25. The Lord

Lessons from Israel: No.25 : It was the Lord

Ex 15:1 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.

There are mysteries about the acts of God. Sometimes His activities are very clear and other times not so clear. In Britain in this first decade of the twenty first century, Christians are rather coy or low key about speaking of the Lord’s acts for fear of being derided by the unbelieving majority, but it isn’t like that everywhere in the world. In fact it wasn’t like that at this point of history with Israel, for Moses and Israel knew without a doubt what had happened to them and so they made it into a song: God had delivered them and God had destroyed Pharaoh and his army. Of that they were quite sure.

It is a funny thing but the unbelief of sinful self-centredness always seems to be looking for explanations that rule God out and try to find a ‘natural’ reason. In today’s age atheistic scientists torture themselves mentally and do mental gymnastics to deny God. They have scientific laws that simply say for there to be movement there has to be an originating force. Then they try to explain the origin of the world by a ‘big bang’ but cannot climb over the intellectual impossibility of such a thing without an originating force because logically you cannot create a bang (of any size) that creates matter when there is absolutely nothing beforehand. The only logical answer is to acknowledge God made everything.

I used to have a friend who tried to explain away the fall of the walls of Jericho by pointing out that an army has to break step when crossing a bridge because of the vibrations set up by co-ordinated marching. The only problem is that Israel weren’t a trained or disciplined army, they weren’t marching over a rigid structure and Joshua wasn’t a trained army leader.

Then we have the people who maintain that the story we have recently read couldn’t have happened because, they maintain, the Red Sea or Reed Sea was only inches deep at that point. Well that just makes it an even bigger miracle that a whole army perished in a few inches of water! Why do we have to constantly try to deny these things, why do we have to constantly try to deny the Lord’s involvement. Merely because we understand a little of thermal movements causing changes in weather, do we have to try and explain away storms that the Bible say God brings to thwart the enemies of His people.

Sometimes the word of God is very specific about God’s activity, for example, the LORD had closed up every womb in Abimelech’s household because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.” (Gen 20:18) As a means of discipline to draw the king’s attention to something wrong, the Lord did this. How? I haven’t a clue. Sometimes the judgment or discipline of the Lord is stated without explanation, for example, “fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.” (Num 16:35). Again, how that happened I don’t know, but some catastrophic fire or lightning killed these men and it was clearly attributed to the Lord. Perhaps we don’t like attributing it to the Lord because we don’t like talking about punishment or justice or thinking through the bigger picture, or simply we don’t like talking about people’s guilt or of being held accountable by the Lord. In a day when every man does what is right in his own eyes, such language is uncomfortable.

Sometimes in Scripture we have references to the Lord having closed the womb of a particular woman. We’ve already seen it as a form of judgment or discipline but sometimes it just is stated without any moral judgment – e.g. Hannah (1 Sam 1:5,6). At other times women were just barren and it is not attributed to the Lord – e.g. Sarai (Gen 11:30), Rachel (Gen 25:21), and Elizabeth (Lk 1:7), i.e. they are just things that happen in a Fallen World. Now there is the truth: sometimes God acts to bring discipline or judgment; sometimes He seems to act for much wider purposes that only become clear in the fullness of time, and sometimes things just go wrong in this world that has to cope with the presence of Sin and Satan.

Possibly, therefore, when things appear to go wrong we would do well to seek the Lord and ask, “Lord, why is this happening? Are you trying to teach me something? Have I brought this on myself, or is this just one of those things that happens in a world that goes wrong?”  And even more, “Lord, please grant me your grace and wisdom to cope with this as you would want me to.”

There are often cynical comments made by atheists about Christians who seem to have an open communication with God and who attribute a lot of ordinary things to God. Well, we are called to be childlike and I would much rather people attribute good things to God and praise and thank Him for them, even if He didn’t specifically move to bring them. James said that every good and perfect gift comes from God (Jas 1:17) and I would rather give thanks to God for everything that comes along that is good, rather than keep quiet. God has made this world and made us in such a way that we can enjoy it, so let’s thank Him for every time we have enjoyment – in whatever way it comes. I like the comment of a friend of mine many years ago: “I feel sorry for atheists who, when something really good happens, have no one to thank.” We are made to be thankful and we are frustrated when we cannot give thanks. We harmonise with heaven when we realise the goodness of God and praise and thank Him for being recipients of it. Let’s be a people of praise and thanks!

