5. God knows how to choose people

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

5. God knows how to choose people

Lk 1:5,11   In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah…. an angel of the Lord appeared to him

Lk 1:26-27  In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

Fresh Perspective: So often when we think about the Christmas story we focus on people and events, but perhaps a more profitable perspective might be to wonder what was happening in God’s mind. Now that sounds seriously pompous, affected or pretentious, possibly even arrogant, but I want to suggest that by looking at some of the people involved, we may make some reasonable assumptions about the Lord. The greatest sense I have, pondering afresh on the Christmas story and the people we have already mentioned, is that God knows how to choose people. I mean, can you imagine the crazy scenario of the angel Gabriel going from one priest to another before he felt satisfied that Zechariah was the one for the job. Or even worse, turning up in one bedroom after another before he found a girl who would say yes. And as for Joseph – well, it was more about Mary really because he was her fiancé so perhaps in this silly imaginary scenario imagine him going from house to house looking for a girl, not yet married but who has a fiancé in tow who would eventually agree to the job? No, I don’t think it was like that at all. God looked, God saw, and God knew.

What did God know? Well the good things first, the obvious things. Zechariah was described as righteous, a follower of the Law blamelessly (Lk 1:6). All we are told about Mary is that she found favour with the Lord (Lk 1:30). Joseph, we are told was “faithful to the Law” (Mt 1:19) but also that he was clearly compassionate and caring not wanting to expose her to public disgrace. Each of these three are clearly righteous, godly people. When it comes to their futures, Zechariah, I would suggest, has really given up hope of ever being a father and is just living out his days serving in his division of the priesthood without much hope. Mary and Joseph are looking to a future together, as we said in the previous study, looking forward to setting up home together and having a family. A positive expectation, a future full of hope.

But God knows everything. Yes, God knows the past, the present and what will be the future. He also knows how we will respond to each situation so, I would suggest, He is not at all surprised when Zechariah splutters over the thought of becoming a father in his old age. He is not at all surprised when Joseph determines to quietly divorce Mary, i.e. break off their relationship, for that is what a righteous man apparently faced with unfaithfulness would do. He also knows that giving Zechariah a nudge of dumbness would make him a believer and giving Joseph a dream would be all that was necessary to bring him round to take on the responsibility of being a husband and a father to a child that was not his.   And Mary? He knew she would simply acquiesce to His plans for her. Why was Mary an easy-believer, Joseph a bit of a struggler and Zechariah a serious struggler? I want to say that they each have reasons to struggle (Joseph’s righteousness, Zechariah’s childless old age) but the simple truth is that it is a mystery why one person is full of faith and another is a struggler.

Knowing the end result: Now here is the exciting thing, I believe: God knows what He can achieve with each of is, even if He needs to nudge us forward once or twice. Now this is actually monumental when you think about it. You and I look at one another as we are now, and we assess one another on what we are now, and sometimes write one another off on what we see now – and that’s where we differ from God. God knows our capabilities. God knows that Zechariah will struggle to begin with but with nine months of dumbness he will come to a place where he declares his new son’s name in line with God’s will and will then be filled with the Spirit and prophesy. God knows that Joseph will struggle in his righteousness in the face of what the circumstances seem to be telling him, but with just one dream will come around and will join the place of possible shame and being the butt of gossip when Mary has a baby within an unacceptably short period after their wedding – indeed she might have been showing signs of it at the wedding – even more gossip! Mary is just simply a devout child of God who doesn’t need any nudging to accept the will of God for her life, even if it does mean loss of reputation and lots of misunderstanding.

