Nobody plans on having fertility problems. It’s just not something you expect. After all, a Christian has spent all of the years leading up to marriage in the effort to avoid having sex before marriage. The Sixth Commandment describes God’s ordering of creation. It describes how God set things up to work. And therefore it also describes the best way to do things.
If two people reserve sex for marriage alone, they greatly increase the probability that their marriage will be a lasting one. If two people reserve sex for marriage alone, we can say with certainty that they will not get sexually transmitted diseases. If two people reserve sex for marriage alone, we can say with certainty that there will not be a pregnancy before marriage.
Now led by the Spirit, Christians seek to live in accordance with God’s will. The problem is that the new man, led by the Spirit and cooperating with the Spirit, is not the only side at work. There is still the old man, the remnants of the fallen, sinful nature that clings to us. It’s the Law that smacks that guy down so that the new man can direct a person’s behavior. The fact that sex outside of marriage can lead to a baby provides a powerful disincentive to fornication. In the struggle against temptation it can be the final factor that prompts a couple to stop before things go too far.
Getting married changes everything. Entering into marriage which God instituted in the creation of Adam and Eve means that when it comes to sex, “Thou shalt not” becomes “Thou shalt.” God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” has not changed. The one flesh union of man and woman before God is established in sexual intercourse and continues to be enacted each time the couple unites. Being fruitful and multiplying becomes a goal as a couple seeks to start a family.
And so it comes as a great shock when that one flesh union is not fruitful. The thing that a couple sought to avoid, now becomes the very thing they can’t have. In the age of modern medicine we have a great understanding of the physiological issues that cause infertility. In the ancient world they could not explain why it happened. But knowing the why doesn’t mean that we can always solve the problem. And in that case, the knowledge simply adds to the frustration.
In our text we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke describes them as wonderful, faithful people of God when he writes, “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” Yet theirs was a heartbreaking story, because this aged couple had not been able to have any children. The Old Testament taught Jews to view children as a blessing – a gift from the Lord. And because of this, the common view was to look down on those women who were unable to have children. As we hear at the end of the text, Elizabeth says that through this pregnancy God had taken away her reproach among people.
Because Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful people of God, they prayed to God as they asked for a child. Yet after all of these years God had not given the answer for which they hoped. He had not, until one day when it was Zachariah’s turn to offer the incense in the temple.
Suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared at the right side of the altar. Zechariah was troubled and fearful, and in response the angel announced some amazing good news: “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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.”
This son would bring joy and gladness to Zechariah and Elizabeth. But the news Gabriel had come to bring was about more than the gift of a child for an aged couple. He went to add that other people would also rejoice in their son John. And the reason went beyond happiness for this nice couple. They would rejoice because John would be “great before the Lord.”
They would rejoice because of who John was and what he would do. Gabriel told Zechariah, “…he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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.”
Gabriel told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son. And then he told him that this son John would play a special role like that of the prophet Elijah as he turned the children of Israel to their God and prepared the people for the Lord. This was good news upon good news!
In response, Zechariah said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The first sentence is exactly what Abraham said when he learned that his aged wife Sarah was going to have a son. The second sentence is really not all that different in character from what Mary will say to Gabriel later in this chapter.
But Zechariah received a very different outcome than these other two. The angel replied, “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. 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.” Zechariah’s response is described as one of unbelief. Gabriel had brought good news: good news for Zachariah and Elizabeth, and good news for the people of Israel. But Zachariah had not received this news in faith.
The news for Zechariah was the beginning of the story of Jesus the Christ. John the Baptist was announced first to Zechariah, and then Jesus birth was announced to Mary. John the Baptist began his ministry first, and then Jesus began his as he was baptized by John. John’s job was one of preparing the way for Jesus. Filled with the Spirit and able to speak once again, Zechariah would prophesy at John’s naming, ““Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” Zechariah declared that in the coming One God was remembering and keeping the promise that he had made to Israel.
And John’s job was to be the unique prophetic forerunner for this coming One. Zechariah announced, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
During this season of Advent, we have begun to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet Zechariah’s experience prompts us to consider how we receive this good news. It is indeed good news. By his death on the cross and resurrection form the dead Jesus has was won for us the forgiveness of our sins. He is the light of life that rescues us from the darkness of death.
Do we receive this word in faith – a faith that guides the way we think about our life and act in it? Or do we receive it in unbelief – a faithlessness that accuses God of not caring because of the circumstance we experience?
It does require faith to trust in God’s love and care in spite of illness, strained relationships and other heartache. Yet this time of year should emphasize for us that our leap of faith is smaller than it was for Zechariah. Zechariah was called to believe in something that had not happened yet. We are called to trust in God now, because of what God has already done.
At Christmas we will have joy and gladness because Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. On Good Friday we will solemnly remember that is same Jesus died on the cross to give us forgiveness. And then on Easter will again have joy and gladness because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day. He has defeated death and begun the resurrection that will be ours too.
This Christian life is certainly one of faith. But it is a faith alive in the present that is based on what God has already done. In Christmas we see the reason we can continue to trust God’s love and care for us today, tomorrow and for all eternity.