Why God Permits Satan

We can benefit from understanding the following reasons why God allows Satan’s activities on earth as found in the Bible:

1. To reveal men’s hearts

  • 1 Chron 21:1 Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel – he was to reveal David’s underlying sin of pride – in the parallel verses (2 Sam 24:1) it is seen as God who was behind it (to deal with the sin)

2. To bring judgement on unbelievers

  • Rev 9:11 They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon. (both names mean “Destroyer”)

3. To bring discipline to believers

  • 1 Cor 5:5 by putting this sinful believer out of the church’s protection, it enabled Satan to come against him and humble him and bring him to repentance

4. To subjugate unbelievers

  • 1 Jn 5:19b the whole world is under the control of the evil one
  • Satan is allowed to rule where there is unconfessed sin, i.e. over unbelievers

5. To maintain humility in our lives

  • One of the key things God does with his children is to seek to develop character in them. As pride is always lurking, sometimes God allows us to be attacked so that we maintain our reliance upon Him and realise that of ourselves we are nothing.
  • 2 Cor. 12:7 Because Paul received wonderful revelations from God, to keep him from getting puffed up, he was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment him and keep him from getting proud.

6. To develop faith & righteousness in our lives

  • Faith is one of the key elements God wants to develop in our lives, and so often He does this by allowing us to encounter trying circumstances where our faith is both revealed and developed. Similarly, such testing times are to reveal and bring about greater righteousness within us.
  • 1 Peter 1:7 – trials are testings, and testings reveal our faith – such revelation of our faith brings honour in heaven
  • 1 Peter 5:8-9 – Satan seeks to attack us, but we are to learn to resist.
  • 2 Peter 1:4-8 – the testing of our faith develops our lives in many ways

7. To bring about trials whereby we can be rewarded

  • These trials, that involve Satan, make us rely upon God, His word and His Spirit and so the outcome of the battles we fight is that we appreciate Him, His word and His Spirit more and more.
  • James 1:12 God blesses the people who patiently endure testing – testing develops us and God blesses through it
  • 1 John 2:13,14 – it is a battle with Satan which we can win with God’s word, as we battle we rely on that word more and more
  • 1 John 4:1-6 – our battle is also with Satan’s agents; we are to overcome in the mind and we overcome by the Holy Spirit within us, as we overcome we realise the wonder of who it is within us more and more.
  • Rev. 2:17 – our reward, as we overcome Satan’s attacks, will be intimacy with Christ
  • Rev. 2:26-28 – as we obey Jesus and have the victory so he is preparing us to take authority, both in this world and the next.

8. To teach us how to fight

  • As we face such trials we learn how to overcome.
  • Judges 3:2 God did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience.
  • Israel grew in their knowledge of the Lord and how to fight as they opposed the enemy. We do the same in the spiritual sphere.

9. To demonstrate God’s power over the enemy

  • We need reminding who is who in the battle. Jesus IS Lord!
  • Eph 3:10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.
  • As we triumph God is glorified in the heavens.
  • Mk 1:21-27 As Jesus cast out a demon God was glorified.
  • Acts 13:6-12 As Saul triumphs over Elymas God was glorified.

Conclusions:

Although Satan was apparently not created for these express purposes, God takes and uses his rebellion for His purposes.

As Joseph once said, (Gen 50:20) “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Thus it is that in this fallen world where sin dominates, Satan is allowed access for the sake of God’s overall purposes.

We, therefore, need to maintain a right perspective so that we see:

  • Where the enemy is being allowed activity because of man’s unrighteousness, and therefore the unrighteousness is the thing to be dealt with.
  • Where the enemy should be resisted because he is simply seeking to expand his arena of control, and here we need to look to seek what God is wanting us to learn or develop in resisting the enemy, so we can co-operate with Him.

God who disciplines

God in the Psalms No.10 

Psa 6:1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath

Our initial response to these words may not be one that lifts our spirit. Most of us would read these words and say, “Oh dear!” (or something similar!). The thought of being rebuked or disciplined is not a comfortable one! These exact words are repeated in Psa 38:1. In fact the concept of the Lord disciplining His people is a very common one in Scripture, and when we see it in context we will see what a good thing it is.

