By Simon ManchesterSunday 24 Aug 2014Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 0 minutes
St Thomas’ Anglican Church
Faithful Yet Disappointed
We are opening the first page of Luke’s Gospel. I’m really glad that we’re doing this,to focus directly on the Lord Jesus. The face of the scriptures is a very wonderful thing. I do like doing an Old Testament Series and we’ve done one not long ago; and I even like,occasionally a topical series. But to be face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ is the best.
Our section today is the first 25 verses and it takes us back to Jesus’ predecessor,or his announcer,his forerunner,John the Baptist and we see of course how his parents came to have a son called John
What we should not be surprised at as we begin this Gospel of Luke and,incidentally next year the Gospel’s of Luke will be given out to our city and so it’s a wonderful thing that we get to work on the Gospel of Luke before next year and know well what it’s about. I hope we’ll keep coming back to the Gospel of Luke and if we have the patience and are crazy enough,we’ll eventually get to the end of the 24 chapters but we’ll intersperse it with other series. But we shouldn’t be surprised as we open the first page of Luke’s Gospel that the whole plan of God to bring a herald who will announce Jesus begins with absolutely nothing. We know that the Old Testament begins with nothing. And the New Testament begins with a couple who are faithful and are old and are childless. There is absolutely no potential for this couple to have the baby who will be the herald and Mary herself is not yet pregnant. So there’s nothing. It’s just a mess. It’s a kind of an emptiness. It’s a disaster. And God is going to have to do the work.
Well,inside the big picture,the personal story is a very real story. This couple are feeling the deprivation. And you can see if you look at Verse 25 that it was a disgrace,the situation they were in,according to the culture of their day. And if it was a disgrace,what disappointment they must have felt.
Now it’s the nature of believing in God,one of the difficulties of believing in God; there are massive,massive blessings,but one of the difficulties of believing in God is that you therefore must experience some disappointment if you wait for God or expect God to do things which you think he ought to do. One of the things about believing in God is that you believe that he’s loving and he’s powerful and he’s for you. And it seems obvious at times,doesn’t it,how he should show his love and his power for us? It’s just so obvious,you know we can see it so clearly we want to tell him,”Just do this” and then it doesn’t happen. And we’re disappointed. We don’t know whether he’s stopped being loving or whether he’s stopped being powerful or he’s stopped being for us. And there’s a part of us in our brain,isn’t there,that says,”look we’ve been doing this and he doesn’t do that’? “We’ve paid this price in the Christian life; he’s not given that reward.” “He’s put us through what we’re going through,even though we’ve done – dot,dot,dot.” “He’s left us with this tremendous difficulty and we just don’t know what to do,even though we’ve been faithful in so many areas.” And there are many here today who have endured very heavy things and do right now endure very heavy things and if we were to interview people one by one and what they have endured as a disciple or what they’re now enduring as a disciple,we would all be in tears. And many of these people just put the grief to the side and keep pressing on like Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Now this passage helps us because it gives us again the very big picture of God. It’s a very reassuring message in Luke 1,but it’s also very humbling as we’ll see in a few minutes.
Who was Luke? Well he was not a disciple. He was not one of the 12 Apostles. He wasn’t even Jewish. The New Testament tells us that he was a doctor,he was a first century companion of Paul on many of his travels,he wrote the Book of Luke,he wrote the book of Acts. And believe it or not,if you add up all the words in Luke and Acts you’ve got more words than any other author in the New Testament – more than Paul. And Luke is increasingly and deeply revered as a first class historian,a five star,six star historian. You see if you look at Verse 1 that many were already writing the events of Christ,because Verse 2,”there were many eyewitnesses”. It’s a great thing there were many eyewitnesses,because you can’t write bad first century documents if you’ve still got eyewitnesses around because they just basically say,’that’s rubbish.’ So early things were checked by eye witnesses and were honest. And In verse 3 Luke has also done his research,enabled by God,as we know from the rest of the New Testament,to write the Gospel and he’s dedicated his particular manuscript to a man called Theophilus. And we don’t know whether Theophilus was a believer or an unbeliever but the book of Luke is good for the believer and the unbeliever. Helps the unbeliever believe and it helps the believer keep believing. And this Gospel is a gift,Verse 4-to give to the reader some certainty. That’s Luke’s aim. He doesn’t want you to be a guesser. He doesn’t want you to have a leap in the dark. He wants you to be certain of the facts in order that you build your faith on the facts. That’s one of the great things about Christianity; it’s a faith with facts. There is reason for the Hope. There’s information for the decision. And all of this is based on the eyewitnesses.