Others? But go back into the Old Testament, as I did in a previous series entitled, ‘Reaching into Redemption’ and see some of the strugglers back there. Abraham, man of faith, friend of God, struggled in the face of threats to his life (Gen 12:12-), and struggled when his wife failed to conceive and gave way to her suggestions (Gen 16:2-) – and that had serious long-term consequences! Yes, he was a man of faith but it was often a struggle. Then there the schemer and twister, Jacob, and all the comings and goings of his life before he ends up being a faithful patriarch who understood the ways of God and prophesied the word of God over his sons. He was followed by Joseph, the spoilt brat who ends up a wise ruler who, again, understands the ways of God (see Gen 50:20). It gets better (or worse depending on how you look at it): Moses, a Hebrew Prince of Egypt who totally blew it and ended up on his own looking after sheep in the desert for forty years before God came and had a long argument with him (Ex 3 & 4) to get him to accept his destiny. All great men – eventually!

Us? Don’t you find this encouraging?  Here we are, chosen of God (Eph 1:11) but so often feeling we are spiritual nightmares, tripping over our spiritual feet! You know one of the even bigger and more amazing things about this is that God chooses us, and calls some of us into leadership, even while He knows we are going to make a mess of it. I wonder how many leaders could say with an honest heart they haven’t got it wrong some way along the path, and as for those who have clearly blown it…..   the Lord knew and continues to work to redeem each of us and, as we said at the end of the previous study, the long-term outcome may be more determined by our availability or otherwise, although these stories challenge that belief. If it is our availability it will only be because the Lord presses us forward. I am always challenged by the words the apostle Paul uses, “the faith God has distributed to each of you,” (Rom 12:3) and “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” (Rom 12:6) We do have a part to play without doubt, but the Lord’s impartation of faith and gifting is of major importance and He will be there, knowing exactly what we are like, but encouraging us on.

The supreme example: We’ve been looking at how the Lord ‘encouraged’ on Zechariah and Joseph (not needing to do it with Mary) and pondering how He does it with us, but possibly the best example in the New Testament has to be the apostle Peter. When Jesus renamed him (Jn 1:42) he knew Peter was destined to be changed from ‘a small pebble’ to a ‘big rock’ but it wasn’t going to be without its downsides. The fact that he three times denied Jesus (e.g. Mt 26:69-75) – with Jesus’ prior knowledge (Mt 26:34) – did not disqualify him from the role Jesus had for him, leading his church (see Jn 21:15-19). God knew all about Zechariah before Gabriel left heaven, He knew all about Joseph and He knew all about Peter and He knows all about you and me. Thank goodness, thank God!

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3. Oh help, it’s God!

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

3. Oh help, it’s God!

Lk 1:11,12 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.

 Really?   One of our dangers in the modern church is that we talk about ‘God’ too easily. I have to confess that applies to me as much as anyone else, whether it be in these studies or when I am teaching people to listen to God.  Moreover, I believe when we read the Bible, so often we read through rose-tinted glasses and see ourselves as wise responsive Christians who could never act like some of the clowns we read of in Scripture. Now that may be slightly over-stating it, but we are often not far from that. Take what I was saying at the end of the previous study, that we may be ‘good Christians’ but we don’t always handle ‘God encounters’ well.

For Example: It’s quite likely that many of us have never really had a ‘God encounter’ (except at new birth) because they are relatively few and far between for most. I was around in the days of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ at the back end of the last century, the time when God started turning up and people started laughing a lot and often appearing drunk in the Spirit, and many were falling down in the Spirit. I won’t go into long details of how we, as a church, were first introduced to what was happening, suffice it to say at the end of one Sunday morning, in the early days of it, as a response to what was preached we invited people, who felt the need, to come forward for prayer. Already the manifestations I referred to just now had started to happen and so on this morning the expectation of many was high – but not me. I was struggling with it as the leader of this church. I invited various of our leaders to come and pray over the ones who had come forward and I stood back and watched.