Psa 39:11 says, “You rebuke and discipline men for their sin”. So, there discipline is linked with our sin. Well we would expect that perhaps but look at Deut 4:35,36: You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you”. The ‘things’ referred to there were His acts of deliverance in Egypt before the Exodus and their experience of Him at Sinai.  This idea is repeated in Deut 11:2,3: “Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the LORD your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt.” Again the discipline that is referred to comes about by observing the mighty acts of God as He dealt with Pharaoh and led them to their land.

Well let’s consider a general definition of discipline and see how it might fit what we’ve seen here:

discipline = training that develops self-control and character.

Now what would have been the effect upon Israel of watching God at work in Egypt? It would have gradually brought the revelation to them that He is all-mighty, all-powerful and that He deals with pride, arrogance, idol worship and sin generally. This should have taught them that God was not to be trifled with!   Psa 94:12 says, “Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law”. In other words, discipline comes about when we realize God’s Law, when we realize God’s standards, the way God has made things to be, when we realize the boundaries God has given us in life.

Discipline can thus be seen to be conforming our understanding and our lives to God’s design, God’s character and God’s will. The Lord made us perfect when He made the world but with the Fall, sin made us think and do things contrary to that perfection. Discipline is both the process and the product that brings us back to God’s way of thinking and acting. David was feeling very low in Psalm 6. It wasn’t that He objected to discipline but he didn’t want God to have to discipline him in anger because of sin.

Heb 12:5-11 is probably THE New Testament passage on discipline. The writer encourages us to
not lose heart when he rebukes you (v.6) and then gives the reason: the Lord disciplines those he loves” and “God disciplines us for our good” (v.10), so that Later on… it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (v.11). Now substitute the word, “trains” for discipline and we see more clearly what this is about. It’s not about punishment; it’s about bringing us into conformity with the truth – the truth of who God is, how He’s made the world to be, and how we are to live to get the best out of it.

Yes, it so often needs difficult circumstances to mould us. That was what was happening to David. We learn patience by having to wait, endurance by having to hang on in with difficult and trying circumstances, to love by being given difficult people, and so on. Each of these is God training us, disciplining us, and conforming us to His likeness – because He loves us and wants the best for us.

15. Discipline

The Anguish of Job – Meditation 15

Job 5:17 “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty

Oh no! Does Job need to hear this in his anguish? Although the cane was still in use in my school days, fortunately I never received it. I received clips round the ear, detentions and, on one occasion a visit to the headmaster’s study, but never the cane, I’m glad to say. Punishment is unpleasant. It’s supposed to be; it’s supposed to deter us and put us off doing something or of doing it again. Ultimately it is to bring about a change in behaviour in us – and it’s not pleasant!

Now correction is something that arises often in Scripture, for example, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16,17) Yes, that is in one of the more famous verses of the New Testament. God’s word sometimes has to rebuke or tell us off, correct or put right our thinking or behaviour, and train us or bring about changes in us. That is what correction, training and discipline is all about. Solomon was very strong on it: “he who hates correction is stupid.” (Prov 12:1). Why is that? It is because sin in us warps our thinking, distorts our perception, creates off-kilter attitudes, and leads us into silly patterns of behaviour, and none of those things do us any good. We need to change but another facet of sin is that it doesn’t like being told what to do, so we need God’s help to change.

So here is Eliphaz still beating up on Job. We’ve said a number of times already that he is basically judging Job and assuming that his plight is to do with sin. The implication of this verse today is that, “Of course you are a sinner and so God is having to beat it out of you with harsh circumstances, so think well of what is happening to you!” But of course, again as we’ve said several times, that isn’t what this is all about. If you can narrow it down to a tight description, we might simply say that God is testing Job’s resolve and his faithfulness and, no doubt, giving him a number of lessons along the way.

Eliphaz is very positive about it though. Yes you are a sinner and God is correcting you, but correction always has a good outcome; that is the gist of what follows. Listen to him: “For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” (v.18). It’s all right, he says, He may have wounded you, but He’ll also heal you up afterwards. Well that happens to be true, but for the moment it’s not a great deal of help! He continues: “From six calamities he will rescue you; in seven no harm will befall you. In famine he will ransom you from death, and in battle from the stroke of the sword.” (v.19,20) The ‘six’ and ‘seven’ usage was a cultural way of saying ‘many’ or ‘lots of’. In other words lots of things can go wrong but he will rescue you and save you from harm, keeping you from death. Yes, but Job wants to die! That’s how bad he feels. This may be true but it doesn’t make Job feel better!

