Pain changes you. I was speaking the other day to a friend who has been caring for his wife through a recent cancer surgery. He was encouraged at her progress, and she is doing well. As he spoke, he reminded me that this was her third cancer surgery – and that she had learned some important things that she passed to her husband. She called cancer “the great clarifier”. When the treatments were a memory and the pain had mostly passed – she was able to see her life more clearly than she ever could before. It was the trouble of her life, the threat to its continuance here on earth that gave her a different perspective. She was changed by the pain. She was transformed by the threat, the discouragement, the questions toward God and the world – and she emerged a different woman.
I am glad that I had that simple encounter the other day, because her simple lesson encouraged me to think about life in deeper terms. In the business of the daily, the broader picture of things can be obscured. Thank God He places people in our lives to cause us to pick up our heads from the task before us, and think about the distant horizon and where we are going.
As I work with believers of all ages, I think I begin to recognize some of the wisdom of God in placing us together in the local body of believers. Some among us have passed through enormous pain – the loss of a dream, the loss of the love of our lives, the loss of our health and physical stability. Sitting beside them at any given meeting are others who believe deeply, but have experienced little. They are not to be belittled, for their zeal and their energy are essential to the progress of God’s church – but they really don’t have that much experience, thankfully, with deep pain and disappointment.
Tucked between the two groups are “game changers”. These are people that have both experienced the pain, and kept the optimism and belief. They are the un-jaded sufferers among us that help all of us keep things together. They know what it is like to be discouraged – they have visited that address, but they have refused to move in and live there. They have felt the searing pain that comes with living in a fallen world, but they have found God’s balm of healing, and have moved on. They are the heroes and heroines of our story – and they have found a voice in Luke’s recorded story of Elizabeth. Here is the lesson…
Younger and older believers need each other. Some of the most learned believers are in the process of growing past their troubles while some of the most uninitiated can profoundly speak – but they haven’t been tempered by the troubles ahead.
Key Principle: God uses the one who has been changed by the pain to teach others to move ahead with Him.
For the Bible students among us, I would like to take a moment and see if I can make clear how I came to the conclusion that this was the key truth at the heart of Luke 1. If you read through the entire chapter, you will notice if falls into three “natural” parts:
• The story opened with the angel Gabriel foretelling of a son to a Senior Priest named Zecharias at the Temple. He was accomplished in ministry, but operating with a whole in his heart when it came to vibrant faith. (Luke 1:5-25). In a sense, Zecharias was jaded by the long trail of troubles unanswered in his life and he silently returned home to the encouragement of his loving wife at the end of the segment of the chapter given to his announcement.
• Luke recorded yet another story of a similar announcement – a message of an exciting coming birth. The angelic announcer was the same. The conditions were the same – she was working on her daily tasks with no thought of anticipation. The key difference was the attitude and experience of the hearer. (Luke 1:26-39) Mary was tender of heart, but also very young and lacking the experiences of pain. Her scene ended with a trip to the very same encouraging woman Zecharias went home to live with.
• Both scenes have their representative song – an anthem about God and His fulfillment of promises. Mary’s song flowed from her heart went Elizabeth encouraged her firm belief (Luke 1:46-46). Zecharias’ song took longer, because it came from beneath scars of trouble, and didn’t come until his faith was fully restored (Luke 1:57-80).
When you look at the whole of the chapter, you quickly note some similarities in two stories of the same chapter:
1. Two people who knew and served God were living their lives and doing their daily duties.
2. Both received an astounding visitor from Heaven that came to give them exciting news.
3. Both got a promise of an addition to their family.
4. Both were promised that the coming child would change the world.
5. Both got a prophetic song that was so important, it was included in the Scripture.
6. Both got their encouragement from the same lady (Elizabeth) – an experienced woman who both loved God, and knew pain.
At the same time, you cannot read this chapter and not notice some startling differences in the two people who encountered God’s messenger:
1. One went through years of pain and doubt before the message, and couldn’t just accept it when it came; he demanded proof, and needed time to be encouraged to see things differently.
2. The other spoke joyously of the promise, but didn’t yet know how difficult it was going to be to live through the pain of that promise. She had no clue what the snickers at the well of town would feel like, or how hard it would be to tell her fiancé of the promise.
The most exciting person in the narrative wasn’t the angel that encountered both people – it was Elizabeth. She encountered both of them, knew them both very well, and had passed through the pain in a way that would help both of them gain a proper footing to be used mightily by God. God uses the one who has been changed by the pain to teach both.
With that overview in mind, let’s take a few minutes in this lesson and look at each of the three sections of the story, and see if we can recognize what Elizabeth took away from her pain that can help all of us:
Zacharias and the Problem of Jaded Faith (Luke 1:5-25)
You don’t have to be walking in rebellion to have a faith “cooled” by the pain of disappointment. Look at the way Zach is introduced…
Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.
