Advent Week 1: Faith and Disappointment

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years.

When his division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, it happened that he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. At the hour of incense the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified and overcome with fear. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. 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 fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.”

Luke 1:5-17

Introduction

We read in Luke 1 how for most of their lives, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been unable to conceive children and we know this would have been not only a source of disappointment but also shame in their culture.

Hearing the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth also makes me wonder: What do I need to learn from the example of Zechariah and Elizabeth? What can we learn?

In an article called “Disappointed with God,” Lisa Schrad asks: “What do I do with a God who sometimes miraculously heals cancer and opens infertile wombs, but more often doesn’t? Who seems to clearly lead me into specific situations that sometimes end up being incredibly life-giving and other times are incredibly painful? Who seems to be letting the wicked prosper while the most vulnerable suffer?” All good, profound questions.

Because when we talk about disappointment, we’re not talking about the little disappointments that come our way all the time. We’re talking about the big disappointments, the ones that stay with us.

Can we think for a moment about how life has disappointed us? In what ways have our lives not gone the way we wanted? How have you been disappointed?

I think these are important questions because these experiences shape us. All the twists and turns of life make us who we are.

For instance, has your own experience of disappointment affected your faith? Or maybe we can put it this way: What prayers of yours are still unanswered? How has that affected your relationship with God?

“They had no children”

I want us to keep those questions in mind as we look at our passage. Now, when we start, we find ourselves In the days of King Herod of Judea. King Herod had been appointed by the emperor and ruled Judea at the time leading up to Jesus’ birth. At this time Israel was under Roman occupation. The Jewish people were not free.

And by now they had not heard a word from the Lord for hundreds of years. They had been waiting and praying for God to send the Messiah. I think it’s fair to say that God’s people had learned to live with disappointment. Things had not gone as they’d been hoping–indeed, as they’d been praying.

It’s in this context that we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, a Jewish husband and wife, both from priestly families, who were now beyond child-bearing years and had not been able to have children of their own. Notice how they’re described by Luke: Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. They were faithful, obedient people. Not only in human eyes, but in God’s eyes.

Yet, here they were, disappointed people of faith living among a disappointed people of God. What, if anything, do we make of this? I think we can say this for sure: They were disappointed yet faithful. Which means being faithful and being disappointed can go together.

In other words: Being people of faith doesn’t shield us from the experience of disappointment.

Now, I wonder if we believe this. I wonder if we live this. I wonder if we practice our faith like this. Because maybe our understanding of being a Christian means that if we really believe, really trust, are really obedient, then things will go well and maybe even as we hope. Maybe when life disappoints us we wonder if we actually are genuine Christians. Maybe we wonder if God is unhappy with us. Maybe we live with an underlying feeling of discontent.

Then we see Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were both faithful and obedient to God and had reason for significant disappointment. They, like some of us now, were living with unanswered prayers. Therefore, not only were they probably disappointed with their circumstances, with having been unable to have children, perhaps they were also disappointed with God.

Of course, while we don’t know how exactly they felt about their circumstances, their life together had not gone as they wanted or hoped.

Whatever it was like for them, we need to be honest with ourselves and with God about our own experiences of disappointment. Are you able to be honest with yourself and even with God about your disappointment? Can your disappointment find its way into your prayers? Because finding ourselves experiencing disappointment doesn’t mean God has abandoned us. Being honest about our disappointment doesn’t mean we lack faith in God.

In fact, I would actually say this: Being honest with God about our disappointment is an act of faith. Being honest with God about our disappointment means trusting that God cares and that he understands, that even if our prayers are unanswered that they have not gone unheard.

“Your prayer has been heard”

Now, imagine Zechariah. He’s an old man now. He’s one of 18,000 priests of Israel. He’s faithful and obedient. And he’s chosen by lot for an extraordinary privilege he will never have again. Imagine him entering the temple sanctuary to burn incense. It is here, in the most holy of places, where God was believed to dwell, that something entirely unanticipated happens.

As he lights the incense, an angel named Gabriel appears. Angels, of course, are messengers. If an angel appears, it means God has something to say. Something is about to happen. God is breaking through the ordinary routines of life.

And Gabriel has a message for Zechariah. Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.