See how he continues: “You will be protected from the lash of the tongue, and need not fear when destruction comes. You will laugh at destruction and famine, and need not fear the beasts of the earth.” (v.21,22) Yes, he says, when it goes bad God will protect you from the gossips and you won’t go to the same destruction. You can laugh at death. Well, yes again, that is true, but you actually need to get God’s grace to cope like that. You can’t do it on your own, so perhaps a nice act here by Eliphaz would be to say, “I feel with you in your anguish. May I pray for you that either God will release you from it or give you grace to cope with it, because I don’t know that I would be able to cope in your shoes without his help?”

Then he goes on: “For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field, and the wild animals will be at peace with you. You will know that your tent is secure; you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.” (v.23,24). Perhaps we might put that, “You will be at peace living in God’s world and know that your home will be secure and everything you own will be secure.” What! Just a minute! Job has just had his home taken and his flocks taken and his family taken! So what is Eliphaz saying? Once you have been disciplined and straightened out, this is how things will be. Right! Thanks!

He finishes off: “You will know that your children will be many, and your descendants like the grass of the earth. You will come to the grave in full vigor, like sheaves gathered in season.” (v.25,26) Yes, this only confirms what we’ve just said. Once God has sorted you out, everything will be wonderful again. Implication: you’re in a mess and need God’s discipline to sort you out – THEN everything will be fine again. And this man is a friend????

But how often do we deal with people like this? How often do we point fingers? Someone has said the Christian army is the only army that shoots its soldiers when they are down. That was not how Paul saw it. We’ve seen it before; let’s see it again: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Gal 6:1-3). If Eliphaz had been in Job’s shoes, I wonder how he would want to have been treated? Line on line here, Eliphaz is revealing his ignorance of the true facts of the situation and is just piling up more and more evidence of his own spiritual poverty. Jesus reached over and touched the leper (Lk 5:13). If only Eliphaz could have touched Job meaningfully. If only people would ‘touch’ me meaningfully when I’m down, if only I could always ‘touch’ people meaningfully when they are down, what a different church it would be!

Walk of Judgement

WALKING WITH GOD. No.27

2 Sam 24:11,12 Before David got up the next morning, the word of the LORD had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: “Go and tell David, `This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’ “

The life of David is a veritable gold mine in terms of lessons about mankind and the way God deals with us. David was indeed a man after God’s own heart, yet he was also a man with feet of clay, so that from time to time he got it very wrong! Yet despite getting it wrong a number of times, he still lived to a good old age, still seeking and doing the will of God. Here in itself is a reassuring lesson, a reminder that for much of the time we who are Christians, who seek the will of God, do get it wrong, but in those times the Lord disciplines us and corrects us. Paul said of the Scriptures, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:16) and recently we considered the need to be rebuked, but we wouldn’t need to be corrected or rebuked if we didn’t sometimes get it wrong. Our verses for consideration today are about a time when David got it wrong.

This episode begins at the beginning of the chapter with, “Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel” (2 Sam 24:1). What is strange is that the reason for the Lord’s anger is not given. Some suggest that it was because of the fact that a large number of Israel had sided with Absalom and risen against the Lord’s anointed. The way the Lord deals with this is by killing two birds with one stone. As well as Israel’s unfaithfulness to be dealt with, the Lord also sees that there is pride in David’s heart, and so He incites him to sin: “Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah’.” (v.1) Now the way the Lord does this is to let Satan play on David’s weakness, his pride, for we read in the parallel passage in 2 Chronicles, “ Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” (2 Chron 21:1). Satan is God’s means of provoking David to respond to his area of vulnerability and sin. Did God make David sin? No He simply allowed Satan to prod David even further in an area where there was sin already (pride) to bring that out into the open to be dealt with.

So David gives orders for his troops to be numbered with the express intention of showing how big and powerful he was. Pride! However, immediately after the census has been taken, David realizes he has sinned: “David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD , I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.” (v.10) This is quite a remarkable awareness in this man; he knew exactly what he had done and why he had done it and was not making excuses.