So that’s the introduction. Let’s look at two things from Verses 5,though to Verse 25 and the first is a word to the disappointed
Verses 5-17. There are the personal details in Verses 5-10 and then there is a big picture in Verses 11-17. So we read in Verse 5 that in the days of Herod the Great,this was the man that the Romans put in charge of Judea. He ruled Judea from 37 BC-4AD and during his time of rule there was a priest,among the many priests,whose name was Zechariah. And he was from one the tribes of Israel,the 8th of the 12 tribes. He was married to Elizabeth and she could trace her ancestry to Aaron,the brother of Moses and so she had,they both had very fine spiritual ancestry. And they were upright,Verse 6,and they were obedient. Which doesn’t mean that they were sinless but they were faithful. And yet,they had no children. And they must have known,like Abraham and Sarah,that time for children,was long gone. Now we know the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and John the Baptist,cause we’ve been around church for a while,I guess and we’re not too concerned about whether this son will come,but just think of them going through the decades waiting for the baby,or at least realising that no baby was coming. And they passed the menopause and the baby options are over and so they just go on and to everybody who asks them,”How many children”,”We have no children.” And in that culture the disgrace,the disappointment for them. How did they cope with this? Did they blame God? Did they blame themselves? Well the text,Verse 6,seems to indicate they just went on trusting and obeying. We therefore want to ask the question,why would they go on trusting and obeying God,with no special blessing of family? Did they do this so that God would be obligated,is it sort of more of-we do this,you must do that? We’re going to obey and God; you’re obligated to come good,eventually with the child? Or did they decide that they would outperform God. That they would do their part of being faithful,even if He didn’t do His part of being faithful? Or was it some kind of masochism? Did they say,we’re going to do God’s will,it brings no benefits,there’s nothing in it for us,but it makes us feel good that we’ve been as noble as we’ve been? Now,all of that ‘slot machine’ thinking which operates in most of our minds at some time misses the real point of God’s love,power and purposes. That’s the way the Devil spoke in the Book of Job,where the Devil said to God,you realise why Job is being faithful,he’s being faithful because you’re blessing him? And that’s the way people operate God,don’t you realise that people operate on the basis. That if you do what you’re told,God,they’ll go on doing the pious things? But take away the blessings and Job will curse you. And the faith will die. And God says,let’s do the test. And the blessings are taken away and Job’s faith,up and down,all over the place,remains,because God preserves him. The thinking that God is a sort of slot machine and we put in the piety and He must put in,or bring out the blessings,is the kind of the reinventing of God which is extremely dangerous. It’s the reinventing where we say to God,you’ll be great if you’re great to me,and I’ll tell you how to be great to me,and if you’re great to me,then you’re great. And it blackmails God,doesn’t it,into somebody who we program,rather than people who are privileged to fit into an unbelievably generous program.
So,the question to ask in the face of disappointment,and we’ve heard this before,but we need to hear it again and again,is not always to ask why has this happened,because the answer may not come back to us. God is certainly not obliged to explain everything to us before we keep going. But if the Bible has established for us that God is loving and powerful and wise,and for us,and in a covenant relationship and He has allowed what we’re going through to be happening; the question to ask then is,well if that’s all true how will I respond in a way which honours Him and blesses other people? And if you ask the question,will I lose horrendously by doing that,the answer is that when you ask the question in the face of disappointment,how will I now respond in a way that honours Him,as a huge privilege to honour Him and a great blessing to other people and you yourself are caught up in the integration of God’s purposes for His glory and His purposes,you will be given some measure of peace and joy in that very process.
So the proof that God has got bigger and better plans comes in Verses 8-10. Zechariah is suddenly given an opportunity for a remarkable experience. And in Verse 9 we read that he is chosen by lot,to burn the incense in the temple. Now,if you don’t know the background to this,there are about 18,000 priests associated with the temple in Jerusalem and believe it or not,this may not excite you but the greatest privilege for a priest in his whole lifetime would be to go into the Holy place and to be able to offer the incense on the altar. Not the animal sacrifice,that was done by the High Priest,but to offer the incense,which was a symbol of the prayers of God’s people going up to God. And then you would emerge from the Temple and you would pronounce the blessing of God on the people. Something like Number 6,that famous aaronic blessing in number 6,which says something like,the Lord bless you and keep you,the Lord make His face to shine upon you. And that would be the real high point for the priest in Zechariah’s day,in the Jewish work possibilities – to go into the Temple and to offer the incense and then emerge to bless the people. Most priests of course never got to do it,never even dreamed that they would do it. And they were chosen by lot,which wasn’t a piece of gambling,it was a piece of trust in God,because they knew from Proverbs 16,that God runs the lot and the toss of a coin is up to Him. So Zechariah is chosen,it’s remarkable,Verse 9. And on top of this privilege in the temple he goes in and there is somebody waiting to give him news of a son to be born. So better than all of the Old Testament ritual is the fact that God is about to do a whole New Testament Gospel. And there’s Zechariah in the Temple,it’s the greatest day of his life and God had said in the last book of the Old Testament,in the Book of Malachi that he would come to his temple suddenly and he would send his prophet and there is God,by his messenger,an angel in the temple,bringing the message of a son. If you’re a supernaturalist of course,you don’t have any trouble with angels,you know that God made the world,the universe and everything that we can’t see. If you’re a naturalist,you’ll struggle with what to do with this angel. But there is an angel and the angel terrifies Zechariah. The angel is not cute and harmless,but frightening. Nevertheless,the angel tells Zechariah,Verse 13,that his prayer has been heard and he will have a son.