Gabriel goes on to tell him that this son — this miraculous, unexpected son — will prepare the way for God’s Messiah, that he will have a pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation.

And we know that after Gabriel finishes speaking that Zechariah is awestruck and then dumbstruck. When he expresses doubt and confusion over Gabriel’s announcement, he’s given several months to quietly contemplate what God is doing.

But notice that all of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child, his role as a priest, and God’s sovereign plan to send the Messiah all come together when Zechariah was chosen by lot to burn incense in the most holy sanctuary. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child and a nation’s prayers for God to send his Messiah are all answered in one dramatic, decisive, divine act.

Did God have to do it this way? Did the forerunner to Jesus’ arrival have to be John, who was also his cousin? Why not someone else?

All we know is that God did do it this way. In the midst of carrying out his purposes for his people, and indeed all people and all creation, he also answered the life-long prayers of this old couple in Judea named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Your prayer has been heard.

For them, a lifetime of disappointment ends with the action of a faithful God in a way that they could never have expected. Indeed, Gabriel says to Zechariah: There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen everyday — not like this! And so it’s a cause for celebration and gladness! It’s a reminder that God is good and faithful even in the midst of disappointment. There are times when the glory and the power and the presence of God break through in surprising ways into our broken, often disappointing world.

Yet God had always been with Zechariah and Elizabeth. In all the long years before Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, God was present. He knew their hearts. He heard their prayers. Your prayers have been heard.

Now here’s the thing: I believe God says the same thing to each one of us. What is that he says to each of us? Your prayer has been heard.

You’re concerned for your kids and your grandkids. You want them to share your faith, to come to Christ. You persistently intercede with God on their behalf.

Your prayer has been heard.

You’re worried about your health or the health of someone you love. You ask God for healing.

Your prayer has been heard.

You’re frustrated because you keep giving in to the same tempation over and over. You plead at the throne of grace.

Your prayer has been heard.

You’re discouraged by life. You wish things had turned out differently. You ask God for peace and strength.

Your prayer has been heard.

You may ask, “What are you talking about? I’m still hurting, I’m still frustrated, I’m still disappointed, I’m still waiting.”

Of course, the hard truth is this: having our prayer heard doesn’t mean having it answered when and how we want. Sometimes I wish it did. Sometimes I realize it’s best that it’s not.

But I wonder how many other husbands and wives in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s community were unable to conceive a child. How many other childless couples were there in Judea? Surely Zechariah and Elizabeth weren’t the only ones. What about their prayers?

And notice how in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth, they were faithful and obedient even in the midst of disappointment. Both were righteous in God’s sight.

So, yes: Your prayers have been heard. While this doesn’t mean God always does what we want him to do, it does mean he cares. And that in his wisdom he knows how and when to respond to our prayers.

Think about this couple again. Do you think their prayers included not only having a son but one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, become a prophet, and eventually be killed by a jealous, insecure king? I’m guessing they wanted a son to continue their family line. Perhaps they thought about having grandchildren. But not this.

God heard and indeed answered their prayers. But not entirely in the way they were thinking or would have wanted. Instead, he wove their prayers into his will for all of his people. The same might be true for us at times in our lives. Perhaps God will answer our prayers but in unexpected ways.

Conclusion

The example of Zechariah and Elizabeth encourages us to persevere in our faith, to keep trusting God, even in the midst of disappointment. Their example reminds us that while God may indeed graciously answer our heart’s deepest prayers, he may not do so in the way we would want or prefer. He certainly won’t necessarily do so according to our timing.

Ultimately the experience of disappointment reminds us that the deepest satisfaction and joy lay beyond our present lives and present experiences. We live in a sin frustrated world. But it’s also a world that God has begun to redeem in the person of Christ.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. The beginning of the Christmas story. The start of reminding ourselves once again that God did not leave his creation to its own devices. Instead, he chose to move redemptively within our world. And that he has done this in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

And for this reason, hope is possible. Our hope can be real. Our hope can be true. Our hope in Christ can be as an anchor in this life.

So as we enter this Advent season, what I really want to encourage us to do is to bring our disappointments to God and to see what he can make of them, how he can transform them, and how he can use them to fulfill his purpose in our lives.

He did this for Zechariah and Elizabeth. I believe he can do so for us too.

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