us all along the way at least making an effort by the grace of God to connect our journeys to His nature and His character and His larger purposes? What would their responses be?
We talk a lot about sowing gospel threads here at Brook Hills through the conversations of everyday life. Beloved, listen. There is no more potent time to sow gospel threads than in the midst of our suffering, because that is what they are contrasted so with what’s going on in this life. And it’s when we have the greatest chance to help people to see God’s glorious salvation.
So we’re not living two stories while we live out our days on this planet. Our Christianity story, in which we go to church and give our money, and we share the gospel with people and we wait for Jesus to return from heaven. And then our real-life story of trying to navigate families and jobs and finances and health and all the ups and downs that go along with them. No. We’re living one story in which these are woven together in the tapestry of the divine King who serves as the Maestro of Heaven that weaves them together into this fabric of our lives for the advancement of His Kingdom and the glory of His name.