Now I wonder what prayer this was that is being answered by this angel. Do you think that Zechariah went into the temple and as he was offering the incense prayed and said,Lord give us a son,I know we’re old,but you can do it,give us a son? I think it’s unlikely that given the significance of what he was doing that he was so self preoccupied. Or was Zechariah in the temple praying something incredibly pious and impressive like,Lord keep your promises,the promises you made through the prophet Malachi 400 years ago; send the Messiah,revive your people. Again,I think that seems unlikely,especially given verse 13 tells us that the Angel is announcing the answer to the prayer and the answer to the prayer is a child. So I’m thinking that this prayer that the angel brings an answer to is a very old prayer. It must have been prayed,maybe decades ago. I’m sure that Zechariah and Elizabeth would remember having prayed for children. I wonder now whether they had stopped praying for children? But God remembers what they prayed years or decades before because,as the Puritans used to say,prayers like angels are deathless. And there is this prayer lodged in God’s head and now being wonderfully answered in God’s perfect timing. And he’s going to do the whole thing from nothing. Remember this couple were incapable. He’s going to bring the messenger,John,from this couple who couldn’t produce a child even if they wanted to. And this boy,John – Verse 15,is going to be great in the sight of the Lord. And he’s going to bring many people of Israel back to the Lord. It looks like a mistake doesn’t it. It looks like it should say,and he’s going to bring many people who are not Israel to the Lord. But it says he’s going to bring people of Israel to the lord. He’s going to bring the chosen people who are spiritually dead to the Lord. He’ going to bring the people who are into ritual and culture and think of themselves as being the Chosen People,but don’t know God-to God. He’s going to bring Anglicans and make them Christians – what a blessing that is.
One of the people from Christianity Explained put on their sheet,I praise God for this; a man in his maybe late 60’s,and he circled on the sheet,I came religious,I am now a new Christian. What a wonderful shift. God is the only one who can do that. And that is what he says he is going to do through John the Baptist. John the Baptist is going to be so used by God that he will actually turn people who are religious into believers,outward Israel inward change. What a wonderful job. And Verse 17,transform relationships,fathers to children and the rest of the quote from Malachi,children to fathers. And again Verse 17,He’s going to make the disobedient seek righteousness. Well,what a wonderful thing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get people who are addicted to disobedience to just drop it and move to righteousness. God can do that. And Zechariah and Elizabeth couldn’t have come up with this plan or prayer if their life depended on it. They wanted a son,nothing on this scale. And all the years of waiting,that seemed so wrong and all the years of waiting that seemed that God may not have cared,don’t add up to the blessing that God now is going to do. Not just their family,but families all round the world are going to be blessed. Now I don’t want you to think that you can read this section and say,well that’s what God must do. God must make all things well a little way down the track. Maybe this year,maybe next year. Everything will just work out fine. We know from the Book of Hebrews in Chapter 11 that many of the believers in Hebrews 11 looked beyond the world for the real restitution and the real answers and the real fulfilment. But just notice from this story that God is working to a much bigger blueprint than we ever do. And when we take our personal struggle,personal disappointment and put it into the middle of His great framework we can be absolutely sure He is doing things,wanting things,planning things,arranging things which we could never possibly have come up with. Just to be part of that framework is a privilege. And therefore to press on,to seek to honour Him and to be a blessing to others and to ask for His peace and joy in the short term,knowing that in the long term,whether it’s this world or the next,He’ll make full restitution. It’s one of the great privileges of being a Christian.
There’s the word to the disappointed.
Second a warning to the disappointed,Verses 18-25. Very strange incident isn’t it? Zechariah is a faithful man,he’s in the temple that’s extraordinary,he’s faced with an angel,that’s unbelievable and he is being told something which is more terrific than he could ever have thought up and he doesn’t believe it. Look at Verse 18. Zechariah asked the angel,how can I be sure of this,I’m an old man and my wife is well along in years. The angel answered,I am Gabriel,I stand in the presence of God and I’ve been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news and now you’ll 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.
