Have you ever tasted something really bitter? The dictionary struggles to adequately define the term “bitter”, but uses a number of insightful descriptive synonyms: “having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste; hard to bear; grievous; distressful; causing pain; piercing; stinging; characterized by intense antagonism or hostility.” There is significant variety in these terms, but one thing is absolutely clear – each term suggests it is something that should generally be avoided. Bitterness doesn’t taste, feel or sound fun. Yet, bitterness is a part of the lives of any who have suffered serious, and as yet – unresolved, disappointment.
Sometimes bitter experiences happen because of our own choices. Jim Rohn has rightly said: “We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret and disappointment.” If we fail to discipline ourselves, our natural choices will tend to laziness and lack of preparation. The outcome will be haphazard. In things critical, it will leave us disappointed, for few things of skill or beauty are simply thrown together. That seems fair enough – but that isn’t the whole story of disappointment and bitterness. In fact, some disappointing and embittering experiences aren’t about our plan, they are about things which we strive for, but the outcome is not what we have hoped. Think about it: If variety is the spice of life, then disappointment is the SALT. Bitterness enters our lives with the sensation of salt entering a wound, leaving us in tears and racked with inner pain. If left unhealed, today’s anger will turn to tomorrow’s bitterness. The longer resolution delays, the deeper the wound.
Key Principle: God has a few great lessons to teach – EVEN for those who struggle to believe Him.
Take a moment and observe two old people, saddened by praying for a lifetime and facing a searing of their spirit. God had not chosen to bring a baby into their arms. They no doubt spent hours seeking Him, wondering why life was going the way it was. They felt deeply disgraced, and I suspect they felt unheard by God. Don’t judge them – really picture them. They followed God. They served God faithfully, but all the time in the background there was a hole in each of their hearts. Though their theology wouldn’t let them say it – they secretly felt God LET THEM DOWN. Perhaps they surmised they weren’t good enough – but then they were confused as they looked at the people that God DID give children to. They worked hard and cared for others. They served faithfully and lived uprightly… yet God didn’t give them the chance for what they longed to have most – one tiny thing…a baby. They didn’t abandon their faith or their ministry. They kept showing up and offered encouragement and assistance to others – even when they felt empty inside. They paid their taxes. They studied God’s Word. They waited… but inside hope faded with each passing birthday.
We enter their story at a time of quiet disillusionment. We learn with them as they learned…
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. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.”
Lesson One: God can work at any time – even when it looks like He isn’t watching.
Luke tells us it was a time when people wondered if God really understood what was happening to His people. They were under a serious taskmaster. Herod wasn’t placed on the throne because of his faithfulness to God – but because of his friendship to Caesar. Luke 1: 5 simply opens with the matter of fact: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea…” A simple comment about who was on the throne is so much more. It is an important reminder… Even in the days of compromise, God was very much at work!
Lesson Two: God is at work in deep ways in people at times and in ways we cannot see.
The narrative continued as it introduced the “players” around which God told His story. Luke 1:5b “…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. 1:7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.
The couple we have been peering at in this lesson is none other than the old priest Zacharias and now advanced in years – Elizabeth, a couple from a Levitical household thought to have lived in Ein Kerem, west of Jerusalem in the nearby hills. They were clearly both observant Jews, wholly obedient to the law. The bottom line was this: They were dealing with the SALT in the wound feeling of burning disappointment. If you read carefully, they were not only childless. The note on their age also says something else – they were now HOPELESS in regards to child bearing! Clearly they BOTH felt a burning about the lack of a child.
- When Elizabeth became pregnant, her words were these: 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.” When you see another believer that seems like everything in their life is fine – don’t assume that is how they feel about their life. Even faithful believers can have hurts that follow them through their service of God. We cannot see the dragons another is fighting – unless they choose to let us know!
- A closer reading of verse 13 shows it was a significant subject of Zacharias’ prayers! Luke 1:13 … for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son). Look at the word PETITION. This is not the term “prayer” (proseuche) used in the Greek text. This is a very unique word for prayer… it is the term déēsis (from deō, “to be in want, lack”) – this is the term for a heart-felt petition, arising out of deep personal need. Listen to a believer pray long enough, and you will learn what is close to their heart. This is one of the most important reasons for CORPORATE PRAYER. Prayer meeting isn’t because God cannot hear us all from our own homes. We are told to PRAY TOGETHER, because we hear another’s heart by praying around a circle with those with whom we co-labor.
