Portraits of Christmas
Zechariah and Elizabeth
Luke 1:5-25

Introduction to Advent Series

With Thanksgiving over, stores and merchants are gearing up for Christmas which is just a few weeks away. Driving home from Georgia yesterday, I noticed some already have their outdoor decorating done. I’m already feeling the decorating frenzy. They are signs of the season. Soon the first greeting cards will arrive in the mail – more reminders of what I need to get done soon. At least I’ve gotten the box of cards.

Familiar symbols and portraits on Christmas cards – decorated trees, candles in windows, carolers under the streetlight, three wise men on camels, a baby lying in a manger – all symbols or images we’ve come to associate with Christmas illustrated artistically on cards that have been a tradition since 1843, with messages of goodwill written on the inside. Perhaps the rising cost of stamps and accessibility of the internet has “slowed down” the greeting card industry. Maybe this is a symbol that will go by the wayside with no time to address cards in this hectic pace of the season.

I hope that over the next weeks of advent we can slow down to look at some important portraits - portraits of individuals in the Bible we’ve come to associate with Advent. From the time we were small children, certain pictures and stories have a way of stirring up nostalgia and becoming very familiar, so familiar we may even be inclined to brush past what these pictures might really want to say to us. During Advent as we focus on a different portrait each Sunday and reflect on just one word coming out of the story, I trust you will be inspired to look beyond the nostalgia and gaze intently at the portrait, so that God can speak to you in a fresh way this advent season.

Zechariah and Elizabeth
I would like to introduce to you Zechariah and Elizabeth. If they were here this morning, I would ask them about silence. Silence you say? There is a good kind of silence, like what you hope for when you want to get the baby to sleep and your three-year-old is downstairs singing Happy Birthday at the top of his lungs. Or when you attend a concert, and there is the breathtaking silence of the audience during the last measures of Handel’s Messiah before the last “Hallelujah!”

Zechariah and Elizabeth would talk about a totally different kind of silence - a disappointing and frustrating silence, a long, unexplained silence that causes one to lose hope. Can you relate to that kind of silence? Listening hour after hour for the sound in the driveway of a car that never comes, staring in silence at the telephone that never rings, waiting day after day for the sound of the front door to open and then close. All you hear is the ticking of the clock. As the days pass - waning hope settles down over you like a wet blanket. Silence……silence that causes one to lose hope? What causes you to lose hope? What makes you feel like giving up?

Zechariah, as a priest in Israel for many years knew about silence. Four hundred years of silence from the time of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets. Didn’t Isaiah the prophet predict there would be a voice of one calling in the desert to prepare the way for the Lord? And then didn’t he foretell that the glory of the Lord would be revealed and the mouth of the Lord would speak? All Zechariah and the Jewish people knew was silence. “Where is our God who promised the Messiah?” they wondered.

Philip Yancey describes their hopelessness this way:
A general malaise set in among the Jews, a low grade disappointment with God that showed in their complaints and their actions. As the people expressed their hopelessness, they said, “It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements?”
Yancey concludes:
That final question troubled the Jews for centuries, after Malachi and the remaining prophets had faded from the scene. They saw no miracles, no spectacular interventions, and heard no new words from the Lord. Had God forgotten how to be merciful? Had he plugged his ears against their groans? The Old Testament ends on a note of disappointment, unfulfilled longings and faint hope.

Can you relate to lost hope? Jim and Elaine can. Jim and Elaine had a storybook romance with a beautiful wedding in a little chapel overlooking the ocean. They both landed great jobs and for nearly five years they worked hard at their careers, getting regular promotions, finally able to afford the house of their dreams. The next wish on their list would be children. Jim was an only child and Elaine had one brother. They both were eager for a family, at least three. After five more years passed they came to the conclusion they might not be able to have children. Not wanting to give up too easily, they decided to save as much money as they could to arrange for fertility testing. After a number of rigorous tests and more disappointing months, they learned their best hope was in vitro fertilization. It was a tough decision for the two of them but they decided to borrow the money for the very expensive procedure. $15,000 is a lot of money, but they wanted a child so badly. This was their last and only hope. After the procedure – rather cautiously, they bought a baby crib and Elaine loved to browse in the department store looking at the baby clothes.

