I haven’t published a lot lately, but I have been writing, here and there. Stress has stolen both time and joy lately. So to prove I have been writing, I thought I’d publish what I put together and shared this week at our women’s outreach ministry. We’re looking at the “cast” of the Christmas story. (Christmas! More stress). It’s long and not the usual anecdotal disaster but I’m confident I’ll be sharing a laugh or cry moment soon enough!
God’s timing is always perfect. And I know it’s easy to say that and believe that when everything is going well. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make us ask questions – “everything was good, why now?” or “they’ve been through so much, it isn’t fair. How much more can they take?”. We may not see, for years, how the pieces fit together.
For 400 years, God had been silent – no signs, no wonders, no prophets. God’s people lived under humiliation and servitude. The land was rife with immorality, the economy was unstable; even the priesthood was corrupt. When would God send Messiah to save them?
At the beginning of Luke, we are introduced to a simple, lowly priest and his wife, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who lived in a little town out in the hill country of Judea. For only two weeks a year, Zechariah would minister in the temple in Jerusalem. Both were from the tribe of Aaron, and had been born and raised in homes of priestly families who served the temple in Jerusalem. Their marriage was seen as a great blessing to their families for it was considered a double honour from the Lord to marry a virgin from a priestly family.
But the rejoicing quickly faded as it became evident that Elizabeth was barren; that was her “reproach among men”, her humiliation, the subject of gossip and cruelty. The inability to bear children was seen as a curse, as divine disapproval, as if she didn’t qualify for the blessings of God. She searched her heart diligently for wrongdoing, and pleaded with God to remove her shame. Elizabeth’s heart ached deeply within her, as time slipped away like sand in an hourglass. Now it was too late. Her name meant “consecrated to God”, so Elizabeth focused on developing a faithful character that served the Lord; she respected and cared for her husband, but she also mourned a lost dream.
And so it happened, when Zechariah’s division was on duty according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell on him by the castings of lots, to enter the Holy of Holies. There he would pour blood on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant to purchase the forgiveness of sins for the nation, and allow them to be reconciled once more, to God. It was a yearly sacrifice, and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
While inside, an angel of the Lord appeared on the right side of the altar. Zechariah was troubled – was God going to give him a message, or had he offered an unacceptable prayer and was he going to die? But the angel addresses him by name, saying “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son…” Zechariah had prayed for the salvation of Israel and the deliverance of its people, which would be answered, for God was about to inaugurate a saving purpose. But the prayer that perhaps had long since been forgotten, the aching prayer that God would bless him with a son, would be answered as well. The angel went on with words of instruction and prophecy for this longed-for child. This baby boy would be a forerunner, preaching repentance, purifying the hearts of people, creating a desire and expectancy for the gospel of Jesus Christ that would follow.
Zechariah is baffled by this extraordinary news, and as a result of his disbelief, Zechariah lost his ability speak. But he brought home with him a silent, wonder-filled announcement. They would have a son! Elizabeth greeted with the news with joy and praise for a God who heard her prayers, and removed her disgrace. She secluded herself for the first 5 months, savouring God’s miracle within her.
Mary was betrothed to a handsome carpenter named Joseph. It would soon be time for the joining ceremony and the family celebration. Then Joseph would take Mary into his home, where they would truly become husband and wife. Joseph was from the royal blood line of David. He was a righteous man, a hard worker, and Mary loved him. Mary carried a deep sense of God’s hand on her life. She lived obediently and purely, anticipating a happy life as Joseph’s wife. And then everything changed…
One night, as Mary sat alone, a sudden radiance burst from behind her. The man raised his hand in a gesture of welcome, and spoke warmly: “Greetings, you who are highly favoured. The Lord is with you”. Highly favoured? The thought confused and overwhelmed her. What did it mean?
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a Son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus. He will great and will be called the Son of the Most High”.
These were the words every young woman in Israel longed to hear, but even so, Mary wondered how this possibly be! She asked and the angel explained that the Holy Spirit would come over her and she would be overshadowed by the power of the Most High. Then the angel added that her cousin, Elizabeth was pregnant. “For nothing is impossible with God”, he added.
Mary tried to soak in the significance of everything the angel said. Every woman dreamed of being the mother of Messiah. Every family prayed that their daughter might be chosen for this divine honour. She wasn’t anyone special, but God had chosen her…and Mary’s heart melted with wonder at the grace of God. She thought of Joseph, of their dreams together? Would he understand? Would tongues wag in the square? Would she be stoned for adultery? Saying Yes to God could cost her everything…but Mary knew her Lord, and she knew that nothing compared to the plan God had for her. She yielded her heart and life to Him, placing herself willingly in His hands. God the Son, clothed in human flesh, was created within her.
Elizabeth was nearing her 6th month, when her younger cousin, Mary from Nazareth, arrived for a visit. The moment Elizabeth saw Mary, she knew something wonderful had happened. At the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth’s baby leaped with joy inside her, and Elizabeth knew. She knew that Mary was the mother of the promised Messiah. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the Child you will bear!”. Bearing God’s Child didn’t mean that Mary would not face cruel words and difficult conversations. How Mary’s heart must have rejoiced for Elizabeth to know and believe. Perhaps from the faithful and loving heart of Elizabeth, Mary gained the encouragement and wisdom she would need to face difficult days ahead. Perhaps Elizabeth, as the older woman, rejoiced to pour all her love into this young woman’s life. They spent nearly 3 months together, sharing all the things expectant mothers share, and preparing for the arrival of these precious little ones, gifts from God. Mary returned home when Elizabeth was in her 9th month.
And for those nine months, as Elizabeth and Zechariah anticipated this birth. While Elizabeth sang happy songs and rejoiced in her state, Zechariah, in his enforced quietness, listened to the Spirit of God as never before, as God revealed His great plan to redeem the world.
Eight days after his son was laid in his arms, Zechariah confirmed the name of the child, John (God’s gracious gift), and words once again flowed from his mouth, words of praise from a heart that overflowed. A faithful, simple, aged man, who thought the time to answer his prayer was long past, saw his prayers answered beyond his greatest expectations.
It’s never too early or too late for God. His timing is always perfect! His plan always beyond our expectations and beyond our imagination.
God can take our broken or barren lives, and restore us to a place of dignity and life.
Age, stage, level of education, type of employment, family background or physical traits – all are immaterial to God. God uses people whose hearts are surrendered to Him.
Those who have a love for God at the core of their hearts, and surrender to Him, will be guided by Him. Those with God at the core of their hearts are committed to the relationship; they train up in and live a faithful life – even if their calling seems to be the “every day”. Then, in the moments when it matters most, we will know what to do or say, and like Mary, say “yes” Lord!
Even if we are not “centre-stage” in God’s plan (like Mary), we are all an integral part of His plan. Our part may be, like Elizabeth, to pour our lives and love into someone else, so that God can use them too.
And one day, my friends, we will see how the pieces fit together. They will be beyond our imagination and our expectations.