A few years ago, when Christina was younger, I took her to the doctor for an appointment. The appointment was for her, but all of a sudden I wasn't feeling so well. The doctor looked at me and said, "Enough about Christina. How are you doing?"
I went home and recuperated for a week from the worst case of strep throat I've ever had. I didn't have time to be sick, but I didn't have a choice. I slept for about a week. Even the most basic task was beyond me, and I had to wait it out.
Has this ever happened to you:
- Something in your life has gone seriously out of whack. I mean your health, or a relationship, or your job. Something major that affects your whole life.
- You can't do anything about it. You're powerless to do anything but wait.
November of last year, Colin McCartney, the executive director of Urban Promise here in Toronto, was on his way to Australia for a sabbatical after a very rough year. Two deaths connected to Urban Promise - a murder and a drowning - had brought Colin and his family close to the breaking point. They were excited to be on their way and recuperate.
Colin had a stopover in Hawaii on his way to Australia. That morning, Colin remembers praying for God to speak to him. Later that day, he went boogie boarding.
A wave drove me headfirst into the ocean bottom and snapped my neck. I remember sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor and telling my body to swim but I couldn't move a finger. I literally watched my arms float from in front of me to my side while my brain was telling them to swim! I was paralyzed and because of this I was also drowning.
Someone dragged Colin out of the ocean. At that point, even though Colin wasn't permanently paralyzed, his life was put on hold. His sabbatical was cancelled. Everything in his life was pushed aside.
Some of you can relate to that. You may not have been set aside quite like Colin, but you've experienced the same feelings. You've been sidelined, and you can't control something that you want to control. Some of you can think of a time when you've been in the hospital, or you've been at the end of your rope, close to or even past the breaking point. It could be waiting to get a job or to have a baby.
You may not be at this point today, but that doesn't matter. Chances are that you will experience it one day. It's a common experience. There is a story of St. Teresa of Avila, the great mystic from the 1500's. She was angry with God because she was trapped in a flood while doing His work while traveling Europe starting monasteries. She cried out to God; "Why are you doing this to me? I am only doing your work?"
God answered and said, "This is how I treat all of my friends." To which Teresa replied, "Well God, maybe if you treated your friends better you would have more friends."
Waiting isn't unusual for God's people. A very common prayer, found in the psalms almost a dozen times, is the honest prayer, "How long?"
What happens in this period may even seem like it's too much for our faith. Many of you probably know the name Charles Colson. He's a well-known author and Christian leader who become a Christian in prison after the Watergate scandal. He's written all kinds of books, including his latest one The Good Life. His son was recently diagnosed with bone cancer, and soon after, his daughter was diagnosed with melanoma. Then his wife had to go in for knee surgery. Colson asks:
What happens when you have relied on this intimacy [with God] and the day comes when God seems distant? What happens in the dark night of the soul?...
I found myself wrestling with the Prince of Darkness, who attacks us when we are weakest. I walked alone at night, asking God why he would allow this. Alone, shaken, fearful, I longed for the closeness with God I had experienced in the darkest days of prison.
A period of waiting and hopelessness can overwhelm our souls.
Today, I want to look at a story of somebody whose life was interrupted in a major way, who entered a period of waiting, where his life was out of control. There are two questions I want to ask as we look at this man's story. The first question is: why do these waiting period come? What's the purpose. The second question I want to ask is: what are we supposed to learn? So if you have your Bibles with you, let's look at the story and ask these questions. It's found in Luke 1.
Why the waiting times?
So the first question I want to ask is, "Why do these waiting periods come?" By waiting periods, I mean a lot of things. It could be the long wait to have a baby, month after month hoping that the pregnancy will come. It could be the wait for an adoption. It could be when you're sidelined with sickness, or stuck in a holding pattern in your life. What is the purpose of the waiting period?
There's a sense in which we're all in this waiting period. This is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is all about waiting. The story we're going to look at today takes place as Israel had been waiting for God to deliver them from Roman occupation. Israel had been under foreign rule for hundreds of years. The Temple had been destroyed over six hundred years earlier. It had been modestly rebuilt, but it had also been desecrated - even pigs were sacrificed there. God's people were waiting for deliverance, and it was long overdue.
Advent is a time when we remind ourselves that we too are waiting for the second coming of the Messiah.
The man we're looking at today had to endure a waiting time. In a way, it was a waiting time within a waiting time inside another waiting time. He was a man who was longing for the coming of the Messiah. He was also waiting for two other things, as we're about to see. This story communicates something about the waiting times that is important for us to hear.
Who is this man? Well, his name is Zechariah. We meet him in verses 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 well advanced in years.
So you have this older, childless couple who love God. Their life has already been characterized by this waiting and longing. In fact, they had given up waiting for one of their hopes, to have a child. There was a stigma to being childless in that day. So there is a couple who have been waiting, and not because they weren't godly.
Then something happens that shakes their world. An angel appears to them and tells Zechariah that he and his wife are going to have a baby. Verse 13 says, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John."
Zechariah did what most of us would have probably done. He asked a question. If an angel appeared to me in my old age and told me that we were going to have a baby after years of infertility, I would have asked questions too. Read what happened:
Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
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. 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." (Luke 1:18-20)
This began a period of waiting, and not a brief period of waiting either. Zechariah's life was interrupted for nine months. The angel said that he wouldn't be able to speak, but it looks like more happened. We read later that they made signs to communicate with him, so he may have been deaf and dumb for this period.
