Anticipating the Lord of History

It’s been several years since I posted anything in this space, and even longer since a regular posting has been in the offing. But today I was encouraged by the thought that, after receiving some feedback in the past few weeks, that these posts are occasionally helpful to folks interested in studying the scriptures and even other matters of a political or theological nature. So in light of that, I’m going to post below a sermon I preached this morning on Luke chapter 1. I hope its enjoyable and enlightening for anyone stumbling across it online.

PJ Wenzel

Welcome to the advent season!  Advent season – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus.

During this advent season, we’re going to be looking at several key figures in the birth narrative of our Lord, with the purpose of walking in their sandals a bit. To see that they were not only narrative furniture in the story of Jesus, but men and women whose lives furnish us with examples of how Jesus’ advent changed them, and how the Gospel transformed their lives and hearts.

Zechariah was one such man.  We’re going to walk through the first part of Luke 1 together, I’m going to read some of the story with you, and because it’s a longer passage, I’m going to make some contextual comments along the way, and then we’ll examine the story from a few different angles. 

So…Luke 1 beginning in verse 5, please follow along with me…

[5] In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. [6] And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. [7] But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Zechariah was a priest from the line of Aaron. Aaron was the brother of Moses, and in the Bible it is through Aaron’s line that the priesthood would be maintained. But not only is Zechariah from this tribe, so is his wife, Elizabeth. It was said in those days that a woman of excellent character was “fit to marry a priest.” But here we learn she is not only righteous in character but is also of the lineage of Aaron, and this would have been thought a double blessing for Zechariah.

Note also that these are older folks. Just like Abraham and Sarah, they are old and unable to have children. From Sarah to Hannah to Elizabeth, again and again in Scripture there is a theme that the Lord delights to show his power and grace in the barren womb. God being glorified in the midst of suffering is also a major Biblical theme, and in the stories of women like Elizabeth, the two themes are beautifully and powerfully woven together. Now, verse 8…

[8] Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, [9] according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

By this time there were so many priests that the line of Aaron was divided up into 24 different divisions, and even those divisions were so populated that if you were chosen for the honor of offering prayers in the temple like this, it’s the only time you’d be able to do it in your lifetime. One and done. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zachariah – so he is thinking that this is the apex of his ministry on earth.

[10] And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. [11] And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. [12] And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. [13] But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. [14] And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, [15] for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. [16] And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

[18] And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” [19] And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. [20] And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

[21] And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. [22] And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. [23] And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

Now it was expected that when Zachariah came out of the Temple, he was to stand in front of the people on the steps of the temple and offer to them a blessing. He was to bless them verbally before the Lord. So when he came out and couldn’t speak, he also couldn’t perform this blessing.  Finally we read…

[24] After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, [25] “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

This is the word of the lord. You may be seated. 

There are three different angles to this story we’ll examine:

  1. The first is the art of waiting on God’s timing
  2. The second is ultimate reality belongs to God
  3. The third is restoration for the glory of God

(waiting, reality, restoration)

The art of waiting on God’s timing

I’ve read in so many devotions and so many greeting cards now that the theme of “anticipation” has become a permanent part of my Christmas vocabulary. Growing up we even celebrated Christmas by doing an advent devotional as a family and putting ornaments on a “waiting tree.” 

To be perfectly candid, I didn’t really care for all the waiting and anticipation in the lead up to Christmas. As a kid it wasn’t the decorating and the devotional evenings that I anticipated, it was Christmas morning! Just in case my parents weren’t sure of my feelings, I’m sure I conveyed my righteous anticipation by asking a million questions about presents and refusing to sit still for any length of time.

Despite my mom’s noble efforts, it wasn’t until later that I began to appreciate the themes of “anticipation” and “waiting” and how they reflect the longing of Israel for their Messiah.

Here at the beginning of our advent season together is the perfect time to reflect on those themes, especially as we look at the lives of Zechariah and of Elizabeth. Focusing in a bit more on Zechariah this morning.  

Luke tells us a few important things about this couple: They were righteous, they were old, they were barren, and they were serving the Lord.

When you are young, there are certain dreams you have, which, being young, you assume will just fall into place as life goes on. There is a certain naiveté, ignorance, and maybe even a touch of arrogance about how we start out our lives as adults. But as time wears on, we begin to see that what we assumed about life, what we took for granted would just happen, doesn’t always fall into place the way we thought it might. Am I right?

Francis Schaeffer once said in the context of an essay on art, that for the Christian, our entire life is our greatest work of art, more than anything we ever do with our hands or produce with our minds.  I’m certain that many of you would agree with Samuel Rutherford that we owe a great deal to the file and the hammer of our Lord, but that process of refinement is painful. And perhaps no struggle is more personal and more painful for a married couple than the struggle of infertility.

Now it is not my purpose or intent to open fresh wounds this morning. But here at Veritas while we’ve praised God on many occasions for the great blessing of children in the church, we’ve also wanted to acknowledge and love on those in our church family here who haven’t yet been blessed with a child, or have walked a long and faith-testing road to parenthood. I can attest, with many others I’m certain, how encouraged and built up in the faith I have been by the godly example of the men and women of Veritas who have walked through the difficult seasons – not only of infertility, but of the loss of children. I praise God for your tenderhearted and steadfast example which brings glory to God.

