Our Savior Is Born: “When God Doesn’t Listen” – Luke 1

earOne of the foundational truths of Christian teaching is this: the Bible says that God hears our prayers. Jesus was soon to be nailed to the Cross, and on the night in which He was betrayed, He had a solemn talk with His disciples. John 16 recorded the words, and they were heavy. His heart was heavy. The air seemed thick, and the hour was late. Listen to what Jesus said before He left them:

John 16:23 “In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.”

Jesus was promising that He was about to be far away, and they would need to ask His Father in Heaven, for He would not be with them any longer. He continued:

John 16:24 “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.”

The Savior commanded the men to begin to ask in His name for the things they seek from Heaven. They hadn’t been doing that, because they could ask Him face to face and He could seek the Father on their behalf. Like Israel requested Moses to intercede, so the disciples often didn’t face God directly while Jesus was with them, but let the Son speak to the Father on their behalf. Jesus continued again:

John 16:25 “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father. 28 I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.”

Jesus told the men that parable teaching was giving way to straight talk about the days ahead, because the time had come. After Jesus was gone from them, He foretold that they would ask God for things in Jesus’ name, but the Father would hear them directly, because the Father loved the Son’s disciples deeply. Isn’t that a comfort? God hears the followers of Jesus when they cry out to Him! Now let me ask you a very personal question, if I may. Did you ever feel like your prayers were bouncing back from the ceiling and hitting you on the head?

Honestly, can you remember a time when God seemed distant? You kept going, but you may have secretly stopped believing He was truly on your side. For some, they describe it as a time when it seemed like God put them and their life on hold. If you are in that time right now – I have an encouraging story for you in this study from the Gospel according to Luke. Long ago there was a couple that seemed to have the problem of a silent God, and they needed Him to listen. The problem wasn’t God, however. The problem was their ability to rest in Him long enough to hear His response to the longings of their hearts. I am referring to the parents of John the Baptizer, to an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Here was their lesson…

Key Principle: God answers prayer, but gaining “ears to hear” Him requires maturity.

As we look at their learning process to help inform our own walk with God, we should start by acknowledging something:

Zech and Liz were beloved of God, and had special advantages God placed into their lives.

First, they were born into a Godly heritage (1:5).

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 [i]from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

God specified the family of Aaron and the 24 “Mishmarot” or family divisions that would serve in the Tabernacle and later the Temple (1 Chronicles 24:1-19). Zechariah was a designated servant of God from before his birth; given a unique privilege of a family dedicated to the Lord and His service.

This wasn’t their choice, but it was their blessing. Never discount the power of a godly family in the lives of the generations that follow them. Godly parents raised these two, and chose these two children to be married and form another home that would follow after God. The truth was even invested in them IN HIS NAME:

Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh remembers.”

It may seem ironic in light of his story, but the truth is God always remembers. For years he cried out to God and didn’t get his answer… Yet, every prayer he ever uttered that went seemingly unanswered, God remembered. Every moment he felt like the heavens were strangely silent, God remembered. That’s the testimony of Zechariah today: Don’t give up on your prayer—God has not forgotten you.

Second, their hearts were clean before God (1:6a).

Luke 1:6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.

Look at the first half of the sentence. Can you see they had an INNER FAITH. It wasn’t just religion with them, it was REAL faith. They had in their hearts a deep and intimate walk with the Lord God of Israel. The word “righteous” (dika-o) meant virtuous, but also has a deeper meaning. It meant “rendering to each his due in the judicial sense”. They knew God was God, and in their hearts they gave Him their lives. That didn’t mean they understood what He withheld from them. It meant they were walking without denial that He had the right to do as He desired with them – for He was their Creator.

Everything else that happened in the story hinged on the truth of their yielded heart. Like the fictitious but famous story of the “Little Drummer Boy”, they had only one thing they could give the Lord; that was their heart. Just because they were surrendered, though, does not mean they had a “hot line” to the checkbook of God to get what they wanted when they wanted it. That isn’t a mature view of God at all – and they had a mature view. Here is the question: How do I get to know God in that way?