People are quick to jump to the conclusion that everyone in a service is feeling good enough to be there – DON’T. Some who sit with you are hurting physically, and this is one of the most important parts of their week – so they come no matter how they feel.
When my friend and faithful companion, Pastor Vince was dying – he related to me some of the things people told him were their excuses for being unfaithful in attendance to their church services. As his time to meet the Lord drew near, he wearied of their excuses – especially as he kept coming while in enormous pain. One Sunday, someone remarked that he looked like he was scowling… sort of chastising him. What they didn’t know was the level of his pain and discomfort. They criticized him, because they didn’t know the effort that went into his attendance that Sunday. He kept quiet and smiled, apologizing. He simply said, “Oh, I ‘m sorry, I must have had something on my mind.” He surely did – it was pain.
People naturally assume that the usher, the Sunday School teacher, and the Deacon somehow have less on their plate in terms of pain, trouble and disappointment – and that may not be true. Mature believers learn how to both (Galatians 6:2) “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” and Galatians 6:5 …”each one will bear his own load”. We grow to the place where we help those who need help, but we hold close between us and the Lord as much as we can – to allow God to strengthen us to stand with Him alone. Immature people demand attention. Mature people offer help even when they feel stretched in themselves.
Lesson Three: God uses obedience as a platform for His best work!
A big day came for Zechariah. 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.
Zecharias was a Levitical priest of the “course of Abijah” (1:5)- and that deserves some brief explanation:
- Second Temple Period scholars believe that Temple services were operated by about 7200 priests over the year. For organization purposes, they divided the priests into 24 MISHMAROT – or “guardians” – in groups of about 300, with that of ABIJAH as the Eighth Group.
- As a result, each week about 300 priests served at the Temple – 50 each day on week days and all 300 on Sabbath. Because their were 24 courses, each course would need to serve twice in each year –to cover all the weeks. In addition, because there were three times a year that all Jews were called to the Temple, all 7200 worked three weeks a year. That meant, that a priest could expect to work five priestly terms in one year of service (1:8).
- Chores were selected by lot – a way for God to choose specific worker for specific tasks. As a result, if you got a job because “the lot fell on you” – you knew it was as personal as God selecting you for the task. Zechariah was likely called on by lot to lead the prayers of the people ONE time in his life for the national prayer service (1:9). To do so, he donned the Turban, Trousers, Tunic and Torsel (sash), and went inside the Holy Place. Whether he had ever been serving in the room was not known, but it would not have been uncommon for him to rarely, if ever, get to go inside.
- His work with incense included preparing the spices and mixing them for the incense of the altar – components of the consecrated Ketoret (incense) which appears in the Torah book of Exodus (Ex.30:34-36). Carefully he would have taken measures of The hour of the public prayer service (1:10). Included in the mix was stachte (nataf) – a sap that was collected from a certain tree exterior. An equal part of onyche (shecheleth)– a word that denotes either a pungent dried bit of a see creature ground to a powder and used commonly in Asian incense, or a rock rose bushes small buds. He would add galbanum – an aromatic gum resin with a somewhat musky fragrance, and frankincense– (levonah) the sap tapped from the Boswellia tree by slashing the bark (called striping) and allowing the resins to harden into what were called “tears”. Finally, SALT bound the incense together. As he mixed the elements, he no doubt wondered why God chose him to represent the national moment of prayer – since his prayers didn’t seem to get through at home!