How do I know they weren’t perfectly happy then? Because the rest of the story makes clear that their home was filled with a hole – a pain that bothered both Zach and Liz…
Luke 1:7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years…24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 25 “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked [with favor] upon [me], to take away my disgrace among men.”
The text reminds that Liz felt “disgrace” over being barren. The term “óneidos” means “defamed, reproached, censured, and even blamed”. Don’t you wonder what was behind that loaded word? In any case, “disgrace” is not a term you use for a happy feeling in an idyllic home. Liz was an embarrassed wife, and she was married to a disappointed husband. Her aging priestly husband prayed and prayed that God would give them a son – but God didn’t answer the way Zach wanted Him to respond. Zach wanted a baby – and so did God… but God’s plan was much bigger. It always is when God says “No!”
God never refuses to give you what you want because He is mean or doesn’t love you. He only refuses to give you what you want if it is too small for His plan for you. God wanted a “miracle baby” that would profoundly change the people’s hearts – beginning with the heart of his dad. Zach just wanted to feel normal. His request was far too small for God’s big plan.
Enter providence – the word that has been replaced in a pagan culture by “coincidence”… God was about to put “points on the score board”:
Luke 1:8 Now it happened [that] while he was performing his priestly service before God in the [appointed] order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense.
The priestly job given to Zach was to represent the prayers of the people of God in the Temple. All Jerusalem awaited on the time of the incense to loft their prayers up to God. Ironically, the guy who felt the worst about prayer was given the task of representing the prayers of all. God not only noticed… He pre-planned the whole event to get Gabriel the angel into the room, and make clear what the next part of the plan would be for Zach and his wife… and the whole of the nation!
Gabriel related in Luke 1:12-17 that Zacharias’ wife would have a baby, that it would be a boy, and that Zach was to name the child “Yochanon”: (The Lord has been gracious). That baby was going to grow up, be used by God’s Spirit, and challenge the whole nation of Israel. He would come in the place and power of Elijah in announcing Messiah… This boy was going to be like a prophet of old….How exciting! Yet, the next words out of the mouth of the old priest showed like a clean window the jaded color of his heart… He asked for proof…
Luke 1:18 Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this [for certain]? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
Look carefully at what Zach said. Had they “thought” on a few occasions that Liz was pregnant, only to have that hope crushed? Besides, Zach was no fool. He knew his own age, and he knew his wife’s potential for having a child had long left… He knew what we all know when God wants to do something incredible….”WE CAN’T!”
We can’t make life from old bones. We can’t fight physics, aging or science. We are stuck with what is… unless God wants to re-write the script. What we forget is that God is not bound to the rules of the world – He is the Ruler of it all!
Stunned, Gabriel didn’t get it. Angels don’t really always know what to make of men. He came from Heaven, and brought his message… end of story. What kind of being doesn’t get that God can do whatever suits His plan? In two words, jaded believers. When you have asked and asked – and hurted with each rejection – you start to think God isn’t looking out for you at all. In those dark hours, it never occurs to you that God is the one that put you where you are, because He has a plan at work.
Luke 1:19 The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 “And behold, you shall be silent … 23 When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home.
The believer who cannot believe God needs to keep his mouth shut. He isn’t going to be obedient in proclamation, nor encouraging in delivery. He is going to whine and doubt – and that helps no one. God made it clear to everyone that He was at work – that God had spoken… and then God took Zach’s voice for a time – to get the point across to HIM before God used him to get it to anyone else. Zach wanted proof – and he got it. He was mute. Everyday he couldn’t speak he would recall that meeting with Gabriel wasn’t an apparition – it was an event. Then his mind would recall the message of that meeting. God was about to do something…
What I find interesting is that he went home to an encouraging, believing wife. She KNEW God was going to remove her disgrace long before her belly swelled. She heard and believed, anticipated and celebrated. He was quiet because the jaded heart was being recolored by a miraculous God.
Mary and Naïve Faith (Luke 1:26-56)
Move to the other main story of Luke 1 – that of the familiar meeting in Nazareth between Mary and Gabriel. The time for this lesson is tight, and the story familiar, so let us look at the high points to grab the main truth of this incredibly rich and cosmos changing event. The story can be broken into three parts:
• Gabriel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:26-38);
• Mary’s encouraging visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45);
• Mary’s song of celebration called the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-56).
In the meeting story of Luke 1:26-38, we are dropped into the scene as Mary encounters the angelic messenger…
Luke 1:26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord [is] with you.”