Yes, various stuff started happening and nearest to me two of my guys were praying their hearts out, clearly wanting this person to come under the power of the Spirit. After a few minutes of nothing happening, I was not amused and stepped in and they stepped back to let me pray. Without thinking I stretched out my hand and managed to get out, “Dear Lord, please…..” and the person went straight down under the Spirit. Now I am being completely honest when I say my reaction was to look to heaven and think, “How did you do that, and why?”  For the next six months it continued like that. I felt uncomfortable but I only had to pray a few words and the power of God fell. It took that six months for me to get to, “OK, Lord, if this is what you want to do, use me as you will,” and felt comfortable with it. If my memory is right it lasted for about a year and a half, during which our prayer meetings were always full and our people, young and old, were reading their Bibles like there was no tomorrow and all rejoicing and worshipping like they had never done before.

And Zechariah: Now I mention all this because so often (and I’m just as guilty) we give Zechariah a bad press. What an idiot! Fancy dissing an angel! But this year I find I am looking afresh at this and I find myself thinking more widely across the Bible. Fear of God – or at least mentions of it – appears early in the Bible (see Gen 20:11, 22:12, Ex 1:17 etc.) and especially when God turns up, which is why so often the person has to be reassured (see Ex 3:6, Judg 6:22,23, Isa 6:5, 41:10,13 etc.) When God turns up, it is natural to be afraid: “he was startled and was gripped with fear.”

It is a sign of the lack of God’s presence in the life of Israel at this time when Zechariah went into the Temple, that no one expected to actually meet with God there. Stories of the Tabernacle or the Temple being filled with the glory of the Lord had just been consigned to the distant past of the Old Testament scrolls.  We see the same thing some thirty years later when Jesus enters the local synagogue, teaches and casts out a demon and the people respond, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’” (Mk 1:27) Powerless religion at the hands of the local rabbi was all the people knew – until God turned up in the form of Jesus.

And Us?  We should not pass by on the other side here but stop and face the challenge with which we are presented. Is Christmas for us simply a materialistic time of celebration with food, drink, presents and parties, or perhaps do we go a stage further and attend all the various services the church lays on, mostly services which are essentially an entertainment which we watch, appreciate and can walk away from unchallenged? Do we see Christmas as a time when God invaded the earth in the most low-key invasion ever known, but an invasion never the less?  The heavenly presence starts here with Zechariah and he wasn’t expecting it and so it was scary. Do we see the challenge here, as to how we might have responded if we had been in Zechariah’s shoes? Or even closer to home, are we open to God coming and invading our personal space with fresh challenges to become part of His strategies for the earth today?

Zechariah’s Alternative: For that is all that is happening in this ‘forerunner story’ about Zechariah. God is inviting him to become part of His strategy to bless the earth through the coming of His Son. Put aside Zechariah’s negative response which evokes a disciplinary response from the angel; suppose Zechariah had responded positively and simply said, “Great bring it on.” The only difference would have been that the distraction (which God would use) of his disobedience and subsequent dumbness would have been removed from the story, but the end outcome would have been the same. God was going to enable this elderly couple to have a son anyway!

The funny thing is that all it required was for Zechariah to go home after his time serving in the Temple and persuade his wife that they weren’t too old to make love and leave the rest to God. He needn’t have gone home and said anything but just let nature and God take their course. Now, instead, he is made dumb, just as a little encouragement along the way, and so has to explain by sign language or perhaps in writing, why he is dumb and what God has said. He has been forced out into the open. But doesn’t God do that sometimes, manipulates circumstances so we have to come out into the open and declare our faith?

The divine perspective: The truth is that God has chosen Zechariah knowing, I suggest, all about him, knowing he is righteous, knowing he is religious, knowing he is not expecting divine encounters, know he is not full of faith, knowing he is old and knowing he is childless, and so He is going to take all these things and weave them together into a tapestry that will be clear and obvious for all to see and which will have the neighbours talking, and will remain in the family memory for a long time to come. Whether John’s parents were still alive when John started his ministry or whether they had already passed on, we don’t know, but whatever the truth is of that, John would have been told and John would have that foundation even before the Spirit started to stir him into his ministry in the days to come.

