It was the most important day of his life. At long last he was going to be able to enter into the Holy of Holies. Zachariah was a descendant of Aaron; and as was the case of all male descendants of Aaron, Zachariah was automatically a priest. By now there were so many Aaronic descendants that they had to divide them into 24 different groups, with each group giving two weeks out of the year to serve in the temple. And even within each group there were so many men that only the one chosen by lot on a particular day would be given the opportunity to go into the Holy of Holies and to offer the sacrifice. It was great honor to do this, and many priests would go through an entire lifetime of service and never have the opportunity to go into the Holy of Holies and to burn incense and to offer all the sacrifices. Of course, that was the highpoint of all their service, walking into that most sacred place in all of Israel, the place where God dwelled; and there they would take the incense and put it on the fire, and as the smoke would rise from the fire, it was symbolic of the prayers of the people waiting outside. They would wait in complete silence till they saw the smoke rise from the Holy of Holies. Then they would fall on their faces and offer their thanksgiving and their petitions before God as the priest walked out of the Holy of Holies with his arms raised and giving God's blessing on them. It was dramatic, a once in a lifetime experience for priest.
Zachariah was an old man when he finally got his chance to perform this service. He had waited his whole life for what was happening. Hundreds of times he had rehearsed it in his mindwhat he would say, what he would pray, what it would feel like. And now as his old, wrinkled hands, placed the incense on the fire, he was actually offering these prayers he had waited a lifetime to offer. There were many things on his mind. And for any priest standing in this place there were the hopes and dreams of Israel, the prayers that God would deliver Israel from their enemies and send his promised Messiah. And for Zachariah that was especially focused and intensified, for as Luke tells us this was done during the reign of Herod, the vilest and most murderous and corrupt leader Israel probably ever had. And on top of that it had been 400 years since a prophet had spoken. How long, O Lord? was Zachariah's prayer.
Zachariah was holding up before God not only the tragedy of his people, but he was holding up a personal tragedy. He and Elizabeth had been childless. In that culture it was considered a curse, a terrible curse, perhaps punishment for sin. Even the word used to describe their state was a word that spoke of curse and emptiness and depravation. It was barren. Elizabeth was barren. At the place in her life where she was most to be fruitful and filled she was considered empty. And so mingled with Zachariah's prayers on behalf of Israel were Zachariah's prayers for Zachariah and Elizabeth.
And as was the Hebrew fashion, he raised his arms and he lifted his face toward heaven and offered his prayers. As his arm came down and his face came down, he saw standing beside the altar of the Lord an angel. Instinctively his hands moved to protect his face. He crouched in terror. He started to run, and then he heard the angel say, "Do not be afraid, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you're to give him the name John. Now Zachariah's terror moved to astonishment. Son? Did he say a son for me and Elizabeth? And what else did he say? That he's going to be filled with the Holy Spirit from the time of his birth, that he's going to go before the Lord in the power and the spirit of Elijah, that he's going to make the people ready for the coming of God. His astonishment becomes incredulity. It's just too much for his mind to understand, and finally he bursts out "How can this be? I'm an old man. And my wife Elizabeth is well along in years. He cannot believe what he had been promised.
Past pain can cause us to live in unbelief
I want us to stop here just for a moment and to ponder Zachariah's unbelief. A pessimist is one who no matter how good the present is is sure he's going to be disappointed in the future. And Zachariah is definitely of the pessimistic variety in his faith, or his lack thereof. No matter what God says, no matter how good God's promise is, right now Zachariah is sure he's going to be disappointed in what actually happens. Why is that so? Why is Zachariah so pessimistic? So pessimistic that even the appearance of an angel could not make him believe that the miraculous was actually going to happen to him?
I'm suggesting to you that Zachariah had been made pessimistic by what Os Guiness called a scar from an old wound. His pain in his past was so great that he's frozen there. He is held back now by what disappointed him then. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had prayed and prayed that God would give them a child, and they had received nothing but frustration. And now finally when God in his perfect timing decides to give them a child, to present to them what they had wanted for so long, he just can't receive it. Talk about impotence.
That's a vivid example of this kind of unbelief in the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after Jesus was resurrected. When he revealed himself to them, Luke reports to us that they did not believe it because of joy. What a curious reason for not believing something. It was right in front of them, right before their eyes. And it was too good to be true. It made them too happy to believe it.
There's a profound insight here into why many of us can never really believe the gospel. You and I have a hard time believing the gospel sometimes because we think it's unreasonable but not usually. Usually we find the prospect of the pain we would feel if it were not true to be so great that we can't risk the disappointment we might have if it were actually true.