First, I can’t meet someone I have never even acknowledged. We may both be at the party, but it isn’t until I begin talking with them that I have any hope to get to really know them. I may know their reputation, but that isn’t really reliable. When I meet them, I “size up” the situation better by myself. In the end, it begins with a meeting. In important relationships, like the meeting of a dignitary or ruler, I will remember the meeting.

• Next, I must acknowledge the importance of the ruler that I have just met. It is required that I stand in the presence of the President. I can do no less when I meet God. What does that mean? I haven’t truly met Him if I don’t understand his position, and in God’s case, His greatness.

• Finally, I must recognize His right as Creator to direct us and know more than I know. We can’t expect the God of the universe to become a genie in a lamp for us. God does not play fetch. He has standards and as Creator, He has disclosed what is best for us. When I render Him that which is due Him, I respect Him supremely. I come to God on the terms that are acceptable to HIM.

So they had a godly heritage and clean hearts… but also…

Third, they lived according to the standards God set over them (1:6b).

Luke 1:6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.

They are described as blameless (a-memptos: an artisan’s term for ready for sale, without flaw or defect; a “premier product” and not a “second”). The text said they were without flaw under the quality control standard of the Torah of God. (Someone said one time: “They were 613 for 613 in the commandment department!”). Wow! They had faith, but they had the walk to back it up. Having real faith requires that we LIVE the truth according to the set standard of God’s Holy Word.

Let’s not water things down here, the standard is what God has said, and we must understand that He is serious. How do I do that?

• First I must understand the judge’ legal right to judge my life. If He isn’t the standard, someone or something else is. He SHOULD be, because He has the RIGHT to be.

• Second I must read and know the content of the standard of the judgment. When the Creator outlines what He wants, it isn’t like anyone else. It requires my attention. People that ignore God’s Word don’t really believe that is what it is – God’s Word. No matter what they say, their actions show they don’t really believe it came from God and He is active in their lives.

• Third, I must conform my life to living within the legally declared judgment on each issue, according to what the judge says is right. Honestly, how I feel about things is not the point. What He says is always the point. I know when I say that I sound like a legalist, so let me address that side of the equation.

There are incredible benefits to walking within the rules. When a sports player enhances their performance with steroids that have been deemed illegal and illegitimate, they demean themselves. Even if they aren’t caught, the victory isn’t as sweet because they don’t know if they ever could have achieved the goals without the “help” of a drug. It isn’t just getting caught that sours the victory; it is acting outside the rules. So it is in our lives. There is a peace and sweetness to walking within God’s standards. It isn’t counterproductive. It doesn’t somehow mean that we need less grace or are “working our way to Heaven.” That is nonsense. Why would we inadvertently elevate disobedience? The world is SCREAMING that unfaithfulness and carousing will make you happy, they use up their lives without purpose and are not fulfilled! It isn’t true. God gave His Word because He wants us to know it and follow it.

Here is the problem. These benefits don’t tell the whole story. With them, came three flaws that could have been their undoing for years of their walk with God. The Holy One placed them in the Word for us, so we must take a close look.

Zech and Liz had a secret that kept their walk with God under a quiet cloud:

Honestly, they were secretly disappointed with their lives, and felt shamed in their circumstances.

Luke 1:7 recorded: “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.” To be sure this was not well with them, we should also read the later words of Liz, after Gabriel made Zech aware of her future, and she began to show a baby within… Luke 1: 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.

Elizabeth, in particular, must have felt the shame intensely. How many prayers of Liz were represented in the word “disgrace”? How deep was her pain? We don’t know, but we can imagine it was a daily pain.

I think it is important that Scripture makes not their hope was slipping away that things could ever change when it shared “they were both advanced in years” (1:7b). They were getting past the time that it would be normally possible to have children. They had to “settle” for second best, and muddle through.

What is incredible is they didn’t give up working for God (1:8), but it appears they lost the wonder that God could do anything (1:18).

Luke 1:8 made the point they kept working…”Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division…” Gabriel showed up. The message was clear. A baby would be granted. Yet, Luke 1:18 made another thing clear – Zech couldn’t and wouldn’t accept that word on its face.

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.” Why NOW? Zech must have thought.

We need to make the point that God considered Zechariah a useful tool in the priesthood. Inside hurts did not stop him from faithfulness, but his inside was somewhere between hurt and cynical.

His knowledge of the Scriptures should have helped him at this point. After all, this was not the first time in history God chose to use a barren or older couple to bring forth a special child. Had he missed the instruction on Abraham and Sarah? Had he forgotten Elkanah and Hannah, who brought forth Samuel! No, these weren’t forgotten – they just weren’t HIS LIFE. Zechariah asked too many times and got no answer… He wasn’t going to let himself be suckered into some quick and easy belief.

Why wouldn’t he believe an angel of God? In part, because he was focused on his own abilities and limitations rather than focused on God’s unlimited ability to bring forth His will. That’s always a part of it – but that isn’t all. Zech wasn’t sure of God’s love for HIM, God’s place for HIM in the story of history.

Most believers know God CAN do extraordinary things – they just aren’t nearly as sure that He WANTS to do those things in THEIR LIFE. That is at the heart of deep disconnection. Zech and Liz worked for years to face pain, and find a way to be faithful in spite of that pain. They deserve to have their lives viewed. God put them in the book. Take a few moments and let’s pick out some vital lessons from the example of these two:

Lesson One: God never stops working, even when we don’t see it. (1:9)

For these two in that time and place, the absence of children was often seen as a reproach—evidence of God’s judgment on a person’s sin. It was at least a lack of reward, and at most an overt judgment that warned others to keep these from offering great counsel. How hard it must have been for Zechariah, a spiritual leader in Israel, and Elizabeth, to keep on obeying God, keep on remaining consistent in their faith, and still bear the sentence of a life seemingly unaccepted by God. When you are doing all that God has asked you to do, and He still doesn’t respond to your prayers, that’s incredibly hard. Yet they pressed on.

Luke recorded the story about the day came when Zechariah was chosen to burn incense in the temple.

Luke 1:9 “…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.”

Scholars generally estimate there were likely just over 100,000 members of priestly families in the C1 CE in the land. About 7,200 were eligible for service in the functioning priestly role. These were divided into the 24 courses called “Mishmarot”. Each mishmar had about 300 servers for their week at the Temple. They served in rotation and all 7200 at national feasts declared by God in Dt. 16:16.

Of the 300 of the week, 50 served per day with all 300 serving on Shabbat (the Sabbath). Only one of the 50 would be selected to mix and offer the prayer incense inside the Holiest Place.

This isn’t a busy work mathematics exercise – there is a point to it! God selected from the tribes of Israel only one tribe to serve in the Temple. He selected from the twenty-four courses of that tribe to serve that day. He selected from the three hundred eligible in that “course” of Aviyah only that fifty. He selected only ONE of the group to mix the incense and offer the prayers of Israel. That ONE was Zech.

As a priest, he may have only gotten this opportunity once in his life, and God chose the day. The lot “fell” by Divine appointment. Zechariah didn’t know it, but God had been planning this day from the very beginning. Zechariah and his family were going to be a part of God’s plan to offer salvation to the world. He was worried about having a child for his wife and his name, but God inscribed in history a different role – a child who would make his a household name among believers for centuries. What seemed like unexplained silence was really God preparing Zechariah and Elizabeth for an incredible day.

When God seemed silent, He was at work on a bigger plan. When Zech and Liz’s prayers seemed to go unanswered, God was not asleep on the job.

Often, before God works on our problems, He wants to work on us.

One Bible story after another makes that point:

• A careful study of Genesis indicates that Noah worked on the ark for between 55 and 75 years before it ever started raining.

• God first revealed to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations when he was 75 years old. When Abraham was 90, God renewed that promise. At age 100, Abraham and Sarah finally had their son, a full twenty-five years after the first promise.

• Moses herded sheep and goats in the wilderness for forty years before God spoke to him at the burning bush.

The list goes on and on in the pages of God’s Word. In each situation, we may be inclined to ask, “Did God just forget what He was doing? Did He get distracted?” The answer would always warrant a “No”. God was working, preparing each person for what He had planned. While you’re waiting on God’s answer, God is working on you and those around you.

Lesson Two: God chooses when and how He will speak into your life.

First, go back and scan the text of this story, and consider a few details.

It is interesting that God didn’t wait until Zechariah believed, but He did respond to the man’s faithfulness and moved circumstances they didn’t control (i.e. God led them with the “falling of the lot” to a message of blessing in Luke 1:9).

God sent a messenger to deliberately reveal they were to be blessed. When they encountered God, He already knew their longing. This wasn’t a genie popping up and asking what they desired – God already knew when Gabriel spoke to them (1:13).

God didn’t share their concerns, for He had even bigger ones! I am thinking of the expression in Luke 1:16: “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God...”

We don’t see things the way God does. His view is the end from the beginning, the meaning from the detail, the answer before the question.

Zech probably felt a bit like an idiot when the lot fell on him. His most deeply sought prayers never got answered, and now he was going to stand for the prayers of all Israel? A myriad of emotions needed to be quelled. This was an incredible honor. On the other hand, there was probably a holy fear of what it meant to minister in God’s presence.

He probably rehearsed his actions over and over in his mind with the prayer that he would emerge from the Holy Place alive. The altar in the Holy Place was just in front of a tall curtain (porekheth) behind which was the place of the Holy Ark of God. This is as close as Zechariah would ever get to that place. He mixed the spices and prepared them carefully. I wonder if his hands trembled?

This mixture of spices produced a heavy smoke that symbolized the prayers of God’s people, rising up to heaven. It would be seen outside as it filled up the room and billowed out from the openings around the tops of the walls. Like the song in Psalm 141:2 “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (NIV) – this was the moment Israel awaited the prayers to waft into the nostrils of the Almighty. Revelation 5:8, reminds the reader that prayers were bound up in incense, as does Revelation 8:3,4.

As Zech performed his duty, a messenger from God appeared at the right side of the altar—considered the side of favor. Now keep in mind that Zechariah stepped into the area, though in front of the screen, still considered part of the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 9:1-4). The other priests working inside the room stayed back from this area and left before the lighting of the incense. Others were in the courtyard outside the temple praying and watching for the incense smoke.

Some were probably praying for the repentance of God’s hardened people. Some were probably praying for the Messiah’s coming. Some were probably praying for another prophet from God. After 400 years of no singular prophetic voice in Israel top which all could agree, the seeming “silence” was unsettling.

Inside, God was answering all of those prayers, as He was speaking through Gabriel. The answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers, and the answer to Israel’s prayers were connected in a supernatural way. What God was doing was answering the bigger questions that cared for their individual needs, in His own good time.

Note that God spoke in the context of worship. God spoke in the context of the knowledge of His holiness. God spoke to one who recognized His authority and faithfully continued when it didn’t seem like God really cared much about what he cared about most. God didn’t speak with great fanfare, but He spoke with clarity. Angels know their job, and they do it well. Don’t forget this, however – God chose when and where to speak. If God spoke to us only when we demanded answers, all the focus would be on us. The truth is, that isn’t what life is all about us. It’s all about Him – His plan, His desires.

Lesson Three: God evaluates our life and use differently than we do.

Listen to the words of Gabriel in Luke 1:13 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.”

Gabriel described to Zechariah the answer to their prayer for a child in great detail. He described how Zech’s coming son would be seen as great by God Himself. That’s enough to cause us to pause and clarify how God defines greatness. What is it about John’s life that would make Him label it as great? John would have the Holy Spirit’s power, and it would show up as it did in Elijah of old. He would have a voice that would turn back the disobedient, and a clarion call for all to prepare for the coming of the Lord to Israel. His message would be life-changing. His preaching would call for change. He would point out sin and plead for a return to God. Zech didn’t accomplish that. Under his tenure as a priest, people kept their coldness and weren’t prepared for the Lord’s arrival.

God defined John’s life, work and message as great – and God is the only One who makes a TRUE EVALUATION.

Doesn’t it make you pause and ask, “What does God see when He looks at me? Does my life call people to follow Him? Do I show evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power in what I do? That’s how God defines greatness. While you’re waiting on your answer to prayer, take some time to clarify how God is evaluating your life.

Lesson Four: God’s may have a different plan for my life than I do – but His is the RIGHT PLAN.

It is obvious from the text of Luke 1:18 that Zech failed the test when confronted the truth – but don’t be too hard on him. After years of waiting, anticipation gets covered by the dust of mistrust. His doubts were wrong, but not completely beyond explanation. By the way, Zech did know some things in his old age.

I note that in Luke 1:18 he said: “…“How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

He may have failed the faith quiz, but he had learned something about women. Did you see it? He used two different words here age. One describes himself (“old”), and the other describes Elizabeth (“advanced in years”). (SMILE!) Zech knew not to call his wife an “old lady!”

Zechariah had to be thinking, “Why now?” God could have answered this prayer in our prime, but how can we have the health, the energy, the stamina, to raise a child at our age? I love Gabriel’s response. He said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” I truly believe Gabe was mystified! He said:

This is GOD’S plan devised by the MOST HOLY since before time. Don’t you think He knows how to carry it out? Let’s learn it clearly: God’s timing and the way that God implements His plans rarely fits our way of thinking. Don’t forget what Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote year ago: “Doubt causes us to Focus on what we can’t do, Rather than what God can do.”

Lesson Five: Learning to wait on God’s timing is a necessary discipline.

Zech wanted proof, and for his disbelief he lost his voice for a time. Luke recorded: 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.

Every believer needs to be warned: Cynicism can cause us to forfeit the blessings of God! Look at the blessings that Zachariah forfeited because of doubt

• He could have had the blessing of going to those outside the temple and telling them about his angelic visitation.

• He could have had the blessing of telling people that, even in his old age, God was going to give him a son.

• He could have had the blessing of going home to his beautiful wife who was barren and feeling disgraced because of her inability to have a child and telling her “you are going to have a baby”.

I’ve heard someone say that he wasn’t sure what the bigger miracle was—Elizabeth having a baby or a preacher keeping silent for nine months! I’ve often thought about how this sign affected Zechariah over the next few months. Each day, as his wife progressed in her pregnancy, he was reminded of how unbelieving he had been, and how loving and faithful God had been. That the sign accomplished its purpose in his life – he needed to take God’s Word very seriously even when he didn’t understand what God was doing.

In the beginning, when my wife and I were married, we made a commitment to one another that was sealed by a legal contract—we call it a marriage license. But as the years go by, we don’t maintain that commitment to one another because of a contract. We remain committed because of the love that has grown out of our commitment. That license now is a keepsake instead of a contract.

If you and I view our salvation as a contract —something that forces us to wait patiently while God does His thing so we get heaven at the end—we may grow impatient and be tempted to give up and walk away when we don’t understand His direction. But if you view God’s salvation as the beginning of a daily relationship – the Cross becomes a keepsake, a loving reminder of His commitment to us and His faithfulness to do what is needed, we will want to wait in faith and remain confident that God’s answer for our next issue is coming.

God answers prayer, but gaining “ears to hear” Him requires maturity.