So church we know a little about what these two people have gone through. But when we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth here they are older, and seemingly they have reached a point where giving birth to a child was a distant dream, one that has long since disappeared like a mirage in the desert of Judea.

Now Luke, our author, is a physician by trade, and a very meticulous author. And when he conveys a thing under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, I believe we should take careful note.  He says that this couple was righteous. That they were following all the laws of the Lord.

As they waited. As they anticipated. As they dreamed, as they lived day in and day out – what did they do?  They obeyed.

Friends, this is the first thing our souls need to take away from this account: waiting on the Lord is active. It is not stultifying, it is not siloed, it is not paralyzed.

The Bible is replete with story after story of Godly men and women who waited for the Lord. David practically made it the theme of his life. As in Psalm 27:

Wait for the LORD;

                        be strong, and let your heart take courage;

                        wait for the LORD! Psalm 27:14

or in Psalm 25:

                        May integrity and uprightness preserve me,

                        for I wait for you. Psalm 25:21

Waiting is abiding. Abiding is obeying. Obeying is glorifying the Lord in our lives through word, heart, and deed.

If we want to know what it means to wait I can think of no better passage than John 15 where our Lord told us… “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

Notice that there is a “doing” here. Waiting on the Lord requires us to abide in His power while doing His work until He brings about His will for our lives in His own timing, by His own power for His own glory.

At this time in Israel’s history, there were thousands of people waiting for a savior. Para-military uprisings among the Jews were becoming more and more frequent, and the people longed for freedom as a nation once more.

This was a national anxiety felt in the hearts and realized in the daily lives of every Israelite.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were serving the Lord as they waited on Him, and as they prayed for a son and for freedom from Roman oppression.

Now…one of the tremendous marks of a life that waits upon the Lord is that of prayer. A life of waiting on Jesus is a life marked by prayer for the Father’s will to be done.

And in our passage today, we read that it was the angel Gabriel who visited Zechariah in the temple. Gabriel shows up at other points in redemptive history. In Daniel chapter 9 we read of how Daniel was praying to God on behalf of his people.  He was confessing the sins of Israel and appealing to God to rescue them from hands of their enemies and to restore them back to the land – because they were in exile in Babylon at this time. He ends his prayer like this:

Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. [18] O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. [19] O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” Daniel 9:7–19

And after this Gabriel comes to him with a remarkable message. He says this:

“O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. [23] At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.” Daniel 9:22b–23

I love this passage! As Daniel waits in exile he is praying, he is obeying the Lord, and the Lord wants him to know that he is “greatly loved.”  As you wait upon the Lord, as you pray to heaven for help in your distress, in your anxiety, in your pain, you, too, are greatly loved.

Waiting involved faithful and active obedience and prayer.

One of the most significant things about our passage today is that it exemplifies how God’s timing often brings us blessings that we could never have imagined. We pray for something over and over for years, but only later realize that in God’s mercy and timing, he withheld that gift in order for something more amazing.

While we may not understand – even in this lifetime – the full extent of what his timing means, we can realize that this is how he works in our waiting.  

Daniel was praying for the restoration of Israel and asking forgiveness for the sins of the people.  Gabriel gave Daniel the vision of 70 weeks – a vision even more amazing and of a higher magnitude than his mind could have asked for. A vision which anticipates not only the restoration of God’s people to their homeland, but how events would culminate in the arrival of a Prince. A prince who would be “cut off” in a sacrificial death for the sins of his people.

God delayed the birth of a son for Zechariah and Elizabeth because he had something special planned.

Daniel asked for a lot but got much more than he bargained for, and timing that he probably wasn’t expecting. So it was with Zechariah. And that is what we’ll see next…

The next thing we’ll consider is the nature of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality belongs to God.

As the priest on duty that day, Zechariah was to be offering prayers on behalf of the nation. So he is in the temple, in the outer area of the holy of holies – only the high priest went in the holy of holies and he did that only once a year – so he’s in this outer area praying. 

Gabriel arrives and tells Zechariah that his prayers have been heard. 

What prayers?

Our minds immediately go to the prayers he and Elizabeth must have prayed a thousand times over the years: prayers for a child.

But his prayers in the temple were more likely prayers for the salvation and redemption of Israel. As I mentioned before this is likely the most important day of Zechariah’s life until now, and he has been training for this, and would want to fulfill his priestly responsibility to the letter, and that meant offering prayers on behalf of the nation.

But the beautiful thing about the answer from the Lord is that it fulfills both the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a son, and the prayers of the nation for deliverance. In sending this couple a baby, God is sending the forerunner of the great Savior of Israel, and of the world!

John is to be the herald of heaven’s great King who would visit this world on a mission of salvation.

Only God can weave such amazing answers together. We read this and marvel at all God is doing in this story.  But was that the reaction of Zechariah?  No…

How does he react?

In verse 18 he questions Gabriel saying “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

From his words alone you cannot detect all of what is in this man’s heart. But apparently Gabriel knew enough to know that Zechariah had an unbelieving heart because he says “because you did not believe my words” (vs 20).

