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Seasoned Hope

Seasoned Hope

Advent Series: Expectant With Hope

Luke 1:5-24

December 11, 2016

Welcome to the 3rd Sunday of Advent 2016.  That original Advent of Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, was a period in human history of great hope in the midst of great challenge.  It was not unlike what we face today in a world and culture of great change and evil. So I’ve decided to focus this Advent season on this amazingly powerful human experience we humans call HOPE

To get your brains going on this topic, I’d like you to get into groups of about 3-4 people.  Spend a few minutes doing the following:

  • Getting acquainted if you don’t know each other.
  • Coming up with a definition for the word HOPE. (No fair using your smart phone. Totally fair using your own smarts!)

“Hope is the expectant anticipation that something desirable will occur in the future regardless of the realities of the present.”

  • If you have time, think and talk about
    1. One hope you have for this Christmas season.
    2. One or more life-or-eternity-long hopes you have.

[Responses?  Summarize.]

Hang onto those ideas and definitions of hope as we jump into an Advent passage that has a whole lot to teach us about holding onto, losing, managing and experiencing HOPE in life.  Let’s begin reading in Luke 1:5-7.

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

[Groups]

Q:  What do we know about these two people, Zechariah and Elizabeth, from this 3-verse description?

  • Lived in a time of enemy occupation. (Anyone here experienced that?  Try imagining being a Jew in Nazi Germany.)
  • Were both from the priestly line of Aaron.
    • Did priests receive an allotment of land in Israel?
    • Were they probably rich or poor?
    • Did they have stricter rules governing them?
    • Would you have seen that as a privilege or a burden?
  • They were BOTH deeply spiritual, righteous, upright, genuinely good, “blameless” people…BOTH! Not just based on what others think. This was God’s opinion! And they got that way together…married…having to adjust to each other’s differences, having to grow up as they grew old.
  • They were BOTH “very old.” Probably 60-80+ years of age?
  • They had lived with and through the child-bearing years childless…in a culture that valued child-bearing and rearing and even judged childlessness (1:25—a “disgrace”). How many years of disappointed hopes?  20-40?  How many miscarriages? 

What do we naturally think should happen to a couple like this, who lives, abides and draws close to God even through years of deep disappointment???  (Be blessed by God in ways they want.)

[Groups]

What does it take to not get bitter in a life like that? 

  • Loving God more than the things He can give.
  • Loving people despite what they can’t give.
  • Trusting God with disappointments.
  • Living for the Audience of One rather than the accolades of others.
  • ???

A few weeks ago, in our study of James, we talked about how disappointed expectations about other people can easily lead us to become critical about them. That’s on the human level.

But the same is true of our relationship with God.  When we hold certain expectations about what God should do for us/in us/around us, it can be very disappointing when He doesn’t.  It can lead to real disillusionment and discontentment with God himself.   

APP:  Any of us over the age of 5 can probably think of things we’ve really, really wanted in life that haven’t happened.  The red firetruck or bicycle you wanted as a child got replaced with, oh, the man or woman of your dreams you never got…or had and lost.  Or maybe it was the career…or ministry…or relationship…or family…or health…or home…or…or….

That’s one of the sobering things about getting older:  some of those hopes and dreams you had in younger years have been replaced by the harsh reality that, barring miracles, they simply aren’t going to happen. 

Got any of those “unmet hopes” in your life?  Sure.  We all do.  The question is not IF we will have unfulfilled hopes.  The question is: what are we going to DO with them?  Every one of us will have to decide. 

So did Zechariah and Elizabeth.  And what does it look like they did?  (Kept living righteous lives.  Kept growing faith in God. Kept worshipping.  Kept loving each other.  Kept living in community. Kept praying.)

Keep reading, vss 8-10.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

            Let me give you a little background about this part of the story.  Zechariah was a priest, an ordinary country priest, one of an estimated 8,000-18,000 living in Israel at the time. 

The priests were divided according to an arrangement first instituted 1,000 years earlier under King David. Each priest served in the temple 2 one-week-periods a year.  They were divided into 24 divisions of which Zechariah was in the 8th.  Each day, 56 priests were chosen by lot to participate in the temple service of that day.  Of those 56, 2 were chosen to officiate at the sacrifice – one at the time of morning prayers (9:00 a.m.) and one at the afternoon time of prayer (3:00 p.m.). That privilege happened only once in a priest’s lifetime!  Such a temple service would have been the apex of a priest’s religious calling.

We keep reading in vs. 11.

11) Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12) When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

Here’s how I’m imagining it went down.  Zechariah’s adrenaline must have been flowing anyway.  On what had started as a very normal day was turning out to be THE most important day of his priestly life. He had been selected to do what some priests never got to do in their entire lifetime.

Zechariah’s name was somewhat like the name John or Bill or Jacob in America today—well used and popular.  It was popular because of what it meant: “The Lord has remembered”.  Problem is, the outworking of Jewish history and the outworking of Zechariah’s life personally looked like anything BUT the reality that God was remembering them.  As a nation, they were under the judgment of Roman rule.  As a man, Zechariah might have felt that the death of the hope of becoming a father in earlier years had made a mockery of his very name. 

Now here he is, taking incense into the Holy Place where he had never been – incense that was to be a visible and olfactory reminder to all of the importance of the prayers of God’s people that were that very moment ascending to God both in the courtyard where the other priests were and in this Holy Place where he was.

Before him on the other side of the altar rose the richly embroidered curtain of the Holy of Holies, resplendent with cherubim woven in scarlet, blue, purple and gold. To his left was the table of special bread.  Directly in front of him was the horned golden altar of incense.  To his right stood the golden candlestick that gave light to this holy place.  Zechariah purified the altar and began to offer the incense even as his heart offered a prayer to God.

Suddenly right between the altar and the candlestick was a supernatural being.  We don’t know what form the angel of the Lord, Gabriel, took.  We do know that it startled and virtually petrified Zechariah with fear

Vs. 13 indicates that Gabriel was, in fact, responding to some prayer of Zechariah.  The structure of that word in Greek seems to indicate that Gabriel was referring to the prayer Zechariah had just uttered as he offered incense. 

Q:  So, what do you suppose he had been praying about?

Given what we know about their ages…and Zechariah’s serious doubts about the completion of Gabriel’s prophecy, do you really think he was praying about Elizabeth having a child? 

            I think he was praying for a bigger issue than a pregnancy.  He was representing the prayers of ALL of God’s people ascending to God that day and that moment.  Don’t you think he was praying for something like the redemption of Israel…the revival of a whole nation…the coming of the long-awaited Messiah?

APP:  Remember the question I asked you to ponder earlier about some life-long or eternity-long hopes you have? 

We serve THE “God of hope” (Rm. 15:13) who wants our lives to overflow with hope.  That’s what Paul says in Romans 15:13—“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

God doesn’t want you to hope for less…or feel “hope-less”.  He wants us to be “hope-FULL”.  But he knows that it comes, not by wishful thinking or positive personalities.  It comes “as you trust in him.”  It comes “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  The kind of hope God specializes in is hope that is centered in Him.  It’s hope about things God desires to do.  It’s hope about what God has promised to do and be. It’s hope in God, not man.

What’s the hope in God you are still praying about?  Still longing for?  Still waiting expectantly for?  Biblical hope depends on God, not people.

Has your hope been too small?  Too people-dependent?  Too time-bound?  Too much about you and not enough about a world separated from God? 

Back to Zach.  I think Gabriel was telling Zechariah HOW God was going to answer his prayer for the whole nation of Israel.  What seemed to surprise Zach was that God would choose to answer that prayer for a whole nation while at the same time answering his and Elizabeth’s long-abandoned, long-forgotten prayer for a child. 

John the Baptist would be part of God’s answer to a whole nation in spiritual need.  At the same time, he would be more than the answer Zechariah and Elizabeth could have ever anticipated. 

We pick it up again at vs. 13—Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. John was not a family name (as vs. 61 lets us know later). But it means “God has been gracious” or “God has shown favor.”  Having a baby at 70 or 80 might not be your idea of God’s grace or favor, but it was nonetheless.  Remember that when God gives you a responsibility that either seems too big for you or seems like the wrong timing.  Having children at any age in life…be it as a teenager or a senior citizen or any time in between…can seem overwhelming.  You can almost hear Zechariah muttering, “Really, Lord!  NOW???” 

            But here comes the wonderful reality of having an unplanned pregnancy…or being responsible for someone else’s surprising pregnancy:  14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.

            When life gets too serious, we need to get around little children! 

Next God gives some parenting instructions as well as some prophetic pronouncements.

He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

            These words are why I think Zechariah was praying about a spiritual revival and awakening of his nation.  Gabriel is describing something here that every one of us who loves God would love to see happen in our nation or any nation of the world, right?  Here’s a prayer worth hoping for the rest of our lives.  But don’t be surprised if God rocks your boat when He chooses to answer it.

            How would you feel if God said, “I’m giving you a kid and you need to make sure he/she never drinks alcohol”???  If you think that’s hard today, try doing that in a day when wine was the only way to preserve and purify fruit juice and water.  Talk about parental pressure!  Most of us would be looking for the “Parental Controlbutton of life!  We’d become absolutely freaked out about controlling our kids. 

            But God makes it clear that human parenting comes with divine assistance.  John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.”  I wish we all had that promise when entering into parenting.  But if a mother and father are Spirit-filled, Spirit-directed adults, whether a child is in the womb or in high school, they will be living at close range to parents through whom the Spirit of God is working.  It’s not a guarantee that a child will grow up to truly give their life to Christ and live daily submitted to the Holy Spirit.  But parents who walk in the Spirit will be parents exposing their kids to the presence of God.  They will never be able to say, “I never saw God at work in my family.” 

            Now, imagine if this prophecy of John’s future were given to each of us about any of our children: “Your son/daughter is going to bring back many people to the Lord. In fact, she/he is going to usher in the coming of the Lord himself.   She/he will live life in the same spirit and power Elijah the prophet of old had.  And their ministry will turn the hearts of children to their parents and the hearts of parents to love and sacrifice for their children.”  

How would our parenting…or grand parenting…be different IF we knew we were responsible to raise the next Billy Graham or Charles Wesley or Pope? 

Raising children, no matter what your age, is probably THE most important thing any of us can do in life.  And getting old, as Zechariah and Elizabeth found out, is no excuse for letting up or bailing out on that privilege.  

Well, the surprises were not over yet for Zechariah.  His final one had a bit of irony…or perhaps divine humor as much as spiritual discipline.  Vs. 18--

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.20 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 appointed time.”

God meets Zechariah’s unbelief about the feasibility of a grandparent-age, childless couples getting pregnant and having a baby with an something that would help Zechariah experience the heart of God towards a whole nation of spiritual children.  God had kept silent for 400 years in anticipation of the greatest single event of human history – the coming of the Savior of the world.  Now Zechariah would know what it was like to be silent for 9 months with the message that meant hope for his whole country.

When we pray for things, things that may well be at the core of God’s greatest plans for us and others, we must be willing to not only receive the answer but experience the heart of the Father who gives the answer.  God doesn’t just want children; he wants children who share his heart and nature.  To do that, we must sometimes share in his sufferings, his silences and his sorrows.

The passage continues:  23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 

This is a great time to put yourself in the shoes (or sandals) or Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth.  Just use a little sanctified imagination.  Your man of, say, 78 or 80, comes home from being away for several weeks.  He’s lost his ability to speak.  “Maybe he had a stroke,” you’re thinking.  “Clearly, something has gone majorly wrong here.” 

            Then he starts playing charades with you about the trip.  He gets you to understand that he was chosen to minister before the Lord in the Temple.  Wow!  That’s something he’s been hoping for his whole life. 

“Maybe the stress was too much at his age?” you think.  After he describes the experience with an angel, you’re sure it was.  Nobody’s seen an angel in Israel in a very long time!  Maybe he fell and hit his head back there in the Holy Place in the Temple in Jerusalem where no one could see him. So you check his balding head.  Nope, no knots or bruises. 

Then he hits you with the biggest whopper of them all:  “WE are going to have a baby!  Not adopt.  Not become guardians for one of your great-nieces.  WE are going to have our own child.  YOU are going to get pregnant!  And he is going to grow up to lead our nation back to God!”  

Would you blame Elizabeth for laughing?  You can almost see her going over to her husband, kindly enfolding him in a big hug, and whispering, “There, there, honey, everything is going to be alright.  Just give it a few days.”  All the while she’s thinking, “Have a baby…and my age?  Poor Zach really has gone over the edge!”  J

That might be a little editorial license there.  Luke simply says this:  24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

            That’s what seasoned hope looks like. 

  • It doesn’t let years of disappointment about some much-hoped for blessing dim a faithful walk with God.
  • Instead, seasoned hope allows God to cultivate even more important hopes that can change nations and the entire world.
  • Seasoned hope keeps praying…and worshipping…and serving because it believes that God knows best.
  • And seasoned hope makes room for God to do some very surprising, even disruptive things in our lives, maybe when we least expect it to happen.

APP

  • Have you allowed some unfulfilled hope to separate you from simple faith and fellowship with God? Maybe it’s time to ask God to forgive you for your lack of trust in His goodness and wisdom.
  • Have your deepest hopes been too small? Too time-bound to your life?  Not big enough for what God wants to do in our city…or nation…or world?  Why not make praying for the best and biggest things God’s Spirit wants to do much more of what we cry out to God for? 
  • Where are you in life’s journey: filled with lots of good, natural, maybe even God-given hopes for your own life or family?  Or maybe you are in the wrestling stage where it has grown very hard to hang onto those hopes and you are wondering what God wants you to be hoping for?  Or maybe you are in a latter stage where you’ve let go of some hopes and need to fill your heart with nation and world-altering hopes that change your prayers. 
  • Perhaps you are feeling rather hope-less in life right now. Jesus wants to come and walk with you.  But you must trust in Him—put your faith in Him, in His sinless life and redeeming death on the cross for you.  Turn your life over to Him.  Let him exchange your struggling for His peace, your anxiety for His joy, and your despair for His hope.  [Lead in a prayer of faith in Jesus Christ.]

Further Questions for Study & Application

  1. Why is childlessness so difficult for some couples? Why is that experience so painful for some?  How can it be used by God to grow and bless us?
  2. Tell about someone you know who lived a consistent, godly, upright and righteous life despite some real heartaches, disappointments or tragedies. Were you close enough to them to see how they persevered rather than sank into bitterness?  If so, what did you observe.  If not, how would you like people to treat you if that happens to you some day?
  3. Zechariah took spiritual leadership in both the nation and his home. What makes it hard for men to do that?  How would you like to see more men lead their homes, churches and nation spiritually?
  4. Study Luke 1:17. What does this verse mean?  How did John do that?  Is this something we should seek today? 
  5. How do you know when you are asking for too much evidence?
  6. Has there been a time when you had to be silent for some significant period of time? What did it do to/for you?  How has God used silence in your life to grow you?  How could you practice the spiritual discipline of silence?  Why did Gabriel judge Zechariah for his unbelief in this way? 
  7. Why did Elizabeth spend 5 months in seclusion? What do you think it might have done for her?
  8. How should disappointed expectations shape our praying? What does this passage teach us we should be praying for even when God has not answered our requests in the past?
  9. What dreams have pretty well died in your life?  What new ones has God birthed?  How and why should we worship God in our disappointments?
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