Weaving the Tapestry: Oh yes, this is going to be a beautiful tapestry built upon this man’s righteousness, challenging his religiosity and low expectations and low faith level, provoking him into faithless questioning and receiving a heavenly rebuke in return that meant he would be dumb, which in turn would necessitate him explaining and testifying to what had happened and becoming a sign for all the onlookers. Yes, this is God breaking into the happy experience of an aging, childless, righteous and religious man to completely upset his apple cart as we might say today, as he enjoys his big moment serving in the Temple, completely disturbing his peace and quiet and normality, to make him a figure of history.  I suspect if we ever could meet him in eternity and ask him about it, he would look down and with a smile reply, “Yes, well, I was obviously having a bad day in the Temple. I thought it was a great day but I didn’t realise the challenges that would come with it.” And then looking up would add with an even bigger smile, “But the Lord got me there in the end!”

And so, the Big Picture: Finally note the stages of what happened. Stage 1: Serving in the Temple. Great! Stage 2: Chosen to offer the incense. Wonderful! Stage 3: God turns up. Help!!!!!!   Stage 1 he saw coming. Stage 2 he probably didn’t expect but was delighted about. Stage 3 he definitely didn’t see coming and initially didn’t like, but stage 3 was exactly that, just a further stage in God’s plans for this man, plans that have a much bigger panorama, the first stage of preparing the way for the arrival of His Son. And of course Christmas in itself is just the first stage in the plan of redemption, or perhaps we should say a further stage because the first stage took place before the foundation of the world when the Godhead agreed it, the second stage was it being drip-fed through the prophets, and so what we have been considering today is actually the third stage of the plan. But isn’t that how life with God is? We think the present moment is THE big moment, but it isn’t, it is just a further stage in the ongoing plans of God involving us, so perhaps that can be the last of a variety of lessons that come out of this story. Enjoy your next stage that is today.

2. Lottery Winners?

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, 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.”

11. A Poor Choice?

Focus on Christ Meditations: 11.  A Poor Choice?

Lk 1:5-7   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. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

I have been a Christian and part of the Christian community for fifty years, and in that time I have lost count of the times I have heard various aspects of the Nativity story, and I must have written about it more than a few times. Yet, I find myself approaching these thing with new eyes, eyes that wonder afresh as I have been seeking to go beyond the familiar and see something more of the reality of the words we find in our Bibles. The focus is to be Jesus Christ but in so doing this, there are people and prophecies surrounding him who shed light on him and who, therefore, we need to examine because they are truly part of his story.

John the Baptist is going to be one such person who acts as a magnifying glass as we gaze upon the One who is Christ but before we get to John we need to look at his parents and see that his coming into the world also had a divine dimension to it. However, as I put the above verses on the screen I am suddenly struck with a new train of thought to anything I have pondered in the past in respect of Zechariah, and this train of thought flows on as a tributary of this main river we have been following – the mystery and questions surrounding the coming of Jesus.

Now so far in this second Part we have considered three people or groups of people who were up front in being told about the One who is coming – Simeon, the shepherds and the wise men (we’ll come to Mary & Joseph later) – two of whom have been wondering for some time about the Coming One and one (the shepherds) who just had the news dropped on them in the middle of the night. Now Zechariah may or may not fall into the category of the ‘expecting ones’ but, even as we have commented before, there is a difference between knowing the theory of the Coming One and coping with the reality. I’m not sure how I would react in similar circumstances so I would like to try to NOT be too hard on Zechariah.

It starts, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.” (Lk 1:11,12) Surprise or being ‘startled’ indicates a reaction to something not expected. Now scholars suggest that your name coming up to burn incense in the temple was a once in a lifetime event, but he would have known many of his colleagues in his division of the priesthood and so far, although they might have said how wonderful it was to be performing that rite, none had even reported an encounter with an angel, so scary, quite possibly, simply because of the surprise element.