Before the night has passed, the prophet Gad gets a wake-up call from the Lord with an awesome message for David. Talk about punishment to fit the crime! Remember, the Lord is also looking for an opportunity to punish Israel for their unfaithfulness and perhaps shock them back into a right place with Him. A premature end of life is going to come to a number of the people of Israel . They are all going to die one day anyway, but there is going to be a premature end for many of these people who had rebelled against God when they had rebelled against David, but the Lord is going to take this opportunity to discipline David as well. The greater the closeness or intimacy with the Lord, the greater the responsibility and accountability to the Lord. The way the Lord is going to deal with David will be to deal with his heart in a devastating way. Gad’s walk to the king’s palace is a walk of both discipline and judgement. David is going to know discipline and Israel are going to know judgement!

David is given options. He is to choose the judgement on Israel. How terrible was that! David had shown again and again his shepherd-heart care for his men, and now he is being told to choose judgement for them. He will be devastated. He cries to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.” (v.14). He didn’t want the three months at the hands of his enemies because he knew what the sin of men could do – no restraint! No, he wanted God to do whatever had to be done, because he knew God was a God of mercy and might hold back – which happened. Nevertheless seventy thousand died.

There are some terrible lessons here. First, a godly nation with a God-appointed king, was accountable to God for their rebellion. God will not simply ignore it. Second, pride is a sin and God will deal with it, especially in those who are closest to Him. Third, often the way the Lord deals with it is to let Satan expose it and bring a temporary downfall of that person. Fourth, the downfall is God’s discipline but He will also work further to rid that person of that pride. These are serious lessons that those of us who would claim to walk with God need to learn, as painful as they may be. When Paul wrote of God changing us into the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor 3:18), this is one of the ways He uses to change us. Deal with the sin before He deals with it!  remember what we so often say: God loves you so much He accepts you just like you are, but He also loves you so much that He won’t let you stay like you are; He has something much better for you. However the latter aspect means that His love is expressed in the form of discipline. Again we often say in life, a father who never corrects or disciplines or trains his child, doesn’t love the child. Strong lessons for strong faith.

Walk of Rebuke

WALKING WITH GOD. No.25

2 Sam 12:7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!

Our verse above shows us the importance of not taking verses out of context. Standing on its own it could have a number of meanings. It could be very positive: you are the man of God’s choice to be king and deliver Israel. But it wasn’t. Let’s see what had been happening. Again if we purely took chapter twelve it would not be sufficient. In that chapter we find the prophet, Nathan, walking over to David’s palace and telling him a story of a rich man and a poor man. The poor man had nothing except a little ewe while the rich man had lots of sheep and cattle. When a traveller visited the rich man instead of killing one of his own animals for a feast, he took and killed the poor man’s ewe. The natural injustice of this act made David angry, and as he expresses his anger over the rich man, it is then that Nathan says, “You are the man!It is in fact a word of rebuke.

But if you didn’t know your Bible you would now be wondering what this was all about because the actions behind this have not been revealed so far. For that we have to go back into chapter 11. There we find the account of how David saw Bathsheba bathing and took her to himself and had her husband murdered. He had used his position of power to commit adultery and do away with the husband and we find in the closing words of chapter 11, “But the thing David had done displeased the LORD” (11:27). Thus He sends Nathan on this walk of rebuke (12:1)

Now a rebuke is not a pleasant thing but in the kingdom of God it is a necessary thing. The reality is that we go astray and get things wrong, even if we are Christians. On a bad day the only difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that the Christian knows that they have done wrong! But because of the old sinful nature that still lingers there, and which will never be completely gone this side of heaven, we are often hesitant to acknowledge and confess the wrong. Adam and Eve gave us the clearest examples of what happens. They did wrong (Gen 3:1-6), they realized their state (v.7), became fearful and hid when God came (v.8-10) and then justified their actions (v.12,13) by blaming others. No, we’re not always very good at facing up to the truth about ourselves and our misdemeanours. The truth is that if we can, we will get away with it, and that’s why we need someone to face us up with the truth.

We find rebukes coming at various times in Jesus ministry and in the life of the early church. In the storm on the lake, Jesus rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith (Mt 8:26). When a man came to be healed, he rebuked the teachers of the Law for their hard hearts (Mt 9:4). He also rebuked the cities that did not respond to him (Mt 11:20 -). He chided Peter for wavering in faith when he walked on the lake (Mt 14:31), he chided him for being of slow to understand (Mt 15:16) and he rebuked him for his response to his teaching about his death (Mt 16:23). The classic rebuke in the Acts is that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:3-5,9,10). Indeed we find Jesus teaching, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” (Lk 17:3) and “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” (Rev 3:19). Thus rebuking is an expression of God’s love for us. He sees us in error and doesn’t want us to go on in a place where His blessing is hindered by our failure. He wants us back in a place of goodness and rightness of relationship with Him. As some of the above examples show, He wants us to become strong in our faith and go on and mature.

