November 30, 2014
I don’t know what your circumstances are, but I know you have circumstances. We all have circumstances. We have extenuating circumstances, complicated circumstances, sad circumstances, impossible circumstances, special circumstances. We all have circumstances.
Perhaps for most of us our circumstances are not overwhelming and may even be good. Or maybe our difficult circumstances might be confined to a specific area of life, like work or school. So far we are managing.
In many ways that’s what life is. It is managing circumstances. In Lk.1 we see that Zechariah and Elizabeth were managing their circumstances. They were childless. And on this first Sunday in Advent, as we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christ’s birth I want to encourage us by saying that God is working his good plans through the circumstances of a believer’s life.
I. WE ARE OFTEN PERPLEXED BY OUR CIRCUMSTANCES. Lk.1:5-7
It’s interesting to note that Zechariah’s name means, “Yahweh has remembered again.” Being a priest, Zechariah would have served at the temple for two one week periods every year. There were many priests and so the privilege of offering incense was determined by casting lots. A priest could offer incense in the temple only once in his life. The lot fell to Zechariah. It was the greatest moment in his ministry.
We learn that his wife, Elizabeth was also from the priestly line of Aaron. What is more, we are told that this couple was righteous before God. They walked blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Now this doesn’t mean they were sinless. No one is sinless except for Jesus. What it means is that Zechariah and Elizabeth were known for their consistent, faithful life of obedience to the Lord and his commands. They were exemplary in their living.
But the very next bit of information we are given didn’t fit in the minds of many. They had no children. In fact Elizabeth was barren. This had been a lifelong condition for now they were well advanced in years. Bearing children was so important in that culture and still is in many cultures today. In fact, even in our own culture, where having children is optional, there are women who feel like failures if they can’t have children. Back in Gen.30:1-2, we learn that when Rachael saw that she could not bear children while her sister Leah was bearing multiple children, she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” And Jacob responded by saying, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb.”
You see, there was and continues to be a way of thinking that says, “God’s blessing rests upon those who obey and serve him.” So why did God withhold children from Elizabeth? Since Elizabeth didn’t have any children, something wasn’t right. Have you ever felt this way? I can remember more than once in my life thinking to myself, “Why am I having such a hard time? I’m reading my bible and praying. I’m going to church. I’m trying to live an obedient life. Why is God not blessing my efforts? Is there sin in my life?”
But wait. The thoughts and ways of God are not like the thoughts and ways of men and women. There is nothing in this text that indicates that Elizabeth’s barrenness was a result of her sinful ways. And we must always be careful when we make judgments about a person based upon their circumstances. In Jn.9 there was a man blind from birth, and the disciples asked Jesus who had sinned. Had the man sinned, or his parents? They assumed that his blindness was a result of sin. Now is that possible? Well, I’m reminded that in Acts 13 on the island of Cyprus there was a Jewish false prophet named Elymas who opposed Paul as he was speaking the gospel to the Proconsul named Sergius Paulus. “Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” The sin of Elymas resulted in his temporary blindness. But Jesus said that the blindness of the blind man was not a result of sin but had happened so that the glory of God could be revealed in his life. God does punish sin. But that does not give us authority to determine what is a punishment and what is the good hand of God working in our circumstances.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had lived many years with the disappointment of being childless. Did it cause them to turn away from God? No. They had put their faith in God. They entrusted their lives to God, believing that God does all things well. Committed followers of Christ do not evaluate the goodness of God on the basis of their circumstances. Nor do they assume that there must be sin in their lives. As they search their hearts, if there is sin they confess it and move on. We are often perplexed by our circumstances.
II. GOD ALWAYS WORKS IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES. Lk.1:8-17
Here is the greatest moment of Zechariah’s ministry career. Little did he know that it would be one of the most fulfilling moments of his life. He had never seen an angel before, let alone Gabriel, who actually stood in the presence of God. Like most people who see an angel, he was afraid. Maybe he thought, “Uh-oh, what did I do.”
It turns out, he had done nothing. His prayers were going to be answered. Which prayers? The prayers for a child! My sense is that Zechariah and Elizabeth had stopped praying for a child a long time ago. They were old. Look at that. Some prayers that we may have stopped praying about might be on hold with God.
Instructions were clearly given. They were to name the son, John. He was not to drink wine or strong drink. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. And he would go before the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, preparing the hearts of many to return to the Lord. How astounding! But do you know what I like? I like v.14. “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” Does God care about our joy and gladness? He surely does. He is a good God. In fact, God is the most joyful being and to know God is to enter into his joy.
Now the point I want to make is that whenever God works in our lives, he works in and with our present circumstances. Rarely does God just change our circumstances. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been disappointed for a long time. They lived with disappointment. God takes our disappointments and uses them to help us deepen in our faith. James tells us that trials produce patience. Paul tells us that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character, hope. If we are always trying to escape the difficult circumstances that come into our lives we may miss what God is doing or wants to do in our lives.
