A new chance at life. They surely thought they were done, not done living, but done being surprised by life. Life had had it’s go at them with the ups and downs. They had responded with all the human ways the heart responds: grief, joy, indifference, anger, elation, ambivalence, fear, excitement, bargaining, rejection, acceptance. As the days stacked up into years, more and more the response was contentment. There were days when a friend would laugh about the hot mess the newest grandbaby was and that a familiar pang would shoot through her heart, and because of the connection they shared she could feel his tender eyes on her watching for any sign of that pain. Mostly now it didn’t come as often, and didn’t stay as long. But when it visited, she revisited the prayers, the pleas, the despair and finally the reality that their life would not include their children. They had endured the years of questions. They had endured the years of whispers. And they had endured the years of wondering for themselves…was it my fault? And they had finally come to the place of surrender. God is good, and his plan for our life is perfect. Therefore, we will give thanks, even for the situations we don’t understand. Maybe even especially for the situations we don’t understand.
But as autumn fell that year, an exciting event fell upon their household! He knew it was his division’s term to serve, and she was accustomed to his absences when his division was called. Once he had been the rookie that was coached by the elders of the division. Now, the gray in his beard left the rookies no doubt who their mentor would be. There was a time when his absences were painful. But as of late, they just had become their way of life. They could have chosen to live much closer to where he worked, but that would have been more expensive and an ostentatious life was just not their style. So they lived a simple life, a little closer to the wilderness than the city streets. But that suited them. They felt like their life had been quite a wilderness journey, with its ups and downs and disappointments. They had made peace with the wilderness, really. After all, she came from quite a line of wilderness wanderers….her own ancestors being the ones that tamed the wilderness of his work. But on this particular occasion, as he made preparations to leave her and be gone in order to fulfill his duties with his division, a message came to them. He had been chosen. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity really. Less maybe! There were about 8000 men in his division, and it was literally a roll of dice as to which once got the honor, and this year his name had been drawn. It was such an honor anyway, serving with his division. Some of the guys didn’t see it as a privilege, they saw it as their right. And perhaps without humility they missed the beauty of what they did. He was just glad that God had seen fit to let him serve his people in this way…but this, THIS! This was incredible. Yep, once in a lifetime for sure. He didn’t care if he was sick, if he was half dead, if the road caved in, if the world went to war…No way! This was his shot and he was taking it. And then when he got to mentor another “wet behind the ears” division rookie, he would be able to tell about the time that he went all the way in. He spent probably more time than was holy just daydreaming about these encounters. He was known to be quite the storyteller…he knew what people said behind his back…you better have some time set aside to listen to one of his stories. Yes, he liked to talk, but it was quiet in that house, just he and mrs. Someone needed to fill up the corners. He was going to remember every detail and tell this story over and over and over and over and over….
He was alone in the holy of holies. He knew that. He had never been the one to offer incense before, but the space wasn’t that big. So who said his name? It was then that his periphery vision caught the looming figure to the right of the altar. It was all he could do to keep himself standing. In the back of his mind he was will willing himself not to fall, lest the bells on his garment chime, signaling to the priests awaiting in the outside chamber that he had died and they begin to pull him out by the ropes secured to his waste. But maybe he was dying! Oh just wait until he told Elizabeth…except oh drat if he was dying he couldn’t tell Elizabeth. Poor Elizabeth!! Oh drat am I dying?
In an instant thoughts of confusion and fear must have surged through Zechariah’s mind even as adrenaline surged through his blood, setting his body tremble. Sensing (knowing, what do these being know?) his terror, the imposing figure said, “Do not be afraid. Your prayers have been answered. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” Zechariah’s swirling thoughts were suddenly arrested, and years of pleading and praying and hoping and surrendering finally exploded into this timeless instant.
Now? My prayers are being answered now? What, did you get lost? Tricky journey from heaven to earth, turned left at Egypt instead of right? Your message is about 20 years too late friend. That ship has sailed. I mean, if I weren’t offering incense in the very holy of holies, I might be tempted to sing “The ole gray mare aint’ what she used to be,” but…wait, what?