But the angel seeks to put him at ease (v.13a) and goes on to tell him that, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” (v.13b) Now because of the fact that he is now old, I would suggest that he probably stopped asking for his wife to be able to conceive long back, but the Lord knows he did pray.  Now he’s a good man, this Zechariah, for the record says that both he and his wife “were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” (v.6) Nevertheless, and this is his stumbling block, “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v.7) so a) he no doubt prayed a long time and b) nothing had happened so now c) they are both old people, way beyond child-bearing years.

Now I want to be honest, because those of us in this sort of situation need to be, because I suggest that you need a lot of grace if this is you, not to feel at least slightly gritty about being childless – especially when you have prayed your socks off! So why did the Lord choose this particular priest who He must have known would be a bit on the gritty side when it comes to mentioning children?

The angel goes on to explain to him that this son, John, is going to have a great and significant ministry (v.14-17) but unfortunately Zechariah isn’t listening to the “this is how great your son will be” side of the news, he is just stuck with the reality of being childless in old age: “Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (v.18) Oooops! By the angel’s response, this is Zechariah basically saying, “You’ve got to be joking! Go away” Not a wise thing to say to an angel of God who gently reminds him just who he is: “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.” (v.19) Reading between the lines, a translation: “You idiot, I’m one of God’s top angels and this is a top-flight task I’ve been given, so don’t mess with me!!!! Don’t you realise this is wonderful news?”

Zechariah is clearly still not jumping up and down with joy and so the angel continues, “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.” (v.20) Now however you look at that, it is a word of chastisement. OK smart religious guy, you want a bit of reassurance to help you when you go back to your wife? Very well, with your mouth you uttered folly, so to make sure you don’t get into any more trouble, until the child is born, you’ll be dumb. End of this part of the story. The end of this bit is that John is born and Zechariah’s mouth is opened to prophesy (see v.57-).

So look, here is my problem and I say again, I think familiarity has blinded us to the realities of what was going on here. So let’s think wider. First, God knows all things and God knows that this childless old man is likely to be bit gritty and so might not come up with the perfect response to the good news. God knows all this before it happens. Second, God could have enabled Elizabeth to conceive years before but didn’t. Third, God could have chosen a less ‘complicated’ couple to have John, but didn’t. Fourth, when Zechariah gives his less than perfect response the angel could have gone off to find someone else, but he didn’t. Fifth after that response the angel could have said, “OK, it’s going to happen anyway so go home and just get on with it,” and left Zechariah wondering and then sharing with Elizabeth and then trying for a baby, but he didn’t, he made him dumb.

So what is the answer to this apparently poor choice of a father to John the Baptist. Mere speculations, simple suggestions. First, these are good people and will provide a good family upbringing for this prophet-to-be. Second, Elizabeth is related to Mary so there is going to be a family link between the two boys. Third, God isn’t averse to a little ‘supernatural activity’ (temporary dumbness and an amazing conception) to encourage His people on. Fourth, this is simply the start of a whole stream of supernatural activities culminating in the arrival of His Son. Fifth, the Lord knows that in the end Zechariah is going to be a true believer – see him prophesying!  Poor choice? No, right choice!

There is an application here that we would do well to observe. At first sight Zechariah doesn’t come out of this encounter very well. By the end, he does. What applies to Zechariah can apply to us. We may get it wrong, we may not respond well to God’s words to us and faith may be slow to blossom, but the Lord does not give up on us. He knows what the end can be, with us as well as with Zechariah. Don’t let temporary failure or setback mean you don’t go on to get God’s grace to come out good.

To reflect: are we open to the Lord still, when the years have passed with His silence? Are we open to His supernatural activity or have we accepted the lie that He stopped being God when the canon of Scripture was complete? Where does it leave us today?

55. Zechariah

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 55. Zechariah

Zech 3:1,2  Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”

We have chosen the above two verses as highlights because they open up a vision that is so well known. We have commented more than once on how our original intention to pick out just one or two verses as highlights has proved an impossible task with many books that actually have so many ‘highlights’, and Zechariah is a classic example of this.

