(Sermon Series: Taking the training wheels off of our faith)
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. 8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Why do we ask God for things and do not believe God will do what we ask Him to do? Is it possible that we have been religiously conditioned? From the time I was in Sunday school, I was told to ask for what I wanted and God would do it for me. As a child growing up, my mother and father drilled into me the idea ask for what you want. However, I do not remember at any point either in Sunday school or at home anyone saying that it is also important for you to believe you will receive what you have requested. We are taught to ask for what we want, but not necessarily believe that we will be the recipients of what we want. And so, we go through life with a tempered enthusiasm when it comes to believing that we will receive our requests. The specter that we may not get what we have asked for looms and we are cautious with regard to getting our hopes up in fear we will be disappointed. It only takes one major disappointment to scar a person for life and turn trust into skepticism. It only takes one broken promise, one broken heart or one betrayal to change our perspective and cause us to doubt all who come after the perpetrator including God. We begin to treat God like we treat others, when I see it I will believe it.
In the opening chapter of the gospel of Luke, we are introduced to a couple by the name of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Today, we will spend some time getting to know Zechariah and my hope is that you will identify with him on some level. Identification with Biblical characters helps to broaden our understanding of a text and provides insights for personal application. As we examine the information provided to us about Zechariah, I think that everyone will find some level of identification with our brother Zechariah.
The description provided in the text of Zechariah is the profile of a person who was religiously conditioned and took a secular or worldly approach to faith. According to Dr. Luke, Zechariah was a priest. He ministered and served in the Temple, and he carried out his religious obligations. If you and I have ever served in any capacity at a church we can identify with Zechariah. The Law of Moses guided his life, and so he was sound morally and ethically in his approach to life. Everyone is guided by some code of ethics and moral standards. We all subscribe to principles that shape our attitudes and behaviors. Some are more conservative, moderate, and others are liberal, but on some level a moral and ethical compass guides everyone. Yet, when it came to faith and believing what God could do Zechariah was a bit of a skeptic. He wanted to see some proof. He needed some evidence to help him understand and know how God was going to accomplish what God said he would do. Again, we all have heard things about what God is capable of doing and if we are honest, we have also wondered how God could have done it or how God was going to do it. When you and examine Zechariah the person, I believe we can find identification with him on some level.
If we go a little deeper into Zechariah the person we also learn that while religious instruction can help to make us morally and ethically sound, or better people it will not necessarily strengthen our faith. Religious instruction provides the mechanics for better living, not stronger faith. The portrait of Zechariah helps us to see that it is possible to believe in the existence of God and still question the efficacy of God’s power in our lives. Clearly, Zechariah was not an atheist but an agnostic. The atheist disavows the reality of God or even the possibility that God exists. The agnostic believes in the existence of God, but wants some proof or evidence to confirm their belief. This is the definition of a secular approach to faith, will God or won’t he do it for me.
The challenge Zechariah faced was moving from a head religion to a heart faith. One of the questions this text raises is how do you move from faith as a concept or ideal in our head to something we embrace and that becomes a way of life.
The angel Gabriel told Zechariah, “Your prayer has been heard,” and “You did not believe.” Religion says ask for what you want and faith says believe that you will receive. Religion says pray for what you want and faith says when you pray believe you will receive. There is an obvious divide between religion and faith. Why? In the case of Zechariah, he had been denied of the one thing he really wanted. Therefore, his past experience dictated there was no evidence of him getting what he asked for and why should this time be any different. The lack of evidence had given birth to a growing skepticism. Zechariah asked and God had not answered in the affirmative. If you hear no enough times you either stop asking or you begin to believe it probably will not happen. The lack of evidence coupled with a growing skepticism was fueled by time. According to the scriptures both Zechariah and Elizabeth “Were both well along in years.” Zechariah was an old man and Elizabeth was postmenopausal. Even if he could, Elizabeth could not. When Zechariah looked at where he and his wife were in life, the laws of biology and nature declared that their time had come and gone.
And so, while Zechariah prayed I’m sure that at some point he stopped believing it would ever happen. He was religiously conditioned to pray, but in his heart he had abandoned all hope of it ever becoming a reality. Zechariah helps us to understand that realism, reason, and logic will not interfere with our religion, but they can be the undercurrent that sucks the heart out of our faith. Unlike places where the waters tend to be calmer, the beaches here in the northeast are notorious for their undercurrents. The undercurrents are so powerful that they have caused many good swimmers to lose their life. One of the problems with undercurrents is that once you get caught in one it pulls you away from the shore and out into the ocean. Realism, reason and logic work the same way they pull you away from faith and where you end up is anyone’s guess.
Ok, now that we know a little bit about who Zechariah was and the challenges of a head religion, the next question we have to answer is how do we get to the place where we believe what God says with all of our heart?