What seems strange about this reaction is that here is a man who had been praying for years and years for a son. Here is a man whose wife had longed for a child. How many conversations, how many knowing glances shared over the breakfast table? How many shared moments of pain and frustration?  And here – here is the answer to all his prayers. Decades worth of desires!  And he doesn’t believe. He sees the glory and power of the angel – there can be no doubt about the authenticity of this messenger’s identity. We read earlier, in fact, that Zechariah practically wet himself when the angel appeared! He knows this is a messenger from God!

It can’t be a proximity problem. He is not isolated from the faith community or the outward reminders of his heritage. In fact, he is surrounded by the trappings of his faith. He has the priestly garments on. He’s inside the temple. He’s only steps away from the holy of holies! 

Why the unbelief?  How is it possible that he can doubt!?

(PAUSE)

Let me tell you what I think is going on here. 

Zechariah’s “worlds are colliding”, to quote George Costanza.

His perception of reality, his construction of what is possible, is bound up in the plans, desires, and perspectives of his heart.

What a message for us today. Awash in post-modernism, we hear and read again and again that truth is what you make it. Reality is defined by your own perspective.  So important is this worldview that technologists are in a rush to give us power to create our own AI worlds accessible by simply strapping on a headset.

But ultimate reality belongs to God. You cannot make your own truth. You cannot create your own reality.

Live in your fairy land all you want, eventually that bubble will burst on the rocks of God’s sovereign truth, either in this life or the next.

Zechariah wasn’t a post-modernist by any stretch of the imagination. Yet his reality, his expectations, and the norms which he has set as the lens through which he saw how life works, how God works, were being brought into contact with the plans of the Lord of life and history.

I’ve found that the nature of my own perspective, when not governed by faith based in the Word of God, reveals itself as extraordinarily brittle in times of testing. This is what Zechariah was learning. He had set limits on what God could do; laws by which he expected God to act. And the weight of God’s plans were snapping the feeble bridge of his expectations.

Look at Gabriel’s reaction, he says “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”  He proclaims this gospel, this good news, and hears the words from Zechariah and he’s like “Wait. Wait…what!?” 

Gabriel is trying to reconcile what he lives day in and day out with this man’s reaction, and it just…doesn’t compute.  “Do you know who I am – I see your knees knocking, so you must have an idea.  I mean…I just came from the heavenly throne room…”

There is some discontinuity between what Gabriel knows as true and what Zechariah is willing to believe is true.

Of course, to us, in hindsight, Zechariah’s unbelief looks nonsensical against the backdrop of God’s revealed plans. But…

…we have to ask ourselves…What happens when our prayers aren’t answered in a way we expected? What happens when (in his mercy) God withholds the answer for years? How do we react when circumstances in our lives unfold in unexpected ways?

Do we look for the hand of Providence in the details of life?  Or do we recoil in bitterness and unbelief? 

We may be surrounded by the trappings of faith, and in this season that’s even more the case, and yet have such a contracted and minimized view of the power of God that we look at our lives and say “no…its hopeless. I’m a mess and there’s nothing that can fix this.”  Are we allowing our own narrow view of life’s road to hem in our perspective on God’s capabilities?

Friends, God does not simply stitch together the mess of our lives in order to salvage some kind of decent ending to the narrative.  He is busy in the details.  He is superintending all of reality. Upholding the world by the word of his power, he supervises and intercedes for those who he “greatly loves.”

It’s a wonderful blessing – a good thing – to be surrounded by the people of God and to regularly find ourselves here in this building. But let’s not let our surroundings, our culture, and our doubts construct an artificial view of God. A small view of God. A proud view of God that’s based on our own plans and objectives, rather than faith in his providence, timing, and power.

God’s word calls us to deeper waters: trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. (Prov 3:5)

Now let’s look past the reaction and to the heart of the message from Gabriel, and how it is “good news” – not only Zechariah, but the whole world.

Restoration for the glory of God

Remember how I said that after the priest would finish their prayers in the temple it was their job to go out and bless the people? Well, the Lord’s messenger puts the kibosh on that. It is as if God is saying “I will not have an unbelieving man speak to my people this day. Not today. Today is the beginning of a special new work.”

For years the people of Israel had been led by shepherds who Jesus would later describe as serpents and sons of Satan. But light is breaking through the darkness, and in a sign of things to come, every tongue will be stopped, and every eye will behold the majesty of Jesus.

Zechariah was a righteous man who stumbled into unbelief.

But this wasn’t to be the end for Zechariah. 

The message that Gabriel brought was “good news” – good news that went beyond the hopes and dreams of this righteous couple. Their son was born for a very specific mission.  Listen to the hints dropped by Gabriel.  Look again at verse 16…

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared

That last line may be the most important. It echoes the words of the prophet Malachi, and indicates that their son John will prepare the people of Israel for someone – and that someone is their Messiah! 

Now as the story continues. Turn with me to verse 57 and we’ll read this together…

Luke 1:57–80

[57] Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. [58] And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. [59] And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, [60] but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” [61] And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” [62] And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. [63] And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. [64] And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. [65] And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, [66] and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Zechariah was restored to speaking once again.