Zechariah was not only a prophet who, we’ve previously noted in Ezra 5:1, worked alongside Haggai (also see Ezra 6:14) but he was also head of a priestly family (see Neh 12:16) who was probably born in Babylon but returned with one of the groups sent back. To understand his prophecies (at least in the first 6 chapters) we need to remind ourselves that the Lord needed to ensure that the people who returned never sank back into their idolatrous practices of previous centuries, and that they were continually encouraged in the rebuilding works in Jerusalem  (Temple and then walls).

The prophecies that come through Zechariah a) work to encourage this, (Ch.1-6), b) give hints of the Messiah, and c) appear to speak of later times in the plans of God (Ch.9 on).

Part A: Ch.1-6 The encouragement of the eight night visions. First, let’s first of all pick up some of the highlights in these early chapters

  1. The Horseman among the Myrtle Trees (1:7-17): “My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.” (1:17). A promise of future prosperity for Israel, God’s chosen. Reminder: we are the chosen of God.
  2. The Four Horns and the Four Craftsmen (1:18-21): “These are the horns that scattered Judah …. the craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations” (v.21) The four countries that had contributed to Judah’s downfall will themselves be made accountable and pulled down.
  3. A Man with a Measuring Line (ch. 2): “Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it.” (2:4) God’s blessing on Jerusalem will be so great boundaries (walls) will not be able to contain it. Reminder: salvation means abundant blessing.
  4. Clean Garments for the High Priest (ch. 3): “he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” (v.4) Joshua, token head of Israel as the high priest, is cleansed and recommissioned, a wonderful picture of what the Lord does for us.
  5. The Gold Lampstand and the Two Olive Trees (ch. 4): “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (4:6) This is all about God’s resourcing of His people by His Spirit. Reminder: we are a Spirit indwelt and empowered and resourced people.
  6. The Flying Scroll (5:1-4): “This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished.” (5:3) The land will be cleansed of sin. Reminder: we have been cleansed from our sins by the blood of Christ.
  7. The Woman in a Basket (5:5-11): “It is a measuring basket….. This is the iniquity of the people throughout the land.” (5:6) The wickedness of Israel would be removed and dumped in Babylon to add to its wickedness. Reminder: we have had the power of sin broken and removed from our lives as we were adopted as God’s children.
  8. The Four Chariots (6:1-8): “Look, those going toward the north country have given my Spirit rest in the land of the north.” (6:8) The Lord settles the peace of His Spirit on the lands of the north that had caused death in Israel, to at least bring respite for a period. Reminder: peace is our inheritance.

The encouragement of these eight visions is rounded off with a final encouraging picture of a crown placed on Joshua’s head (6:9-15) to signify his role as a ruler, and he is recommissioned to do that.

Part B: Hints of the Messiah:  The following are some of those ‘hints’ that are picked up in the New Testament:

(i) Christ’s coming as ‘the Branch. (6:12), (ii) his kingship (6:13; 9:9; 14:9,16) iii) his priesthood (6:13), (iv) his building of the Lord’s temple (6:12-13), (v) his humanity (6:12; 13:7), (vi) his being deserted (13:7),  (vii) his rejection and betrayal for 30 pieces of silver (11:12-13), (viii) his crucifixion (struck by the “sword” of the Lord; 13:7), (ix) his coming in glory (14:4), (x) his reign (9:10; 14) (xi) and his establishment of enduring peace and prosperity (3:10; 9:9-10). These Messianic references will find their counterpart in the Gospel accounts, and are there for those with eyes to see.

Part C: Apocalyptic and eschatological prophecy: Again, the following arte some of the things that Zechariah foretold that appear to be end-times revelation:

(i) the siege of Jerusalem (12:1-3; 14:1-2), (ii) the initial victory of Judah’s enemies (14:2), (iii) the Lord’s defense of Jerusalem (14:3-4), (iv) the judgment on the nations (12:9; 14:3), (v) the topographical changes in Judah (14:4-5), (vi) the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Messianic kingdom age (14:16-19) and (vii) the ultimate holiness of Jerusalem and her people (14:20-21).