One of the things we have to keep in mind is that while God is far and away unlike human beings, God does have a character. Prior to developing or a prerequisite for developing a heart faith means that we have to know something about the character of God. A good place to start is by asking ourselves, what do we know about God and His character? Fortunately for us the text provides us with some information. In verse 13 the angel Gabriel says, “Your prayer has been heard.” One thing we know or learn about God is that God always answers prayers, even if the answer is no or not right now. There is no prayer that you and I pray in earnest that God does not answer. An earnest prayer is a prayer prayed from the heart or out of the depths of human pain and experience. The Bible says, “The fervent prayers of the righteous availeth much.” This is one of the arguments against canned prayers. A canned prayer is any preprinted prayer. Preprinted prayers are only meant to be guides and used occasionally, they are not meant to supplant our own thoughts, feelings and words. No other person can speak to God for us or in the way we need to communicate with God. God wants to hear from you and I, and when God hears from us God will respond to us. The real question is, are we willing to accept God’s answer? Zechariah struggled with God’s answer. Struggling with God is also necessary for faith development. All of the saints who have gone before us struggled and people throughout the scriptures struggled with God. If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
In verse 14-17 the angel Gabriel begins by saying, “He will be…” and then provides a rather detailed description of the child that will be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. The second thing we learn about God is that God always goes beyond our request. We ask exclusively, but God acts inclusively. We ask for ourselves, but God uses our request to benefit, reach, save, or bless others. Zechariah and Elizabeth asked for a child, but God gave them a prophet. God gave them someone who would be a blessing to the entire nation and the world even to this day. God is not a selfish God and God does not cater to selfish people. One of the principles of utilitarian ethics is, the greatest good for the greatest number of people. God takes what we ask for and then multiples it so that it will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I asked God for a car and God gave me a cab. I often have to use my car to chauffer others around. I asked God for a job and God gave me a ministry. All I wanted was to teach and instead, God put me in a position where I have to counsel some students, mentor some, be a father or brother to others, or just a sounding board. God goes beyond our selfish request and multiplies them to serve and meet the needs of others.
Verse 19 Gabriel reminds Zechariah, “I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this good news.” We learn that God will inform us of His response and then confirm His intent or will. If you and I are paying attention, the actions of God will never catch us off guard. One of the problems is that we often look and expect God to speak or act the same way all the time. We need to be open to the various ways in which God can and does speak to us. I am sure that Zechariah was not used to seeing the appearance of angelic beings. That is why Gabriel tried to calm him down by telling him, “Do not be afraid.” Just like this was a different manifestation of the presence of God for Zechariah we also need to be open to God’s different manifestations, such as the impression of God’s word. There are times when you and I will hear things or read things in the Bible and it will stay with us and resurface again and again. This is an indication that God has made an impression on us with His word. There are times when God will speak to us through emissaries. God will send people into our lives to communicate a message, provide counsel, direction or an answer to a problem. If it is of God there will be confirmation. It will not only be one person, but others who are not even connected will repeat what has already been stated. There are times when God will speak to us through situations. We really need to be careful here so as not to misread and misinterpret. Look to see how God is working things out, are things going smoothly or is there resistance and opposition. In some cases resistance and opposition may mean not right now and in other cases is could be God trying to help us determine if this is something we really want. Adults are big kids sometimes. Like children we ask for things because we see someone else with it and we decide we need to have it too. There are times when God speaks to us through music and prayer. Music is perhaps one of the most profound ways in which God speaks to us. Music has the power to change and impact our moods, attitudes, feelings and behavior and prayer has the same power and ability if we are open and listening. God also speaks to us through nature. We will not all have a burning bush experience like Moses, but the God of creation has a way of getting our attention through His creation.
In verse 20 Gabriel says, “My words…will come true at their proper time.” We learn that God works according to His timetable. God who is infinitely wiser than we are never makes mistakes and always acts at the proper time which is usually sooner than we expect or later than we would like.
In so far as the character of God is concerned, we have learned that:
a. God always answers prayers prayed in earnest, even if the answer is no or not right now
b. God always goes beyond our selfish request by multiplying our request to cause the greatest good for the greatest number of people
c. God will always inform us of His response and confirm His intent and will
d. God only moves according to His timetable
When we know the character of a person it helps us to understand how they operate and respond to us and situationally. In the case of God, knowing His character helps us to:
1. Trust Him because he does not lie
2. Believe Him when He speaks because He does not change His mind (God is not a flip-flopper)
3. Take Him at His word because He keeps His promise
Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man that He should lie, nor the son of man that he should change His mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? The big three, do we trust God, do we believe God when He speaks to us, and do we take God at His word? For homework, I want us to take a self-assessment and honestly answer these three questions. If our answer to any or all of these questions is no, then we must find our why and then work to change that, because unless we are willing to trust God, believe God when He speaks, and take God at His word we cannot grow and develop in our faith. We serve a great big God who wants to do great big things in the lives of His people, but as long as the training wheels are on our faith we will be limited in what and how we experience what God does.