How God Does the Impossible
August 23, 2021
Where is God when life makes no sense?
In this series on John the Baptist, we are trying to understand how life works. We want to know why some prayers are answered and others aren’t.
Life is hard.
We all understand that.
Life is hard.
We all understand that.
We need to know how God works through our hard times to accomplish his purposes. One of our great hymns speaks to this truth:
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In thee do we trust, nor find thee to fail.
Psalm 103:14 says, “He remembers that we are dust.” That’s all I am, and that’s all you are. I’m just a clump of dust, and so are you. What do we know about dust clumps? They are wispy and insubstantial. Blow on a clump of dust and it disappears.
Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.
Sometimes we don’t want to pray or read the Bible or think about God because when we look in the mirror, we feel like saying, “You’re a big disappointment” or “You ought to be a lot better by now.”
We’ve all felt that way from time to time, and I imagine many people reading these words feel that way right now. Sam Storms captures the truth in one simple sentence:
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I think we run from God rather than to him because we know our own hearts all too well and his barely at all.
I don’t need to spend any time convincing you that you are a sinner. You probably know the truth about yourself all too well. But it’s the other side we need to talk about.
A Childless Couple
That brings me to the story of the birth of John the Baptist in Luke 1. Immediately we run into a puzzle. We all know the big story is the birth of Jesus. But before we get to that, Luke spends many verses describing the circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of John the Baptist. In fact, Luke 1 talks more about the birth of John the Baptist than about the birth of Jesus.
Luke wants us to ponder how God accomplishes his purposes despite the weakness of one old man. Let’s begin with the background details:
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years (Luke 1:5-7).
We learn several crucial facts from those verses:
- It happened when Herod the Great reigned. When other factors are considered, we can date this to 7-5 BC.
- Both Elizabeth and Zechariah came from priestly backgrounds. As A. T. Robertson noted, it’s like a preacher marrying a preacher’s daughter. They were a good match.
- As for their character, these Jewish believers were saintly indeed. Luke called them “righteous” and “blameless,” meaning they lived godly, scandal-free lives.
It was like a preacher marrying a preacher’s daughter.
- They were both old enough to be well past childbearing age. We can estimate their age as in the mid-60s.
- They had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive.
That fact matters because they have no children, which in Jewish culture meant people wondered why God was punishing them. They knew children are a blessing and a heritage from the Lord (Psalm 127). So they prayed for a quiver full of sons who would be arrows from God, but their quiver was empty.
Zechariah could have solved the problem by divorcing Elizabeth, a common practice in that day. He could have ditched his aging wife and married a younger woman who would give him children. That was the route many men took. Instead, Zechariah remained faithful to Elizabeth, and he evidently never stopped praying for a baby.
So here you have a priest married to the daughter of a priest. Together they served the Lord faithfully for many years. Earnestly they prayed for God to give them children, and that prayer was never answered.
A Surprise Visitor
The announcement comes while Zechariah is serving incense in the temple. Don’t pass by that little detail. Historians tell us there were perhaps 20,000 priests in Israel in the first century. They were organized into 24 divisions, each serving twice a year, one week at a time. The highest honor was bringing incense into the Holy Place where it would be sprinkled on the burning coals on the golden altar. It was such a high privilege that a priest would perform that ceremony once in his life. Because it was the time of prayer, a great crowd of people gathered in the temple courtyard.
This was Zechariah’s day.
In that holy moment, an angel shows up. First of all, Zechariah wasn’t expecting a heavenly visitor. It had been 400 years since there had been an official word from the Lord. In all the centuries since then, heaven had been silent.
Now Gabriel shows up!
But it’s his message that really got Zechariah’s attention:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard.
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John” (Luke 1:13).
Before Zechariah can say a word, Gabriel adds some details in verses 14-17:
He will be a joy and delight to you.
He will bring joy to many.
He will be great in the sight of the Lord.
He will not drink wine or strong drink.
He will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb.
He will turn many to the Lord.
He will serve like Elijah.
He will prepare people for the coming of the Lord.
What’s the proper response to all that?
What would you say to the angel?
What would you say to the angel?
It’s easy to second-guess Zechariah, but we already know he was terrified by the angel’s appearance even before he opens his mouth. And remember, this is the highest moment of Zechariah’s priestly career. At the very pinnacle of his service, with a great crowd gathered outside, Gabriel shows up!
I would be nervous too.
Zechariah was utterly unprepared for Gabriel to show up with this fantastic announcement. He came to work that morning excited because he was going to burn incense in the sanctuary of the Lord. I’m sure he spent extra time on his vestments, and I’m sure Elizabeth checked him out to make sure he looked good before he left the house. He was doing God’s work that day.
A Doubting Question
That brings us to the question that got him in trouble. Frankly, it’s the kind of question any man of his age would ask.
“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years?” (Luke 1:18).
The older I get, the more I understand this. It’s as if the doctor said, “Ray, you are going to have another baby.” That would be a shocking sentence to hear. I’m not sure how I would respond.
But there is one key difference.
We are not praying for a baby.