The long months which held him in mute frustration had also humbled him, and increased his faith, so that when the time came to declare before his friends and nearest relations what the will of the Lord would be for his son, his lips found themselves equal to the restored tenderness of his heart.

And in such a small village, this would have been a major event – especially given the circumstances surrounding John’s birth. Before the New Covenant, before Pentecost, God’s people did not have the gift of the Spirit permanently indwelling them. But this child had been filled by the Holy Spirit from before birth! He even leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit.

Gabriel had said that all of this would happen according to God’s timing.

And I wonder how many moments in the intervening months Zechariah had pondered the timing of God in the events of his life and the life of his people.

His life has been blessed with a baby boy – one who Jesus would later call the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7). Now able to speak, we read that, full of the Holy Spirit, the first thing that Zechariah did was sing out with the following words:

Look at verse 68…

[67] And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

            [68] “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

                        for he has visited and redeemed his people

            [69] and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

                        in the house of his servant David,

            [70] as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

            [71] that we should be saved from our enemies

                        and from the hand of all who hate us;

            [72] to show the mercy promised to our fathers

                        and to remember his holy covenant,

            [73] the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

            [74]     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

            might serve him without fear,

            [75]     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

            [76] And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

                        for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

            [77] to give knowledge of salvation to his people

                        in the forgiveness of their sins,

            [78] because of the tender mercy of our God,

                        whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

            [79] to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

                        to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke adds his own narrative note, so that we are prepared for what will come in the next part of this amazing story…

            [80] And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Now, throughout church history we’ve called Zechariah’s song of praise and prophesy the Benedictus, which is simply the Latin translation for the first word he speaks: “blessed.”

Zechariah has been restored and his faith strengthened and he wants to give God glory. But more than that, God has filled him to deliver a message.  The good news that Gabriel announced 9 months prior was not simply that he and Elizabeth would have a son, but that God was sending his own Son, and that John’s role is to proclaim the coming of Israel’s Messiah! 

The day is almost at hand.  The wait is almost over. The promises made to David, Abraham, and the prophets of old would be kept.

Zechariah declares that God will be faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. Nations will be blessed. The seed of Abraham will continue in the adoption of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the family of God. And God will begin his work of re-creation and renewal by making men and women – his image bearers – into new creations in the model of his son Jesus Christ.

9 months prior in the temple Zechariah would have prayed for the salvation of Israel.

Here, inspired by the Spirit, he declares a salvation not linked to earthly political redemption or military conquest, but of spiritual redemption from sin. Verse 77 is key “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” 

Zechariah says that without the light of life we are walking in the darkness and on the precipice of death’s door. He links light and life and peace directly with the forgiveness of sins and relational restoration with God.

For the people of Israel, certainly for Zechariah, the promises of God were coming into tighter focus, even as their own perspectives on God’s plans were widening.  

You might say that while the occupation of Rome was uppermost on the minds of Jews in his day, what Zechariah’s people really needed was a political solution of another magnitude. They had bigger problems. Diplomatic relations between themselves and the King of kings needed restoration. Zechariah says here that the solution was going to be provided in a “knowledge of salvation” by a “horn of salvation” – more specifically, in the strength of the unbreakable life of the embodied Word of knowledge: God’s own Son. (Acts 2:24 and John 1)

For those of us who have been in a season of waiting, a season where it seemed like our lives are in limbo, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth offers not only comfort, but also a reorientation of our expectations, a reminder of who holds history in His hands, and an opportunity to repent.   

Zechariah was told that everything he had desired for both himself and his people was about to be fulfilled, and though he was found in unbelief, though his entire world was turned upside-down, God in His mercy restored Zechariah for His own glory.

Praise God that His plans for our lives do not stop at the door of our heart’s natural capacity to believe. Praise God that His mercy and providence does not wax and wane on the ebb tide of our emotions, and the short-sidedness of even our best-intentioned plans.

The beautiful thing that we see in the life of Zechariah is that he didn’t get everything he wanted the way he wanted in the time he wanted it. Praise God for that! Praise God for his withholding of the blessings we think we want now – even good things which we know are good things, God sometimes withholds in order to bring us into an even greater plan for our good and his Glory.

Let me mention to you a final word friends.

If you are finding yourself without hope in a season which is supposed to be all about hope, you’re in the right place. This is a message for you.

Anticipation is a theme running throughout the Christmas season, and this seasonal slogan finds its origin in Zechariah’s day (and before) when the people of Israel were anticipating a Messiah, a leader, a savior.

But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us did not rescue us from political oppression or social unrest. He rescued us from ourselves. He rescued us from His wrath. He rescued us from our sins so that we may be brought into his kingdom, into his family.  He did this in his own time. And it looked nothing like what was expected.

Friends we no longer have to wait for salvation. The wait is over.  The great message of Christmas is that salvation has arrived! The Sunrise from on high came to live amongst us. He made himself the lowest of low in order to raise up those who were sitting in darkness. As Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Is. 9:2).

That light, that sunrise from on high, is Jesus. Jesus Christ, the son of God, came to rescue a fallen race – you and I no longer wait for salvation – we can receive that now.