Do what God told you to do, it may be the platform of God’s most powerful blessing in your life! In the late 1800’s Ira Sankey was very famous for being D.L. Moody’s song leader. On Christmas Eve of 1875, he was traveling up the Delaware River on a steamboat. Some of the passengers recognized him and asked him to sing for them. So, he sang the old hymn, “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” One of the lines in that hymn says, “We are thine, do thou befriend us. Be the Guardian of our way.” As Sankey finished the hymn, a man stepped out from the shadows. He asked Sankey if he had ever served in the Union Army. He said he had. Then the man asked, “Can you remember if you were doing picket duty on a bright, moonlit night in 1862?” Sankey was very surprised and said, “yes.” The man looked up at him and said, “I was there too. But I was in the Confederate Army. It was my job to shoot you that night. As you stood there, completely exposed in the bright moonlight, I drew my aim. Then you lifted your head and began to sing the same song you just sang. When you finished, it was impossible for me to take aim again. I thought, ‘The Lord who is able to save that man from certain death must surely be great and mighty.’” (Sermon central illustrations). Sankey sung to the Lord that night, and his obedience to the prompting of God saved his life – and offered him everything else God did through him!
God honors obedience and steady faithfulness, even when we hurt… it becomes the platform of some of His BEST work! Zecharias could have stayed home, and sat idly – paralyzed by his discouragement. It would have been understandable – but he would have missed the blessing that God had prepared. Obedience and persistence in doing right is essential. We cannot grow weary in well doing, or we miss blessing! It is also important to note that even when we practice all that we should and execute faithfully our walk before men, our walk with God is not simply what we know or understand – it is when we obey in spite of the fact that we cannot understand how it all works out – that God really does the most incredible things through our lives. Our walk must become faithful practice rooted in trust in God’s goodness – and that will be tested by circumstance.
Lesson Four: God uses His revelation to explain His work –no amount of experience will teach us as much!
Zecharias presented the mixture of incense to the Lord. The fire of the prayer altar was carefully brought from the main altar outside. When the coals were set on the grate on top of the altar, He fanned them and set to apply the first bit of incense. Concentrating on the work, he was startled to see another standing by him at the altar… Luke 1:11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. 16 “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17 “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zacharias was agitated (Gr: tarasso or “troubled”) by the thought that some priest was perhaps breaking protocol in an apparent breach of Temple purity – a mark of a mature believer is seen in the desire to do the right thing in the right way. When he realized this was not another priest, he feared (phobos)– because he didn’t know what was truly happening. The angel offered astounding words of hope. God unveiled a glimpse of His plan – and that is what REVELATION is all about. People have questions about their lives, and God offers answers in revealed truth – but we have to listen to that truth when we hear it! No amount of EXPERIENCE can do for us what listening to His Word and understanding it can!
Lesson Five: God expects those who do His work to believe Him… revelation rejected brings trouble.
Zacharias concluded that the angel was wrong – and the God’s revealed truth could not happen. Maybe things work like that in HEAVEN and maybe things work like that even on earth FOR OTHER PEOPLE… but this angel doesn’t know who he is dealing with.
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.”
It is easy for us to sink into disbelief when the pattern of discouragement has worn a rut in our faith! In fact, the key to the issue is simple – Zecharias looked at HIMSELF for the answer – and that answer was not there. He looked to HIS WIFE and that answer was not there. As a result, he concluded the answer did not exist. It could not exist. God WON’T do it because God HASN’T done it. I have asked, buddy. I don’t see how it could happen.
Look at Gabriel’s shock at the suggestion that the REVEALED TRUTH of God’s Word won’t happen!
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.
When we doubt God’s Word, we doubt God’s ability. We question His veracity. We challenge His majesty and power, all because we are overcome by the size of life’s problems. When we truly see God as God, the size of the appearance of our problems shrink before His power.
The problem is that doing so leads to a penalty…
Luke 1:20 “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” 21 The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 But 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 When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. 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.”
Silence came to Zacharias, because disbelief robs God’s people of the greatest blessings of our lives! All that God ever wanted was for them to believe His promises and trust that He is truly good – no matter what they were seeing and feeling that day.
That silence was more than an inconvenience… it nearly led to inadvertent disobedience. People were talking for Zecharias because he could not speak for himself. Drop down to Luke 1:57 “Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. 59 And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father.
One penalty of Zecharias’ disbelief was that he couldn’t announce God’s blessing to him at that time, though other people could. It was only when the mission was jeopardized that God opened his mouth again. How sad to have one of the greatest moments in your life pass you by because of disbelief – but rejection of truth revealed brings trouble.
