(excerpt from the sermon)
Sermon Series: Rediscover the Wonder
Nobody likes the cold. How many people are retiring and moving to Chicago and New York? No, they move further south. They go to Florida and Arizona and Southern California. I love Christmas. I don't like winter. But there's another kind of winter that, often during the Christmas season, we talk about, and it's called spiritual winter. You know, when I was younger I faced a tragedy in my life. And I remember begging God to take this thing away almost every day and night. I don't think I ever prayed so hard as during this season of my life. I would rise, get out of bed and the first thing I would do was get down on my knees, “God, please, please take this away from me.” At night, before I went to bed, “God, please take this away.” And I felt like I got a word from God where God said, “Don't worry, I will take this away. I'm going to answer your prayer. And the answer's going to be yes.”
But then month after month goes by, week after week, month after month, year after year. And it seems that I was making no forward progress. And I remember in my spiritual life feeling so cold and dark and confused. I was certain I'd heard from God. I ran it by my community group and my accountability partners. They also confirmed the promise that I believed I had heard. But nothing seemed to be happening. I was cold inside, with a sense of hopelessness. I felt as though a promise had been made, an assurance had been given, but there was no forward progress. Maybe that's you. You feel like God promised you a child of your own, but now you're in your forties and the biological clock is ticking. You feel as though you heard from God that a significant other is on the way.
But now you're in your late twenties, headed toward 30 and you've been attending all the weddings of your friends. Now you're attending baby showers and still, there's nothing on the horizon for you. You feel as though God has given you a promise that He would restore your marriage. But no matter how hard you try, he or she seems unresponsive. People tell you that your financial struggle is temporary. It seems eternal to you. Your friends tell you that this health issue that you're facing will make you stronger. But in your mind, it seems lethal. And for others of you, you're just trying to take God at His word. You're not asking to get rich, you just want to survive. And does Philippians 4:19 not say that God will meet all your needs according to His riches, in His glory, in Christ Jesus? God, You said it wasn't good for us to be alone. So when are You going to send me a companion, a soulmate, to enrich my life? God, You said You hate divorce. And yet I've been praying for my marriage and things don't seem to be improving or getting better. And God, You said You desire to give us every good thing. And, quite frankly, this thing that I'm after is a good thing. You even said so Yourself. I've asked You, the promise has been made and assurance has been given. But I don't see any movement. And it seems dark and cold. And sometimes I've started to wonder what good is God really?
So, when we arrive at Luke 1, it's been 2,000 years since God promised Abraham that his name will be great, that God will make him a great nation, and that all nations will be blessed because of him. That through his seed will come one whose kingdom will never end. Isaiah told us: “Unto us, a Child will be born, a Son will be given, and He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and of the greatness of His government there will be no end.” But by the time we arrive in Luke chapter one, it's been a few thousand years. Generation after generation has passed with no sign of the promise.
Think about what that's like, 2000 years. You think my sermons are long? You think waiting in rush hour traffic is long. Six minutes at a Chick-fil-A drive-thru, that's long. Try 2,000 years. Stories were told, prophecies were made, and people were ready. They're watching year after year, generation after generation, but nothing happened. And that's why for many, they just gave up. Let's get on with our lives. Let's get over this myth or legend. We don't know what our grandparents heard. We don't know what their parents heard but one thing is certain, the Messiah is never going to come. And yet, within every generation, there were those called a “remnant” who never gave up on the promise. They prayed, they remained faithful, they devoted their lives, and they kept the watch. Every day when they woke up, they said, maybe today, perhaps today, this is the day.
One such man, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth, their story is told, believe it or not, at the beginning of the book of Luke, verse five: “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.” So we are told Zechariah came from a long line of priests. His daddy was a priest. His granddaddy and beyond were all priests. Each represented God on behalf of the people. He carried out the duties associated with the temple. It was a high calling. Verse six: “Both of them,” that is Zechariah and Elizabeth, “were righteous in the sight of God observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly.” Now that's powerful. All the Lord's commands. Remember, we're talking about the Old Testament law here. There are heaps and heaps and reams and reams of paper associated with laws, food laws, cleanliness laws, sacrificial laws, laws that impacted just about every arena of life.
And we're told that where Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the law are concerned, they're blameless. If you send a private investigator to follow them around to see what kind of life they live, there'd be nothing to tell. They are blameless. Now note: they were following and obeying God based on promises that had been made hundreds and hundreds of years before they were even born. They lived their lives day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year as if Christmas was coming any day now. That the Child would be born, the Son would be given, and His kingdom would last forever. And they lived as though Christmas was coming, even though it had not come for hundreds and hundreds of years. And they continued to religiously keep every tradition. Now, I don't want to labor this point too much, but it's of paramount importance that we remember that Zechariah and Elizabeth, their faithfulness to God is based on a promise given all the way back 2,000 years ago to Abraham.