“You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”
Will have? You mean “could have had.” Yes, I know, we would have been over joyed and sung with gladness if the Lord had seen fit to give us a son. Many would have rejoiced at his birth. Maybe the high priest misread the lot? Maybe the angel was sent to share this message with one of the upstarts. Figures, his once in life time opportunity and he has to sign for someone else’s mis-delivered package. Elizabeth was NEVeR going to believe this. But at least he didn’t seem to be dying…yet. Oh wait, the big..angel? was still talking…
“He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah needed to stop him. Some mistake had been made. As much as his elderly form still longed for a message like this to be true, he knew this was wrong. And the years of pain began to well up as disappointment and anger. Don’t reopen this wound! Don’t tempt me with something I know I can never have. But he wouldn’t stop. He described this event in such intimate terms. As the angel described it, Zechariah could almost see this boy that he would raise, this special young man that would fulfill the lifelong yearning in his wife’s beautiful eyes. But he couldn’t let his heart hope, he couldn’t survive that kind of disappointment.
“How do I know this is for real? How do I know anything you say is for real? How can I hope again?”
Have you ever asked that of the Lord? How can I hope again?
I don’t know your whole life story, I don’t know what struggles fill the library of your memory. Maybe, by God’s grace you’ve come to terms with most of them. You’ve reached a place of contentment, settled into “that’s just life” peace. Faith in tact, fear in check, you are thankful, prayerful, and peaceful.
But are you hopeful? In this week’s family devotion (we are using YouVersion Bible app called 121 advent from 121cc.com), Cliff and the kids and I had the opportunity to discuss hope. Here is how the author of the devo defined it: “There is a distance difference between the definition of hope used from an ordinary human standpoint, and the definition hope we find in the pages of Scripture. It is pretty common to hope, right? We hope we get a job. We hope our kids are well behaved. We hope we make enough money to pay our bills. But our human hope implies a degree of uncertainty, things are not sure, they are possibilities but not certainties. In Scripture, however, hope is void of uncertainty. If fact, certainty is at its core, because it rests in the stability of God. His character and His will, which are unwavering. Biblical hope, then, can be defined as, “the confident expectation and desire for something good in the future.”
But what about the times that what we hope for seems to meet with an unhearing heaven? The disappointment, sorrow and grief can morph into an anger at God or fear of God’s hand toward us. Hope turns to doubt that faith can’t overcome. Logic, reality, our 5 senses prevail and learn to put our hope in reasonable expectations. So what do you do when an angel (or a dream, or a preacher, or a sermon, or a song, or just a message to your heart) says, “It’s time to hope again.” Well, let’s ask Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure?”
At this point, I imagine the angel gets really bright, really big, like the scene in LOTR when Cate Blancett gets really fiery mad about the ring’s possessor. 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. AND NOW YOU WILL BE SILENT AND NT ABLE TO SPEAK UNTIL THE DAY THIS HAPPENS, BECAUSE YOU DID NOT BELIEVE MY WORDS, WHICH WILL COME TRUE AT THEIR PROPER TIME. Zechariah immediately feels a stillness come to throat and tongue, but because his mind can’t fathom what his body already inhearently knows, he attempts to apologize to the riled angel. Of course, nothing comes forth. A priest with no voice. A prophet with no tongue. How is this going to work? Zechariah also becomes immediately aware of the time passing there at the altar. Surely those outside would be ready for him to emerge. And O! What have they been hearing? Why didn’t they bust in when the angel spoke his decree…and how will he explain his current predicament. He hurridly looked around to make sure everything was in proper order, even though nothing of the sort was true for his mind. He emerged from the sancturary just as it appeared that they were executing a rescue plan for the priest who most certainly had been consumed by the holiness of Yahweh. If they only knew! And he tried to tell them, tried to help them understand his delay, his silence…but not even he could fully understand…Elizabeth would have a baby, a son, his name would be John, he would prepare the way for Messiah…MESSIAH!!! ELIZABETH!!!! The rest of the week drug by so slowly. If he only had a shekel for every time he tried to speak to someone…and a denarius for every time his collegues made fun of their regularly loquacious friend! Finally, his time was complete and he began the long journey home. He began at a hurried pace, but as he imagine explaining things to Elizabeth, and then imagining doing so without a voice, he slowed a bit. How would he help her understand what was about to happen to their lives.
