Good News for Poor Performers and Splendid Sinners
Luke 1:5-20, 57-64
December 16, 2007
This afternoon I read a bit from Faithfulness and Holiness by J. I. Packer. The book consists of Packer’s short biography of J. C. Ryle, the 19t5h-century Anglican bishop, and a reprint of Ryle’s justly-famous book called, simply, “Holiness.” I happened across this quote from Ryle’s chapter on “Sanctification” where he means to show that God is pleased with our least efforts to please him. He demonstrates this by speaking the plain truth about the best efforts of the best saints:
The holiest actions of the holiest saint that ever lived are all more or less full of defects and imperfections. They are either wrong in their motive or defective in their performance, and in themselves are nothing more than “splendid sins,” deserving God’s wrath and condemnation (p. 126).
This is a much-needed word for a generation of Christians with an inflated sense of self-importance. Apart from God’s grace, even our best efforts are nothing more than “splendid sins.”
But if that is the case, why bother living for the Lord at all? A few sentences later, Ryle offers this encouraging word for believers who feel like giving up because they have failed so many times:
Just as a parent is pleased with the efforts of his little child to please him, though it be only by picking a daisy or walking across a room, so is our Father in heaven pleased with the poor performances of his believing children. He looks at the motive, principle, and intention of their actions, and not merely at their quantity and quality. He regards them as members of his own dear Son, and for his sake, wherever there is a single eye, he is well pleased (p. 126).
I find this very hopeful and encouraging because in my better moments, which are all too few, I realize that even my best efforts fall well over into the “splendid sins” category. Ryle has told the truth about the best of us and the rest of us. This side of heaven, we’re a pretty sorry lot, but that’s where God’s grace comes in. No one will be saved by what they do. Our only hope of heaven is to run to the cross and lay hold of Jesus Christ. And we won’t even do that unless God helps us to do it, and even then he must give us the strength to hang on and to keep believing.
How Not to Talk to an Angel
All week long, off and on, I’ve been thinking about the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who didn’t believe when the angel Gabriel told him that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son who would turn many people to righteousness and prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (Luke 1:11-17). When the angel finished his pronouncement, Zechariah asked a question that got him into trouble:
“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18). Other versions translate his question as “How can I know this?” Eugene Peterson offers this paraphrase, “Do you expect me to believe this?” which captures the note of doubt and skeptical unbelief. Though it was quite true that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and past child-bearing years, the angel clearly expected Zechariah to believe what God had said.
In thinking about this story, it’s helpful to compare Mary’s response when Gabriel came to her six months later with the startling announcement that she would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and that the child she would bear would be the Son of God (vv. 26-38). Even though the promises made to Mary were much greater (and therefore should have been harder to believe), her response is different than Zechariah’s. When the angel finished his announcement, Mary simply replied, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (v. 34) Later she said, “I am the Lord’s slave. May it be done to me according to your word” (v. 38). There is a subtle but important difference at work here.
Zechariah wanted proof.
Mary wanted understanding.
Zechariah’s question reveals his fundamental calculation that he could not believe that his wife could get pregnant and bear a child. Certainly he had good, logical reasons for concluding that it was impossible. All he had to do was think about it. Pretty simple.
Young couples have babies.
Older couples don’t.
Simple and clear, a basic biological fact. So Zechariah’s question really is, “Why should I believe something preposterous like this?” If we compare Zechariah to Mary, we are left with a question like this. Which is harder to believe, that an older couple, well past childbearing years, should have a child or that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son? While both challenge the mind and both are humanly impossible, surely the virginal conception of Jesus is a miracle of a different order than Elizabeth getting pregnant. Yet she believed, and Zechariah didn’t.
What are we to learn from this?
1) Even very strong believers will sometimes stumble through unbelief.
Luke 1:6 makes it clear that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both strong believers whose character was upright and whose observance of the Law was blameless. And the very next verse explains the dilemma this way: “They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old” (NLT). As an older, childless couple, they were fully committed to serving God faithfully. Zechariah’s unbelief sprang not from any particular moral weakness but from something more basic. He simply couldn’t conceive of how his wife could conceive. To put it in modern terms, he didn’t have a category for a couple on Medicare having children. Because it didn’t fit his preconceptions, he simply could not and would not allow himself to think differently, not even when Gabriel showed up with a word from the Lord.
2) Sometimes long delays may cause us to doubt that our prayers will ever be answered.
The very first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard” (v. 14). What prayer has been heard? No doubt he means the prayer offered many times over the years that God would give them a child. We can hardly understand from our standpoint what it meant in that culture and in that day to be childless. The ancients considered it a cause for bitterest sorrow. As much as we may pray and hope for children today, they felt it much deeper than we do. It would have been easy—and very human—for Zechariah to conclude that at this late date, Elizabeth would never give birth.
But let us hear from J. C. Ryle again on this matter:
We must beware of hastily concluding that our supplications are useless, and specially in the matter of intercessory prayer in behalf of others. It is not for us to prescribe either the time or the way in which our requests are to be answered. (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke 1-10, p. 18).
There will be times for all of us when it seems as if God has pressed the Mute button so that we do not hear from heaven for a long time. In those periods, let us not grow weary but continue to seek the Lord and to pray. If we give up, how will that improve our situation? If we stop praying for loved ones who today are far from God, how will that help them?