We don’t realize God’s power… we really don’t. We get so caught up in our own problems…Pastor Mark McCool wrote: “When you think that the moon is on average about 250 thousand miles away from the earth. And Pluto, the farthest planet in our solar system ranges between 2.8 to 4.6 billion miles away. And traveling even farther, 50 billion miles from the earth is what scientist call Interstellar Space, and even it reaches distances impossible for us to imagine! There you find the Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our galaxy. It is just 25 trillion miles away! (About 2.5 x 1013 miles (25,000,000,000,000)) Just to reach that star by space travel traveling at our fastest known craft, it would 81,000 years or 2700 generations! And beyond that, we find what is known as Intergalactic Space, which is the space between galaxies. And beyond that, there is absolutely no ending! Can you imaging a place where no human telescope can discover the contents of its black scape? A place where no human will ever go? Distances so vast and great that no human mathematical equation is ever going to measure it? And then to realize that God is bigger than that? Just the mere whisper of the voice of God created it all!”
Lesson Six: God’s work shows God’s character – pay attention to how the plan reveals HIM (not just details of coming events).
We stand beside the mother in the Temple. The friends are gathered close beside. Crowds come and go, each with their own purpose – but we are there for THAT BABY. What a miracle! God certainly gave this old couple something to celebrate… but it wasn’t simply a BABY they were delighting in. No – it was something else. Look at Luke 1:60 “But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63 And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished.”
Elizabeth understood something her neighbors did not – this baby was a deeply personal sign to her that God truly is merciful. She needed to learn God was not without feeling toward her shame – He truly is merciful. John (Yôḥānān) is a shortened form of יְהוֹחָנָן (Yəhôḥānān), meaning “Yahweh is merciful “. His anglicized name is derived from the Latin Ioannes, Iohannes, a form of the Greek Ἰωάννης which means “God is generous“. Not only did Elizabeth learn of God…Zecharias needed to learn that God was not holding back on him as One who is stingy – He is generous. For both, they needed to trust that God keeps His Word and knows His plan – even when they cannot see it! All the people standing were astonished because they didn’t realize how the old couple hurt over their lack – and how much God needed to teach THEM through the baby.
Months later, Gabriel came to tell Mary Messiah would be born of her womb, Mary arose and visited Elizabeth…and Elizabeth’s words showed how deeply she learned the value of believing what God revealed. She celebrated Mary’s belief! 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! 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.” Yes, blessing comes from believing… and believing reveals God’s character.
Lesson Seven: When God’s work is proclaimed and believed, God’s people can rejoice at the way God spreads the anticipation!
The people saw Zecharias scrambling to write. They saw God open his mouth… Luke 1:64 And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. 65 Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.
They responded just the way people always do when God changes a life radically right in front of them – they wondered what God would do next. When Jesus healed a lame man at the Bethesda Pools – others heard of His power and looked for His passing by. When he spit on the ground to heal a blind man who washed off the mud at the Siloam Pool, people heard the man proclaim – “Once I was blind, but now I can see!” When lives are changed, the testimony of God grows in the hearts of men and women. When he changes YOU, others have hope. That is the power of testimony!
Fifty Christian truckers got together to pray to pray that somehow the sniper terrorizing the Washington, DC area would be caught. Ron Lantz would be retiring as a driver in a few days and didn’t even live in the area, but he felt sure that God would answer their prayers. In fact, he told the others there that God was going to use him to catch the sniper. A few days later he was listening to the radio as he was driving again through the region and felt compelled to pull off the highway to a rest stop. It was just a couple of miles from where the prayer meeting had taken place. As he pulled in, he was shocked to see a car similar to what was being described on the radio right there before his eyes. Carefully trying to read the license plate, a chill went up his back as the numbers matched. He quickly called 911 and remained there for what he said were the longest 15 minutes of his life until the police arrived. He even pulled his truck across the exit, there would now be no escape for these elusive murderers. The rest is now history-the snipers were taken into custody without incident. News crews reported it. A great testimony of God working through prayer strengthened many!
What moved the couple from disgrace to delight was belief that God’s goodness was certain and His promises would be fulfilled. God didn’t wait for them to believe to do a great work through them – for God has a few great lessons EVEN for those who struggle to believe Him.