They were ok. They were more than ok. They were happy, content, grateful, fulfilled. Life had been hard, but God had been good, and they weren’t asking for much any more. And slowly it dawned on him. They hadn’t asked for much of anything anymore. They prayed, they were faithful, they were generous and good, but they had stopped longing for things that they believed the Lord had discounted for them. They stopped believing for the one miracle their hearts longed for.
Elizabeth really surprised Zechariah. She was of course at first terrified for him, sure he had been possessed or stricken by some hideous disease. But finally he communicated what happened, and not without some pretty hilarious antics. Maybe acting out a situation without using words could become a really funny party game! But as soon as she became aware of the miracle growing inside of her, an assurance settled over her. She glowed with a beauty Zechariah had never seen. His already beautiful, kind, gracious wife suddenly possessed an almost heavenly aura that enchanted him. Others noticed to, and began asking questions, some sincere and some nosy. Wether she was unwilling to cast pearls before swine, or just unable to explain something that defied explanation, she never revealed. But she withdrew for a number of months, really until she just couldn’t do without help. After all, 20 pounds of pregnancy weight was a lot to deal with for a woman her age. A woman her age. She and Zechariah both would just chuckle when the thought hit. They retold the story of Abraham and Sarah over and over and wondered how they had been chosen as modern day parents of this rag-tag nation of the Lord.
Elizabeth was well past half way through the pregnancy when the town began to buzz about the approach of a visitor. Soon enough, word came to her from the family of her sweet cousin Mary. The girl was in trouble, even feared for her life. Could she stay a while with Elizabeth and Zechariah. Some would say, “don’t borrow trouble” but the already gracious couple was particularly hospitable in this nesting phase of pregnancy. That morning she awoke earlier than usual, sensing a true excitement from deep down, almost like the baby in her womb had anticipation. She tried to go about the few chores she could still accomplish in her awkward state, but the baby seemed to be dancing on this day. “Ok little one. I will sit while you dance.” It wasn’t long before some children (always the first to make the town aware of company) began to speak of young maiden arriving at the outskirts. Elizabeth presumed it be Mary and became diligent about finishing her preparations. Within the hour she heard the familiar sound of a cart rattling and a small enterouge of people, maybe just 2 or 3. She almost leaned to hear Zechariah’s voice call, “Mary is hear,” when she rememberd his angelically imposed silence…the memory always brought a catch to her throat and her hand to her growing waist. Then she was there. A dot, and unfamiliar. She had been a girl the last time she and Z had seen her, but she was most certainly a women. What had happened to this beautiful girl, that she needed to leave Nazareth?
And then, the child within her leaped. Well, he couldn’t get far, but there is no other way to describe what he was attempting to do. And with some mysterious knowledge that she could not explain, she knew why. Mary was pregnant. It wasn’t obvious to the eye, her slender maiden form was still long and trim. But Elizabeth knew, Mary carried the child that her child would beckon. Here they were, old and young, both embarking on a journey not of their choosing, but chosen. It was all Elizabeth could do stand there. She and the child within longed to fall to her knees and worship this holy visitor…not the sweet maiden who served as his vessel, but the life inside of her who would….would…what?
Suddenly a song rose up in her soul, and poured forth from her lips: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored that the child of MY LORD should come to me? Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”
Mary joined the song, and these two women, virtual strangers but for blood relation found their story intertwined in the most unexpected and miraculous of ways. Zechariah marveled. And pondered anew what it meant to hope. His precious wife had said so beautifully what he himself had failed to do: he had not believed that what the Lord said to him would be accomplished. He had stopped hoping. He loved the Lord, and he would have told anyone that asked that the Lord loved him too. But somewhere he had allowed the lie to build, “the lord doesn’t love you enough to give you what you most desire.” And as he watched these two women, and marveled at what sisterhood looked like, and wondered at what the Lord was really up to, a song began to form in his heart as well. Over the weeks that Mary and her unborn baby were among them, the song grew and grew. It played in his mind as he slept, it’s refrain grew in depth as he worked. It was so loud in his head some days that he couldn’t believe no one else could hear it. But he couldn’t sing it. Maybe not ever. The angel had said he would receive his voice back once the Lord’s purposes for their child were accomplished, but did that mean his birth? His presentation? His entrance into adulthood? Zechariah tried to employ this new faith of his and not worry over matters too difficult for him to comprehend…and so he would sing the song. He just knew one day the Lord would release his tongue, if only to sing this song.
The weeks actually flew by and Elizabeth’s time was drawing near. The midwives in the community began checking on her regularly and everyone was more than a little concerned about a woman her age giving birth. But Elizabeth just presumed on the Lord’s faithfulness…he would not have brought us this far to abandon us here! And if I die, I die. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away…blessed be the name of the Lord! Then the morning dawned and even though she had never felt the pangs of birth before, she knew this was the moment. The midwives were summoned, the water was drawn, the birthing stool was brought in, and all prepared for the unexpected. What they really didn’t expect was a birth that was so easy, so perfect, they couldn’t say anything except, “the Lord has shown great mercy to Elizabeth.” Even the skeptics shared her joy. The next eight days were a flurry of feedings and cleaning and crying. Zechariah and Elizabeth had hoped Zechariah would be able to speak after his birth, but his tongue remained tied. But when Zechariah held this tiny miracle and marveled at his sleeping wife, who should be a new grandmother not new mother…he just trusted that the Lord would return his voice at the right time. And if that was not until he crossed the river and sang in the bosom of Abraham, that would be alright. His faith had never been this strong, and he had this little boy to thank for that.
It was time to circumcise his son. Elizabeth would have to handle some of the formalities of the speech, which would be very odd to behold. Most were aware of Zechariah’s condition, but not all. Then it became apparent that some in charge of the bris were taking matters into their own hands, and about to (not inappropriately) name the child Zechariah. Zechariah could almost feel Gabriel’s presence with him and he insisted he be able to write a message. Great. Now they thought he was also crazy. But he had to see this through. They brought him the writing utensils and he scratched out JOHN with his shaking hand. And as awareness dawned upon the gathered crowd, a heat pulsed through Zechariah’s throat and mouth. He tested what he knew to be true by uttering what would be his first words in nearly a year: His name is John.
Then the song came. Loud and clear. Strong and sure. Every note, every word, every strain pulled from down deep in his soul. Just as Elizabeth had given birth to this boy of his, John, so Zechariah had given birth to this song.
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has redeemed his people.
Zechariah knew how to hope again. No, he knew how to hope for the first time. He felt … reborn. Caring for a newborn had already been wearisome to a couple of their age, but whether this child would be the death of them, or keep them young (they often said both of him!), Zechariah knew he would die and be gathered to his fathers with a new song on his tongue, his soul only as old as the son he fathered.
And if he could walk among us this morning, and sing the ancient Benedictus, I think he would also assure that we can hope again. We can be reborn. Our souls can find the life we’ve been afraid to ask for. We can live in hope every day. God will redeem. God will restore. God will revive. God will do what God promised. And if we come to the end of our life here and still haven’t received what we think God was going to do in this life, then all we have to look forward to is complete fulfillment of those promises, unblemished by the temporary nature of this existence as we spend eternity with the one who put the hope in us to begin with. Hope. Again. It’s not too late. But not hope in what you can see, feel, taste, touch, hear. Hope in the Lord. Put your hope in the Lord. He has a song for you to sing too.