How does He rebuke? Well perhaps a common way is through His word which Paul described as, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). He instructed Timothy, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Tim 4:2). Rebuking is thus confronting failures with the truth. Another way the Lord does this is through our conscience: “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience.” (2 Cor 5:11). Allied to that, the Holy Spirit also convicts (Jn 16:8) us of our wrong doing. Sometimes, as with today’s example, He will rebuke us through another person, a prophet or simply a friend or someone close to us who sees our wrong and loves us enough to confront us with it. Indeed “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) will be one of the key ways we will grow into maturity. If someone walks the walk of rebuke to us, are we open to receive it?

God’s Training

Lk 1:19-20   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. 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.” 
   
Any church leader will tell you that they wish that every one of their congregation were on fire for God with their lives well and truly sorted out – but people are people and unbelief in various forms is often the most human characteristic observable. If only we could wave a magic wand over people and all their spiritual ills would disappear! If only people would respond instantly to God’s word. We even pray for better responses because the hard truth is that most of the time the Lord moves very gently in dealing with people. 
    
This good man, this law-keeper, Zechariah, finds it so hard to believe that he and his wife could have a child, in their old age, even when he is being told by an angel from God. When we look at what now happens it seems as if God feels He has to do something a bit more dramatic to urge him along the path to blessing. The Lord knows that if only He can get Zechariah to respond, the outcome will be the blessing of producing the man who will prepare the people to receive Jesus, a son who will bring joy to this aging couple. God is planning blessing for this couple and for the nation in about thirty years.
   
It all hinges on this. If God can’t get this man to respond there will be no John the Baptist, and if there is no John then the people will not be prepared to receive their Saviour. Could God not have used another family and there been a different ‘John’? Obviously He thinks not! The Lord sees the potential of what this child could be and no one else will achieve what John will achieve.  Perhaps we don’t realise that we have potential and it is the potential to do what no one else can do.  We have a unique place in this world, with a unique bunch of contacts and no one else will ‘fit’ my place in this world.
    
So the Lord has determined to deal with this situation so that there is a good outcome. The angel could have berated Zechariah, flashed bolts of lightening around and him and generally scared him some more, but that isn’t God’s way. That could have turned Zechariah off, it could have made him completely give up, and so no, the angel doesn’t do that. He is operating with God’s wisdom as well as God’s power and authority and so he does something that will stay with Zechariah until this child is established. This has got to be something that will encourage Zechariah to be obedient right through to the naming of the child, not just conceiving him.  This isn’t about punishing Zechariah but motivating him into a place of blessing.
    
So the angel speaks a word and Zechariah is dumb for the next nine months. He doesn’t know when it will end; he just knows he is dumb. It is something that is constantly with him. Time and again he feels the frustration of not being able to speak out and get someone’s attention, or speak out and give an answer. He has to learn to communicate through sign language, and he realises that he’s not too old to learn new things!
   
Does God move like this today? Yes, I’m convinced He does, maybe not so dramatically but He certainly does stuff to motivate us. I am convinced there are things that happen that are the simple, straight forward discipline of God – and remember that discipline in the Bible is not about punishing, it’s about training. I suspect that much of the time we don’t realise what is happening, but nevertheless these things that come as trials will test us and change us, even if we’re not aware of it at the time.
   
When difficulties come into our lives and we complain about them, what we are unable to see is the good outcome that God is working towards for us. We can’t see the future and very often we can’t even see the whole picture of what is happening in the present, and so we don’t realise where this is going and don’t realise that it is working to change us and perhaps change other people, so that at the end of it, blessing will be there that couldn’t have been otherwise.
    
Zechariah no doubt struggled with being dumb right up until the naming of John. At that point, when he confirmed the boy’s name in line with God’s wishes, his tongue was released and not just to talk, but now to prophesy. We need to see the big picture and we need to see the end outcome, and until we can, we need to have and open heart, that says, “Lord, what do you want of me?” and be willing to do what God says in answer. Do you and I have that sort of heart?