Put like this it is perhaps wholly inappropriate to speak of ‘highlights’. Perhaps a better analogy is a unique treasure chest of revelation from which the finder will draw out article after article that proves a basis for study and creates wonder after wonder, not only of the revelation of the Lord, but of the wonder of His sovereign plans and purposes that until the coming of Jesus were, as the apostle Paul so often said, ‘mysteries’.

There is so much in this amazing book that it is impossible to do it justice here. We have simply sought to lay out before us, some of the wonders deserving study (which we may yet do one day in a further series). In this book we not only see the wonder of the Lord Himself, the Lord over all things, revealing these things one after another, but we also see the wonder of the way prophecy works, especially the Messianic element, where the truth of the divine plan for His Son, is there in the background all the time, unseen clearly at that time and yet filtering through in the main prophecies, each like a piece of a puzzle, unclear at this stage, and yet with a place in the ultimate picture. Amazing! Worship Him who is the author of this book and of His plan for the world’s redemption. Hallelujah!

4. The Faith Element

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 4.  The Faith Element

Luke 1:11-13    an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

Faith, the New Testament says, comes by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17). When God speaks (including through an agent such as an angel) heaven holds its breath to see how we will respond.  I have suggested previously that within the Christmas story are a multitude of lessons but to see those lessons we have to ask questions of the text.

So in one of the earliest parts of the Christmas story an angel comes to an elderly priest, a childless priest named Zechariah, who has found himself being called into the inner part of the temple to perform his duties. Now there is so much about this incident that we could write a dozen studies on it alone but for the moment all I want to do is observe this old man’s response to the angel.  First, we read, he was startled and gripped with fear, i.e. he was scared stiff! The angel reassures him and then goes on to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth will have a baby in her old age. For Zechariah this was one bridge too far. He has prayed and prayed and nothing happened. Years have passed and nothing happened. God could have enabled them to have a child, but He hadn’t. It’s now too late, and so his words are not words of faith:How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Lk 1:18)

Now there some uncomfortable aspects to this story and we usually ignore or forget them. For instance, first, do we believe God stops women conceiving and, even more, that He can make infertile women conceive?  Second, if God was going to give them a child, why wait until so late in their lives? Third, if God knows everything (and He does) why does He tell this old man this, knowing he is going to reject it?  Fourth, if we believe in free will (and we do) why did the angel slap a gagging order on Zechariah and make him dumb until the son was born?  Difficulties!

We’ve got to be brief.  First, yes, God can stop and release conception for our blessing. That statement takes a lot of believing and grace if we are on the receiving end of no conception, especially the ‘for our blessing’ part. We could write a page on that but space prohibits it. IF He has stopped you, ask Him the reason. If it is just part of the effects of the fallen, broken world, ask Him to help you conceive.

Second, why wait for so long? We can only guess at answer sometimes and so I venture to suggest that sometimes a) there will be a right time that fits in with other things in God’s plans and b) sometimes God wants you to see His supernatural hand on your life after all other hope has gone, because He wants to build a high level of faith in you for the future, for the life and ministry He has for you.

Third, God knowing the old man will reject the word.  I think sometimes the Lord looks beyond the immediate present and sees how we will eventually come to faith. Fourth, why the gagging order: I believe the Lord sees that sometimes we just need a serious encouragement to press on through.

Despite his struggle to believe – and we so often give Zechariah a bad press – the Lord persevered with him so he went home (yes, dumb) but did what was necessary for Elizabeth to conceive and when the child was born, spoke the name out by faith. He got there! Look, if God speaks a word of instruction to you, it is because He knows you are capable of seeing it through. At first sight you may splutter in unbelief but God is bigger than your doubts and he can help you press through to a place of eventual victory. If He instructs, He knows you can do it – eventually. If He gives you a prophetic word and you splutter over it, there’s an easy way (receive it and rejoice over it) or a hard way (splutter your lack of belief and be a Zechariah or a Jonah or a Moses – the ‘Unbelievers’ Club’, who eventually got there!!!!). You’ll get there in the end because God knows you better than you know yourself. Prayer? Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil4:6,7)

27. To Joshua

“God turned up” Meditations: 27 :  To Joshua the High Priest

Zech 3:1     Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.