Our last child was born almost 40 years ago. All three of our sons are grown up, and now we have 10 grandchildren. We’re not praying for another child.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth had evidently not given up their dream. Ironically it was their faith in praying that caused Zechariah to respond in unbelief. Eugene Peterson offered this paraphrase of Zechariah’s question: “Do you expect me to believe this?” Embedded in those words is some combination of doubt and skeptical unbelief.
Here’s something that isn’t clear in the English translation. When Zechariah says, “I am old,” the Greek is very emphatic. When Gabriel answers back in verse 19, he uses that same construction:
“I am old.”
“I am Gabriel.”
“No! You don’t know who I am.”
It’s like one of those movies where one guy says, “You don’t know who I am.” And the other guy says, “No! You don’t know who I am.”
It’s not about Zechariah.
It’s about God.
It’s always about God.
The angel’s message contradicted everything Zechariah knew so he simply refused to believe it. That’s why God took away his voice so he 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 (Luke 1:20).
In thinking about this story, it’s helpful to compare Mary’s response six months later. That’s when Gabriel came to her with the startling news 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?” (Luke 1:34) Later she said, “I am the Lord’s slave. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). There is a subtle but important difference at work here.
Zechariah wanted proof.
Mary wanted understanding.
Zechariah wanted proof.
Mary wanted understanding.
Zechariah did not believe his wife could get pregnant and bear a child. Certainly he had good, logical reasons for concluding it was impossible. All he had to do was think about it.
Young couples have babies.
Old 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 Mary believed, and Zechariah didn’t.
A Crucial Insight
When Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become pregnant and give birth to Jesus, he includes this additional reason for her to believe his words:
“Consider your relative Elizabeth—even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37).
God always intended to use one miracle (the conception of John the Baptist) to encourage Mary to believe God could do an even bigger miracle (the virginal conception of Jesus).
Sometimes 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 are far from God today, how will that help them?
I saw a picture with these words:
God is moving.
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.
God is moving.
Above the clouds the sun still shines, and eventually the clouds will part, and God will move again from heaven.
A Miracle Baby
Nine months later the baby arrived.
Right on time.
Just as Gabriel had said.
After all those years, God had come through for Elizabeth and Zechariah. On the eighth day after John’s birth, they circumcised him. According to Jewish custom, that was also the day when the baby was formally named. When Elizabeth announced his name would be John, friends and relatives were shocked, assuming he would be named Zechariah, after his father. But she said, “He will be called John.”
When they asked Zechariah about it, he took a tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” Luke tells us what happened next:
Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God (Luke 1:64).
As Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
God intended all along to demonstrate
his power (in the birth of John),
his justice (in disciplining Zechariah),
and his mercy (in restoring his voice),
and he accomplished all three things.
God knows what he is doing!
God knows what he is doing.
Don’t miss the big point here. God works through weak human vessels to accomplish his will. Zechariah was not a bad man, yet under pressure he gave way to doubt and unbelief. Any of us might have done the same thing. Therein lies a lesson for all of us.
We’re all weak, and we all stumble in many ways. Even the best among us may make foolish choices because we were caught by surprise.
But when God intends to send a baby to the world, he works through people like you and me. Weak as we are, frail in our faith, struggling to understand, trying to obey and sometimes failing miserably—still, he uses us!
He puts his treasure in clay pots because all the fine china is up in heaven. All he’s got to work with is people like us.
All the good china is in heaven
So we rejoice in our God because he uses broken people to accomplish his will on the earth. Commenting on this story, J. C. Ryle said, “The sorrow that humbles us, and drives us nearer to God, is a blessing, and a downright gain.” I am sure Zechariah didn’t see the blessing during the long months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. His silent voice reminded him constantly of his unbelief.
But he took it like a man. How do I know that? Because after Gabriel pronounced judgment, at some point he went home and made love to his wife. That act was a step of faith, a way of saying, “Lord, we don’t understand, and it doesn’t make sense to us, but we believe your promise is true.”
Every time he looked at his pregnant wife, he remembered the promise the angel had made. As he held his son in his arms, he knew God can do the impossible even when we don’t believe it.
Our unbelief cannot cancel God’s promises!
Call this a lesson learned the hard way. How sad to stumble and then to suffer and to be none the better for it. 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).
A Final Reminder
I began this sermon by remarking that we are just “clumps of dust.” There is nothing we can do about our frailty. We come from the hand of our Creator stamped, “Fragile: Handle with care.”
Are you weak? So am I.
Are you needy? So am I.
Are you guilty? So am I.
Are you frail? So am I.
Are you like dust? So am I.
We come from the hand of our Creator stamped, “Fragile: Handle with care.”
And God says to us–his weak, needy, guilty, frail, dusty children, “I know you through and through, and I love you anyway. Come to me. Rest in me. Make me your Rock.” God’s mercy in Christ is more than enough for all of us.
One other point.
Once John was born, “Fear came on all those who lived around them” (Luke 1:65). The whole sequence of events was far out of the ordinary. I’m sure it was the talk of the town.
But that’s not all they talked about.
All who heard about him took it to heart, saying, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the Lord’s hand was with him (Luke 1:66).
God is up to something big.
This baby’s birth is a sign from heaven.
John the Baptist has arrived!