III. WE OFTEN STRUGGLE TO BELIEVE GOD. Lk.1:18-23
Now how would you have responded? I mean, sometimes I think, “Wow, if an angel appeared and spoke to me I would surely believe it.” But maybe not. Unbelief is never very far away from us. And one of the reasons why we struggle with unbelief is because our circumstances and situations seem to be more real, more tangible than God’s promises.
Consider Zechariah. He heard this wonderful news from Gabriel who actually stands in the presence of God but couldn’t believe what Gabriel said. Why? It was because of his age and Elizabeth’s barrenness. You know if an angel told me that the next time I play hockey I will skate as fast as the 20 year olds I’m playing against, I might feel that I have cause for doubt. “What? Are you kidding me? I’m 61 years old. It is physically impossible for me to skate as fast as a 20 year old.” I can just imagine what Zechariah must have been thinking. “What? Are you kidding me? I’m an old man. It’s not like it used to be! Elizabeth is barren.” Surely we can relate to Zechariah.
Just take God’s promise in Phil.4:19 which says, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” This verse is in a context in which Paul says that he had learned how to be content in whatever situation he was facing. He wrote, “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And what is that secret? He continues, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” A few verses later he says, “My God will supply all of your needs.”
But we have trouble believing this. Many a Christian has married a non-Christian because they looked only at their circumstances and doubted that God would provide. Many a Christian has caved into pressure at work to falsify a report or withhold information because they doubted that God would help them. Many a Christian academic has remained silent about their faith for fear of losing their position instead of trusting God to provide for their needs. Many a Christian has been stingy in their giving to the Lord and his work, because at the end of the day, they do not believe that God will provide. There are Christians who because of their circumstances have lost faith in the promises of God. The Christian life is a matter of faith in God who is faithful.
Do you know what made Abraham so great? In obedience he was ready to sacrifice his son, Isaac because he reasoned that God could raise the dead. Who reasons like that? Someone who is trusting in God. Abraham had his eyes fixed on God and not his circumstances. Now God will never ask you to physically sacrifice your son or daughter. But in living a life of faith we must learn to be patient and content while we wait upon the Lord and seek his provision.
Zechariah was asking for a sign because of his unbelief. God is not averse to giving signs, but he gives them as he wills and not at every request. He gave Mary a sign. He gave Zechariah a sign, but that sign was directly tied to his unbelief. Zechariah would be deaf and mute until the baby was born.
IV. GOD IS ALWAYS FAITHFUL TO HIS WORD. Lk1:24-25; 57-66
What Zechariah found difficult to believe, Elizabeth embraced wholeheartedly with great joy and thanksgiving, especially when she became pregnant. And in due time their baby was born. God was indeed, faithful to his word.
Now, of course, I realize that the birth of John the Baptist was a bit unusual. Angelic appearances are not common. The births of John and Jesus were somewhat intertwined. And God saw fit to reveal this to us. In fact God has revealed many events that occurred in the past in order to encourage and instruct our faith in the present. One of the reasons why we regularly read the Bible is to help us see what God is like. And we see that God is faithful. Paul says that we live by faith, not by sight.
This truth is one that we must constantly be reminded of because circumstances beyond our control are occurring every day. O God saw us through back when we had surgery, but now my car is on the blink and I don’t have the money for a new one. Will God see me through in this circumstance? He surely will, but not always as we want him to. I mean, God could do a flat out miracle in your situation. But He might also help you see that the way you are dealing with the circumstances is not constructive. He might bring someone into your life who can advise you on what you need to do. As you wait upon the Lord in prayer he might lead you in your thinking regarding your next step. God’s provision may not be up to your expectations and standard of living, but God has not promised to provide a certain standard of living; He has promised to meet our needs.
Notice also that the faithfulness of God is not just for super saints. Zechariah was just a regular priest like so many others. He and Elizabeth were not wealthy. They didn’t have everything going for them. They were not on the top of their game. They were people like you and me. God was faithful to them. God is not impressed by how we look, how successful we are, how clever and winsome we might be. God has regard for the heart. Some of the holiest people in heaven will be people we never knew existed. God is faithful. Right now, God is being faithful to those believers who are languishing in harsh, oppressive prisons and work camps for the name of Christ. God is being faithful to that Christian mother who is struggling to care for her children. God is being faithful to the Christian college student who is experiencing confusion in life. God is being faithful to you.
His word does not change. His promises are true. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” Zechariah and Elizabeth found this to be true. God is always faithful to his word.
Advent is a time of preparing our hearts and waiting for God to act, according to his good word. I can’t say how God is working in your circumstances, but if you know Christ, I am sure that he is working and that he is working for your good and his glory. And whether or not your particular circumstances are resolved today or when we are with the Lord in glory, I know that you will not fall short by trusting in him. God is working his good plans through the circumstances of a believer’s life. Amen.