I hope you know that in the scriptures there are many people who doubt the message of God. It’s very encouraging for us,because we’re good doubters ourselves. But there is a difference between doubting,which actually credits God with being able to do it and just says,could you explain how you do it. Mary’s a good example of this in the following verses,she’ll be told that she’s about to have a baby,but she’s a virgin and she basically says,you know,I’m sure you can do this,but I don’t know how virgins have children could you please explain. And the answer comes back the Holy Spirit will overshadow you and you’ll have this son. And there is a difference you see,between saying to God,I trust you but I don’t understand and Zechariah which is basically saying to God,I don’t think you can do this. He discredits God. He says I doubt this; I need some proof of this. And in asking for a sign or a proof,he gets a sign,but it is a tough sign,it’s a discipline. He’s going to be unable to speak for 9 months. Speechless. Everyday he will remember that he did not trust the speech of God. You’ll notice that Gabriel doesn’t say you should believe me because I’m an angel. Gabriel says you should believe me because I’ve stood in the presence of God. I’ve brought you His message. And Zechariah doesn’t believe the speech and therefore he loses his speech. And when he comes out he cannot bless the people waiting outside. He looks as though,in Verse 67,he may even have been deaf as well because their making signs to him. Elizabeth has to hide for the next five months until the bump is obvious because they just can’t explain things,he can’t explain what’s happened properly and she can’t understand what’s happened properly and basically they are wordless
Now I want you to,as we come to the finish this morning,not to miss the big picture of what’s going on. Don’t get too bogged down in the personal incident,although the personal incident is wonderful. It’s true that Zechariah has this embarrassing wait for the baby until it’s born,but friends,think just in this last minute or two,what is Luke wanting us to know as we read the first 25 verses of Luke’s Gospel? And this is the big issue. The big issue is that somebody like Zechariah is capable of the most remarkable unbelief. In fact,Zechariah is pretty well incapable of belief. Elizabeth s incapable of a pregnancy and Zechariah is incapable of believing. That’s what God is working with as we start Luke’s gospel. They are both if I might put it as kindly as I can,useless,they are dead useless. Don’t you find that encouraging? I mean they’re a fine couple,Verse 6; they’re outwardly a fine couple. And God brings them into his purposes,but look at what God is working with. Zechariah and Elizabeth they couldn’t save anybody could they? They can’t even save themselves; they are never going to save the world. They’re no solution to the future. Only God is able to bring life from death and He gives to Elizabeth a pregnancy and He gives to Elizabeth and Zechariah promises and belief. They need,in the words of Verse 17,spirit and power.
So we need in a way to see the failure,Verse 18,when Zechariah doesn’t believe,because then we realise what Zechariah and Elizabeth are really made of. And when we see what Zechariah and Elizabeth are really made of and we see a little bit of what we’re made of because we’re capable of that dreadful unbelief ourselves we begin to realise that God is the one who’s absolutely,sensationally able and will do what we’re not able to do. Religion will not save or convert anybody. Uprightness does not change the heart. You can come to church every week,every month,every year,you can join every roster,you can do every piece of ritual your heart will never be changed unless God turns you to Jesus and you put your trust in Him and say,would you change my heart and would you be my Saviour and would you be my Lord and then there is a new life,Eternal Life that begins. But belief,self belief is useless. It’s only God who can bring it. And His plans and His power and His kindness and His mercy are so wonderful. He can take a helpless person,a serial doubter,a serious disappointment and use them to bless thousands. And that’s the frightening thing isn’t it,as we finish on this subject of disappointment. It is possible for us to be disappointed with God and need to change our framework,but it is very really possible,isn’t it for us to be a disappointment to God because despite all the promises and all the encouragements and all the privileges,we can turn away and we can be unbelieving in a second. And still God,in his mercy works on people like us to make us believe and have Eternal Life. And He keeps brining us back and He keeps bringing us back to repentance and back to faith and back to usefulness,because in the end the whole mission hangs on Him and His mercy and His goodness. He takes Zechariah and Elizabeth and does a great work,He takes Israel,changes thousands. He takes the church,uses people like you and me. Why does he do that? Because of Jesus. Because Jesus died He gives new life. It’s His mercy. And that’s why Paul says in Ephesians,as we close,to Him who’s able to do more than we could ask or imagine,be glory,forever and ever. And as you look at the things that are on your plate for this week,remember God’s work with Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Let’s pray,lets bow our heads. Our Heavenly Father,we bow before you this morning to acknowledge your greatness and your mercy,with nothing humanly to work with and out of this nothingness and even unbelief,you have worked something so wonderful. A son for this couple,a messenger for the Messiah. And through your ongoing purposes,a Gospel for the world of reconciliation and Eternal Life. We thank you that you are so gracious as to take people like us,with nothing to offer and that you give to us everything,in order that we might be not only be your people,but useful. And we ask that as we seek to serve You and walk with all the things that we don’t know,and all the things we don’t understand,we pray that You would help us to keep crediting You with mercy,grace,power,faithfulness,sovereign plans and that we might therefore be a witness to You. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.