I love the gospel of John. He begins his gospel by declaring that the Word of God, the light of the world has come to save men. This is what he says:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. [10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. [11] He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. [12] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:9–13

Christmas is the celebration that our waiting is over, we can have full forgiveness of sins, by believing that Jesus is who he says he is. That celebration, which begins with our reconciliation to God through faith in Jesus, will be consummated when the great King returns in his time with glory and splendor.

It’s my prayer that you are encouraged by the story of Zechariah, and how God overcame his unbelief, to use him as an instrument of praise and glory. He desires to do the same thing in your life and mine.

Weekend Reading: June 20, 2014

Summer is finally here (officially)!  So grab a towel and the kids and head to the pool – and keep your ipad or smartphone with you for some weekend reading.  Here are my top stories, videos, and things to check out as you kick back, or gear up for a busy weekend:

Amazon Fulfillment Center Insider’s Look – this was just a fascinating look inside Amazon’s gigantic warehouses – highly recommend you skim through this one.

HGTV cancels show due to Christian overtones – this is pretty much standard fair these days, but in case you missed it, two brothers who were stars in a brand new HGTV show titled ‘Flip it Forward’ have had their show canceled because **shockingly** they oppose muslim terrorists, abortion, and gay rights.

Disease is on the Border – if you’ve been watching the news at all lately, you’ve noticed that a flood of illegal immigrants has been amassing in Texas and Arizona. Many have come from South America via Mexico and are bringing contagious diseases with them.

Is Success Dangerous? – Jared Wilson says so, and has some good things for Christians to keep in mind.

America in a Spiritual Crisis – potential Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul said Friday that America needs revival more than it needs political leadership…I agree with him there!

Great Music from Keith and Kristyn Getty – If you attend our Thursday Lifegroup here in Dublin Ohio you’ll know we sang a new song last night from this more recent release of the Getty’s.  Check it out!

Travel by Drone! – This is a neat website where you can check out videos from cameras strapped to drones in top cities all over the world. A fun little diversion if you’re curious what Berlin or Kiev looks like from a few thousand feet above the ground.

Seeking the Face of God – this 2009 article by John Piper was helpful to me this week as I did a personal study on what it means to “seek the face” of the Lord.  One of my favorite scriptures is 1 Chron. 16:11 because it was Katie’s signature verse used to sign her love letters to me in college and reflected her desire for me to put God first – even before her.  Preview: “This setting of the mind is the opposite of mental coasting. It is a conscious choice to direct the heart toward God.”  Along similar lines, check out David Mathis’ article on ‘Bringing the Bible Home to Your Heart’ – h/t Parris Payden

My dog ate my emails – Former IRS Chief Lois Lerner’s emails seem to have disappeared, yet White House officials are unapologetic.  Go figure.

What do you do when you’re stuck in the Vegas Airport overnight? Why, shoot a music video using your iphone of course! – pretty funny stuff here! h/t Parris Payden

Pornolescence – Timely article by Tim Challies this week on the nature of Porn and its affect on Christian homes across America. – h/t Parris Payden

Hollywood Hearts Abortion and PCUSA Gay Marriage Update – Al Mohler gives a rundown on the vote of the Presbyterian Church USA (the more liberal of the two mainline Presbyterian denominations) to allow their ministers to marry same-sex couples.  He also discusses a new movie out of Hollywood’s sewers which seeks to make an abortion plot-line into a romantic comedy. Discretion advised if you’re listening with kids around.

How Suffering Leads to Joy and Hope – Two weeks ago I preached a message from Romans 5:1-5 on how suffering brings endurance, character and hope which ultimately yields joy.  The audio from that sermon is now posted if you have a desire to check it out.

In the Aftermath of Disappointing Elections – Tim Challies writes about his disappointment in the aftermath of the Ontario Elections the other day and how his faith, like Abraham’s, must be grounded in God’s character.  I wrote a similar piece just after the 2012 elections – find that little piece of archive goodness HERE. 

Resources, Resources!

Pray like a Puritan! – Looking for help in your prayer life? Check out the Valley of Vision.  These puritan prayers will inspire, deepen, and lift your heart as you prepare to spend time with the Lord.  Really enjoy this book!

Spurgeon at 180 – This week would have been C.H. Spurgeon’s 180th Birthday, and to celebrate the Confessing Baptists are giving away a complete sermon series – enter to win at the link above! h/t Parris Payden

Suffering and Hope

About a year ago I wrote a blog post called ‘suffering yields hope’, and today I get to take the text from that post (Romans 5:1-5) and preach a sermon based on that text.  I’ll be using some of the thoughts I had a year ago when I posted those thoughts, but below are my expanded notes on the matter.  In this particular text Paul is examining how hope is sparked (to use Tom Schreiner’s vocab) through adversity.  This is an odd thing for the saint to proclaim upon first blush, but as you look deeper into the text it makes a great deal of sense – at least “for those who have eyes to see.”

I pray you profit by the notes, and by this look at how suffering produces in us character and endurance – not in a vacuum, but by the powerful work of God’s Spirit within us.