Imagine not being able to speak or hear anything for nine months. You couldn't talk to anyone. You couldn't even hear what they were saying. No TV, no music. No chance to say what's on your mind. You'd be trapped in your own head, just waiting, wondering when it would be over.
But we read the purpose of this waiting period. Verse 20 says, " 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."
We can read this verse and think that Zechariah is being punished. But there's another way to look at it. Instead of a time of being punished, maybe it was a time of learning. I suggest this because, as we're going to see in a minute, it seems that Zechariah really did learn something. But I suggest it also because this is the experience of many of God's people. The time of waiting, which few people would ever choose, often becomes a time of learning something we might otherwise not have known.
The time that Zechariah spent for nine months without being able to speak or hear was a time that he could do some thinking, so that some necessary learning could take place.
It's the same thing that can take place when we're in a hospital bed, or at home sick, or waiting for whatever.
Remember Colin, the guy who had an accident on his way to Australia? His accident happened on the second day of the sabbatical. Colin writes:
It was 45 minutes before we were headed to the beach for our first ever experience on a Hawaiian beach. My wife cornered me and asked me; "Colin, what do you want to get out of this sabbatical?" I replied; "Jude, I am 40 years old and I don't even know who I am. I really want to know who I am." Jude then responded by saying; "How will you know who you are?" I replied; "I don't know, God will have to take me there." Boy did He ever take me there as 45 minutes later I got whacked by that wave! God spoke to me so much and still does.
Colin began a long period of learning. His trip was cancelled, and he went into recuperation mode for the longest time. Listen to what he wrote some time after the accident:
God has been speaking so clearly to me through this ordeal and I am so blessed to have had to go through this. I am becoming much more contemplative because I have no other option since I had been basically bed ridden for two weeks and now confined to my house for very long periods of time. This has been a blessing because I have had hours to pray, read and think!
Later, Colin would say that the accident was the best thing that's happened to him, because of what he learned during that time.
Henri Nouwen says, "Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting."
Waiting is a time of learning. It's a time for God to get our attention, to teach us something that we might not otherwise learn.
So if you are in a period of waiting, there is a pretty good chance that God is using that time to teach you something. I don't know your situation, and it's always dangerous to try to guess what God's intentions are. But waiting is a time of learning. "Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting."
This leads me to my second question.
What are we supposed to learn?
Fast forward nine months, and Elizabeth has her baby. Zechariah hasn't spoken for the whole pregnancy. We read that the baby is born in verses 57-58: "When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy."
So the baby's born, and it's time to name the baby. Elizabeth suggests a name, but it's hard for everyone to believe her choice. The custom back then was to name your child after a relative. Elizabeth chose to name her baby John, which surprised everybody. This didn't make sense, so they decided to check with Zechariah. When Zechariah confirmed the name that the angel had told him. As soon as he wrote the name, look what happened: "Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God...His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied." (Luke 1:64, 67).
What follows in verses 68 to 79 is Zechariah's song of praise. I could say a lot about this song, but let me get to the core of this song. It's a song of praise to God for the birth of his son, but it's also a song of prophecy, looking forward to what God is going to accomplish through this birth and the birth of the Messiah. You could almost call this the "what I learned in my nine months of silence song".
There's a lot here. It's steeped in Scripture. But there's a way to get to the main point of this song so we can understand its central point. The song is written in something called a chiastic structure. That's a fancy word, but it's useful to understand it, because the Bible is full of it. Basically, every idea is nestled. Your first idea is your last idea. Your second idea mirrors your second last idea. You keep going until you reach the middle, and that is your central point. The Bible is full of this, and it's actually quite handy because you read a long passage like this one, and once you recognize its structure, you can get to the central point of the passage. You can usually go back and understand how the other parts relate.
So what's the main point of Zechariah's song? It turns out the center, the central theme, is found in verses 72-73:
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham...
You look at this, and it's easy to see this theme popping up all over the song. The theme is this: God remembered, and God kept his promise. It may have seemed like nothing was happening for hundreds of years, but God didn't forget. He came through. He remembered.
That's not a bad message to learn while you're waiting. You may feel like you've been forgotten and ignored. You may be waiting a long time, wondering if God's going to come through. But we can learn, as Zechariah did, that God remembers. He always keeps his promises.
That's not a bad thing to learn. Really, it comes down to this: even when you're waiting, you can rely on God. If the waiting drives you to God, then the waiting time hasn't been wasted time at all.
Colin reflects on what he learned during his accident. Remember he was trying to figure out who he was? He said, "God will have to take me there." Here's what happened:
God spoke to me so much and still does. The first thing He said to me, after I went through all the x - rays, MRI's cat scans and was finally alone in a hospital room was this: "Colin, you are my son whom I love and with you I am well pleased." I cried. This was the beginning of God speaking to me so much, so clearly and showing me who I was.
Colin learned how to rely on God, who he was in Christ, during his period of waiting.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was jailed and eventually killed for his opposition to Hitler. While in prison, he wrote to his fiancé:
A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside is not a bad picture of Advent.
In a way, a lot of us are in prison cells, waiting. We're powerless to open the doors. The only way they're going to be opened is from the outside, and the only one who can open them is God.
It just may be that our period of waiting is here to teach us, and to teach us what is most important to learn: that God is trustworthy; that he always remembers. That God always keeps his promises.