1. Luke has been called the writer who most presents Jesus through the eyes of women and the Gospel starts from the beginning with two women – Elizabeth and Mary. Not just two women but women in very difficult circumstances. One with no child late in life and the other with a child early in life but unmarried.
There are several miracles in the Bible related to a woman not having a child. Sarah and Abraham, Rachel and Jacob, Rebekah and Isaac, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, Samson’s mother, and the Shunammite woman and her elderly husband. To be without a child is not only to be without a family or security for the future. It is, as in the case of Elizabeth and others, a disgrace and a reproach.
They are stories about living with no purpose, unanswered prayer, dark doubt, disappointment in God, humiliation and a life that might as well be over. It is a condition of a particular kind of barrenness – an emptiness that is just as real as childlessness. It is far deeper than not bearing a child. It is about not having worth as a person.
It’s a particular kind of disgrace in that it is not just a personal disappointment. It is a public disgrace that makes people uncomfortable around you. The word here is “oneidos” and it is the word for character or reputation. It means what one is known for and not just a particular physical condition. It is disgrace that includes gossip, innuendo, knowing looks, suspicion, and exclusion – especially in a time when God was the source of all blessing and reproach. It was not simply the inability to have a child. It was a public failure of character. Stories of infertility in Scripture are not just about waiting to have a child but about everything else in life. It meant there was something about you that was hidden and displeasing to God even if your life looked perfect from the outside. It was an unusual husband who could be empathetic or supportive with a barren wife.
As is often the case, what God sees and what others see is different. In fact, what God sees and what we see about ourselves is sometimes at odds. Even in our mistakes and sins. I remember hearing for the first time that the word “confession” means to agree with God and say the same thing He says about our sin. No more and no less. The Scripture describes Elizabeth and Zechariah as upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But that is not how Elizabeth sees herself, is it? She feels disgraced in spite of how God sees her.
There is a difference between shame and guilt. Shame is far more powerful.
Guilt is a sense of personal responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, or wrong, whether real or imagined. It is the sense of having done something wrong.
Guilt is about something bad I have done. Shame is about being bad as a person. Guilt is accepting responsibility while shame is accepting what you believe other people think of you.
Carl Jung said, “Shame is a soul eating emotion.” Appropriate guilt can lead to repentance but shame destroys a person in time.
Elizabeth clearly had not done anything bad and did not feel guilty. But, like Rachel, Rebekah, and Hannah she did feel like a bad person and it was that shame and disgrace that haunted her.
What are our reproaches that affect our relationships and reputation and weigh us down – that make us feel defeated like Hannah in 1 Samuel 1: miserable, great anguish and grief. They are not things we can change about our lives but things that can only be changed by God. How do we live with those?
I thought about that when I read the story of an acquaintance years ago – Dr. Ed Dobson. I wish Steve and Debbie were here to tell the story because Andrew lived with Ed while he was in seminary.
When Ed Dobson was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, he thought his life was over.
Given only two to five more years to live, the former mega church pastor, who fully understood the disease’s degenerative symptoms, began to slowly give up on his life, which was once busy and populated, opting instead to isolate himself in bed. That is, until one day God spoke to him in a high pitched New York accent.
More specifically, God used his friend Billy, the actual one with the accent, to speak to him and wake him up from his depression.
“[Billy] said, ‘Ay, you need to be a Yogi Berra Christian,’”
“I have no clue what he’s talking about … so I ask him what does that mean? And he says, ‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’”
Finding profound truth in the simple statement made by his friend, who experienced the “worst of the worst” and yet still remained hopeful each day, the Michigan preacher finally began living again in spite of the disease.
“I had considered my life as over,” Dobson stated. “But it wasn’t. The doctors gave me two to five years. That was over 10 years ago. If I’d given up and laid down to die, I would have missed walking my daughter down the aisle, I would have missed the birth of all five grandchildren. I would say Billy’s phone call was God speaking to me with a New York accent.”
“When I would be thinking about the future, about my kids, my grandkids, my wife, my job, all of which would be taken away, I would sink in the darkness,” he revealed.
“When I can’t button my shirt or even do up the Velcro, it’s a reminder that I’m on the downward spiral … I’m afraid of tomorrow.”
But reflecting on God’s words in the Bible, particularly the verses found in the book of Hebrews, chapter 13, the Northern Ireland native stopped worrying about tomorrow and found comfort and peace.
“God has said ‘Never will I leave you never will I forsake you so we say with confidence the Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid
I also thought about it when I read something written by Dallas Willard.