3) Man’s unbelief will not cancel God’s plans.
If God is God, this must be true. The angel’s message contradicted everything Zechariah knew so he simply refused to believe it. And for that reason he was struck dumb and could not speak until the baby was born.
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).
Embedded in that judgment of God (the taking away of his voice) is a strong note of mercy (my words will come true at their proper time). Zechariah’s unbelief would cost him his voice, but it would not cancel God’s plan. Throughout the whole Christmas story, we find at every turn a strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty over the affairs of men. Neither Zechariah’s unbelief nor Herod’s murderous rage could stop or even slow down the unfolding of God’s plan to bring his Son to the world.
While our unbelief may bring us many sorrows, and it may even seem to derail God’s plan for a season, that derailment is only from our point of view. Above the clouds that block our view, the sun still shines, and in due course the clouds will part and God will move again from heaven.
4) Our unbelief robs us of the joy of believing God for the impossible.
In Zechariah’s case God took away his voice for a season as a “severe mercy” to teach him that God is able to work in circumstances that seem impossible. As a pious Jew, he ought to have remembered what God did for Abraham and Sarah. And he ought to have remembered that Isaac prayed for Rebekah and God answered with the birth of twins. In this case God touched Zechariah in the very place where he had sinned. Because he used his voice to express his unbelief, God took it away until the baby was born. And in the nature of the case, this was a public judgment. Soon the word would spread that “something” had happened to Zechariah and he could not speak. And thus for nine long months Zechariah was reminded every time he opened his mouth and no sound came out that by his unbelief he had offended God.
Let us hear Ryle once again:
Few sins appear to be so peculiarly provoking to God as the sin of unbelief… . Let us watch and pray daily against this soul-ruining sin. Concessions to it rob believers of their inward peace, weaken their hands in the day of battle, (and) bring clouds over their hopes. According to the degree of our faith will be our enjoyment of Christ’s salvation, our patience in the day of trial, our victory over the world. Unbelief, in short, is the true cause of a thousand spiritual diseases (ibid. pp. 19-20).
5) God disciplines stumbling believers in order that he might restore them later.
We see this clearly when the baby is finally born. Friends expected the child to be named Zechariah after his father, and they were shocked when Elizabeth said they planned to name him John. So they went to Zechariah to ask him what the child should be called. This time there can be no doubt about Zechariah’s faith.
They made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God (vv. 62-65).
It is good that we have this recorded in the Bible so that we might see the rest of the story. God intended all along to demonstrate his power (in the conception and birth of John), his justice (in disciplining Zechariah), and his mercy (in restoring his voice), and he accomplished all three things. Hebrews 12:11 reminds us that God’s purposes in discipline are ultimately restorative. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Strange as it may seem, Zechariah’s judgment was also a sign of God’s mercy in that he was judged that he might be restored, with a new-found faith, won the hard way, through public discipline that must have seemed painful at the time but did in the end yield a godly harvest of righteousness. As he held his son in his arms, he knew now that God can do the impossible, and he also knew that God will do whatever it takes it bring back his children who stumble through unbelief.
Let me quote J. C. Ryle one final time, and this quote is only one sentence long:
The sorrow that humbles us, and drives us nearer to God, is a blessing, and a downright gain (ibid. p. 41).
If our sorrows do not drive us nearer to God, then for all practical purposes they are wasted on us. How sad to stumble and then to suffer and to be none the better for it. And how much worse if we stumble and then suffer and then become bitter against the Lord or against other people. But how good it is if like Zechariah, we can come to the end of a hard time and say, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Psalm 119:67).
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
In 1833 the familiar Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was first published in Britain. It became widely known in America in the late 1800s and is still popular today. Many people miss the meaning of the first line because they leave out the comma between “merry” and “gentlemen.” This is not a song about “merry gentlemen,” but rather an exhortation to godly men. It helps to know that the word “merry” originally meant strong or valiant, as in Robin Hood and his “Merry Men,” meaning his strong, brave men. And the word “rest” meant to make. So the first line really means, “God make you strong and valiant, gentlemen.” That explains the second line, “Let nothing you dismay.” What is it that makes us strong in the face of the struggles of life and our own repeated failures? “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.” The whole essence of the gospel is in the opening verse.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.
I particularly love this line that explains why Christ came. “To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” We have all gone astray, often repeatedly and foolishly, and we have suffered because of it. Jesus came to save us from Satan’s power that pulls us continually in the wrong direction.
I began this sermon by talking about “splendid sins” and “poor performance.” Zechariah on his good days was a “splendid sinner.” And in his unbelief, he was a “poor performer.” But thanks be to God, Christ came for splendid sinners and poor performers.
Do you feel somewhat dismayed by your “poor performance” this week? Would you feel better if you had been better? Probably you would. But we are not saved by our feelings but by Christ who died for us while we were yet sinners and who justified us while we were ungodly and who continues to save us despite our “poor performance” and our “splendid sins.”
No wonder the angel called it “good news of great joy” when Christ was born. Let all poor performers and splendid sinners rejoice at Christmastime. He came for us, too.