What the disciples were seeing was the one thing they most wanted to see, but they and Zachariah preferred the safety of doubt over the risk of disappointment. They may be unhappy, and you and I may be unhappy, but paradoxically the happiness of unhappiness is that it's reliable. You can always count on it. Like this. A healthy faith is like the firm grip a person has when he wants to reach out and grab hold of something. But Zachariah and people like him have a wound in the palm of their hand and it hurts sometimes to reach out and lay hold of the one thing they most want.
Now we know what Zachariah's wounds were. How about yours? What holds you back? What great pain do you feel you're risking if you're going to reach out and lay hold on God's promise? Is it because you never really felt the love of another human that you can't take the risk of believing that you're loved by God? Is it because you spent your whole life isolated and lonely and you just can't take the risk of believing that a group of strangers here at this church could accept you? Is it because you're had so much moral defeat and failure that you simply cannot risk the disappointment if it were not true that God really forgives you as the gospel proclaims and accept you nevertheless? Do you find yourself hanging back at the very place where you most want to move forward, shrugging your shoulders when you want to embrace the love of God?
What can we learn from Zachariah in his unbelief? Let's dissect it for a minute, and in the process let's dissect our own.
We live in unbelief by not leaving any room for God
It's first feature is that it's claustrophobic, these scars from an old wound. Zachariah is shut up in himself. He is closed up in his old age and his wife's infertility. His world is no wider than what he has been and what he has now. How can I be sure of this? he wants to know. Actually he thinks he already does know that he can't be sure. There are two ways to say How can I be sure? One way is to ask it in wonder; the other way is to state it in unbelief. Zachariah doesn't ask it, he states it. He says, "I'm an old man. My wife is well along in years. And what makes Zachariah's unbelief so instructive for us is that the very thing he'd been praying for is the thing that Gabriel was now announcing that God was going to do. What did Zachariah think he had been doing when he was praying? Talking to the wall? And what do you and I think we're doing when we pray? Talking to the wall? Engaging in a therapeutic soliloquy? Why should we be surprised when God answers our prayers or pass it off as coincidence when he does?
A pastor friend of mine told me about a man in his church who was diagnosed as having lethal cancer. The congregation gathered around him and prayed for his healing, and to the amazement of the doctor the man was healed. For the first month after he was healed, his friends in the church would say, "Do you remember when Gordy was healed of cancer? Less than year later they were saying, "Do you remember when we all thought Gordy had cancer.
Unbelief is always claustrophobic. Its world is no bigger than the person who is refusing to believe. It is the cramped quarters of the spirit. There is never much room for God.
Bob Pierce, the founded of World Vision, was often traveling around the worldLatin America, Africa, Asia. And he would be appalled at the hunger and the starvation he would see. He would be confronted with children with distended stomachs and mothers whose milk had dried up, and he would go nearly mad with frustration that he couldn't do anything about it. And sometimes his frustration would get so great he would write a bad check to a merchant to buy food for someone who was hungry and then pray that God would provide the funds to cover his bad check. And to his friends' amazement, it always came in for Bob Pierce. When he was asked about this toward the end of his life he said, "In everything we do for God we should always have some God room. Then he would gesture with his hand. He'd say, "Here's the need. Here are our resources. Everything in between is God room. And the question is Do you have room in your life for God? If you're to let him in, you'd better be ready to have your horizons expanded and your imagination stretched as never before.
Augustine prayed "What place is there within me where my God can come? How can God come into me, God who made heaven and earth? O Lord, my God, is there anything in me that can contain you? Too narrow is the house of my soul for you to enter into it. Let it be enlarged by you.
It does not mean that faith is blind to the pain and the evil and the disappointment in the world. It says simply that faith can look at all of life's disappointment and heartbreak and say nevertheless this isn't all there is and this is not all there's going to be. There's room for God to break out the walls of the world. And faith is as spacious as the God who created the wide world, and unbelief as constricted and as claustrophobic as a scar from an old wound. And so it is with Zachariah's unbelief and yours and mine.
We live in unbelief by refusing to move from where we are
Zachariah's unbelief is also static. Not only can he not see beyond himself; he cannot move beyond himself. Where he has been is where he is now and intends to be tomorrow. And what's so remarkable about all this is that Zachariah is in a good place, from one perspective. Luke says that he and his wife Elizabeth were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. A good spot. A good man. But to paraphrase a line from Mark Twain, he was a good man in the worst sense of the word when he came to his faith. Despite all of his moral and religious goodness, he could not be moved. He was stuck in a rut, incapable of joy and ecstasy. Perhaps that's Zachariah's greatest failing, his incapacity for joy and ecstasy. When he should have been kicking up his heels in celebration over what God was going to do for him, he was muttering half to himself and half to Gabriel over the impossibility of the whole thing.
Listen. Hear the gospel. God is not interested in making you and me nice people, static people. He wants to make us new people, ecstatic people. That's what the word ecstasy means. In the Greek ek, out of, and stasis, place. To be ecstatic is to be moved from the place you were to the new place God would take you. Being a Christian is not so much learning how to be as it is learning how to dance and be moved from the place where we were.