We conclude this series with another of the prophets, Zechariah. This is his fourth vision and he sees the high priest, Joshua. Now Joshua is also written ‘Jeshua’ and that is how we find him named among Zerubbabel and Nehemiah (Ezra 2:2 & Neh 7:7). We need to build up the picture of who was involved and when. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to encourage the finishing of the rebuilding of the Temple after the Exile (see Ezra 6:14). Haggai specifically mentions Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest. (Hag 1:1,12). The role of the high priest was partly as a spiritual encourager (seen in various places on the Old Testament) but the rebuilding of the temple had received such opposition that it had come to a grinding halt. In fact Haggai’s word had specifically rebuked the people for being concerned about their own homes but now ignoring the Temple of the Lord (Hag 1:4).

Joshua the high priest must have been feeling particularly low about this state of affairs. Here he was, the overseer of the activities of the Temple, but the Temple was not being completed. Will he ever be able to perform the tasks of the priest in the Temple again? There are those who make this vision in Zechariah involving Joshua to mean that Joshua was representative of the Israel and that this was a word to Israel but, I suggest, this ignores the activity or rather the lack of activity to do with the Temple about which these two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah were prophesying. This is a word that this man desperately needs to hear!

The Lord turns up and brings this word about Joshua through Zechariah because indeed Joshua is THE person who will oversee the work within the completed Temple and if the Temple is about to be completed at the urging of these prophets, then the chief priest needs to be brought into a right place and restored in both his eyes and the eyes of the people. THIS is why this is such a wonderful vision! This is the Lord who sees His servants, understands them, and feels for them and who comes and restores them.

See the word that follows: The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (v.2)  Joshua has been coming under immense condemnation from Satan. Not only had Satan been using the enemy to discourage the leaders and the builders, but he had been pulling down Joshua with condemnation, declaring him a failure. Have you heard similar thoughts in your mind? “You are rubbish! You are a failure! Give up! Stop pretending you are a man (or woman) of God with a calling. You’ve lost whatever calling you had; you’ve failed!”  Satan had been rebuking Joshua so the Lord rebukes him in turn. Yes, Joshua was burning with shame, burning with condemnation and with a sense of failure and Satan is trying to destroy him, but the Lord has come to come to snatch him from destruction.

See what the Lord does for Joshua: “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” (v.3,4) which is clearly symbolic of his guilt being taken away: “Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” (v.4) Now the turban of the priest was especially significant because it had on the front of it, “Holy to the Lord.” (see Ex 28:36) so that gets a special mention in the restoration: “Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by.” (v.5) This representative of the Holy God is completely restored and the nature of his clean clothes indicates that he is reinstated in his role as high priest.

Next he gets his marching orders from the Lord: “The angel of the LORD gave this charge to Joshua: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: `If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.” (v.6,7)

But this cleansing and reinstating of Joshua is symbolic of something so much greater that is yet to come: “Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch.” (v.8) What has happened to Joshua is what will happen when “the Branch”, the Messiah comes. Then he refers to him as a stone (v.9) and says he will remove all sin in a single day (v.9) which can only refer to the work on the Cross by the Son of God.

This is pure grace! Joshua has done nothing to deserve this. He’s simply been there to serve the Lord – if the temple is restored – and the Lord comes and restores him and removes his sin. He is now equipped to be the high priest again.  Isn’t this what the work of Jesus has achieved, a holy priesthood? (1 Pet 2:9, Rev 5:10)

In a very negative situation the Lord turns up to restore this man, Joshua. He has done nothing to deserve it; it is a pure act of God’s grace. This is what the Lord longs to do with each one of us. How wonderful!