A man shared with me that for years he went to church and watched as the advent candle was lit by these beautiful families, so well-dressed and well-mannered and well-spoken. And he thought to himself: "I wish I was living in a family like that. I wish my family was so put together." What he didn't know, of course, is that beneath the surface of so many of those apparently perfect families were real life problems and challenges.
If you take nothing else from your time here this morning, I pray that you will walk away with a renewed sense that Christmas is not only for cheery-faced families or individuals with Hallmark-card lives. The God who meets us at Advent is a God who cares deeply for people with real struggles?the kind we met last week and the kind we'll meet in the Scriptures right now. The Word of the Lord speaks to us all through Luke chapter 1, verses 5?-17.
When parenting is joy and delight
"[This child] will be a joy and delight to you," the angel said to Zechariah, "and many will rejoice because of his birth." Can some of you remember hearing the good news that a child was coming to your family? Do you remember what it was like to first take that featherweight bundle in your arms and gaze into that little pink, scrunched-up face? Can you remember what it was like to hear your name spoken out from the crib? Can you remember watching that miracle take its first brave, faltering step from your hands across the carpet?
Can you remember how you feel when he hops with pleasure at opening that present, or learns that new thing? When she scores the goal or sings in church or stands up in the school play? When that child walks across the platform at graduation, or down that wedding aisle, or into the room after being away for so long?
What is happening in your heart? Even if you can only project yourself into those places, you can touch it for a moment, can't you? You can feel something of the truth of the angel's words: "[This child] will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of [that] birth."
Of all of life's sweet gifts, few define "joy and delight" like the child of your dreams. Psalm 127 says: "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are [children] born in one's youth. Blessed is the [one] whose quiver is full of them." I know that feeling. I'm a father of three. And even amidst the chaos and confusion of our house, I just love to hear them rattling in the quiver.
Like arrows in a quiver, the very rattle of children is comforting. Like arrows, they are a delight to watch in flight. Like arrows, children extend a family's reach and influence far beyond where any of the parents could ever walk. Like arrows, chilren are a work of beauty and craftsmanship, each one feathered in a unique way. Like arrows, they are your defense and security when age assaults. And like arrows, children?or the dreams we have for them?can also pierce your heart at times.
You may not have the child of your dreams.
This is why I invite you to look with fresh eyes today at the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Whatever your situation in life?single or married?God offers us truths here that are both profoundly relevant and practically helpful. If they are not directly useful for us at this time, then maybe later in the journey. Perhaps you are among those who have no desire for children of your own?God's given you a different call. Then perhaps this message is one that could be of help to someone you know.
The first truth I want to pass on is the very hardest: You may not get the child of your dreams. Sometimes that is because you don't have a child when you want one. I talk at least weekly to someone who is wrestling with this reality. "I thought for sure I'd be married and have kids by now, but it hasn't happened. And it's hard sometimes." Or, "For so long, I spent all this energy making sure I didn't get pregnant, but now?when we're so ready and we want children?we're still waiting and it's breaking our heart." Or: "Oh, my God, I'm pregnant. This can't be happening right now. This is a nightmare." Sometimes, you don't have a child when you want.
And, sometimes, you don't have a child how you want. You dreamed of it being a certain way. You watched others. You saw the movies and the TV shows. You knew how it was supposed to go. But that's not how it happenned for you. "It just never occurred to us that we'd be considering in vitro, much less surrogacy," one set of friends told me. Or, "I always just assumed that I'd be raising children with a loving spouse, but he's gone now."
I've spoken with others who said: "Adopting this child (or becoming foster parents) was the best decision we've ever made. We love this kid every bit as much, or maybe more, than we would our biological own, but we never dreamed it would be this way."
And then there are times when it isn't a matter of when or how, but rather of not. Sometimes, you simply will not have the child that you want. You won't get a child at all, maybe. Or the child you get will be a child you mentor, born to someone else. Or, when you do get a child, he or she will turn out very differently than you might have wanted.
If we look carefully, we can see both of those experiences at work in the lives of the couple we meet in the Christmas story today. At first, they get no child at all. Then, the child they get turns out differently than they would have planned. Luke 1:7 says that Zechariah and Elizabeth "had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years." And this truth was like an arrow piercing their heart.
Not having the child you want isn't a sure sign of God's punishment.
Not to have a child in ancient times was to put you in a state of want at the emotional level?"We're not going to know what others seem to know." It was to put you in a state of want at the practical, material level?"Who's going to support us when we get too old? There isn't any social security system here in Israel, except for our kids."
To be without kids would also put you in a state of want at the spiritual and social level. In ancient Israel, children were considered as a sign of God's favor. Psalm 127 says that "sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him." The average Jew had concluded that the converse must also be true?that to be barren of children was a sign that God was punishing you. God was purposely not answering your prayers because there was something wrong about you. What happened in your family life was a sign that you were either favored by God, or else on God's "They get coal in their stocking" list.
And I know people who wonder about this today. "Maybe I don't have the child I want because God doesn't think me worthy enough to be entrusted with such a gift." Or: "Maybe I don't have the child I want because I am, or was, such a lousy parent. I wish I'd done a better job as a dad or a mom."
Can you imagine John the Baptist's parents talking about their son? "Liz, how is that kid ever going to get a real job or someone to marry? I mean, he has dirt and hair all over his clothes, he smells like a camel, and he wanders around ranting." "I don't know, Zech. I'm just trying to get him to stop eating locusts. Oh, I did such a bad job as a mom."