Beyond the startled nature of the appearance, Gabriel explained that God was going to fill the womb of Mary with the One that was long promised. Messiah was to be born in her, as God had promised through prophetic voices of the Hebrew Scriptures…Look at Mary’s response:
Luke 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. 36 “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 “For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Mary offered no doubt that God COULD do these things, only that she didn’t understand the mechanics. Was she being told to DO something? Gabriel was clear – she needn’t worry about the conception – God was handling that issue. She offered consent beautifully.
Now wait… this begins to sound like Zach was the old crusty and jaded priest, and Mary was the pure-minded, always obedient servant. That’s fine. It fits the flannel graph and matches the history of church art. Mary the pure, Zach the deficient…but is that REALLY FAIR?
Is it fair to say that Mary had not lived with snickers at the well like Elizabeth did? Is it fair to say that Zach had much more experience in trying to be encouraging to a humiliated life partner than Mary ever could have understood? My point is this: Mary quickly embraced God’s vision for her – but was far too naïve to really understand what pain she was buying into. Zach may have hesitated much more, but he had much more history behind him. Let’s not be so hasty to paint perfectly adorned togas on the good guys in the Biblical story. The jaded had the pains that left the cloudy marks on their heart.
Stop for a moment, and go to the pivotal character of the whole story – the woman that suffered pains but clung to her faith…
Elizabeth and Firm Faith (Luke 1:25,39-42)
Follow Mary to the meeting with Auntie Liz…
Luke 1:39 Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed [are] you among women, and blessed [is] the fruit of your womb!
Listen to the sound of encouraging words that came from her mouth. Elizabeth was EXPERIENCING God’s interruption of grace in “real time”, when Mary stepped through the door. Before the Magnificat was sung, the senior believer, scarred with years of disgrace, was singing the celebration of a GOOD GOD!
Freeze the scene and remember what Elizabeth went through to get to that place in her heart.
1. Neighbor after neighbor celebrated their pregnancies with gifts from Elizabeth’s hands – but there was never any such celebration in Zach and Liz’s home.
2. Morning after morning Liz made her way with the other women to get water from the nearby spring for their daily needs. All the while as the women walked they talked, “How little Eli is growing” and “What to do about Miriam’s bed wetting”. Liz kept silent, and held back tears because God evidently didn’t think she needed… or worse… deserved children. The water she brought back in her pot was nothing compared to the tears that stained her face when she finally got back inside.
3. Month after month she begged God for a baby, but with each month’s passing, she felt both more helpless and more forgotten. Was Zacharias angry with her? Even if he didn’t SEEM like it, did he hold HER to blame inside?
Look at the way she handled the news that God heard her prayer:
Luke 1:24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 25 “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked [with favor] upon [me], to take away my disgrace among men.” Later, when Mary came, you hear her voice again…43 “And how has it [happened] to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. 45 “And blessed [is] she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”
Here is the Elizabeth picture sketched out:
• She knew pain, but still believed God was good, and would deal with her in grace.
• She knew the impossible was made possible when God decided to touch her body.
• She knew it wasn’t coincidence, because she took seriously the Word of God and the prophetic promises God made.
• She encouraged belief in Mary.
• She trusted that God was good, and that her rescue was because of His goodness.
• She refused to let the pain determine her view of God.
Let me ask you something…”Who are you most like in the story of Luke 1?” Are you working for God but deeply jaded because He isn’t doing things the way you want them to play out in your life? Are you anticipating great things, and just “don’t get” why some of those who have known God for a long time aren’t more enthusiastic and excited about what the Master is doing right now? Could it be that you may even be the one who has been tempered by God in trouble, and right now God is nudging you to get busy helping those around you see God’s faithfulness in spite of troubles.
Not everyone knows how to face pain and trouble – but God made some of us to help others figure it out…
One day a farmer’s donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally he decided the animal was old and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn’t worth the effort to retrieve the donkey. He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey seemed to realize what was happening and cried horribly. Then to everyone’s amazement, the beast quieted down. A few shovel loads later the farmer finally looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing! He would shake it off and take a step up. As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off….There are a number of ways we can handle pain and trouble. It is easy to get discouraged and give up, or get angry and blow up, but if we really believe that God is in control, then we will look for a way to build our trust in Him to help us get through it His way.
Recognizing the True Hero
It is worth remembering that God’s deepest work can be done by the one who has the scar-riddled body, when that one refuses to allow scars to be torn open and become scabs. The hero among us isn’t the polished angelic messenger, nor the weathered and experienced believer – but the Faithful God each of the others represent before a lost world. He is the One guiding all of us through the journey. He has a purpose for every pain in the story He is telling – and we must trust Him through each hurt. He also has a place for the wounded – as comforted testimonies for those who come behind them. God uses the one who has been changed by the pain – provided that change has led the wounded into His arms. The story of the Bible isn’t about people who “figured life out” and “did the right thing”. The story of the Bible is about a God who wouldn’t leave broken people in the dark – and how He grabbed and holds them tightly.