How do you respond to difficulty? Do you think of how to solve problems, do you like to share your problems with as many friends as possible? Do you feel hopeless in your problems? In today's passage, we'll read of how another Christmas mother found hope.
(A) A Couple’s Response to Difficulty: Faithfulness (Luke 1:5-7)
Luke 1:5 begins by mentioning Herod, who is the King of Judea (set in power by the Roman Empire). Luke gives us these details as a time marker, and we are also introduced to a priest named Zechariah, who is of the division of Abijah. This priest was married to Elizabeth, who is from the daughters of Aaron. These details show us how careful Luke is in giving us this account. It is almost like a documentary here. In fact, Luke actually looks to give an “orderly account”, as we read in an earlier verse (Luke 1:3). This tells us that the Bible is not just a storybook that one reads for fun, but it is to be taken seriously as it refers to real times, when real people lived. Have you read your Bible taking it as truth? Or is the Bible like a fictional book to you? Even as you approach today’s study, does this not give you confidence that these events did happen?
In Luke 1:6, we are told that Zechariah and Elizabeth were "righteous before God and they walked blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord". The next verse follows up with another detail -- they had no child because Elizabeth was barren (she never had a child), and both of them were already old. Luke 1:7 begins with a "but", which tells us that there is a contrast about the two things we are told about Zechariah and his wife. In obeying God’s commandment, they were meant to be blessed, instead, they were without any children and were old. This is not an unfamiliar problem in the Bible, in fact, we have just seen this in our study of Samson’s life in Judges, where his mother was also barren before he came along.
Barrenness was seen as a curse in those days and a woman who could not bear children was not regarded highly in society. The hidden assumption was that if they walked blamelessly and obeyed, they were meant to be blessed (c.f. Lev 26:9). Thus, here lies the difficulty, why are they “cursed” when they have walked blamelessly? Being a Christian and following God can be tough and can seem like a joyless exercise. In fact, can you imagine how hard it would be to be Zechariah and Elizabeth? They must have struggled! How do you think they felt about being the “losers” in society after keeping all of God’s commandments? But how did they respond? They responded with faithfulness to God, and we will see later how God uses them in his sovereign plan. How would you have responded? Would you still walk with God if all life goes against you? Have you ever thought that coming to Bible study tonight means putting aside 2 hours of your life for God while the rest of the world pursues its desires?
(B) God’s Answer to the Faithful: Promise of Joy and Gladness (Luke 1:8-17)
In Luke 1:8-10, Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord, and he was there to intercede on behalf of God’s people. He was there on duty as a priest to offer incense to God, to worship God. A multitude of people were there outside with him. It would seem that Zechariah ended up in the temple by chance then? Or is it?
In the temple, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and Zechariah reacted with fear, as is expected of someone facing a divine encounter (Luke 1:11-13). This should not be surprising! If you saw something that is so unusual like an angel, it wouldn’t be odd to be fearful.
The angel tells him not to be afraid, for his prayer has been heard. What do you think Zechariah was doing in the temple? Probably praying! We don’t know exactly what he prayed about at that moment but he was probably for the people of Israel since he was chosen to enter to burn the incense on behalf of them, but also possibly for a child. It wouldn’t be surprising that he was praying for a child there since it was not everyday that you are given an opportunity to enter the temple as a priest. And now, the angel comes and tells him that his prayer has been heard. Finally, he is going to get a child.
This is a God that answers prayer. Do you believe that? When you pray, God hears. So often, we treat our prayers lightly, and sometimes our minds drift when we pray. Do you know that God is listening? A drifting mind would seem to indicate that we lost interest to speak to God halfway! This should not be the case if we remembered that this is a God who hears and answers prayers.
The angel also provides details about this child. This is one who will bring joy and gladness to Zechariah and Elizabeth and many will rejoice for he will be great before the Lord (Luke 1:14-15a). There is a sense that God’s favour will be upon him, and that God will do great things through him. However, this child must not drink wine or strong drink, similar to the commands given to a Nazirite in Numbers 6:1-3. The child will also be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, a reassurance that God’s presence will be with him (Luke 1:15b). Zechariah was also told of his mission and purpose. His child will turn God’s people to God, calling for repentance and will also go before God in the spirit and power of Elijah (c.f. Matt 11:4, Mal 4:4-6). This child will fulfill prophecy, as he sought to "to turn hearts of fathers to children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (Luke 1:16-17).
Meeting their faithfulness and prayer, God promises Zechariah and Elizabeth a child who is special, who has a mission and God’s presence even before his birth as we see from verses 14-17. And this not only brings about God’s sovereign and wise plan, but also promises to fill Zechariah and Elizabeth with joy and gladness.
(C) God’s Mercy to the Doubtful: Fulfilment of Promise (Luke 1:18-25)
How did Zechariah react to this announcement? Zechariah’s response was one of doubt and disbelief (Luke 1:18-19). The angel answers him by identifying himself as Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God and was sent to bring him good news. This angel actually does not answer Zechariah’s questions. Rather, he identifies himself with God, This angel is one who stands in God’s presence, one who has a high standing before God. He basically tells Zechariah that the message he brings is directly from God and it will surely come true no matter what.
We read on that due to his disbelief, Zechariah was made mute until the things that were spoken of became true (Luke 1:20). Yet, despite his disbelief, God did not retract his promise to Zechariah. Even in his disbelief and doubt, God continued to be faithful and we see that the angel tells him that his words will be fulfilled in their time. God is so merciful here to allow Zechariah to enjoy this blessing from God. We read in Luke 1:24 that Elizabeth eventually conceives and she praises God for taking away her reproach (Luke 1:25).
So many of us are like Zechariah in our doubting of God. We sometimes doubt that God is ever on side. Especially during times of difficulty, we think that God is against us. But we have a God here that fulfils promises, even when we doubt. His mercy is clear in this chapter.
This passage shows us that difficulty can come to anyone, even Christians who are walking faithfully with God. In fact, in this passage, God uses a difficult situation that seems impossible to bring about his sovereign plan that brings one who prepares the way for the Lord, and this is Jesus Christ. We celebrate the Christmas filled with hope in our difficulty because even as we doubt like Zechariah and Elizabeth, in his sovereign mercy and grace, God has fulfilled all his promises in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). In this, we have all the hope because we know our ultimate future is secure. It means that whether you are a working adult with troubles with your boss and poor relationships with your colleagues, or a student who cannot seem to do well, or one that does so well till school means everything to you. Or even if you are one who stresses over your familial relationships or friendships. Christmas reminds us to be filled in hope in the one who fulfilled His promises in Christ.
This passage teaches and reminds us that in difficulty, Christians are to respond with faithfulness just as Zechariah and Elizabeth did. They remained righteous and walked blamelessly in God’s commandments. In doing so, they placed their hope in God. In sending Christ, God gives ultimate hope to all, for he shows his mercy in fulfilling all of his promises, bringing all joy and glad hearts.