“I meet many faithful Christians who, in spite of their faith, are deeply disappointed in how their lives have turned out. Sometimes it is simply a matter of how they experienced aging, which they take to mean they no longer have a future. But often, due to circumstances or wrongful decisions and actions by others, what they had hoped to accomplish in life they did not. Much of the distress of these good people comes from a failure to realize that their life lies before them… the life that lies endlessly before us in the Kingdom of God.”
Sometimes we think the adventure part of our life is over when we reach a certain age or the people around us put a label on us that implies we are finished for the most part and now we just relax and wait for the end. It’s not true. We are always being prepared for the next adventure. Isn’t that what Gabriel says about John’s mission? He is to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. That is you and that is a good description of how I might see my mission in your lives – to make you constantly aware that you are people who have been prepared for what God has in mind for you – now and in the future.
Let’s not be like the hobbits when Gandalf said, “I am looking for someone to snare in an adventure that I am arranging and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”
“I should think so – in these parts,” Bilbo replied. “We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner!”
2. The song of Zecharia is concentrated on Jesus for the most part but it is clear that John will be raised to know his life is one of preparing the way for Jesus.
“You will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” Those are the themes in John’s life. Zecharia was very clear about how their son would be raised. He would be raised for a singular purpose and in a particular way. His life was not his own. He never had to wonder about his purpose in life or what God had for him to do. He was born to make ready the people prepared for the Lord and to prepare the way for Him.
But if we read his mission closely we will see it is more than that. “Many of the people he will bring back to the Lord their God.” While his way and his words are different from those of Jesus, there are people who respond to his voice. He never says, “Come unto me you who are weary and heavy-laden.” Instead, he says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”
As well, his mission is to turn the hearts of fathers to their children. Isn’t that interesting? Why is that part of turning people back toward God? Because the hearts of the fathers were then, like too often today, fixed on other things. They had lost their sense of responsibility for being present in the lives of their children – the next generation. When men heard John they repented of their failings as fathers.
Finally, he will turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. Maybe that is another way of saying he will teach the children to value the wisdom of their fathers. When the children heard John they repented of going their own way and disobeying their parents.
In other words, the ministry of John was far more than simply announcing the arrival of the Messiah and then disappearing. His was a unique mission.
It is not just in his relationship to Jesus in the Gospels that we see the influence of John. If you turn to Acts 18/19 we can see the long term effect of his unique calling.
“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.”
This was the origin of the church at Ephesus – through a disciple of John. It was founded on the knowledge of salvation and accurate teaching about Jesus and repentance – but without the Holy Spirit. The teaching of John and the baptism of John were widespread in the early church. The disciples of John continued to teach long after his death and their teaching spread far beyond Jerusalem.
Even today, in a sense, we have disciples of John. They have an accurate understanding of Jesus and thorough knowledge of the Scripture. They have been instructed in the way of the Lord and they speak boldly about repentance and forgiveness. But they are without the full power of the Holy Spirit. I am not talking about speaking in tongues or the power of miracles. That is not what Paul was asking them about. He was asking them if they had the power of the Holy Spirit that went beyond the power of humanly gifted teachers and leaders. Did they have the supernatural gifts in addition to the natural talents…and they did not.
But the ministry of John goes on in another way as well. It goes on in preparing people for Jesus. It goes on in teaching the accurate knowledge of Jesus and the need for repentance. It goes on in the spreading of the knowledge of the Gospel to prepare people for the power of the Holy Spirit.
The work of John is important but not complete without the work of the Holy Spirit. It will make moral people out of immoral people but it will not make people into what God fully intends. It is what many people have in their minds when they talk about a Christian nation. It is being a moral nation. It is why you see people wanting to display the Ten Commandments instead of the Beatitudes. The Commandments are the moral Law and the Beatitudes can only be fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus said to the rich young ruler and Paul said to the disciples of Apollos – Yet there is one thing you are missing.
- Because we know how things turn out there is a sadness for us that overshadows their joy but they don’t know about it yet, do they? Elizabeth and Zechariah do not know about Herod or Salome. Mary does not know about Pilate or Judas. For now, there is nothing but joy and expectation of lives that are blessed by God and children who will be light in the darkness.
5. It’s tempting to reach into the story and to say to them, “Don’t get your hopes so high because something is waiting for you and your children that you cannot know now. Something that will test you and make you doubt the love of the God you are now praising. It will not always be this way. Dark times are just around the corner that will tear your life apart and break your heart.”
If we did we would be wrong because even we do not know the end of the story because it is our story as well. As the old hymn says, “We cannot know what tomorrow holds but we know who holds tomorrow.” Ed Dobson is right. It is enough to trust God today while we are being prepared for what is to come.