PJW

Suffering Yields Hope: A look at Romans 5:3-5

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5 ESV)

My thesis is that we Christians can have joy because of both the finished work of Christ, AND because of the unfinished working of God in our lives through trials. The first was accomplished through suffering, and so is the second, and tonight I want to explore how trials work to bring us joy.

From a personal perspective, this passage means a great deal to me. About a year ago my wife Kate and I began memorizing the first five verses in chapter five as a sort of faith response to some adversity we were working through.

I had lost my job and was in the nascent stages of a trying to figure what the future held for my family and my career. As Katie and I memorized and talked about the passage together, we began to see how God could use our trial to refine and even bless us more than we could have imagined at the time.

My sermon notes were born from a blog post I hammered out on my iPhone in a café in Old Town Alexandria. It was one of the most discouraging trips to the Washington DC area in recent memory, and in the midst of trying to refresh some old connections, I stopped between meetings and contemplated what this passage really meant.

Like Jacob, I was wrestling with God. I needed to know that my pain was more than simply an accident, more than just a cosmic mix up.   What I learned to do was trust in the word of God. To believe God and to bank on His promises and believe there is really hope for tomorrow. That’s what this passage is all about – promises and a hope born out of adversity, refined by pain, and sealed by the Spirit of God who is our down payment on that hope until the day Christ returns. Before we look at the passage let’s ask God for His blessing upon our evening.

Background of Justification

I’m going to focus tonight on Verses 3-5, but first we need to understand the foundation upon which Paul builds his case for hope:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2)

Paul has spent the last chapter (four) arguing that Abraham was justified by faith and that this same faith that justified Abraham is what makes us right with God as well.

The result of this justification – this right relationship with God – is peace with God. John Stott says, “The pursuit of peace is a universal human obsession, whether it is international, industrial, domestic, or personal peace. Yet more fundamental than all these is peace with God, the reconciled relationship with him which is the first blessing of justification.

Abraham had faith in the future work of Christ, whereas we have faith in the finished work of Christ. It is this faith in Christ’s bloody cross-work that brings us peace with God. As Paul says elsewhere:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. [14] For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [15] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, [16] and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16 ESV)

So Paul is describing the result of this reconciled relationship with God – and the result is peace and hope. That hope is “in the glory of God.” That is to say, that we rejoice in the fact that one day we will inherit the great result of a relationship with God – eternal life in His presence, amidst His glory.

This is point one – we have joy in the hope of future glory because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

Yet there is something missing isn’t there? All of the language employed by Paul indicates that there is peace with God now, and yet we still do not have realized peace in every area of our lives. There is a tension that every Christian faces between what is realized here in this life, and what will be enjoyed in the life to come – this is known as the “already/not yet.

It is the reality of this tension that leads Paul to explain to us that the hope we have through trials is grounded in the reality, both seen and unseen, of what Christ has accomplished through His reconciling work on the cross. But hope is also found in His subsequent work within us through the Holy Spirit which leads to His glory and our assurance.

Paul, who is a master at anticipating our doubt and cutting it off at the knees, goes on to explain these great truths and how they work themselves out. Having laid a foundation for how the gospel of Christ’s work brings us peace, he expands upon the thought…

Rejoicing in Sufferings and the Sequence of Joy

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5 ESV)

As I was examining this verse – verse 3 – a year ago during my own trials, I’ll admit that Paul’s words “we rejoice in our sufferings” seemed far from my own present reality. His writing didn’t match my attitude. But as is so often the case, God’s word corrected my attitude, and as I read through Paul’s reasoning I began to realize that there is a process in all of this – a sequence of events. God wasn’t going to grant me a sudden intellectual understanding that would zap my emotions and heart and that would be it. I had to live it, and work through it over time.[i]

I had to trust that this was the way He worked and that He was meticulously sovereign over the circumstances in my life. Most of us believe God is sovereign over all things, do we not? But do you believe that He is meticulously sovereign? Do you believe that His hand is in everything – allowing the evil and the good in your life as a means of refining you?

Well this is what Paul believed – Romans 8:28 ought to be a dead give away there. Here in chapter five Paul gives a detailed explanation as to why it is that as Christians we can expect an even greater hope from sufferings and it involves a sequence of refinement.

1. Suffering Produces Endurance

Tom Schreiner says, “Those who undergo troubles are toughened up, so that they are able to withstand the storms of life.”

And Paul was no stranger to these storms; he was writing from experience. In 2 Corinthians 11 we read this:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. [24] Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. [25] Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; [26] on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; [27] in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. [28] And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 ESV)

Yet through this Paul saw what trials yielded: Joy and Hope. Hope begets joy and the Spirit affirms (Rom. 8:16) that we are right to hope – he whispers to us that we won’t be disappointed in what our Father has planned for us!

Think about that closely and it makes sense. If you’ve been going through the exercise of running, you will gradually gain more and more endurance. The more you run, the longer you can run, the farther you can run, and what seemed like a difficult objective two months ago, is really a piece of cake today – you’ve built up endurance.

2. Suffering Produces Character

The same is true of character. As you run this race of life, and your endurance is built up, you will develop maturity. This is true of any human being, but it is also true of our spiritual lives as Christians. We develop a depth of maturity when we have endured many seasons of difficulty. We’ve been there. We know what to expect, and our minds are prepared. We have character – worn from years of first hand experience.