Can some of you understand those feelings?
Sometimes our kids don't look the way we want, study the way we want, marry the way we want, believe in God the way we want, or raise their own kids the way we want. We can start feeling like maybe there is, or was, something wrong with us that accounts for this.
Now, don't get me wrong here. Self-examination is important. We have to admit that the quality of our character counts with God?and counts a lot in parenting. The investments we are making now in the health of our own soul, or of our kids' souls, matters profoundly. One of the major reasons for you and me to cultivate our own life with God is because only God can produce in us the character we need to be the influences our kids need, or that someone else's kid needs, when those kids watch us. Cultivating our character and soul makes us more ready to receive the gifts God gives, and more able to handle those gifts wisely when they come.
But God's gifts are not given on a quid pro quo basis. In other words, God is not a cosmic ATM. We can't bank up good deeds and then expect to draw out blessings in the exact denominations we want.
Sometimes, that reality about God looks like a very good deal. Perhaps there are seasons when we know that we have very little in our moral bank account, and yet grace just keeps pouring out of the dispenser anyway. Who's putting that stuff in there? It wasn't me. In fact, Jesus says in Matthew 5:45: "Your father in heaven" is amazing in his grace. He "shines his [warming] sun and showers his [life-giving] rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike." And so there times when that looks like a great deal?we like that God's in charge of the bank.
Conversely, there are times when the blessing machine seems out of order. We know we've put stuff into our account. We've done all kinds of things in the right ways, but the job doesn't come that I want, the kid doesn't come that I want, the marriage doesn't come that I want, or the something else that I desperately want doesn't come. And what I want to say to that person is: it isn't about you! It's not necessarily because there's something wrong with you that you don't get what you want.
The Bible goes out of the way to make it very clear that the problem Zechariah and Elizabeth faced was not because there was something fundamentally wrong with them. Verse 6 says, "Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly." The Bible is trying to say in a big, neon sign: "It wasn't about them, these circumstances!"
Sometimes I think in the midst of the yawning, aching, hungering dark of our unanswered expectations, we must simply take the weight off our wants and somehow, by faith, set our heart's weight on the wisdom of God's will. But that ain't easy.
God's providence can be surprising.
But, somehow, I think Zechariah and Elizabeth had done it. Somehow, over the long years, they had let go more and more of their wants and trusted more and more in God's will. Until it became Zechariah's time?when his lot came up to go to the Temple and burn the incense on the great altar of God. It was there on that altar that sacrifices had been made for generations, beseeching God's blessing, holding forth the hope that God might yet send a Messiah to accomplish his will where human efforts had failed to bring peace.
It was then, the Scripture says, that "there appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. And "the angel said to him: 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah.'" Incidentally, do you know what the name Zechariah means? It means "God remembers." God hasn't forgotten the needs of his people. God remembers. "Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard," said the angel. You should know that the aorist tense of the verb "heard" implies that God had been hearing all along. "Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John," which means, "God acts in grace."
And what an awesome grace God was about to pour out. A temporary political messiah? No way. That's what people wanted, but what God willed was so much more. Elizabeth and Zechariah were to give birth to a child who, the text says and history confirms, was to be "be great in the sight of the Lord." I mean, it's good to have a kid who is great in the sight of other people; but it is a glorious thing to have a kid who is great in the sight of the Lord.
And that child, the angel said, would "be filled with the Holy Spirit"?not just powered by good education and good looks and the right advantages, but with the Holy Spirit of God. And this child will lead "many of the people of Israel?back to the Lord their God." He's going to make a difference, this kid. He's going to have an influence and legacy of staggering proportions. He would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
I want you to think about this for a moment. If Elizabeth and Zechariah had had their wants fulfilled when they first began to pray, what would they have gotten? I'll tell you: another priest. Another temple worker in the line of Abijah. That would have been good. But what did God's will have in mind for them? They were privileged to raise the greatest prophet ever in the line of Elijah?a son who would point the planet to the final sacrificial Lamb of God who "taketh away the sin of the world." What a grace.
So, here are two thoughts I hope you'll take with you today that may bring all of this together. First?in the midst of the disappointments with which you may be living as a parent, a would-be parent, a spouse, a worker, or in some other area of your life?please consider that it is possible that God has a long-term will that is even better than having your wants fulfilled today. Dare to believe that God may be denying you the good you want now because, in his perfect will, he is planning the best.
Second, if you happen to have a child who isn't living up to your dreams, please remember that you aren't the only one who has a vision for him or her. If Christmas tells us nothing else, it tells us that there is a Good Shepherd who cares for lost lambs. He will cross eternity to find them. He'll insert himself into the dingiest stable; he'll travel to the farthest country; he'll climb a cross, if need be, to find the lost ones. Don't give up hope. You're not the only one at work.
So, would you simply stay faithful, as Elizabeth and Zechariah did? Keep loving that child. Keep declaring the gifts you see in them and the good you pray for them. Keep modeling before them a life truly lived in relationship with God. And even if that child is eating bugs right now, or wandering in the wilderness dressed poorly, God may have a plan for their lives that, if you could see it fully today, would fill you with "joy and delight." It happened with with Elizabeth and Zechariah's child.
The great Catholic priest Henri Nouwen once said: "Songs, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying yes to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying yes to a hope based on God's initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God's work and not mine."
For there is a God of surprising grace, of long-working purpose, of sudden redemption. And this is good news for real people?like you and me and those God has given us to love.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.