I think we've covered some of this before, but it's good to get a little bit of history here. Historically, since Abraham's day and the promise made, there have been 25 regime changes. The Syrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans have all conquered Israel. Israel's been enslaved, exiled, occupied, and finally dispersed. They no longer have any kind of international influence by the time Zechariah and Elizabeth arrive at the temple. Then, to add insult to injury, 65 bc. (so 65 years before this, or it would actually be about 95 years before this) Pompeii, the great Roman general, marches into Jerusalem, occupies the city, passes through the temple gates, through the outer courts, through the inner courts, and walks right into the Holy of Holies. The place where Jews believe that if you go into the Holy of Holies without being invited, God would strike you dead immediately. Pompeii walks in, looks around, walks out, and nothing happens. Word spreads quickly through Jerusalem that the implications were clear. Jupiter, the god of the Romans, is more powerful than Yahweh.
Now the point is that Zechariah would've been a little boy when all that happened. He would've seen his father tear his robes at the desecration of the temple and the frustration of the fact that God did nothing. And yet, to show you what kind of man Zechariah is, he still goes into the priesthood. He didn't understand why God allowed the desecration of the temple, but he knew that God was trustworthy and believed it was part of what God was doing to bring redemption. So he goes into the priesthood, and he serves the Lord his entire life. He marries Elizabeth. She serves the Lord her entire life with everything falling apart around them. With many Jews turning away from God. Both of them remained faithful and committed and kept waiting for Christmas to come. Without a doubt, many would've come to them and said, it's over. Give up already. It's a myth, it's a legend. Go live your life. Forget about all this stuff. God has abandoned you. But they remained faithful when others had given up.
Now here's the question, how was such commitment working out for them? Verse seven: “But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive and they were both very old.” Think about that. Day after day, waiting for the Messiah, serving in the temple, good people doing good stuff, faithful and blameless, and God had left Elizabeth barren. I guarantee there had to be times when Elizabeth said, “What good is God?” Because her barrenness, in the culture in which she was raised, brought great shame. Her culture would interpret her barrenness as her fault. That she had been somehow cursed because of some sin she had committed. And she would've, along the way, lost her sense of self-worth and purpose. And yet even though she had prayed hard, she had lived well, she honored God, and served God, she's still barren. And now it's too late because she's too old, she would go to her grave with that shame. I can't imagine Elizabeth's cold, dark winter for most of her life. And yet even in her old age, she remains faithful.
What do we do when we're waiting, and we're waiting, and we're waiting, and nothing's happening? David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord. He turned to me and heard my cry.” I'd like to ask David, how long between the waiting until God turned to you and heard you? In Psalm 27, he said, “Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” But he doesn't say how long. But we know from the scripture that when we're waiting, don't doubt the promise that you heard. Don't think it's over. And whatever you do, don't take matters into your own hands. Keep waiting. But Jeff, why does God want me to wait? I don't know. I'm not God. But pastor, can you give me a few suggestions? Yes, as long as you understand that's all they are.
First, sometimes you wait because God likes the way you pray when you feel lost. For the first time, He has your full attention. He can speak to you in a way that He never could before because you are attentive, you are listening. He can guide you and direct your path. He can deliver to you wisdom and knowledge and understanding that previously you would not have received. And the desert that you're in right now is the pathway to the promised land. C.S. Lewis said that pain is God's megaphone to a deaf world. I'd like to add to that. Waiting is God's megaphone to a deaf world. And I know, in my own life, in those times when it was so dark and cold, spiritually speaking, that I saw God with more passion and intention than I ever had before. There's something special that happens when we're in spiritual winter. We pray harder. We seek God more passionately. We look for God, we need God, and we depend on God. And I think sometimes God delays because He likes the way we pray when we feel lost.
Second, sometimes He's not finished preparing us for what He's gonna provide. You're not ready to be married because you think marriage is going to solve all your problems. It’s going to shock you when marriage brings up a whole new set of issues and problems. You're not ready to be financially secure yet because the manner in which you will use your expendable income would detract from your relationship with God, not add to it. So He's still working on you. You're not ready for the healing because you're not yet convinced that if it came, it would actually be from God, and so your gratitude would be misplaced. Sometimes God is delaying because He's preparing you for what's about to happen. You're not waiting on God, God's waiting on you. That's not easy to hear. It's not. I realize that, but God's delays always coincide with what He's trying to build into you. He's playing the long game. You're playing the short game.
Third, He is waiting until your commitment to Him becomes less contingent. Now, I'm going to make three statements here: When you grab hold of the greater things, the lesser things tend to fall into your lap. They come when you let go, not when you grab on tighter and tighter. Therefore, when you begin to see that you can actually live without these things, that's when God opens the windows of heaven and He pours them out into your lap. The waiting sometimes is the season where God moves you to realize your life, your happiness is not contingent on receiving these things – that you can actually live without them – because when you have Jesus, that's all you really need. Once you get to that point though, the heart of the Father wants to bless you. So when you begin to see that you can actually live without these things, that they're not of paramount importance, God opens the windows of heaven and then pours them into your lap. It's ironic. However, for many of us, I believe that you've heard from God, that God loves you, and that He longs to give you the desires of your heart and His heart. I believe that. While it is true, very true, that if you humble yourself, 1 Peter 5, under God's hand, that He will lift you up in due time, cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. He does care about what's going on.
But I don't want to encourage you with a bunch of platitudes and a spiritual pep rally. I want to give you a core foundational truth that will breathe life into you while you wait because I'm fully convinced that God will deliver on this promise that you've heard. Just as He delivered on His promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth.
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