Three months later as Elaine and Jim sat in the doctor’s office, they realized the terrible truth. The procedure was not successful. A picture of lost hope.

Zechariah, as a priest in his earlier years, talked about and longed for the coming of the Messiah to redeem his people, but eventually his disappointment, just like most everyone else, gave way to apathy. He knew well the words of Isaiah the prophet and others that someone would be raised up to bring salvation – but when? How long would it be? Silence from God was hard to accept or understand. He concluded the promise likely would not happen in his lifetime. He was getting old. He just gave up hope of being alive when the Messiah would come to deliver His people.

Luke 1 describes Zechariah and Elizabeth as the perfect picture of a devout Jewish couple, upright and those who observed the Lord’s commands. Elizabeth, his faithful wife came from good stock, raised as the daughter of a priest.

The greatest disappointment that marred the picture of Zechariah and Elizabeth was their inability to have children. Long before in vitro fertilization, as with Jim and Elaine, their hopes were dashed. Particularly for his precious Elizabeth, Zechariah realized not only was it a huge loss for the two of them to never be parents, but it was a social stigma for her, especially a woman as devout as Elizabeth. Since to the average Jew, children were considered a sign of God’s favor, to be barren was a sign that God was punishing you. If God closed a woman’s womb, she was disgraced for some reason. God was purposely not answering earnest prayers because there must be something wrong with her. Why wouldn’t God tell her what she had done wrong so she could change it?

After many years of praying, Elizabeth’s days of hoping for a child were long over. It was too late to hope anymore. She was now an old woman and much too tired. She wasn’t even angry anymore – she didn’t feel a thing.

Can you relate to Elizabeth’s disappointment? Can you feel her loss of hope? Many of us carry something in our lives with which we are deeply disappointed – something that rightly or wrongly has caused us to give up hope.

As with Jim and Elaine, it could be your desire to have children; it could be a disappointing relationship with which you have battled, hoping somehow it would get better. It might be hope for a cure of an illness, or hope for success after being fired from a job. Out of any number of situations comes a deep disappointment with God that He doesn’t intervene. Somehow we are even afraid to admit it to ourselves. Just like Elizabeth, we wonder why God doesn’t tell us what we did wrong. Why is He silent? Silence from God, or from others, makes us conclude they’re disinterested; we feel ignored, disapproved, and rejected.

As the story in Luke unfolds, on a day unlike any other day, Zechariah was chosen by lot to do his priestly duty and offer incense in the Temple. Since there were thousands of priests in Israel, many had never offered incense at any time, and for sure no priest ever offered incense more than once in his lifetime. So now in his old age, he is chosen.

Perhaps he hopes this will make up for his disappointments with God. This will now be the most important day of his life. As he enters the sanctuary to perform his duty, suddenly an angel appears to the right of the altar of incense with the unbelievable news that he and Elizabeth will become parents. This baby, whose name is to be John, will prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. After Zechariah’s frightening encounter with the angel, who of us could blame him for questioning in disbelief, “How can I be sure of this?”

Have you waited for something for so long that it is hard to believe or imagine that anything will ever change for the better? The situation is just too hopeless. Then I suspect you can relate to Zechariah’s questioning and his disbelief at the news of the angel. Frankly, I had assumed that if Zechariah would have had the right kind of faith, he wouldn’t have questioned the angel. So now the result is that he must be punished and silence becomes his constant companion for nine months. Maybe there’s more to it than that. I wonder if he is given silence almost as a gift, not so much as a punishment, but as a time for growth: to think, to ponder, to learn new trust in God, to become obedient, to wake him up from his lethargy and prepare him to be the father of John the Baptist. As Zechariah has opportunity to ponder – in silence - all that is happening to him, to his wife Elizabeth, and yes, even to the Jewish people, silence could well be his best friend.

Why is it that long periods of silence might have a lot to do with the birthing of something very special and important inside of us? These periods of silence might actually be needed. It cultivates trust in God and develops patience. It has done that for me and we will see it did that for Zechariah as well.

As for Elizabeth, while her husband was quiet and unable to talk to anyone about this anticipated blessed event, this mother-to-be must have felt embarrassingly old. She must have had her own set of questions. “Why didn’t God bless me with this little one when I was young and agile? Why did I have to wait so long for the miracle? And why do I now have to become the sole mouthpiece for both of us in our community since my husband can’t talk?” With a speechless husband, she has to deal with a different kind of silence for nine long months – five of which are in seclusion? She has so many questions. Just like Elizabeth, in the midst of our sagging hopes, don’t we often have many questions and few answers?

When I gaze at the portrait of this devoted couple, I also notice – even though Zechariah questions in disbelief – God doesn’t abandon us or forsake us even when our hope is at such a low ebb that we disbelieve and our doubts threaten to undo us. God doesn’t give up. We may give up. We may think God has given up. He is still working in our lives.

The Psalmist has an encouraging response to these questions in Psalm 42. “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God.” When we don’t have answers or even know the right questions, we are invited to hope in God.

Here is a beautiful picture of two faithful followers of God who experience disappointment and misunderstanding, and yet remain true to God. It takes until the end of their lives for their hope to be restored.

When Zechariah can speak once again, his first response is to praise God. In Luke 1:68, in his song, he is a hopeful man. He acknowledges a God who has come, One who remembers, One who rescues, all because of His tender mercies.

When her cousin Mary comes to visit, who herself shares a miraculous secret, we see the portrait of Elizabeth, not as an angry, bitter woman but a woman of hope who says, “The Lord has done this for me and has taken away my disgrace.” What a wonderful response from this woman of God. She begins to realize that all of life has been a preparation for the moment when she will give birth to this special son. God has not been silent – he has been working – setting the stage – getting them ready for the right moment. What moment might God be getting you ready for?

Something else I see as I gaze into the portrait that gives us great hope, God will use the most unlikely persons to accomplish his purpose, yes, even the likes of Zechariah and Elizabeth or of you and me to accomplish His purpose. I know that to be true in my life.

Several weeks ago as I met with the youth one Sunday evening, I relived again a very difficult time in my life when I experienced a profound loss of hope. Even though I had gone through the various stages of grieving when my first husband, Dale, died, a hopelessness settled in and went much deeper and was more paralyzing than the grief. You see we had served in ministry at five different churches over 25 years. After he was gone, I came to the conclusion my life was over and I no longer had any hope for ministry. God was silent. I had so many questions and He gave me no answers. I often would say, “I wish I could figure things out.” I tried not to be bitter. But how could God let me down. I wanted to run in the opposite direction. I felt hopeless. You might ask, “How do you find hope?”

How can we possibly muster up hope in the midst of despair? Eugene Peterson responds this way, in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:
Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident in God with alert expectation that he will provide the meaning and the conclusion. It is not bogus spirituality. It is not dreaming or spinning an illusion to protect us from boredom or pain. It is a willingness to let God do it in His way and His time.

Little by little as I trusted God even in the silence, a silence I didn’t appreciate at the time, I felt my sagging hope begin to rise and like a little bird, my faith begin to rise as well. Isaiah 40:31 became an important verse. “They who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.”

This story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is about a God who restores hope – often not in the ways we imagine. At the time I could never have imagined Grantham Church or Elvin as part of the answer. Look at the portrait of this aged couple who had experienced a distant and silent God for a very long time, but who now comes close as He answers them in the most unlikely way.

Are you in need of a message of hope? Gaze at the portrait of Zechariah and Elizabeth. By their presence in the Advent story, they invite us to hope in the power of Christ who wants to be involved in our lives even in the midst of sagging hope. This isn’t just for cheery-faced Norman Rockwell families or individuals with perfect Hallmark card lives. In all our hopelessness and brokenness, God wants to meet us during Advent right where we are. Are you ready to have your hope restored?