There's a story about an Indian who robbed an eagle's nest of an egg and put it in the nest of a prairie chicken. The baby eagle grew up after he hatched with a brood of prairie chickens. He did everything they did. He scratched on the dirt for grubs and for insects. He fluttered his wings clumsily about two feet off the ground all because it thought that that was the way prairie chickens were supposed to behave. Years passed and one day the eagle grew old and saw the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen, an eagle flying. It seemed to float, hang suspended on the wind currents. And he said to his neighbor "What is that bird? "That's an eagle, said his neighbor, "the greatest of all birds. But don't think you can be like it is. And as the story goes, the eagle never gave it a second thought and died thinking it was a prairie chicken.
See, it doesn't only make God sad when we refuse to be moved from where we are. It makes him angry because he knows better than we know who we are, and he knows better than we know what we were created to be like. His grief and his anger are the passions of a father to see his children grow up. And he will not abide our refusal to do that. I love what Gabriel did to Zachariah. "If you won't use your tongue to praise God, Zachariah, you won't use your tongue at all until God keeps his promise.
We live in unbelief by believing in ourselves more than God
And that's the third fact of Zachariah's unbelief. It's his presumption, his refusal to believe. He believes in himself more than he believes in God. It's not humility that says I'm old. It's not humility that says, oh, the gospel might be true but it can't be true for me. It's presumption. And note how the conversation goes. Zachariah, "I'm an old man. Gabriel, "I'm Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of God. Which one are you going to believe, an old man or one who stands in the presence of God? Zachariah thinks he's in control. And so like all of us to be a Christian, you see, is to let go of the reigns of your life and let God take over. To refuse to let that happen is to live on the delusion that you can steer your own life yourself.
I read a story of a newly elected senator who went to Washington, D. C., and went to visit the home of one of the ranking senior senators in that city. He stood on the senator's lawn overlooking the Potomac and he saw an old, deteriorated log floating down the Potomac. And the old senator said, "You know, this city is a lot like that old log down there. "How so? said the young senator. He said, "Well, I suppose in that log there are about a hundred thousand grub, ants, bugs and critters, and I imagine that everyone of them thinks he's steering it.
The beauty of God's grace to Zachariah and to you and me is that in spite of the presumption of our delusions of control over our lives, he still blesses us with his gifts. Zachariah and his wife cannot have a child, but God will give them one anyway. Zachariah won't believe it, but God will do it anyway, even though he shuts his mouth for the next nine months. And the child's name will be John, which means "the Lord is gracious. Indeed, the Lord is. He catches us up in the mighty currents of his love and faithfulness despite all of our foolish pretentions to sovereignty.
You know there's a deep sadness about Zachariah as he refuses to believe God. He's cramped, he's stuck, and he's presumptuous. But there's an even deeper joy in the story, a joy that will not be repressed by an old man's fear and doubt. God will do his good thing anyway. So there, Zachariah. So there, Ben Patterson. So there, fill in your name. He will heal the scars. He will make us able to trust again. It doesn't take extraordinary faith, my friend. If it did, we'd all be goners. All it takes is the extraordinary faithfulness of God. He says fear not. Joy is coming. Indeed, it's already arrived. Repent of your unbelief, and receive my gift of love and grace in Jesus Christ. You don't have to apply to me for credit. I just stuck 100 million dollars in your pocket. Reach in and take it out. Listen. He's saying that to you. And all you will ever need and more is given to you. There's hope for all of us Zachariahs.
A couple of weeks ago I wanted to take my son Joel in my arms and tell him just how much I love him. I'd been kind of hard on him for a few days, and I wanted to make sure he knew where the old man was, the bottom line. So I took him in my arms and I held him as close to my heart as I could and I said, "Joel, I want to say something to you right now, and I want you to listen very carefully and I want you to remember every word I said. His eyes grew large. He focused all the attention a could. I said, "Joely, I love you. I think you are the best I've ever seen. You're learning so many things. You can make your bed, and you're talking so well and you're so kind, and everybody I meet I tell them what a great boy you are. And I love you with all my heart. Can you remember that? He looked real hard at me. And he got a mischievous smile on his face and said, "Daddy, better say it again. And I did. And he said it back verbatim.
Brothers and sisters, God never gets tired of saying it over and over again that you are loved and the recipient of his great gifts. And if he gets angry it's only because he knows what your fear and your doubt do to you. When God speaks, the dead are raised, the barren give birth. There are no qualifications to receive his gifts except that you be dead and barren on your own. And God will keep telling you that until you accept
Ben Pattersonis campus pastor at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California, and a contributing editor to Christianity Today and Leadership journal.