As John Stott says, “…if suffering leads to glory in the end, it leads to maturity meanwhile.”

God uses trials to produce character. The word here in the Greek is Dokime (dock-ee-may) and it’s the quality of a person who has been tested and has passed the test.[ii]

It is perhaps the most painfully ironic thing about life that human beings learn more from pain and testing than we do from blessing and easy times. We shouldn’t be surprised when our heavenly Father uses trials to create within us a character that leans on Him, and is more like His Son Jesus.

It is the testimony of history that those saints who have gone through the toughest trials have long endured as men and women of great character. Of course I have already mentioned Paul as our example, and we know Christ is our ultimate example, but there are scores of others throughout church history who have found themselves refined and built up in their faith by the trials God allowed to come their way. The testimony of history is so pervasive with this theme that many years ago John Foxe was compelled to document how Christian martyrs had died in the faith with great joy and zeal for their Lord.

When we have trial-refined character we see things like these men and women who died for their faith saw them. They learned to prize what is truly valuable above all the things of this life – their perspective was eternal and it was based in reality and work that Christ had accomplished on the cross and in their lives.

3. Suffering Produces Hope

As we build character hope is sparked. Character begets hope because the man or woman with character is wise; they have knowledge combined with wisdom and therefore know where to place their confidence. They’ve seen life’s transient and fleeting nature, and they know what the real stuff of life consists of (so to speak).

This long view is more than earthly wisdom earned by grey hairs, it’s spiritual wisdom banked by miles of suffering and character forming. It’s the experience of the Potter’s clay who (personified) looks down on the shop floor with knowing glances at the discarded mud that used to hang upon its/his ever winnowed cylindrical frame.

Schreiner rightly says, “Why does tested character spark hope? Because moral transformation constitutes evidence that one has really been changed by God. Thus it assures believers that the hope of future glory is not an illusion. There is a pattern of growth in the here and now, however imperfect, that indicates that we are changing. Believers, then, become assured that the process that God has begun he will complete (1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6).”

Not Put to Shame

As we go through this sequence of refinement, it is God’s love poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that witnesses to us, so to speak, that these trials are for a reason – a purpose.

This is point 2 of my thesis – that this internal witness of God’s love in our hearts is what causes us not be put to shame and to have hope through suffering. Therefore (as Stott says) “suffering is the best context in which to become assured of God’s love.”

“…the Spirit has the unique ministry of filling believers with the love of God. What Paul refers to here is the dynamic experience of the Spirit in one’s life.”[iii]

This is such an intangible thing isn’t it? I mean, how do you explain to an unbeliever that you know God’s working these things to your good? Obviously you point them to Scripture, but it’s hard to explain to them that when you read these Scriptures there’s an internal assurance going on. The Spirit is reassuring your heart and God’s love is made manifest to you in such a clear way that its simply undeniable that what is going on in your life is happening for a good reason.

As Stott rightly says, “what the Holy Spirit does is to make us deeply and refreshingly aware that God loves us. It is very similar to Paul’s later statement that ‘the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (8:16). There is little if any appreciable difference between being assured of God’s fatherhood and of his love.”[iv]

So while Christ’s finished work on the cross is our bedrock reality, and the great truth upon which our lives and future lives are built, God still has a plan for our refinement here in this life. That is what this sequence is all about. Paul is showing that we can have joy both because of what God has done in Christ, and also what God is doing through the Spirit in us now. For this reason we are not put to shame.

Now some might interject that hope can only be gained amidst trials if we respond correctly to trials. That is probably correct. However, God is working in us to help us do just that. He is working out His will within us and that’s why the link here with Romans 8 is so important and why we need to lean heavily on God during trials – indeed that is a great deal of what trials are meant to make us do. Therefore, we need to remember three key truths about this refinement process:

  1. That God is working for His good pleasure and is invested in this process of our life’s pains and trials

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

  1. That God is powerful enough to finish what He started

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6 ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. [29] For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. [31] What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:28-31 ESV)

  1. That Jesus Himself suffered and saw joy through the agony and shame

We can look at Jesus, our supreme example, to see how He endured trials because of the hope He had – a well founded hope – that God would justify Him in His work. Listen to what Hebrews says:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV)

And Jesus was justified in His hope was He not? Paul certainly believes He was because of the resurrection. The resurrection confirmed that Jesus’ hopes were not in vain. And because we are united with Christ spiritually, we have reason for the same hope He had. Consider Romans 6:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5 ESV)

Jesus set for us not only the example of suffering, but of how to suffer: in joyful hope for a future not be worthy to be compared to this present age.

Conclusion

Therefore, the internal testimony of the Spirit, and the love God has shed abroad in our hearts, combined with the truth of Christ’s finished work on the cross, ought to give us ample reason for joy and for hope in this life.

As Christians, we look back (to the cross) we have hope. We look around us now (at our trials) we have hope. We look ahead (to Christ’s return) to the future, we have hope.

