The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:
2. Lottery Winners?
Lk 1:8,9 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
Luck? One of the mysteries of life on this planet is about ‘luck’. Just what is luck? An online dictionary defines it as, ‘success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.’ Millions of people, who really can’t afford it, play the lottery. It is said, I believe that the odds of winning the National Lottery in the UK is 1 in 45 million, but people think, ‘Why shouldn’t that one be me? Imagine 45 million of you crowded shoulder to shoulder on a small island – well, not such a small island! And somebody on a passing boat who happens to have a catapult fires a small stone into the air. How safe are you? Pretty safe. The odds are that it is going to hit someone else.
Zechariah’s odds: We find early on in the Christmas story an aging priest called Zechariah. Now every male directly descended from Aaron was automatically a priest and at this time there were likely to have been about twenty thousand of them, divided into twenty-four divisions. Each division served in the Temple in Jerusalem for one week twice a year. Burning incense in the temple happened twice a day and, as it was considered a special privilege, the person doing it each time was chosen by lot. Because there were so many of them, often a priest would never have that privilege but if it did occur, thereafter the priest would be considered special, “rich and holy”. Work out how many times in a year and the number in your division and the odds are something like 1 in about 50-70. No wonder most never had the opportunity. (An aside: You and I were not chosen by God in a lottery.)
Destiny? So the odds were remarkably better than winning our lottery but still pretty unlikely. At this point people start muttering about ‘destiny’ and we start getting into what power, if any, makes something happen, fate if you like. And then again we come back to luck, chance or good fortune? Or does God have a hand in it all? Well there is something we can say about this when it comes to the Bible and that is that there ARE clearly times when God does intervene, act or speak, and there are times when it seems a bit of a long-shot for something to have happened without it being God, and there are times when it just does seem chance, stuff that happens for no discernible reason. Sometimes things do happen as consequences of other previous things.
Here in the account about Zechariah it doesn’t say God made Zechariah win the lottery. Yes, he’s in it because he is of the family of Aaron and yes, it’s the turn of his particular division but beyond that we really can’t go any further. Often people ask, “Why did that have to happen?” and it is an unwise person who tries to give a specific answer. If you drink too much and then stumble into the road and are run over by a passing vehicle, you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to suggest that alcohol had a part to play in it. Yet often things do happen for no apparent accountable reason, but when you start looking at other factors in the equation, that’s when it starts getting interesting!
Life is not always kind: For instance, let’s consider Zechariah. You probably know about him if he has been included in your Advent readings. He is a good man and he’s got a good wife. “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Lk 1:6) You can’t ask more than that! But merely because you are good doesn’t mean to say that life will always be kind to you: “But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (v.7) In a society where children were important that meant heart-ache. “Don’t you see that children are God’s best gift? the fruit of the womb his generous legacy? Like a warrior’s fistful of arrows are the children of a vigorous youth. Oh, how blessed are you parents, with your quivers full of children!” (Psa 127:3-5 Message version) When you live in that sort of culture, the inability to have children must raise questions, and certainly cause heart-ache, and maybe even a sense of shame at not being able to have children.
No Hope: The fact that they were both “very old” also suggested that now there was no hope of there ever being that possibility. Time has gone, we’ve missed the boat, we are second-class citizens, we always have been and always will be. The Lord gave me a word for someone the other day: “Don’t take anything as fixed”. Over the years I have twice had the privilege and joy of imparting the word of God to childless couples, “You will have a child within a year,” and they did. In both cases I had not known that the couples previously had been told they would remain childless. Jesus taught, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Lk 18:27) or, as put in Matthew, “With God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26), and as the angel later said to Mary, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Lk 1:37) (An aside: Let’s never take what we see as the final, ‘This must be’).
Timing & Purpose: Now we are going to see that God is going to change this for this couple and give them a child and the question naturally arises in the mind, “Did God stop Elizabeth conceiving up until this time so as to reveal a miracle birth?” There is no indication of that and there is certainly no indication in Scripture that God has stopped all childless couples having children. It is simply the fact of living in a Fallen World where things go wrong. Yet one cannot help but wondering about God’s strategy behind all that is shortly going to take place. Was it pure chance that a childless (but righteous) priest gets the lottery and ends up in the Temple, the place where God was said to reside?
Expectation: But did Zechariah expect anything more from this experience beyond the fact that he could say he had done it? I doubt it. His response when the angel turns up and conveys God’s will is not a ‘full-of-faith’ response. And yet here is a significant lesson. We don’t have to be full of expectation for God to turn up. It does help sometimes but the bigger message that comes over in the Bible again and again is that God is the initiator. Moses was definitely not full of faith when God turned up at the burning bush (Ex 3) and similarly Zechariah is not full of faith here. In fact it may be that the disappointment of not having children had meant that his expectations of God were very low. No doubt he had prayed and prayed, but nothing had changed – until now, but now it is too late. It’s a broken world and sometimes it seems you just have to live with that – until God turns up and says otherwise, which is unlikely, we think. (An aside: Again, with God with us, let’s never say, “I’m stuck”.)
A problem: Now we are going to have to face a problem. We said in the first of these studies that this is not always a comfortable story, it’s often difficult and scary. Perhaps because we know the story too well we take things for granted. Zechariah is a good man and he is religious. His life is focused on the Temple, on serving God, and that describes many good Christians many of whom it could be said, “they were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Unfortunately that is good only up to a point. Why do I say that? Because Zechariah is just about to have a ‘God encounter’ and he’s not going to handle it too well. I have lived long enough to have seen the Lord turn up with ‘God encounters’ a number of times and I have to tell you that the people of God don’t always handle that very well. It is one thing to go to church, to be a ‘good’ Christian but how open are we to God turning up and doing something unexpected? That is the challenge that is about to come here. Are we ready for it? Dare we be honest about our likely response? I did say this story isn’t always comfortable. Now do you believe me? No longer an aside: When God comes and initiates an encounter with us, let’s see if we can simply say, “Yes, Lord.”