How many of us here will be spending some time – maybe a lot of time – in the hospital in coming days? How many of us will deal with sickness? How many of us will deal with job loss or financial difficulty? How many of us will have strife in relationships?

My guess is that the answer to all of these questions is that all of us will be dealing with these things because that is the life we’re promised. We’re not promised to have it easy when we become a Christian. The Christian life is a life of joy through adversity, not life without trouble.

God is calling us to believe in His promises, and to ground our hopes and our attitudes in the reality of His finished work on the cross, and the work He’s doing in our lives as evidenced by His love poured out through the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us.

The consequences of this are vast. It means that sickness and death and financial ruin are cause for great joy. That’s right – great joy! These are signs of adoption, “God is treating you as sons” (Hebrews 12).   The real question we need to ask ourselves tonight is whether our attitudes reflect the reality of these truths. If you are a Christian and you are bitter about your circumstances then I urge you to repent of that bitterness and see that God is working in you to refine you and build your character in order to make you more like His Son.

If you are not a Christian, then this must seem completely foreign to you and probably a little strange. To think that the worst things in life can actually be turned on their heads in order to signify great blessing just isn’t a normal way of thinking about life – but that’s what Christ has done. He has turned the world upside down (Acts) and confounded the wisdom of the wise of this age. If you are not a believer in Christ, if you have not put your full faith and trust in His work on the cross, then you are still estranged from God and His wrath abides on you. You do not have peace with God, and the promises of peace and real joy in this lifetime and in the life to come are not yours…but they can be.

“Since Jesus is the Son of God…God’s saving promises are fulfilled only in Jesus and in knowing Jesus as the Son of God.”[v] Lay aside your pride and trust in Christ. Submit to His Lordship and repent of your sin – He is calling you to follow Him and to a life of abundant joy. Call upon His name and be saved.

 

 

 

[i] I like what Wiersbe says, “Justification is no escape from the trials of life…No amount of suffering can separate us from the Lord; instead trials bring us closer to the Lord and make us more like the Lord.”

[ii] John Stott, commentary on romans, page 142.

[iii] Schreiner, Commentary on Romans, page 257. He also quotes from Edwards here on how when the Spirit communicates God’s love, he’s basically communicating himself (I assume he means his character because of the doctrine of simplicity of God — God is love).

[iv] John Stott, Commentary on Romans, page 143.

[v] Tom Schreiner’s NT Biblical theology, chapter 7, pg. 233. This statement actually comes from the context of describing who Jesus is in relation to Johannine titles (the I Am and “logos” etc.) and how it is in knowing Jesus himself that is the key – the saving key, as it were – to being a part of/recipient of God’s promises (to Abraham and those who trust in what Jesus said). I enjoyed adding this quote because how often do we think of quoting a scholarly work when giving an invitation! Ha! The idea just made me chuckle – yet isn’t it true that it is the theology – when correctly understood – leads us to a right understanding of who God is? And that is the call here – for a right understanding of who Jesus is and for us to be reconciled to Him.

Suffering Yields Hope

Kate and I have been working to memorize Romans chapter five. The exercise has been most refreshing, and it has led me to really meditate on the greatness of the gospel – but also how upside-down gospel-thinking is to the way we normally think.

This hit me hard this morning as I read through the first five verses of the chapter:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5 ESV)

Verse 3 is perhaps my favorite verse, and it’s the one I think would be most enigmatic for the neophyte who hadn’t walked in the shoes of Bunyan’s Christian, for Paul tells us here that he rejoices in his sufferings. What? How can he do that?? Is he living the life I am living?! Well, if we read 2 Corinthians 12 we will find he is not – Paul’s life was much harder!

Yet through this Paul saw what trials yielded: Joy and Hope. Hope begets joy and the Spirit affirms (Rom. 8:16) that we are right to hope – he whispers to us that we won’t be disappointed in what our Father has planned for us!

This may seem like a leap – but that’s why Paul carefully explained the sequence: first trials, then endurance, then character, and then hope. Think about that closely and it makes sense. If you’ve been going through the exercise of running, you will gradually gain more and more endurance – such is the case with trials in this life.

The same is true of character. We develop a depth of maturity when we have endured. We’ve been there. We know what to expect, and our minds are prepared. We have character – worn from years of first hand experience.

Character begets hope because the man or woman with character is wise, they have knowledge combined with wisdom and therefore know where to place their confidence. They’ve seen life’s transient and fleeting nature, and they know what the real stuff of life consists of (so to speak). This long view is more than earthly wisdom earned by grey hairs, it’s spiritual wisdom banked by miles of suffering and character forming. It’s the experience of the Potter’s clay who (personified) looks down on the shop floor with knowing glances at the discarded mud that used to hang upon its ever winnowed cylindrical frame.

And because He is the one forming us, we can have confidence not to be ashamed – for he also looked forward to the joy of Heaven (Hebrews 12:2) and endured the pain and the cross (Phil. 2:6-10) and thereby set for us not only the example of suffering, but of how to suffer: in joyful hope for a future which will not be worthy to be compared to this present age.

That is what is meant when Paul ends that paragraph by saying, “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” This pouring of love into our hearts is God’s down payment on our eternal joy, and it is a taste of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus!